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Ambassador Thomas Pickering

August 12, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: First tonight, a Newsmaker interview with Thomas Pickering, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. I spoke with him earlier today.

Thank you very much for being with us, Mr. Ambassador.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: Thank you for having me.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You briefed the President today about the bombings. Could you tell us as much as possible about exactly what happened in the Nairobi bombing, beginning there, please.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: Well, I can tell you a little bit, but, as you know, we’re engaged in an investigation and I and all of my colleagues want to be careful to preserve the integrity of that process and, indeed, we believe we owe the American public a period of silence on this, so that we can get the best possible work done and bring the culprits to justice.

We do know that vehicle bombs exploded in both places near a common time last Friday morning. And we do know that, of course, they wreaked great destruction, particularly in Nairobi, which was in the downtown center of the city. We have at least one story that our entrance gate in Nairobi in the back of the embassy a guard saw trucks-a truck, I’m sorry, come up, seemingly circle. Someone got out, threatened him, apparently with a hand grenade, he ran away; a hand grenade was thrown. Apparently, there may have been shots and then the vehicle exploded, and this guard survived to tell us the story. That story is being checked, but we have talked about that.

In Dar Es Salaam apparently the explosion took place in the street outside the embassy, and as you have seen from the pictures, somewhere near an embassy water tanker, which was thrown into the building. We had, obviously, heavy casualties in both places among our own people and among Kenyans and Tanzanians. We are working very hard to get them support and assistance. The rescue phase is apparently now over, or almost over. And we are deeply engaged in supporting people in the region to the greatest extent we can with medical supplies, with medical teams, with blood, with antibiotics, and all the things that are obviously needed in a country like Kenya, which has suffered many thousands of casualties, some of them very, very serious, and obviously still under intensive medical care.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: On the arrests, Kenya’s president announced the arrest of a number of suspects in Nairobi today. Can you say how many and who?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: I can’t either. We know of the announcement. Again, our people on the ground, coordinating with the Kenyans, and they’ve been working very closely together, as they have with Tanzania, will be involved in that. And we understand that if people are arrested, we will all have an opportunity to speak to them. That kind of cooperation is taking place in the investigation. We think it’s truly superb, and we’re very grateful for it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’re talking about cooperation between the FBI and the Kenyan authorities?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: That’s correct.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So the FBI has access to them?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: And between the FBI and the Tanzanian authorities.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The FBI has access to suspects in both countries?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: We have been promised full access, and we will be working very, very closely with our colleagues in those countries.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. On the question of warnings, as you probably know, Ha’aretz, the Israeli newspaper, reported today that Israel had advised U.S. officials to treat with skepticism a warning that they had received, that the U.S. embassy in Nairobi had been threatened. Can you confirm that?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: Let me say a couple of things. In the nature of the Ha’aretz report, which I know about, is something that apparently passed in intelligence channels, along with the law enforcement issue, the intelligence is directly related to the investigation. And it’s not something again that I would want to comment upon at this stage. I can tell you, as we have said a number of times, that we get 30,000 warnings, threats a year. We take them all seriously. We look into them. We evaluate them. Apparently, the Israelis, according to the press report, evaluated this one. We would, of course, if we received anything from anybody, take it very seriously, look into it, attempt to evaluate it, and attempt to take it into account immediately in our security posture. We are doing that now with warnings we’re continuing to receive, as you know, all around the world.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes. Actually, I want to get into that, but first, did Ambassador Bushnell, our ambassador in Nairobi, ask for an upgrade of security there several months ago?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: I think she said today that she had asked for a number of things and that they were done. The one thing that obviously we were all concerned about in Nairobi and in many, many other locations around the world was our ability to pick up the embassy and move it to a site that was further from the street. This was not possible. It was something that we would have liked to have done and wish we could have done in many, many places. But again, as we have said many times, the costs involved in those kinds of reconstructions or relocations of embassy buildings in new places were not possible to obtain. The president, of course, has been asking for funds for this kind of thing, more funds from the State Department in general and for security, in particular. We haven’t always gotten everything we wanted. We understand now that people on the Hill are anxious to try to be helpful, and we’re obviously anxious to try to benefit from that help as quickly as we can.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But does the State Department have a specific request for Congress ready now?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: The State Department has very good ideas and has for a long period of time about what it believes is needed and is working on that and will continue to work on that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I believe in the current budget request, there’s a request for a certain amount of money, not very much money, but that will be upgraded definitely.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: Well, I think that if we’re asked, and I can certainly confirm that we are looking at it, we will have clear and cogent and prioritized ideas about the kind of things that would be necessary, yes.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Ambassador, there were recommendations made in 1985, as you know, by the Inman-Admiral Inman’s commission for certain upgrades in embassies, certain embassies to be moved, embassies should be 100 meters from the street, that sort of thing. Were those upgrades not made because of lack of money, lack of congressional granting of money, or because the State Department made decisions that it wasn’t really necessary after all?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: I think that we want to look at this particular question very carefully. Admiral Inman made a series of recommendations, I understand. Cost figures that have been given to me in the budgets in which those recommendations were made were somewhere between 3 ½ and 4 billion dollars to do the whole program. The Department began that process by asking for something around 2 ½, 2.7 billion dollars, less than I think 30 percent of that was finally obtained from the Congress, and so immediately we were handicapped in replacing the embassies, all of the embassies we wanted to replace, and so we started to replace those that we felt were of highest priority to replace, those in the highest threat areas. And we have continued that program. I think 20 or 25 such embassies have already been built. And it was part of an ongoing program. So we asked for money. We are trying to replace those embassies. And we of necessity had to exercise judgments about priorities when all of the money was not forthcoming immediately. And, indeed, it was not envisaged that it would all be forthcoming immediately, but it was not certainly in my humble judgment forthcoming and as rapidly as we would have liked to have seen it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How will you make judgments about priorities now, in the future, knowing that an embassy which is not considered a high terrorist possibility is a soft target and could be hit like Nairobi was in Dar Es Salaam?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: Well, there are many ways to do it, some of the voices trying to evaluate in a consistent and constant basis what is happening in the region, what is happening in the city in which the embassy is located. Judgments about threats are constantly reviewed and reevaluated. Each year every one of our embassies in consulates around the world must submit a review of its own security, balanced against the threats that it knows about in its region. Those are reviewed in Washington and changes made.

There are many, many steps that have been taken in many, many embassies around the world, whatever the level of threat, because we want them all to meet a minimum standard, if I could put it that way, of absolute necessity to defend themselves against a wide range of terrorist attacks. Bombs, unfortunately, are not the only way. There have been armed attacks on embassies and so on and so we’re attempting to keep all of those in mind. We will have to exercise priorities on the conjunction, I would say it this way, between the vulnerability and exposure of the embassy and its staff and the level of threat involved in the region. As we evaluate it, we’ll have to constantly keep that in mind. These things are not static, as you’ve said. I wish we could defend all of our embassies in consulates equally well everywhere, and we would be out of the problem of presenting a soft target. But we have to watch and we have to move our support around as much as we can and we have to be sure at the outset that everybody meets the minimum requirements.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I believe the State Department reported today that there are threats in Egypt, Malaysia, and Yemen that could include a tax on embassies, is that right?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: I think we said Egypt and Malaysia and Eritrea.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Have those embassies been closed?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: No. We’re not in the business, Elizabeth, of closing embassies. Closure of embassies implies that we down tools and walk away, and that only of course hands our adversaries in this war against terrorism a victory, and we’re not interested in that, and it means that the U.S. role in a leadership of foreign policy around the world and so many areas would be amputated, decapitated, cut off. What we have done and what we will continue to do is to tune the working rhythm of our embassies to meet the threat. If areas are threatened, we can move people. If we have to slow down service to the public, we will do that, but we will not close and we will remain always there and ready and able to do the emergency services that have to be performed, unless the threat of war were to drive us out, as it has, unfortunately, in a few places, in Africa in recent months. But our work, our funding, our security preparations are designed to permit us to continue to play the role. And our people out there are our first line of America, and we believe that they’re there to do a job; they should stay on the job; and they should receive the maximum protection we can give them to do that, not close.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So if some of those embassies were reported to have been closed, that was only temporary?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: Absolutely. And there may have been a suspension of services to the public for a while. But ambassadors-and I’ve been one a few times-are on duty 24 hours a day. They don’t close. They don’t walk away from their jobs. They’re always available, and their staffs are available. And on occasion when we can’t work out of the building, we can work out of homes, we can do a lot of things to keep up the flow of information, to keep up our flow of contacts, and to support and help our people in distress.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Amb. Pickering, before we go, a question about Iraq. As you know, Chief UN Weapons Inspector Richard Butler and his counterpart in the International Atomic Energy Agency in letters that were released today to the president of the Security Council at the UN said that essentially they can’t do their jobs anymore; that the end of cooperation by the Iraqi authorities makes it impossible to do a large part of what they’re supposed to do there. What has to be done about that now? What should be done?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: Elizabeth, the next step–and we’ve already heard from New York that a number of members of the Security Council are deeply disturbed-we join them in that-that they will want to have a meeting very, very quickly to examine this. We believe that the Security Council needs to take steps to make it clear to Iraq that this is unacceptable, that it is in contravention of the resolution, that the Iraqis have constantly sought a relief from sanctions, and that the steps that they have taken and the reports that have been made by the head of the IEEA and of the UN’s Special Commission are very clearly–I think–going to convince the Security Council, if it’s not already convinced, that there can be no sanctions relief, and, indeed, that the review of sanctions cannot go ahead until Iraq comes in compliance. In the meantime, of course, our policy with respect to Iraq is very clear. It’s a threat to peace and security in the region. Should it take an active role in threatening that, reconstituting its weapons of mass destruction, we are prepared to use what is necessary to deal with those kinds of problems. We have a very clear view that it is a Security Council responsibility, that it is an attack now on the United Nations, if I could phrase it that way, to fail to comply. The Secretary-General has sent his envoy to Iraq. We will, of course, look forward to hearing from him. But the first step and the most immediate step is Iraq should get into compliance, come back into compliance, and should Iraq take more steps, should Iraq become a larger threat, we are prepared, as Secretary Cohen said over the weekend, with forces in the Gulf, with considerably more power than they had the last time, to deal with those emergencies should they arise.

In the past, he has played a game, a kind of cat and mouse game, a game of perhaps seeking to get American forces into the region and then coming into compliance. We are not playing that game any longer it’s very clear. We are there. We are out there. We are forceful. We will take steps at the time and place of our choosing, when they’re necessary. But in the meantime, we believe it is the Security Council’s role as a first step to getting back into compliance and the major thing he has to do now is something he hasn’t done since the very beginning–disclose his weapons of mass destruction programs–get on with the United Nations resolutions and their compliance.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Can you explain the difference in the U.S. response in this crisis, as opposed to January, February, March, when U.S. spokespeople, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, said if Iraq doesn’t come into compliance with UN resolutions, we will use force. And forces were sent. That’s not happening now. Why?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS PICKERING: Forces are there. It’s extremely important to understand that. It’s no less urgent that he come into compliance. It is extremely important that the United Nations continue to act and to act in concert. We’re working to do that. As we did in the prior confrontation, we are going to do everything we can to make diplomacy work. That is very clear, and I think that hunting for differences now would be a mistake. It is very clear that our objectives remain the same; our policy remains the same. We’re going to try to use diplomacy and the work of the Security Council to end this confrontation between Iraq and the Security Council.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Amb. Pickering, thank you very much for being with us.