NEWSMAKER: SECRETARY PERRY
JULY 17, 1996
After 19 airmen were killed by a truck bomb in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, last month, critics questioned if the Defense Department was doing enough to protect American troops overseas. To lower the chance of another terrorist attack, Defense Secretary William Perry said troops will be stationed farther away from urban areas in Saudi Arabia, Bosnia and other nations. Sec. Perry also talks with Jim Lehrer about NATO's mission in Bosnia and his recent trip to Russia.
JIM LEHRER: We go first tonight to the Secretary of Defense, William Perry, who's with us for a Newsmaker interview. Mr. Secretary, welcome.
Browse the NewsHour's Coverage of:
July 9, 1996: Senators Sam Nunn and John McCain debate the Defense Department's preparations against terrorist attacks after congressional hearings on the Saudi Arabia bombing.
June 26, 1996: A truck bomb kills 19 in Saudi Arabia and injures 80.
July 4, 1996: Assistant Secretary of State Strobe Talbott analyzes the Russian election results.
July 3, 1996: After relatively corruption-free elections, Boris Yeltsin celebrated his re-elected to the Russian presidency.
July 1, 1996: Accused Bosnian war criminals remain free, but NATO troops have not been ordered, yet, to arrest them.
January 1, 1996: Secretary Perry discusses his trip to Bosnia and the Middle East.
Index of Online NewsHour's coverage of the Middle East.
WILLIAM PERRY, Secretary of Defense: Thank you, Jim. It's good to be here.
JIM LEHRER: First, the defense forces protection initiative you announced today, what all is involved in that?
SEC. PERRY: Well, the--we believe that this most recent threat, this most recent attack by the terrorists in Saudi Arabia, is just the tip of an iceberg, in a sense. There are--we're performing a mission in the Gulf that is very, very important to us, very important to the security of our country, but which is resisted by many other people. They want to get us out of the Gulf. So we expect more attacks, and the attacks may be bigger, may be more fierce than the ones we have already gotten. They could involve chemical weapons, biological weapons. They could involve--
JIM LEHRER: Chemical weapons, biological weapons?
SEC. PERRY: Chemical weapons are a possibility. They could involve bigger bombs. We want to get ahead of this threat, instead of always reacting to the last threat. Now on that basis that we will be attacked again, it's critically important for us to stay in the Gulf, but we have to protect our forces as best possible, that we have announced today the force protection initiative, which are rather dramatic actions we will have to take to deal with this higher level of threat.
JIM LEHRER: What kind of actions?
SEC. PERRY: I should say first of all, they are more than the things we are--we have been doing the last six weeks. We've taken about 130 different measures just at Kobhar Towers alone since last November to protect our forces. Those measures have had, not withstanding the fact that we still had the casualties, they did succeed in the principal--in the principal mission that they were designed for, which is to prevent the penetration of the fence. Had that--
JIM LEHRER: This is around that U.S. Air Force facility in Dhahran.
SEC. PERRY: It's around the U.S. Air Force facility.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
SEC. PERRY: We were successful in keeping the bomber beyond the perimeter fence. Had he succeeded in his goal to penetrate that and set off the bomb that size next to a building or between several buildings, we would have had many, many more fatalities than we had, so we were partially successful in that. That's what we have to deal with, though, and we cannot deal with it just by moving fences, just by putting more Mylar on windows. We're doing all of those things, but if the threat gets even heavier, bigger bombs, chemical weapons, we have to be prepared to deal with that as well. And see, we're trying to get ahead of the threat. That's what the force protection initiative is designed to do.
JIM LEHRER: How are you going to do that? What kind of measures are you talking about?
SEC. PERRY: It will involve in the first instance reconsidering the mission in all of the countries in the central command, which is what we think is the area of highest threat. We have already considered that quite seriously for Saudi Arabia, and have come to a judgment. The judgment is the mission there is so critical we have to stay. We must not be driven out by terrorist bombs, but we do not believe we can provide adequate force protection against this kind of attack--these kind of attacks for our forces in urban areas, so the first objective is to redeploy our forces out of urban areas so that we can protect them, so we can devise protective measures and we provide better protection forces.
JIM LEHRER: So there are 4,000 U.S. troops there in Dhahran. These troops are going to be moved out of there, is that right, away from this--
SEC. PERRY: I want to be very clear that we're in the early stages of planning this. The Saudis, first of all, a few months ago proposed to us that we consider moving out of the urban area. We have responded to that and I have asked--I have asked Gen. Peay, who is the commander in chief of Cen-Com, to send me a plan to do that. I have the first phase of that plan so far, which is more like a concept of how it would be done, and that would be involve moving several thousand of our troops into a remote air base that's in the South of Riyadh. So that is a concept we have. We're now working with the logistics, the costs, the details together. I think within a few weeks we'll have a plan, we'll have to consult with the Congress on that plan. We're already consulting with our allies in Saudi Arabia on that plan. It's going to be expensive, and it's going--
JIM LEHRER: Well, how's--why is it going to be expensive?
SEC. PERRY: Because it involves moving several thousand people to a base which does not now have all of the infrastructure required. It is a base that already exists but does not now have all of that infrastructure. We--we are doing our planning on the assumption that the Saudis will provide the kind of support force that they provide in other bases. In other words, it's their base we're going to. They provide the base. They provide the infrastructure. They provide a lot of the food, fuel, supplies, but we still have an expense in this operation.
JIM LEHRER: And if they're out--if the troops are out in the desert, that means nobody can drive a truck up there, as happened a month ago or so?
SEC. PERRY: That means we can provide very extensive perimeter protection, and, and it is--it is not impossible to attack a base in the desert. It's much more difficult. The things that we can do to provide force protection are both more extensive and less expensive because of that remote location.
JIM LEHRER: Now this initiative only involves Saudi Arabia? Does it involve other facilities?
SEC. PERRY: No, the force protection initiative is directed at our force deployments all around the world. The first priority that we are addressing ourselves to is Saudi Arabia and a priority almost as high as that are the rest of our forces in central command. That's the other--the other countries in the Gulf, Egypt, so the places where we think we have the highest threat of a terrorist attack.
JIM LEHRER: And those initiatives might--I mean, the end result might be similar to what happened in Saudi Arabia. I mean, the decision might be to take so many thousand troops out of an urban area in another country and move them out--in other words, the--you are accepting the fact that, that U.S. troops cannot be protected from terrorist attacks in urban areas, is that a given now?
SEC. PERRY: I don't believe anybody can be protected with high confidence from car bombs in urban areas. The Israelis and the British have worked as hard on this problem for years as anybody can. They have not provided an adequate protection for their population against car bombs in urban areas. That's--that is a very, very difficult threat.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Secretary, are you concerned about the point that Sen. Nunn made at the hearings last week, and he made it on this program that same night, that the mission cannot become preserving the troops only, I mean, the safety of the troops? Are you worried about that?
SEC. PERRY: The--one element of our mission is force protection. Every time I visit one of our bases, every time I visit one of our deployment operations, I review their mission. Force protection is one of those missions. It's not something off to the side. It's part of the mission. The balance that has to be achieved is how much of that mission, how much emphasis can be put on that mission at the expense of other missions, the air sorties you fly, for example. We cannot conduct the rest of the mission if we spend 24 hours a day in a bunker. So that is the balance which the force commander has to make. As he makes that balance, then he recommends to me the sort of support he needs to carry that out. Sometime it's going to involve more expense in some areas. It may involve reducing the number of air sorties he can conduct in some cases. In Bosnia, for example, when I visited there just a few weeks ago, Gen. Nash briefed me the way he has always briefed me, force protection was No. 1 listed in his mission, and he manifests that, for example, by having 1/3 of his forces set up in guard duty. When I visited him on the 4th of July, they had--it was--they were having a picnic, and they were having a barbecue and a rock band and foot races. Everybody was having a good time--not quite everybody--2/3 of them were having a good time.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah.
SEC. PERRY: The other 1/3 were out on guard duty.
JIM LEHRER: And you're comfortable with that?
SEC. PERRY: I am comfortable with that. I am comfortable with the judgment that our commander's made. Gen. Nash has made his judgment. He briefed me on it. He told me the importance of the force protection in his mission. He fully understands the threat that he faces to terrorist as well as other threats in Bosnia.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of Bosnia, tell us one more time why these--Gen. Nash's troops--the American troops cannot arrest Mr. Karadzic and Mr. Mladic, both of whom have been indicted for war crimes.
SEC. PERRY: For openers, it's not their mission. Their mission is not something that Gen. Nash invents. It's not even something I invent. It is drawn up in the--by the North Atlantic Council--NATO--which directed them there, and that is not part of the mission, unless they come across the criminal as part of their other missions. If they come across an indicted war criminal, they are authorized to arrest him and they will.
JIM LEHRER: But what could change the mission?
SEC. PERRY: The North Atlantic Council.
JIM LEHRER: But that--we're part of the--the United States is a huge part--
SEC. PERRY: We are, indeed.
JIM LEHRER: --of the Council.
SEC. PERRY: Yes, indeed.
JIM LEHRER: So if we wanted to arrest them, an initiative could be made through the Council to arrest them, could they not--could we--
SEC. PERRY: If we wanted to change the mission to go out and search out--started a mission to go and search out Mr. Karadzic, track him down, and find him, uh, we, we could take that initiative, we could propose that to the North Atlantic Council--
JIM LEHRER: But we haven't.
SEC. PERRY: --in my judgment--
JIM LEHRER: Right.
SEC. PERRY: In my judgment, Jim, that action is, is at best premature. We have not exhausted our diplomatic options yet. Uh, in fact, as you know, Mr. Holbrooke is over there as we speak working on a diplomatic option. The people who have the view that this is something we just snap our fingers and do, do not have a correct picture of this. This would be a difficult and probably a bloody operation. Our military forces are prepared to take on difficult and bloody operations but not if they're not necessary, and so the first thing to do is exhaust our diplomatic options.
JIM LEHRER: Well, what about--what do you say to those who say until these men are in custody, there cannot be really good elections, fair, reliable elections in September, there really can't even be a lasting peace?
SEC. PERRY: I'm sympathetic with what they say, and I believe we do not have a long time for that reason, we do not have a long time to work out a diplomatic options. I believe there's substantial urgency in the mission which Amb. Holbrooke has embarked on. Jim, one other point I wanted to make on this, we talked about the force protection--
JIM LEHRER: Right.
SEC. PERRY: --not only in Bosnia but in Saudi Arabia and the other areas of our central command. We talked about defensive things we can do, passive protection measures. None of those ultimately can be fully successful in dealing with terrorists. We cannot always cede him the advantage of where, when, and how he's going to attack, therefore, we must be active as well. We go on the offensive. That requires much better intelligence than we now have in these operations, and part of our force protection initiative, for example, is creating what we call a joint fusion cell, and it's an intelligence cell which we're going to set up in Saudi Arabia like the one we already have in Bosnia, focused on pulling in intelligence, particularly now in support of the counter-terrorist operations.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, find out--spot the truck before it gets into the perimeter?
SEC. PERRY: Identify the--
JIM LEHRER: As it's driving down the road.
SEC. PERRY: Identify the terrorists, the plots, where they get the materials, who's supporting them, where are they getting their, their financial support. To the extent we can identify those, we've got a much better chance of preempting, disrupting before they do it. Even if we fail to do that, we're in a much better position to retaliate afterwards.
JIM LEHRER: Finally, Mr. Secretary, you've just returned with Vice President Gore from Russia.
SEC. PERRY: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Is Boris Yeltsin--Boris Yeltsin in charge of the country right now?
SEC. PERRY: Well, Boris Yeltsin, as you know, is in a sanitarium right now on a two-week rest. The Vice President met with him yesterday. They had, as I understand, a good meeting. Unfortunately, I missed that meeting. I came home from Moscow Monday night, and we were scheduled to meet with him originally on Monday. I would have--I could give you a firsthand report if the meeting had happened on Monday. They met Tuesday morning. The Vice President reports it was a good meeting. I can--I can tell you that I talked with nearly every other official in the Russian government and--
JIM LEHRER: Including, did you talk to General Lebed, the new national security adviser?
SEC. PERRY: I did not talk to General Lebed.
JIM LEHRER: You did not talk to him.
SEC. PERRY: I talked with virtually every other official, including the acting defense minister, the prime minister, but two very strong impressions that I got from them--first is an enormous sense of relief and comfort that the election was well conducted, it was a fair election, had a big turnout. This is the second, the second election of a president in the democracy, is the really important election, and it was well done, and I think the Russians deserve a great deal of credit for that. Secondly, the people that I talked with were quite comfortable from the leadership they are getting from President Yeltsin. If I--if there were any real sense of un-ease, I think I would have picked that up in this meeting, and they believe that the government is being formed now. It's not entirely formed yet. There are some positions not yet named, but the ones that have been named seem to indicate they're just pulling together a moderate and a reform-oriented government.
JIM LEHRER: So things are upbeat?
SEC. PERRY: Things are upbeat I believe, yes.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.
SEC. PERRY: Thank you, Jim. It's good to talk to you again.