- The Washington Times - Monday, October 16, 2000

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said yesterday that investigators still do not know who attacked a Navy destroyer in Yemen Thursday, but that it clearly was a terrorist act and that Osama bin Laden is a suspect.

Mr. Cohen also pledged to find those responsible for the attack, in which 17 sailors died. "We will be relentless in tracking down the individuals or groups who are responsible for this, and we will see to it that they are held accountable," Mr. Cohen said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

"We owe that to the families" of those who were killed, he said on CNN's "Late Edition."

The defense secretary and Adm. Vern Clark, chief of U.S. naval operations, appeared together on two network news talk shows yesterday and discussed the suicide-bombing that ripped a large hole in the USS Cole as it sat in a Yemeni harbor in the city of Aden, awaiting refueling.

"We don't know who did it, but it is inconsistent with anything but a terrorist attack," Mr. Cohen said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Both he and National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger indicated that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who originally believed the ship's explosion was an accident, has come around to their way of thinking. They said the Yemeni government is cooperating fully in a probe of the disaster involving FBI, Justice Department and military investigators that is now under way.

Much media attention has focused on exiled Saudi financier Osama bin Laden, leader of the infamous Al-Qaida terrorist organization, as a prime suspect in the deadly bombing. On CBS yesterday, Mr. Cohen confirmed that bin Laden is one of those under investigation.

"There are a number of groups that are operating throughout the Middle East… . Osama bin Laden is one of them," Mr. Cohen said on "Late Edition."

"We will certainly try to examine all of the threads that go to this particular incident … and he'd be one that we would look at," he said.

The United States says bin Laden masterminded the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa that killed 224.

In television interviews yesterday, Mr. Cohen, Mr. Berger and Adm. Clark all defended the Navy's decision to refuel its vessels in Yemen. "As recently as 1999, the State Department described Yemen as a 'safe haven for terrorists,' " Wolf Blitzer, host of CNN's "Late Edition," reminded Mr. Cohen and Adm. Clark. "Why go there?" he asked.

"We needed the fuel," Adm. Clark said.

The Navy's top military official then pointed out that 25 U.S. ships have refueled in Aden "without incident" during the past 18 months.

"For the time being, there will be no more refueling in Aden until we … clear up the circumstances under which this happened," Mr. Cohen said on CBS.

Asked if there was any kind of warning of possible danger in Aden before last week's explosion, Adm. Clark said no.

But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" he believes the Navy should reconsider its policy of refueling in Yemen.

"It's a dangerous area… . What we need to do is ask the question, should we continue to do this? Obviously, my thinking right now is probably not," he said.

This week's issue of Newsweek magazine, which reaches newsstands today, has an article that says U.S. intelligence previously foiled two planned terrorist attacks on U.S. Navy ships visiting ports on the Arabian Peninsula.

The magazine also reported that Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet told Yemen's president during an April meeting in Washington that the United States had evidence that Yemen was a haven for terrorist networks. The Washington Times reported yesterday that bin Laden's Al-Qaids is one such terrorist group operating there.

The Cole was hit when a small boat helping it tie up at a fueling buoy exploded, according to U.S. Navy officials. The 300-crew vessel had stopped at the port of Aden on its way to the Persian Gulf to join the U.S. 5th Fleet, which enforces the U.N. trade sanctions on Iraq. At the time of the blast, many crew members were eating in the mess.

Questions have been raised as to whether there was a breakdown in security or intelligence. "We'll find out if there was a breakdown," Mr. Cohen said on CNN.

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