|THE MILITARY VIEW|
April 1, 1999
Secretary of Defense William Cohen and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Henry Shelton discuss the capture of three US soldiers. Following the interview, Phil Ponce talks with Yugoslavia's ambassador to the United Nations.
JIM LEHRER: Now to the Secretary of Defense, William Cohen and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry Shelton who are with us now for a newsmaker interview. First and foremost, Mr. Secretary, what's the latest news you have on the three American soldiers?
WILLIAM COHEN, Secretary of Defense: Well, the latest news is that they're still being held, we believe, illegally detained and that there have been reports that the Serbs intend to put them on trial tomorrow in a military court, something of a kangaroo court. We believe that they have been illegally detained but at a minimum, they are nonetheless subject to the protection of the Geneva Convention. And there should be no trial. They should be entitled to have the Red Cross or some other agency visit them, a right to new main treatment and not to be beaten, as is quite evident from the photographs we've seen.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think they have been beaten?
WILLIAM COHEN: I think it's very clear from the photograph, at least one of the individuals involved that he has suffered some beating around the face.
JIM LEHRER: General, do you know where they are, these three men?
GENERAL HENRY SHELTON, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: At this time, Jim, we do not know where they are, other than being detained by the Serbs, as the secretary has indicated.
JIM LEHRER: There was a report I read earlier, just a while ago, that they were in the Pristina area because that's where the TV pictures came from. But that's of course the capital of Kosovo. You cannot confirm that?
GENERAL HENRY SHELTON: I cannot confirm it. We've had several different reports today, and none of them confirmed at this time.
The soldiers' capture.
JIM LEHRER: Do you know now the circumstances under which they were captured? The exact circumstances?
GENERAL HENRY SHELTON: That is currently an ongoing investigation by the operational command there in the former republic of the Yugoslavia, Macedonia. We do not have the results of that investigation yet, and there have been conflicting circumstances reported, both by the immediate report from the individuals who last reported that they were under fire, that they were surrounded, which was the last report we received. And then later we got reports from the villagers, as well as the police in Macedonia.
JIM LEHRER: Where were they when they were under fire? In Macedonia, or were they over the border in Yugoslavia?
GENERAL HENRY SHELTON: Well, that's part of what will be determined as a part of the investigation.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Mr. Secretary, does it matter whether they were in Macedonia or near the border with Yugoslavia or technically in Yugoslavia, as to what their legal status is?
WILLIAM COHEN: Under any consideration, they are nonetheless entitled to protection under the Geneva Convention. Whether they are being illegally detained or whether they occupy another status as prisoners, they nonetheless are entitled to protection under the Geneva Convention.
JIM LEHRER: But the United States does not quarrel with the Yugoslav government's right to hold them, is that correct? Its the circumstances that they were held that you object to?
WILLIAM COHEN: It's a question of how they were apprehended, where they were apprehended. If they were in fact in Macedonia and were taken illegally across the border, that certainly would make a difference. That would be clearly illegal detention. If they were in to -- over the border and then subject to apprehension at that point, that might make a difference, but it would not make any difference in terms of their treatment that they are accorded under the Geneva Convention. They still would be entitled to humane treatment, a right and have access to the Red Cross and other international agencies and no trial. Those are all violations of the Geneva Convention, what's apparently and purportedly about to take place.
|Yugoslavia to put the soldiers on trial.|
| JIM LEHRER: Is your information on the trial based solely
on the information that's been announced publicly to anybody else? You
don't have any inside direct information other than that? General Shelton,
General Clark said that he made no effort to contact Yugoslav military
authorities and say, "watch it with these three guys." Why have
you not done that?
GENERAL HENRY SHELTON: I had - I - the way we normally do these things is through normal diplomatic routes and not through military to military in circumstances like that for sure.
JIM LEHRER: Has the message been delivered to President Milosevic about all of this?
WILLIAM COHEN: I think President Clinton delivered a message today very publicly and I think very passionately that Mr. Milosevic himself would be held accountable for the security and safety of these individuals. And so I think Mr. Milosevic has the message.
JIM LEHRER: Now, what does that mean, he will be held accountable personally?
WILLIAM COHEN: These individuals are entitled to the full protection according under the Geneva Convention. In the event that Mr. Milosevic violates that convention, then we would hold him accountable for it and we would take appropriate action at some future time. And we'd also send a message that this would not be behavior that's likely to go unresponded to by the United States. I think that means that we will hold him accountable, we'll hold him responsible and as General Clark said, this is a very serious matter. We will treat it as such, and I think that Mr. Milosevic it would be very unwise for him to handle these individuals in any way other than according to the Geneva Convention.
JIM LEHRER: And you mean militarily here? I mean if something happens to these three soldiers, NATO is prepared to do... Yugoslavia, targets in Yugoslavia are already being bombed. Yugoslav targets in Kosovo are already being bombed. We're talking about even an escalation of that if something happens to these three Americans?
GENERAL HENRY SHELTON: Well, Jim, I think that's a decision to be made by the commander-in-chief, by the president. And with consultation of the congress and depending on the support of the American people. But for sure, I think he made it clear today that American takes care of its own, that we are very concerned about the detention of these three soldiers. We expect them to be treated humanely and in accordance with the Geneva Convention, as the secretary has said. And so from where we go from here I think depends on the way that our soldiers are treated and what the outcome of that is.
JIM LEHRER: Just to put it in simple language, Mr. Secretary, is what you want Milosevic to... the message you want Milosevic to get, you and the President and General Shelton want Milosevic to get is you think it's bad now? You haven't seen anything yet if you harm those three men?
WILLIAM COHEN: We're sending a message that there will be a substantial penalty involved in the event that he should treat them less than their accorded... and should be accorded under the Geneva Convention.
JIM LEHRER: But you're not expecting them to be released? You aren't demanding that, are you?
WILLIAM COHEN: Well, we are demanding that. We expect to be released. At a minimum, I've indicated that they're entitled to Geneva Convention protection and if they have been in fact kidnapped or apprehended illegally, that we are entitled to have them immediately returned now.
JIM LEHRER: All right, let's say they go ahead with this trial tomorrow. What happens? What are we going to do about it?
WILLIAM COHEN: Well, I wouldn't want to telegraph in advance other than to say and repeat what the president said. There will be a substantial consequence for that.
JIM LEHRER: General, have you or any other military commanders changed the nature of the mission in Macedonia as a result of the capture of these three soldiers to make sure this doesn't happen again tomorrow or the next day?
GENERAL HENRY SHELTON: I think, Jim, every time you have an incident of this type, the first thing that the local commander will do is go back and review the circumstances under which the incident occurred, take a look at the various measures that were in effect and see whether or not any of these need to be adjusted. That in fact has been done, is in the process of being done even as we speak, and appropriate measures will be taken. Because they're operational in nature, I wouldn't wanted to discuss exactly what changes have taken place, but that has occurred.
JIM LEHRER: Refresh all of our memories, General, on what those three soldiers were doing in Macedonia in the first place.
GENERAL HENRY SHELTON: Well, those three soldiers were originally deployed to Macedonia under task force Able Sentry, which is the United States peacekeeping mission that was observing, making sure there were no violations, intrusions of the border that separates Kosovo from Macedonia. A few... about a few days ago, they were pulled off of those borders, replaced by the Macedonian troops at that time because the U.N. did not extend the task force Able Sentry, and so they were pulled back closer to where the NATO force is right now and they were in the process... they would were just occupying defensive positions there outside of the Skopje with the NATO force that is currently there.
JIM LEHRER: And they were on a scouting mission or reconnaissance mission, is that right?
GENERAL HENRY SHELTON: They were occupying observation posts around the... around their own defensive positions. And as I understand it, were checking the routes to and from those at the time. All of this will come out in the investigation. There are still some things that are not yet... not quite clear and that'll come out in the investigation.
JIM LEHRER: But they've had... what were their rules of engagement? If somebody shot at them, they had the permission to shoot back?
|Peacetime rules of engagement.|
GENERAL HENRY SHELTON: Under peacetime rules of engagement even, they would have had the rules of engagement to be able to defend themselves and that when they reported they were being fired at, then certainly they have the right to use deadly force to protect themselves.
JIM LEHRER: Do you know now who might have been firing at them?
GENERAL HENRY SHELTON: We do not at this time know who was firing at them. That's part of what the Macedonian police and the operational commander are trying to determine at this time, whether it was a unit or...
JIM LEHRER: A unit of the Serb army or one of the paramilitary units or even some civilians, right?
GENERAL HENRY SHELTON: We're still trying to fix responsibility.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, moving to the other part of this, as we just reported, the exodus of ethnic Albanians continues and it continues to raise all kinds of concerns here in the United States. Is there any sign at all that that is lessening?
WILLIAM COHEN: There is though sign that there has been any reduction or diminution of that activity. I couldn't help but as I was watching the lead-in, of seeing that scene repeated out of "Schindler's List," the kind of horrific ethnic cleansing being conducted by the Serbs. It certainly stirs the ashes of what took place during World War II. And for all that reason, the international community should be condemning what Mr. Milosevic is doing. With respect to the action that has been taken, we understood from the very beginning that Mr. Milosevic had organized his forces almost some 40,000 strong on the edge of Kosovo, prepared to go in and do this kind of damage. We have seen him engage in ethnic cleansing in the past, and we have to look at past behavior and present capabilities. And judging from his past behavior, he's done this before. It's a continuation of what he had done last fall. And so that was a catastrophe that he was prepared to engage in. NATO decided we should try to take some action to deter that, but failing to deter him from doing that, then we were going to systematically start to diminish and damage his military capability, and we are in the process of doing that and we're going to continue to do that.
JIM LEHRER: As you know, Mr. Secretary, both the Washington Post and the New York Times and other newspapers, as well, had stories today suggesting that the president was told before ordering... or before going and okaying the air strikes, that this very thing might happen, and that the CIA, among others, predicted this very outcome that, if you want to accelerate ethnic cleansing, launch a bombing campaign. And the president went ahead anyhow. Is that correct?
WILLIAM COHEN: The stories that have appeared in today's papers are false, that there was absolutely no division on the part of any of the president's advisors and no misunderstanding on the part of the president. All of us knew from the very beginning that this was about to take place, we knew that Mr. Milosevic was prepared to go in, we understood that if we did nothing and sat on the sidelines you would see this kind of ethnic cleansing take place. We knew there was a risk that if we went in, that he could go forward in any event. We had hoped that we might send him a message that NATO was determined to prevent this from taking place, if at all possible. But if not, that we were prepared to carry this battle to Mr. Milosevic, and that's precisely what was presented to the president. He understood it, we all understood it. There's no division on this. And to the extent that there's any speculation or rumors in the press to the contrary, they are in error.
JIM LEHRER: General, what do you say to the other group of critics... not critics, I guess, commentators, whatever, some of them former army officers, high-level army officers of the United States military, have suggested that the idea of saying at the very beginning, before the first bomb was dropped, "we're not going to put in ground troops," told Milosevic, all he had to do was hunker down, continue what he was doing and he could ride this thing out and that was a basic mistake in judgment. Do you agree with that?
GENERAL HENRY SHELTON: No, I don't, Jim. I think the first you look back at NATO itself, where there was no political decision to employ ground troops. The will to do that was not there. I think that right up front we recognized that we were faced with two choices: we could stand by and do nothing and allow the atrocities that had already begun. Remember, the OSCE had already been forced out. The Kosovo observer mission had been forced to leave because they couldn't do their job. Basically the Serbs had already started. And so NATO was forced with a couple of options: one is do nothing; the other one was trying try to do air power, as the secretary has outlined. Or the third one, if there had been political will to try to move some massive force in and there were some assessments done early on that said, unless you had a peaceful settlement, that it would take a tremendous number of troops, and as I said, there wasn't...
JIM LEHRER: A couple of hundred thousand now, is that right?
GENERAL HENRY SHELTON: A couple of hundred thousand was one estimate, under the conditions that exist now. And the political decision to do that was not there. And so we had the decision then, do nothing or use air power. And start to reduce the capabilities that he's got and send a very clear signal to him, that if this continued, that he would continue to have his capabilities reduced. And that's exactly what we've been doing.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, a lot of people mistakenly --a lot of people think that, okay, bombing may not be accomplishing everything, so we'll snap our fingers and we'll send in a couple of hundred thousand troops. That's not practical, is it?
WILLIAM COHEN: It doesn't happen that way. As a matter of fact, before you could ever send any troops in, you would still have to carry out the air campaign to eliminate the air defense systems, to start moving the aircraft in, to move the troops in, all in a hostile environment in which you have hundreds if not thousands of air defense systems that could attack these transport planes and helicopters coming in. So it sounds very easy, you could snap your fingers, but the some kind of process of really doing some damage by an air operation would be a preliminary and a predicate for inducing any kind of a substantial ground force. So it's not practical. We are proceeding along a path that not only the United States, this is a 19-country operation where 19 countries have signed on saying this is the correct process and policy, and we would have to now do what President Clinton said, we've got to stay the course. We it's been a week. We intend for this to go on much longer and Mr. Milosevic is going to find that his military is going to be diminished as a result of this.
JIM LEHRER: But staying the course does not involve even planning and on a contingency way for the introduction of troops in a hostile environment?
|The introduction of troops?|
WILLIAM COHEN: Our plans today are to continue the air operation. We believe that we can carry that out successfully.
JIM LEHRER: How do the two of you feel about this new wave of I guess questioning whether or not this was the right thing to do, the people are being -- we've seen these pictures, we talked about them. My goodness, the very thing that this thing was intended to stop, it's gotten worse instead of better.
WILLIAM COHEN: Well, I don't think we should suffer from any accommodating amnesia. We go back to October, for example. We can see the same pictures back in October when there were almost 400,000 of these refugees and displaced persons up in the hills. They had been forced out of their homes and out of their villages with only the clothes on their backs. They were in danger of starving and freezing to death. And at that time, it was NATO that had to force Mr. Milosevic saying, "unless you let them down and be resettled, you're going to face an air campaign against you." and at that time Mr. Holbrooke was successful in negotiating an agreement to allow them to come down. But this kind-of-ethnic cleansing has been really been a hallmark of Mr. Milosevic. He has tried it before, he has conducted it before and we are seeing the fruits of it right now. There should be no mistake about this, he was planning this, he was continuing it and we are doing our best to make sure that he is not able to continue this at the level he has been in the past.
JIM LEHRER: General Shelton, your level of confidence remains what it was when this began eight days ago?
GENERAL HENRY SHELTON: For sure, Jim. We knew going in that this would be a very tough mission, a very robust, integrated air defense system. We knew that we'd have to deal with that. The weather we knew at this time of the year was going to make it extremely difficult. And the terrain that favors... makes it more difficult to operate. We went in with a plan. We have worked that particular plan, it has been very effective to this point. It becomes even more effective as the weather gives us breaks. And we will continue to go after him. The intensity of it will be increasing in the next several days, and I think that the results of that are already starting to show. And I think that, as long as we stay the course, he is losing a significant amount of capability. He's losing military capability, economically it's starting to go hurt him. And infrastructure, long term he's paying a severe price right now.
JIM LEHRER: Well, gentlemen, thank you both very much.