No Punishment for Cole Captain

W A S H I N G T O N, Jan. 8, 2001 -- Despite failing to follow all prescribed security precautions before the Oct. 12 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 sailors, Commander Kirk Lippold, the ship’s captain, will not be disciplined, ABCNEWS has learned.

Navy investigators found that Lippold and his crew failed to take about a dozen required steps to protect the ship, and that if all these steps had been taken, it “may have prevented or mitigated” the attack.

There was no officer on the bridge to coordinate lookouts, no orders to identify and keep track of small boats near the ship, no measures to divert a small boat if it seemed suspicious and no audio tape in Arabic to warn a boat away.

However, various admirals up the chain of command said that even if all the measures had been taken it would not have stopped the terrorists.

Yet, others may still be in trouble.

Defense Secretary William Cohen has ordered another inquiry to see if some of the admirals who reviewed the investigation might bear some responsibility themselves.

Support of the Admirals

The Navy’s highest-ranking officer reportedly decided to let stand a determination that neither the captain nor the crew of the USS Cole should be disciplined.

Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations and final arbiter in the matter, will endorse the determination made last week by Adm. Robert Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, said one defense official, who discussed the matter on condition on anonymity.

Clark had not submitted his written endorsement this afternoon but was expected to do it soon, the official said.

The Navy planned to announce the result of its investigation of the Cole bombing this week. The probe sought to determine circumstances of the attack and what “force protection,” or preventive measures, the crew had taken.

Clark reportedly supported Natter’s determination that Lippold had done what could have been reasonably expected under the circumstances and that he was not given necessary information about the terrorist threat in Aden, a major port at the southern tip of the Saudi peninsula.

Clark and Natter also believe that even with security measures in place as prescribed, the attack would not have been prevented, officials said.

As the Cole was taking on fuel in Yemen’s Port of Aden, a small boat sidled up to the 505-foot destroyer. Explosives aboard the boat were detonated and ripped a hole 40 feet high by 40 feet wide in the Cole, damaging it so severely it almost sank. Senior Navy officials, including Natter, praised Lippold and the crew forhaving acted heroically to save the ship.

An Unforeseen Attack

The Cole was carried back to the United States aboard a heavy-lift ship and is to undergo repairs at a shipyard in Mississippi.

The nature of the attack was unprecedented, although the threat was not unimaginable. The military’s written guidelines on terror threats state explicitly that harbor craft of the sort that approached the Cole “require special concern because they can serve as an ideal platform for terrorists.”

The guidelines say fire hoses should be ready for emergency use and personnel be briefed on using them for repelling boarders, small boats andultralight aircraft.

Lippold made a decision on his own not to prepare for the use of fire hoses, another senior defense official said, also speaking anonymously. Lippold apparently believed that fire hoses would not have strengthened the ship’s defenses.

Some crew members said after the bombing that they saw the small boat approach the Cole and assumed it was yet another harbor craft providing trash disposal and other services. No one on the Cole challenged the craft as it approached.

The Navy officer who conducted the Cole investigation, whose name has not been made public, found that the attack might have been prevented or minimized if Lippold had ensured that all preventive actions were taken. But Natter disagreed, and Clark endorsed Natter’s view, the official said.

Clark has determined that no negative report related to the Cole attack should be placed in Lippold’s personnel file, the official said.

Looking for Lessons

In addition to the Navy probe, Cohen established a special commission, headed by a retired Navy admiral and a retired Army general, to find what force protection lessons could be learned from the Cole bombing.

The commission’s report, expected to be released this week with the Navy’s internal investigation report, concludes that the U.S. government needs to do more to guard against terrorist attacks on U.S. military forces transiting abroad — not just ships like the Cole but also aircraft that refuel in remote places. Officialsfamiliar with the report said it asserts the view that terrorism is a long-term threat that deserves more attention, including more resources for intelligence warnings. The officials discussed the commission’s finding on condition of anonymity.

ABCNEWS’ John McWethy and The Associated Press contributed to this report.