W A S H I N G T O N, Jan. 9, 2001 -- Better training and intelligence could help avoid attacks similar to the bombing of the USS Cole, a Navy panel set up after last year's bombing in Yemen of the U.S. destroyer said today.
The panel, appointed by Defense Secretary William Cohen, said the U.S. military must make defense against “terrorist” attacks one of its top priorities and train all troops to protect themselves better.
It found the Navy and other military services generally react to terrorism rather than focus efforts to detect and deter threats before they can be carried out.
“Intelligence efforts must be refocused and tailored to overwatch transitingunits and to mitigate the terrorist threat,” said a 10-page unclassified version of the report of the so-called Cole Commission, headed by retired Adm. Harold Gehman and retired Army Gen. William Crouch.
The panel examined the circumstances behind the attack last October on the Cole, one of the world’s most modern warships. A small boat laden with explosives blew up alongside the Cole as it refueled in the Yemeni port city of Aden in October, tearing a hole in its side and killing 17 sailors.
Cohen said the review indicated there was no specific intelligence warning of the attack before the Cole was hit, although anti-American elements had been reported in the area in past.
The report also accused the U.S. military of reacting too slowly to emerging guerrilla threats after the Cold War, and recommended an assistant defense secretary be put in charge of the new effort.
At a news conference announcing the findings, Cohen said he had asked Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Henry Shelton to review the report “to see if it raises any accountability issues that should be pursued further.”
Cohen said he was not looking for scapegoats and made that referral “without any preconceived notion that someone in the chain of command was either inattentive or negligent.”
Demands for a Perimeter
All Navy boats in ports around the world — even in the United States — must now establish a “standoff distance” or perimeter around themselves to prevent a small boat attack like the one on the Cole.
The decision by Adm. Vernon Clark, the chief of naval operations, was made in early December, as part of a package of several measures since the Cole incident, to improve security for ships against possible terrorist attack.
The Navy refuses to describe the perimeter range, but told ABCNEWS it essentially serves as a waterborne “fence” beyond which small unidentified boats cannot pass and approach a Navy warship.
That perimeter will be a physical barrier — likely a pontoon or other marker — to warn boats away. In addition, waterborne security patrols will be required to be present when a ship enters a harbor.
To carry out these measures in foreign ports, the Navy is renegotiating its agreements with nations where it conducts port calls. Under maritime standards, a host nation is responsible for providing security for visiting ships.
The Navy also is looking at measures to further improve security at piers, other shoreside installations and around aircraft.
One means of accomplishing this will be to make naval security forces a full-time occupational specialty in the Navy, in hopes of attracting more people to that type of work.
Officials acknowledge there will be increased costs, and a need for more personnel.
The Dangers of Port CallThe report released today also stressed that foreign companies providing supplies, garbage removal and other support to U.S. military ships and aircraft should be more tightly policed.
Navy Secretary Richard Danzig told reporters in an interview today that the Navy and the U.S. government were already actively revamping protection agreements with other countries, and may cancel future movement of forces through those states if the arrangements were inadequate.
“The most intense areas of focus [in the past] have been on the protection of land-based facilities and on the protection from attack at sea,” Danzig said.
He said that less emphasis had been put on “intermediate circumstance” in which a ship like the Cole puts into mid-harbor briefly to refuel without docking.
He said he has asked a panel to look specifically at the potential threats to moving targets such as boats, and recommend changes in tactics and procedures to better protect them.
The task force was also ordered to look at all available and potential technologies to improve protection, including “non-lethal” weapons such as water hoses, lights and riot control agents.
Cohen Denies Bin Laden LinkThe United States has said that exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, whom it accuses of masterminding attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, may have been behind the bombing. He has denied responsibility, and Cohen repeated U.S. assertions that there was no conclusive evidence that bin Laden was involved.
He noted the report found the military had “dramatically” improved force protection procedures since the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers complex housing U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.
“Nevertheless, they found that terrorists are determined to intimidate and prevent the United States from pursuing our worldwide national security interests and they will continue to tenaciously look for exposed seams in our force protectionarmor,” Cohen said.
ABCNEWS’ Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.