NEWSMAKER: SECRETARY WILLIAM COHEN
November 10, 1997
Saddam Hussein's continued resistance to a U.N. weapons inspection team that includes Americans has created an escalating international crisis. Defense Secretary William Cohen discusses the tensions abroad as well as plans to streamline the military at home.
JIM LEHRER: The Iraq crisis and reforming the Defense Department and to a Newsmaker interview with the Secretary of Defense William Cohen. Mr. Secretary, welcome.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
November 7, 1996
The chief U.N. arms inspector discusses Saddam's latest moves.
November 3, 1997
U.N. Ambassador Richardson discusses tensions between the U.S. and Iraq.
October 9, 1997
Sec. Cohen issues a stern warning to Saddam Hussein.
September 10, 1996
A discussion with two Iraq experts in the U.S..
September 4, 1996
A group of experts discuss Saddam Hussein's decision to send troops in the Kurdish Safe Haven.
Online Forum: 1996:
The plight of the Kurds in Northern Iraq.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the Middle East and Federal Agencies.
Office of the Secretary of Defense
International Atomic Energy Agency
WILLIAM COHEN, Secretary of Defense: Good to be here.
JIM LEHRER: First on Iraq, you were to leave Wednesday on a trip to Asia. You canceled the trip, is that correct?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: That's true.
JIM LEHRER: Because of Iraq?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Because the president made a request for me to be here and be available. General Shelton and I were to meet up in Korea, South Korea. We are both going to remain in town in direct communication with the president until this situation with Iraq is resolved.
JIM LEHRER: This is very serious business then.
The Iraqi situation: "very serious business."
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: It's very serious business. We have some 18,000 plus troops in the Gulf region. It will be important for both Gen. Shelton and myself to be here in Washington, so we can be in direct communication with the president and his entire national security team traveling in any part of Asia, being in an aircraft would make that rather difficult, so we thought it would be wise if the president felt it would be prudent, so we're here.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. A U-2 plane flew over Iraq today. Was there any attempt made to shoot it down by the Iraqis?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: There was no attempt made.
JIM LEHRER: No incident at all?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: No.
JIM LEHRER: Does Iraq have the capability of doing that if it wanted to?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: They do have the capability. They have SA-2's.
JIM LEHRER: What are they?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Missiles that can be fired that can reach the U-2 if it's appropriate height, where it flies. So they do have that capability and other means as well. They may not be as accurate, may not have the full capability, but any time you're sending an unarmed plane into a region such as Iraq, with all of the weaponry we will still have available; there's always a risk.
JIM LEHRER: And is there going to be another flight tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next day?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: The United Nations will make that determination. Mr. Butler will announce that--
JIM LEHRER: He's the head of arms inspection team.
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: He's the head of the arms inspection team. He'll make an announcement. We would expect that the next U-2 flight will continue. There should be no backing down from Saddam Hussein. He cannot send his deputy to the United Nations to negotiate in terms. He is basically under orders from the United Nations to open up his facilities to this inspection team because of what he did prior to the Gulf War, certainly by invading Kuwait, by posing a threat to its neighbors, by possessing weapons; he was building a nuclear capability that has largely been dismantled, but he also is building and continues to seek to build and enhance the biological weapons capability and chemical weapons.
"... the inspection team has a search warrant, and the search warrant says that we're entering your home. And he has decided that you can only look at the living room or the dining room but not the basement or the attic, and you can't have Uncle Sam along with you in the process."
And you talk about weapons of mass destruction, and what we're really talking about is anthrax; we're talking about deadly germ warfare; talking about things like Sarin gas that was used in the Tokyo subway. These are chemicals and biological weapons that he is seeking to manufacture and produce, and so the focus behind the sanctions regime is to prevent him from doing so. I've tried to draw the analogy, for example, that the inspection team has a search warrant, and the search warrant says that we're entering your home. And he has decided that you can only look at the living room or the dining room but not the basement or the attic, and you can't have Uncle Sam along with you in the process. That is not acceptable of course. We have to find out what he's doing, where we have reason to suspect that he is developing these weapons, and to make sure that he's not.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, help us understand what's going on here on this. Is this based on real information that he is, in fact, trying to develop or is in the process of developing an anthrax weapon that could be used, or is this just based on suspicion that he might be?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Well, we know he had large amounts of chemical weapons prior to the Persian Gulf War. The inspection team has been responsible, I might point out, the inspection team has been responsible for destroying more weaponry than was destroyed during the Persian Gulf War with all the bombing, all the attacks; they have been responsible for the destruction of more weapons than we were in the war, itself, and so they perform a very valuable mission. And yes, they are acting based upon information that they have--that he is, in fact, seeking to develop these weapons. We are seeking to have access. The U.N. is seeking to have access, to make sure that he is not. But even reports as recently as today in the various publications would indicate that as we're coming through the front door, he's going out the back door with materials and other types of devices that would allow him to continue to build these types of weapons. So we have reason to believe that he is seeking to do that. That's the purpose for the inspectors to verify. If they're not allowed to verify it, then we have to operate on the assumption that something is wrong.
JIM LEHRER: And that assumption would then lead to action to eliminate these weapons?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Oh, absolutely. What the inspectors are seeking to do is to have the access so that they can be destroyed; that these weapons, the chemicals and the gas and whatever he is seeking to develop and produce can, in fact, be removed.
JIM LEHRER: But let's say that this impasse continues and that the inspection teams are not allowed to do what they are supposed to do; that the information continues to lead you and others to believe, hey, they are building these weapons. Does that mean that under the U.N. resolutions and U.N. decisions by the Security Council, American planes or anybody else's planes can go in there under U.N. auspices and destroy those weapons?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Well, that's up to the United Nations. The United Nations has indicated that these sanctions must remain in place. Additional sanctions can be imposed--had Bill Richardson just a moment ago talking--
JIM LEHRER: Travel--
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: But there could be other measures taken. The other measures remain to be defined, but military action could be included in those other measures, and that's something that the U.N. will of course decide, but the authority is there.
JIM LEHRER: If Iraq does take a shot at one of our U-2 planes, is that considered an act of war by the United States?
Attacking an American plane would be "a very big mistake."
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Well, it's certainly an act of aggression. It would be tantamount to murdering an innocent pilot who is unarmed, flying over territory that the United Nations has said that he should fly over to try to make these determinations about what has taken place on the ground. And so it would be a very serious act and I would say a very big mistake on the part of Saddam Hussein were to he either attack that aircraft or seek to attack that aircraft.
JIM LEHRER: Now, have we told Iraq that in no straight terms--hey, you take a shot at our plane--be ready for counter-attack by the United States or by the U.N.?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: The message has been delivered in very unequivocal terms to Saddam Hussein through a variety of channels that he would be making a very big mistake if he were to even seek to bring any harm to that aircraft and to the person who's flying that aircraft, yes.
JIM LEHRER: But short of that kind of thing, in other words, short of Iraq actually shooting at one of our planes, military action could be a long way away--there could be sanctions, travel sanctions, a lot of other things, before we get there, right?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: There could be a variety of things. There's not necessary a military action immediately, but it's always a possibility. Nothing is ruled in or ruled out, and so that's really going to be up to Saddam Hussein. And one of the great ironies involved in all of this is Tariq Aziz is complaining about the burdens imposed upon his country, and Saddam Hussein has imposed those burdens. The easiest way to remove the burdens is simply open your doors, allow the inspectors to do their job, and you won't have any problem.
JIM LEHRER: Former President Bush said at the dedication of his presidential library last week that he was very--he felt very secure about the decision he made not to take out Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War; that that was not the mission at the time. Do you agree with that?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: I think President Bush is correct that it seems, in retrospect, how easy it would have been to go in to Baghdad. But we're talking about sending American forces into Baghdad, itself, to occupy the city, to hunt and search, look for Saddam Hussein under very difficult circumstances. It could have put a lot of U.S. military men and women and other forces at great risk. I think that it was the right decision at the time. In retrospect, people are saying, wouldn't it have been better; yes, it would have been better; but under the circumstances it was the right call.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, on reforming the Pentagon, first give me an overview of what it is you're planning to do and why you are doing it.
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Well, we're trying to bring the Pentagon into the 21st century as far as reforming itself. We made a very big step and took a very big step in the spring by producing the quadrennial defense review, and that dealt with strategy, how we're going to shape events, to the best of our ability by shaping--being forward deployed, employing the--NATO alliance as such, enlarging partnership for peace program--other types of activities that reduce the potential for conflict and promote regional peace, and we're doing that by shaping the environment. The second component was to be able to respond to a variety of crises all the way from the humanitarian missions up to the type of thing we're looking at right now with Saddam Hussein.
Restructuring the Defense Department: saving trees and getting rid of jobs.
And the third component was preparing for the future. We don't have sufficient resources devoted to preparing for the future because we've been doing business the good old fashioned way, which is really outmoded, and so what we have done by forming a defense reform task force, to look at the way business has been able to restructure itself, to get leaner, more agile, much faster, the old axiom that the big used to eat up the small in terms of competition, but today it's the fast that devour the slow. And so we have to get much faster and in order to do that we have to eliminate all practices. Now to give you an example of the way we have been doing business in the past, I have along with me an indication--an example--these are just the regulations we have for financial management regulations, so all 12 volumes or so--15 volumes perhaps--that's the old way of doing business. This consumes many thousands of words and pages and a lot of trees coming, no doubt, from the state of Maine. Today we--
JIM LEHRER: Your home state--
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: My home state. Today we take all of this information and we put it on this CD-ROM. By next July all of our federal regulations will either be on CD-ROM or they'll be on the Internet. There are no more regulations--
JIM LEHRER: These things will be literally thrown away? A lot of times, you know, they put them on disk but they still keep the paper and nothing is accomplished. They're going to get rid of the paper?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: They're getting rid of the paper. We're going to put it on this.
JIM LEHRER: You're also going to get rid of some jobs, are you not?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: We're going to get rid of some jobs. We're going to slim down, for example, in the office of Secretary of Defense, my office, in essence. We are going to eliminate about 1/3 of the jobs we currently have there.
JIM LEHRER: From what to what?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Well, we have approximately 3,000 people; we will eliminate roughly 1,000 positions, and some of those will be transferred out into other departments outside of my office, but it'll be a reduction of 1/3. We will eliminate a total of roughly 30,000 positions over the next few years.
JIM LEHRER: Out of how many?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: A total of about 141,000.
JIM LEHRER: We're talking civilian--of civilian Defense Department--
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Right and spread throughout agencies. The mantra is as follows: We are going to reinvent our government.
JIM LEHRER: Where have I heard that word?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: You've heard that word from Vice President Gore and the president many times--we're going to reinvent the way we are structured; we're going to consolidate; we're going to merge a lot of the other functions that currently--are spread throughout the department, itself. We are going to compete more positions--that is we're going to have the public sector of the government competing with the private sector--various types of endeavors, be it financial management, be it janitors and other types of cleaning, food supply, others, we're going to compete those positions. That will produce some significant savings. And we're going to eliminate a lot of unnecessary overhead. The elimination gets me to BRAC proceedings--based reductions and closures. Those are going to be very important in the future, and the reason we have to have them is that if we continue to do business and carry this overhead, we can't make the kind of investment that we need to build the kind of systems that are keeping us ahead of the potential adversaries such as the Saddam Husseins of the future.
JIM LEHRER: Are you convinced, Mr. Secretary, that you can do all of this and not jeopardize the nation's defense?
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Absolutely. This is something that is long overdue, and I think virtually every recent secretary of defense has wanted to do what we're doing now, and that is we're going to produce the kind of results of slimming down as business has slimmed down to become as fast and agile and flexible as we expect our warriors to be. We have to do the same thing as far as this revolution in business affairs to produce the kind of technology that will assist them in defending this country's interest.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.
SEC. WILLIAM COHEN: Thank you very much.