The U.S. military needs better intelligence and training to combat terrorist attacks like the suicide bombing of the destroyer USS Cole, according to a commission that investigated the blast.
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, who released the commission’s report yesterday, told reporters the seaborne attack in Aden harbor in Yemen exposed how terrorists found a “seam” in the military’s anti-terrorism protection efforts.
Protecting U.S. forces from terrorist attacks was made one of the military’s highest priorities after the 1996 bombing of a U.S. Air Force residence known as Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.
“I have said and stated over and over again, since the Khobar Towers bombing, that force protection should be a key element of everything that we do,” Mr. Cohen said, noting that security of fixed facilities has improved.
“It’s apparent it has not been across the board or certainly with sufficient intensity when it comes to in-transit movement of ships,” he said.
Ships at sea have good security from attacks.
“The gap or the seam has been when they move into a sort of semi-in-site status, on-ground status, with the refueling,” Mr. Cohen said. “That’s where the seam has existed.”
Mr. Cohen said the military needs to change its mindset and “become much more aggressive” in protecting overseas troops on the move.
The 505-foot destroyer was refueling in Aden harbor Oct. 12 on its way to the Persian Gulf when a small boat packed with explosives moved close to the ship’s hull and set off a bomb. The blast created a 40-foot hole in the ship.
Seventeen sailors were killed and scores injured, and at least two suicide bombers died on the small boat that the Cole’s crew thought was helping the ship tie up to a refueling buoy.
Retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman, co-chairman of the commission along with retired Army Gen. William Crouch, told reporters that Pentagon and other U.S. intelligence agencies have not done enough to reconsider anti-terrorism methods since the end of the Cold War.
“More assets should be devoted toward fighting against terrorism, particularly in the SIGINT (signals intelligence), HUMINT (human intelligence) and language area,” he said.
Ships at sea also lack onboard intelligence analysis capability that can help identify terrorist threats better.
The admiral said the commission did not find any “tactical, actionable intelligence that would have predicted this attack.” However, he stated that “all transiting units could be better served by tailored intelligence support.”
Mr. Cohen said intelligence warnings of attack in the region “were general in nature and not directed against the ship” and preceded the attack by at least a month.
The Nation Security Agency issued a top-secret intelligence report on the day the Cole was bombed warning that terrorists were planning an attack in the region, U.S. intelligence officials told The Washington Times.
The warning did not reach the ship. It stated that terrorists were involved in “operational planning” for an attack on U.S. or Israeli personnel or property in the Middle East. One official said the dispatch warned of an impending attack in Yemen.
The warning was not disseminated soon enough. It also was not reported on the worldwide computer network known as Intellink, the officials said.
The commission report concluded that the Pentagon “does not allocate sufficient resources or all-source intelligence analysis and collection in support of combating terrorism.”
The commission made a series of recommendations aimed at improving the security of U.S. forces, including improved intelligence threat dissemination and analysis, better training and staffing, and using more security-related equipment.
The commission did not seek to determine who was behind the attack, and the officials said it could not be confirmed that Saudi terrorist leader Osama bin Ladin was behind it.
The Navy is conducting a separate accountability review to see whether the ship’s captain will be punished for the attack. The Navy traditionally holds a ship’s captain responsible for mishaps or other problems.