- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2000

A former Persian Gulf commander yesterday took full responsibility for ordering the USS Cole and other ships to refuel in terrorist-infiltrated Yemen but said it was the job of Yemeni authorities to protect the destroyer.
"The force protection in the port is the responsibility of the Yemeni government," retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni said under questioning by the Senate Armed Services Committee. He was not asked to provide further details.
"The refueling of that ship in Aden was my decision. I want to be clear. I pass that buck on to nobody," said Gen. Zinni, former head of the U.S. Central Command (CentCom), which oversees U.S. Gulf forces.
He also said the Navy does not have sufficient at-sea refuelers to gas up all ships that patrol the dangerous region. He said a Navy admiral told him that 10 years ago, all ships in the region refilled at sea. But staying at sea, he said, would isolate the fleet and hinder chances for improved diplomatic relations.
The Navy fleet has shrunk from more than 500 ships in 1990 to 316 today. They are nourished by 21 oilers, down from 32 a decade ago.
"We used to be doing a lot more refueling out at sea than coming into ports," said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican. "And maybe that's partly at fault for the tragedy that took place."
Armed Services Chairman John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, said he called the hearing to answer a persistent question since a terrorist boat bomb blew a huge hole in the Cole's hull, killing 17 American sailors and injuring 39 on Oct. 12.
"I've been to Norfolk twice, visited with the families," said Mr. Warner, a former sailor and Navy secretary. "This was given to me by one of the families. And they just simply say, 'Senator, why Yemen? Senator, why Yemen when there are continuing State Department travel warnings in effect for others, be they tourists or persons engaged in commerce?' "
Gen. Zinni delivered a lengthy explanation of his decision-making process in the mid-1990s. After surveying several ports, he said, he surmised Aden was the least dangerous. He also said Aden carries the benefit of being strategically located where U.S. warships pass through the Red Sea on trips to and from the Persian Gulf.
The Cole was the 27th ship to refuel at a station in the Aden harbor near, but not at, the piers. The Pentagon has suspended further refuelings.
Said Gen. Zinni: "I don't want anyone to think we ever in any instance anywhere in any evolution or event that took place in CentCom ever took a risk for the purpose of a better relationship with a country and put a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine at risk for that reason. Absolutely not."
In Yemen yesterday, FBI director Louis J. Freeh met with President Ali Abdullah Saleh and toured the Cole crime scene. A 12-year-old boy has told authorities a man paid him to watch his car, then went to sea in a small boat and never returned.
The Navy announced crews recovered the last four bodies of sailors killed in the blast.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen named a panel, headed by two retired four-star officers, to conduct a "lessons learned" study to determine how to better protect American warships.
The panel chiefs are Army Gen. William Crouch, a former vice chief of staff; and retired Adm. Harold Gehman, who headed the Joint Forces Command, based in Norfolk.
Gen. Zinni told the Senate committee that port stops were part of a broader plan to bring the once hostile Yemeni government into the family of Gulf nations allied against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He also said the port calls reinforced a strengthening U.S.-Yemen relationship.
This, he said, has led to Yemen trying to rid itself of "hundreds" of various terrorist groups moving in and out of the country's porous borders.
"Is it a perfect solution? Absolutely not," said Gen. Zinni, who retired three months ago after three years as CentCom commander. "Do they have problems? Absolutely, they do. It is not the place we would like it to be. But they have asked for our help. They asked for our help in building their counterterrorism capability, help with intelligence, help with their security forces."
He added, "In fact, Aden never had a specific terrorist threat. All the other ports that have been mentioned here, that we should have considered as options, have had specific terrorist threats, and we've had to emergency sortie out of them" when reports of threats were detected.
Mr. Warner said the Cole was equipped with two light craft that could be used to patrol around the ship.
Asked why they were not deployed with armed sailors, Gen. Zinni referred such questions to Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations. Adm. Clark is scheduled to testify before the committee today, in closed session, along with other defense officials.
Gen. Zinni said he put so much emphasis on force protection that unnamed diplomats complained.
"In our part of the world in CentCom we have been accused more often than not of being overly sensitive to force protection," he said. "I can give you endless examples of things that we have canceled, postponed or moved or changed that would have enhanced diplomatic relations with countries, but for force-protection reasons we moved and changed them."

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