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FBI Director Louis Freeh Holds News Briefing on USS Cole Investigation in Aden, Yemen

Aired October 19, 2000 - 7:34 a.m. ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, well, while we keep an eye out for the FBI director, we want to take you to a different part of the Middle East. In the Middle East the Israelis and Palestinians have been taking steps to live up to that tenuous cease-fire reached on Tuesday, but still it is not entirely quiet.

CNN's Jerrold Kessel is in Jerusalem with the latest on that story -- Jerrold.


And it does seem as if the two sides are, for now, trying to pull themselves back from the brink. A new...

LIN: Jerrold, I am sorry to interrupt you. We have to take you back to Aden, Yemen, where Louis Freeh is now answering questions.


LOUIS FREEH, FBI DIRECTOR: I have time for a couple of questions, but we are on a fairly short schedule. I arrived, as you know, in the late morning. I spent some initial time getting some briefings from the law-enforcement component here, including many non- law enforcement personnel. The ambassador briefed me in-country, and it took a couple of minutes to familiarize myself with the various aspects of the operation.

We then had a very good meeting with President Saleh and he repeated to the ambassador and I, as he had in public, many of the very positive things that he had said, first of all, his commitment to work together with the United States on this case, which he described as an attack against the relationship, the very good relationship, between the United States and Yemen. He pledged his full cooperation.

And I emphasized to him that the presence of the FBI here, with respect to this case, is by the invitation, of course, of him and his government. This is a very temporary presence by the FBI related to the support of this investigation.

The investigation is being run by the Yemeni police and security authorities. We are there as a partner, which is the word that the president used, but we are the junior partner, as we are in every country outside the United States where we participate in support investigations.

We are very pleased with the progress of the investigation. In fact, I complemented the president and the Yemeni authorities for the very good investigative work they have done, particularly in finding several locations which we feel may be relevant to the case. They found those locations on their own with very, very good police work. They've shared the results of that with us. And of course, the goal here in this investigation, as in any investigation of this importance, is to ensure that we are supporting the locally-led effort in an appropriate way, that our resources are being used not only at their request, but at their direction, and I have committed myself to doing that.

And it's a case that, of course, will take whatever time necessary and appropriate to complete. I don't have any time frame with respect to that right now.

I want to take the opportunity to complement General Ulihlah (ph), General Ashara (ph), the other local authorities who have not only permitted us to support their efforts, but again I wanted to complement them on the very fine investigative work they've done.

I then went on board the ship. I got a briefing by the captain and a tour of the crime scene. I was able to see firsthand the obviously catastrophic damage done by this device. I was privileged to address the crew. I expressed to them my condolences, the condolences of not only the law-enforcement community, but the country.

I was very moved by the activities going on board that ship and the dedication and the courage of the crew and its leadership working under very, very difficult conditions.

I'm about to leave country and, as I said, the FBI presence here is a very temporary one, and it is one that is under the complete direction of the local authorities, who are in charge of the case. And we do not take any action or any steps without their knowledge, without their permission.

And it is a posture we have found ourselves in, as you know, over the years in East Africa, in Saudi Arabia and in other places. We are here by leave of our partners and colleagues, and that's the appropriate position, and whatever support we can lend we are committed to doing that.

I have to take a few of your questions at this point.

QUESTION: Commander Freeh, how would you characterize the quality of the evidence developed so far?

FREEH: It's really hard to do that. You know, we've processed one of the locations that I referred to, which you have reported about. The processing on the ship is really ongoing. It's a very -- very difficult environment because of the damage and, of course, the priority has been now the identification and removal, very reverently, of the human remains, that has taken precedence over the normal evidenciary and forensic recovery work.

So I'm very pleased with the processing. We have our best people here, both in terms of bomb technicians, evidence recovery technicians. We're working very slowly now precisely because of the need to appropriately recover the human remains, that will pick up once we've passed that phase.

QUESTION: You said you saw the inside of the ship, I gather. Could you give us just what you saw inside the ship? You said it was catastrophic. We obviously can't get inside. Could you tell us what you saw please?

FREEH: Well, if you look at the photographs on the exterior of the ship you see the very large hole and the impact that that explosion, both the force of the shockwave and the corresponding debris had, it ripped a huge hole in the side of the ship, moved the decks literally around, which was, of course, the source of most of the deaths. So it is a tangled mass of metal and wire. And they are reconstructing, as they recover the evidence, the locations of things because we want to separate, obviously, the parts of the ship from the parts of the improvised device and the explosive residue has to be collected.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Do we even now know or have a pretty good idea of what group or what individuals, which individuals, planned the bombing. And do you either know or have a pretty good idea who carried out the bombing attack?

FREEH: No we don't. And I've been really cautioning everyone against that. It is much too early in the case to have come to that kind of a conclusion. We have some theories, as you almost have to have when you begin an investigation of this kind, but the determination with respect to participation, sponsorship, if any, will be strictly delegated by the facts, by the forensics, witnesses that are developed, linkages to other places or persons. But we are very, very far from doing that and are really looking at this with a very open mind at this point.

QUESTION: Are you working closely with the Saudi authorities?

FREEH: No, sir.

QUESTION: President Saleh said that he thought, I talked to him after you left, that he thought it was elements returning from Afghanistan who were responsible?

FREEH: It's certainly a valid theory and also a valid point of inquiry. Based on experience and some of the other events that we have seen, it is a totally appropriate line of inquiry, but again, what we do will be governed by facts, witnesses, statements, forensics, and we are very, very far at this point from making any, even preliminary, judgments or speculations about the sponsorship or...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Last question please.

QUESTION: Are any of the groups which may be under investigation, do you believe that they might still be operational in Yemen?

FREEH: Again, without having a group that we have identified or concluded may be responsible, it would be hard to identify other activities by that group. You know, our experience over the years has shown many different things, the attacks, even in the United States, which in some cases were attributed preliminarily to one group, turned out, particularly in one case, to be the work of two individuals. So we don't want to be speculating. What we want to be doing now is investigating, and that is what we do, we do it best if we do it based on the facts.

QUESTION: Is there any significance to your use of the word improvised device. Could this include or exclude a bomb? Are we talking here about some military weapon?

FREEH. No. In the bomb-data technology, an improvised explosive device is one that is put together and fabricated, it is a bomb, it is just a technical name for bomb.

QUESTION: (inaudible)

FREEH: Well, again, a bomb covers a lot of different categories, we would just call it an improvised explosive device at this point, obviously on a water-borne delivery vehicle.

Thank you very much.

LIN: All right, FBI Director Louis Freeh wrapping up his news conference in Aden, Yemen, after meeting with Yemeni police, who he gives full credit for taking the lead on this investigation and developing several significant leads, saying that the FBI's role in this investigation is temporary and a junior role. He did have a chance to get a tour on board the USS Cole to described the damage inside as a tangled mess of metal and wire. Catastrophic is the word that he used.

CNN's Walter Rodgers is standing by in Aden.

Walter, what do you make of what the FBI director was able to say, compared to the conversation you had with Yemen's president?

WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Actually, they agreed, their opinions and conclusions were quite compatible. The U.S. FBI director, Louis Freeh, said that he was very pleased with a progress that the Yemeni police are making in this. He is especially pleased with the fact that they found the crime scene where they believe the explosive device was assembled. He said the Yemeni police were doing very, very good police work in this investigation.

He was a little less specific than the Yemeni president, President Saleh. Nonetheless, he said that the Yemenese are doing very, very good work and all the signs here from the forensic point of view seem good. He stressed that the FBI is the junior partner in this, that they are cooperating with the Yemenis.

On the other hand, he said the Yemenis are the lead investigators in this investigation. Asked who was responsible, he was very reluctant to commit himself to saying who was responsible, he said only the evidence will determine who was responsible.

The FBI director, Louis Freeh, saying at this point the investigation is moving very slowly, at least aboard the ship, the USS Cole, because appropriately, all due respect has to be paid to the recovery of the four bodies which are still aboard that ship. Once the remaining four bodies are recovered, then the FBI director, Mr. Freeh, suggested that in fact the investigation can move much more quickly -- Carol.

LIN: That's right. Mr. Freeh also saying that processing evidence on the ship has also been very difficult because of the mess. You did specifically ask Louis Freeh, though, about a remark that President Saleh had made to you about elements from Afghanistan as being responsible. Did President Saleh specifically name Osama bin Laden?

RODGERS: No. What President Saleh said was that it was elements returning from Afghanistan, whom the Yemeni president believed was responsible. FBI Director Louis Freeh was less committal on that, although he said that certainly is a plausible theory at this point.

When I talked to President Saleh about the American suspicions that it might be the Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden behind it, behind all of this, the Saudi President -- President Saleh said, "it could be, it could be." That was all he could say at this point.

But we should also point out that the Yemeni president, President Saleh, said he expects a major break in this case, perhaps within a week -- Carol.

LIN: All right, thank you very much, Walter Rogers reporting live from Aden, Yemen.



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