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Breaking News

Defense Secretary Cohen Holds News Conference on Russian Sub Rescue Effort

Aired August 18, 2000 - 2:32 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: We're awaiting remarks from Defense Secretary William Cohen on the Russian sub disaster. We'll have his comments when they begin from the Pentagon this afternoon.

For the first time today, a Russian rescue vessel latched onto the sub at the bottom of the Barents Sea, but the Russians say the crew was prevented from entering by damage to the rear escape hatch. The Kursk is believed to have three such hatches, all of which now appear to be damaged.

Now here's the defense secretary at the Pentagon.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

WILLIAM COHEN, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I'd like to take a few moments to share some of my thoughts with you on this accident involving the Kursk.

I've been following this very closely ever since the Russian authorities announced this tragic event over the weekend, and I'd like to take this opportunity to express my concern for the sailors on the Kursk.

There's an inherent sense of camaraderie that is felt by military people that transcends nationality and political differences. And I know from my conversations here in the Pentagon over the past few days that our military men and women are not looking at this accident as something that has happened to the Russians, but as something that has happened to fellow uniform professionals. It's personal, and it's very deep.

I want to express my concern for the sailors' families. It must be a very terrible time of fear and doubt for them right now, and we can only imagine the agony that they are suffering as they await the information on their loved ones.

And so on behalf of everyone in the department, I want to express our concern and hope during this most difficult time.

And finally, I'd like to make it clear that the Defense Department remains ready, willing and able to provide whatever assistance we can to the Russian authorities that they would find helpful. And I think most of you know that on Tuesday I wrote a letter to Minister of Defense Sergeyev offering our assistance, and then I received a response last evening. He expressed appreciation for our offer of assistance, and he asked that we work through NATO channels to coordinate, and this we are glad to do.

We are hopeful that our British and Norwegian friends, working closely with their Russian counterparts, can be successful in effecting a rescue of the sailors of the Kursk, reuniting them with their families.

I'll be happy to take a few questions, but I should forewarn you that I have very little information beyond that which you already know.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, how would you work through NATO channels? Does that mean you are, in fact, going to provide help? And are you disappointed that you didn't hear earlier? And could the United States have provided better help had it been requested earlier?

COHEN: Well, there are a lot of questions that certainly will have to be asked and answered in the coming days and weeks.

COHEN: I think, right now, the focus has to be on the when assistance can be provided and how quickly it can be provided.

We have offered to work through NATO channels. In fact, yesterday, and last evening, we had a video teleconference with Russians participating, laying out certain things that we would be in a position to do. There will be another VTC tomorrow morning. And we stand ready to provide whatever assistance that would be required and called for.

There were basically three courses of action that have been laid out to the Russian authorities.

We have proposed having teams of experts who have a so-called reach-back capability to provide well-organized mission-specific expertise that will be made up of engineers, drivers, medical support to provide whatever technical assistance would be necessary.

There's a second course of action, which would be an international coordination cell, so that we could provide a core of international coordination people to facilitate the international rescue efforts.

And then we have a third course of action, which would be a so- called fly-away diving capability to provide atmospheric suits and diving capability to support Russian in this.

So we're waiting to explore this further with them. And we will take, again, every measure that we can consistent with their request.

QUESTION: By "we," do you mean for -- you're talking about the United States or are you talking about the allies or both?

COHEN: In the three courses of action, there will be allied participation. But we certainly have a team of experts here that we're prepared to send to work on-site if...

QUESTION: Are you assembling that team now?

COHEN: The team is being assembled for potential use, yes.

QUESTION: And are they being sent anywhere? Where will they go to Brussels or...

COHEN: No, they will remain here until such time as there is a request made for their assistance. They will be on the ready. They could be deployed within a period of 24 hours to the site itself, if this request is...

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, could you clarify a couple of things on that? Now, this team that's being assembled, is it for all of the options you've laid our or one particular course of action, such as the reach-back or...

COHEN: Well, the reach-back capability, that's a team that's being assembled here that could in fact be deployed to the region. The second course of action would be an international coordination cell, and the third would be to provide the atmospheric suits. That coordination cell would be assembled, we assume, in Brussels, in the NATO organization.

QUESTION: So the team that you have just said is being assembled is basically the engineers, divers, medical, that sort of thing? And the VTC that was held last night, was that bilateral, U.S. and Russia?

COHEN: It was in NATO headquarters, and the VTC will be held similarly through NATO headquarters.

QUESTION: So the fly-away capability, is that coming from North Island as well, in the deep-submersions unit? Is that where we keep freeze suits?

COHEN: I yield to Admiral Quigley to give you the details on any of the fly-away capability.

QUESTION: What reason have the Russians given you to believe there are still people alive on this submarine?

COHEN: Well, I haven't had specific discussions with the Russian authorities.

COHEN: But to the extent that they are in fact agreeable and willing to have NATO assistance, should it be necessary in their judgment, then that is some indication that they still feel that there are sailors alive. And so, we are prepared to offer whatever we can to help them.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, have you offered or provided any information that might help the Russians understand what happened to the submarine, the cause of the accident?

COHEN: No. At this point, we will have to wait until all of the facts are in, but I can only assure you and the American people that there were no American ships involved in this matter.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, this administration is taking a bit of a beating on the Republican campaign trail and at the Republican convention, over military readiness. George W. Bush and others have been saying that the military is not prepared to fight, there're divisions not ready to go, and morale is at an all-time low. How do you respond to that?

COHEN: I think the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Shelton, responded to that with great precision and professionalism.

Our forces are ready to fight. Anyone who suggests that they are incapable of carrying out their responsibilities is seriously miscalculating.

I think, also, President Clinton made it very clear during his speech at his -- at the Democratic Convention that anyone who would seize upon any statements made during this particular period of time would be making a gross miscalculation of our capabilities and would come to rue it.

So we are ready. We are prepared.

COHEN: As a matter of fact, I think morale is increasing. Hopefully in the next few weeks, I'll be able to come to you and lay out exactly where we are on retention, recruitment and what I see as an increase, rather than a decrease, in morale.

QUESTION: So this is not a hollow force, and these are empty political statements?

COHEN: Well, I assume during the course of any campaign that defense and other capabilities will come into -- to be challenged. That's the nature of our political system. All I can say is that we have the most capable force in the world. It's trained, it's ready and fully capable of carrying out its missions.

QUESTION: One more on the submarine, sir. Did I just understand you also correctly -- you are not ruling out the possibility of U.S. Navy personnel in the water in the Barents Sea helping on this mission?

COHEN: We've never ruled that out. As a matter of fact, what I indicated in my initial letter to Marshal Sergeyev is that we are prepared to do whatever we can to help in this rescue effort, and we would be more than willing to contribute our resources to doing that, to help provide for that rescue.

QUESTION: At what point does it become too late?

COHEN: I think that's a determination that the Russian authorities will have to make. They are the ones who are on the scene, trying to organize the rescue effort. We hope that the British and Norwegian participation will be productive and produce a happy result. And there are great questions as to whether or not that will be the result, but we're hopeful.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.

ALLEN: The U.S. secretary of defense, William Cohen, who sent a letter to Russia reminding them that the U.S. stands ready to give help. Apparently the U.S. will send naval consultants to NATO headquarters in Brussels, Russia still wanting to work things out through NATO. And, again, only a British vessel headed to the Barents Sea now to help rescue these men, which hope is fading at this point for their survival. But we'll continue to bring you any more developments, as we have all week.

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