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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL
Cohen Testifies Before 9/11 Commission
Aired March 23, 2004 - 14:21 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to go back to the 9/11 Commission. William Cohen, still addressing the panel there. Clinton's defense secretary. Let's listen in.
(JOINED IN PROGRESS)
WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: ... I think that Senator Kerry and others would tell you that over the years, one of the identifiable deficiencies within our intelligence collection capability is the absence of good HUMINT, that we have over the years tended to oscillate between focusing upon technical capabilities with our satellite-gathering technologies as opposed to developing human intelligence.
COHEN: With the collapse of the Soviet Union, of course, that becomes a much more challenging objective, to get good human intelligence in areas that are governed by tribal leaders where an individual perhaps can detect who is a remote cousin the minute they show up within 200 yards.
So penetrating societies such as that becomes even more problematic in terms of developing good human intelligence.
And then you're called upon to try and develop assets on the ground. Well, then the question is, "Who do you trust, and how can you trust them, based on what evidence in the past that they have been credible?
All of that goes into an analysis by the CIA working with other intelligence agencies. Secretary Powell talked about I&R; we have DIA, Defense Intelligence Agency.
But essentially we turn to the DCI to say, "Do we have good intelligence?" We review the PDD, as has been discussed earlier today. We sit down at the Cabinet-level meetings with the president and/or with the National Security Adviser and his team and say, "Is this good enough intelligence to warrant taking action?" And each case has to be looked at in that regard.
Now, you mentioned August of '98. Frankly, it was following the bombing of the embassies in East Africa that the antenna were really up. We were collecting at a level that I saw -- it was unprecedented in terms of the amount of information coming in pointing to bin Laden and then getting the information that would be a gathering of terrorists in Afghanistan. After reviewing all that information, the determination was made: this was a target certainly that we should attack -- that plus the so- called pharmaceutical plant in Sudan.
But it was that kind after process whereby -- what do we have?
Do we have to be certain? The answer is no.
Do you have to be pretty sure? I think that the answer is yes if you're going to be killing a lot of people.
We're prepared to engage in collateral damage if the target that we're after is certainly important.
But all those factors are into a decision.
But having, quote, "actionable intelligence" means reliable and the basis of that reliability.
Single-source information, usually I think George Tenet will tell you not good enough.
Maybe if they've got a single source that is truly reliable -- they've had him in the past -- that might be, under the circumstances.
But it all depends upon the quality of the people you've got on the ground, coupled with whatever you can put up in the air to locate certain targets.
FRED F. FIELDING, COMMISSION MEMBER: But who makes that final decision? Who makes that call?
COHEN: The president of the United States makes the final decision. We make recommendations.
We as the national security team would sit down, examine it and then come to a consensus if we could. If we couldn't, frankly, we would go to the president with our individual recommendations. But most of the time, we were able to reach a consensus.
COHEN: And then the president weighs what has been recommended to him, to act or not to act, and then makes the decision.
FIELDING: Just following up, again, on my earlier line of questioning. Did you do anything or were there any steps available that you thought you were worth taking to augment the CIA's capabilities for collecting intelligence?
COHEN: We worked with the CIA. There were some joint efforts as such to reinforce the CIA. We had a cooperative program in terms of the unmanned aerial vehicles, the UAVs. There was some controversy over that as well, I might add.
But trying to find him was certainly a joint enterprise in terms of technical capability. Did we have people on the ground in Afghanistan? The answer was we did not, for the most part. FIELDING: Was that just not really a viable, realistic option?
COHEN: Well, again, in looking at Afghanistan, looking at the history of that country, look at the power and the power and the relationship with the tribes in the region.
The notion that we could put, quote, "Special Forces in that region that would go undetected or uncompromised," I think was pretty remote. Was it possible? You could say it was possible. Was it advisable? We didn't think so at the time. And I think in reflection, we still don't think that was a viable option.
FIELDING: I'd like to ask your opinion, because we have to evaluate the various -- the three incidents. And we've heard a lot of testimony and lot of writings that that particular second event that I made reference to -- I think it was in February of '99, the hunting camp with the UAE hunting camp -- that that was the lost opportunity.
COHEN: As I recall, there were at least three instances in which the initial intelligence take, as they called it, that we think we have him, and what we would then do is, quote, "spin up" the military at that point, namely, our ability to target that particular area with the thought of taking that individual or group of people out.
There were three instances. Each time the munitions and the people were spun up, they were called off because the word came back: We're not sure -- we're not quite sure.
In one instance, there was an identification that somehow we had bin Laden in our sights. Turned out it was a sheik from UAE. There was another consideration of shooting down an aircraft that might be carrying bin Laden, should he try to escape. That also proved to be reversed by the intelligence community saying we don't think we have him.
So there were three occasions following the attack on the camps in Sudan. But in each and every one of those occasions, it came back on a second look saying we don't think we've got enough here to recommend to the president that we should take military action. And that came from the intelligence community, through the national security adviser, and we all sat and made a collective judgment: OK, under the circumstances, we don't fire.
FIELDING: Now, if you could assist us, if I can take you back to the August 20th attack and response attack. After that happened, there was criticism about the pharmaceutical plant. And there was also criticism in general about trigger-happy and this sort of thing.
And recalling that negative reaction, does that criticism affect the planning and use of military force in defending the United States in this context?
COHEN: I'm glad you asked that question, Mr. Fielding, because it's something that I've wanted to talk about for some time. In terms of the kind of poisonous atmosphere that existed then that continues to exist today, you're going to discuss Mr. Clarke's book with him tomorrow but all of the accusations, questioning motives, and calculations during that time, when the attack was launched in Afghanistan and Sudan, there was a movie out called "Wag the Dog."
There were critics of the Clinton administration that attacked the president saying this was an effort on his part to divert attention from his personal difficulties. I'd like to say, for the record, under no circumstances did President Clinton ever call upon the military and use that military in order to serve a political purpose.
When I took the office, I had a very clear understanding with the president. He was very clear with me. Under no circumstances would I ever be called upon to exercise any kind of partisan relationship, would participate in no politics and would never allow the military to be used for a political purpose.
President Clinton was true to his word. He never called upon us to do that. It was strictly on the merits.
Now, that accusation surfaced again, and it was something of concern to me. I'll take just a few moments to express it.
In that fall, I should say that winter, in December of 1998, we decided to attack Saddam Hussein. It was called Operation Desert Fox. It was a four-day operation in which we launched a number of attacks upon his weapons of mass destruction sites, his missile production facilities and killing a number of Republican Guards and others.
I got a call the day that that operation was launched. I received a call from Speaker Gingrich and soon-to-be or then-to-be Speaker Livingston asking me to come up to Capitol Hill. They said the House was in an uproar. There was a rage boiling in the House of Representatives. This clearly had to be politically inspired.
I was eager to go up to the Hill. I had not been in the House of Representatives for 20 years and I walked that evening into the well of the House of Representatives. There were almost 400 people there that night, maybe more too a closed session of Congress.
COHEN: And I spoke for three hours, assuring every single member that the reason we attacked Saddam Hussein was because of his noncompliance with the security council resolution, that at no time did the president of the United States ever seek to use that military strike in order to avoid or divert attention from the impeachment process.
I was prepared at that time and today to say -- I put my entire public career on the line to say that the president always acted specifically upon the recommendation of those of us who held the positions of responsibility to take military action. And at no time did he ever try to use it or manipulate it to serve his personal ends. And I think it's important that that be clear, because that "Wag the Dog" cynicism that was so virulent there, I'm afraid is coming back again. I think we did everything we can to stop engaging in the kind of self-flagellation and criticism and challenging of motives of our respective presidents. FIELDING: Thank you. That also is the conclusion of the staff in the staff report. But I'm glad you had a chance to elucidate on it. On August 20th...
THOMAS H. KEAN, COMMISSION CHAIRMAN: Last question.
FIELDING: OK. Thank you. On August 20th, we heard about General Shelton undertaking a planning order for preparation of a follow-on operations, and obviously there were never any follow-on operations that came to fruition. But what directions did you give the military for development of military plans against bin Laden after August 20th for our guidance?
COHEN: Our plans were to try to, quote, capture and/or kill -- or kill, I should say in this particular case -- capture or kill bin Laden. That was the directive that went out, the memorandum of notification. The president had signed several of those, refining them on each and every occasion. Taking that directive, we had our people in a position, should there be, quote, "actionable intelligence" -- again, the key word. And we can -- we should discuss that and debate that issue of what constitutes it.
COHEN: But whenever there was, quote, "actual intelligence," we were prepared to take action to destroy bin Laden or the targets.
Were there plans to use Special Forces to supplement the Northern Alliance that they were able to apprehend and hold on to bin Laden? The answer was yes.
There were packages that were developed with our Special Forces at Fort Bragg. There were a number of proposals quote, "on the table or on a shelf," prepared to be utilized in the event that we were certain -- and not certain to 100 percent degree -- but reasonably certain that he was going to be at a given area.
I know a question has been raised, "Well, why wouldn't you put a unit in there with the anticipation that they could help gather intelligence and track him down?"
And I've tried to address this in my written statement. But consider the notion, we have 13,500 troops in Afghanistan right now, not to mention the Pakistanis, and we can't find bin Laden to date. So the notion that you're going to put a small unit, however good, on the ground, or a large unit, and put them into Afghanistan and track down bin Laden, I think is folly.
But if we had people on the ground, if we had the Northern Alliance, if they were reliable, did we have people prepared to go? The answer was yes.
General Shelton, I think, will tell you, it's very difficult to kill an individual with a missile. We all know that. You're talking about six hours from the time you, quote, "spun-up," you've got the coordinates, GPS signals -- target that individual. You're six hours away. To put troops on the ground was probably double that time. By the time you take a package and fly them from Fort Bragg or compose some elements that were already in the Gulf, you're talking more than six hours.
So the answer is, why don't have you forces on the ground in Afghanistan? And the point I'm simply trying to make is that the notion that you could put thousands or hundreds or even tens of people on the ground and hope to locate him under those circumstances, I think, is simply unrealistic.
FIELDING: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
KEAN: Senator Kerrey?
BOB KERREY, COMMISSION MEMBER: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Secretary, nice to see you again.
COHEN: Good to see you, Senator.
KERREY: First of all, let me say, as you were introducing yourself, I had not until I prepared for this hearing realized -- then you reinforced it -- that you were the father of the Special Operations Command. And it must have given you a considerable amount of pride to see how effective special operations units were in Afghanistan, Iraq and, according to the reports today in the Hindu Kush again, trying to run down bin Laden as we speak.
COHEN: Senator Kerrey, you may recall one of the complaints that used to come from the Pentagon and the executive branch is that Congress engages in too much micromanagement. I think that was the case. And also the reformation of the joint chiefs of staff of Goldwater-Nichols of macromanagement. But I thought it played a very important role.
KERREY: Certainly. Both of those were. And they want you to micromanage when they've got something they want you to support.
But let me also say with great respect, I do think that in '98, that a special operations unit with an element of surprise could have had a tremendous impact at that particular point. It's a judgment call you've got to make. It's a much different situation than it is today. And I appreciate that very much.
Look, one of the problems I think that I have with this whole thing is that we were attacked on the 11th of September 2001 by the same people that attacked the Cole on the 12th of October 2000, by the same people who attempted to attack The Sullivans a few months earlier, by the same people who were responsible for multiple millennium attacks in 1999, by the same people who attacked our embassies on the 7th of August, 1998, and now, as we understand it, by the same people who have had previous attacks back to the 1990s, perhaps up to and including the World Trade Center bombing one.
So it's not just that we were attacked successfully by 19 men with less than a half a million dollars utterly. I mean they just defeated every single defensive mechanism we had up in place. It's that this is the same group that had attacked us on many other occasions in the past.
And that's why I keep coming to the question, of why would we have a presidential directive in place in 1998 that said that the Department of Defense and our military was going to be used principally for a response, if we were attacked in a local and state situation, and to support what the Department of Justice was doing.
I don't understand why the military wasn't given a priority and a primary role in the fight against not just terrorism, but the fight against Osama bin Laden. I mean, I presume you've seen the declaration of war that he released on the 23rd of February, 1998. That was very precise. Again, issued by somebody who had demonstrated not just a willingness to kill Americans, but the capacity to kill Americans.
And every single time I heard the administration come up before the Intelligence Committee that I was on, maybe just trying to keep doing what you had done for years before, it was, "We're going to send the FBI to investigate this stuff."
And I would say, "My god, I don't understand this. They killed airmen in Khobar Towers. They attacked our facilities in East Africa. They attacked our sailors on the Cole."
I don't understand, and still today don't understand, why the military wasn't given a dominant role. And I wonder, if you're looking back on it today, do you think we underutilized the military during the 1990s in the war against in this case, radical Islamists, led by Osama bin Laden?
COHEN: First of all, I've seen your comments about the need to declare war against al Qaeda. We were at war with al Qaeda. We weren't declaring it as such and the president going to Congress saying, "Let's declare war against al Qaeda."
I take your point about bin Laden being very precise. He was very precise in issuing a personal fatwa against me. I was put on the list. There was a price tag. There were several attempts, which I don't have to go into details about, going after me.
So I was very much aware that this was a war that had been declared against the United States, including members of the president's Cabinet personally, putting us at risk, as well as our military personnel.
The use of the military -- the only use I could have seen in terms of could we have done more against bin Laden, it was really talked about putting a massive force into Afghanistan over the objection -- you've heard this this morning, and it's something that I had to take into account: Could we in fact take a much more aggressive military operation against bin Laden without the support of Pakistan or any of the neighboring countries?
General Zinni's name has been surfaced on several occasions here. When you recommend people to advise you -- and I was the one who recommended that General Zinni be the commander of the CENTCOM -- you look at their background, you look at their war records, you look at how they've conducted themselves and you hopefully trust their judgment.
General Zinni made a number of recommendations, which I took to heart, because he was of the opinion that had we taken certain types military action, it would have been, quote, "ineffective, counterproductive."
He was the same general who recommended that we not overreact when there was a military coup in Pakistan, saying, "Wait a minute, I've worked with this general. I think we may be able to persuade him to be much more supportive than he has been than we think in the past."
As a result of that kind of relationship that General Zinni had with General Musharraf -- President Musharraf, later President Musharraf -- we were able to help thwart attacks during the millennium.
So you have to at some point put some judgment in the experts that you call upon to give you advice.
Could I have second guessed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Shelton? Yes. Could I have second guessed General Zinni? Did I have reason to, based upon my experience with them? And the answer was no.
COHEN: I put a lot of faith in their recommendations and their judgment, and I never found them, quote, "risk averse." They really were more mission successful in their orientation -- saying if we do this, we're likely to succeed, if we do the following, we're likely to fail. Those were the kinds of decisions we had to make.
So, what could have been done? We had lethal authority. Sandy Berger said we weren't trying to send simply a summons to bin Laden in Afghanistan, we were trying to kill him -- him or anyone else who was there at the time. That was, you know, what they call a warning shot to the temple. We were trying to kill bin Laden -- and anyone there that went to that camp.
Did we have the kind of information that would have allowed to us get him later? We didn't see it. It was never recommended. I can't account for everything that you've heard, but there was never a recommendation that came to the national security team that said: We've got a good shot at getting him, let's take military action and do it.
The only other alternative would have been: Could we have persuaded Pakistan, "Get out of the way, we're coming, we don't need your support, we're going to invade Afghanistan"?
I leave it to you, Senator Kerrey, and to others who have served in Congress. Do you think it's reasonable that under the circumstances that any president, including President Clinton, could have gone to Congress in October of 2000 and said, "These people are trying to kill us, and now therefore we're going to invade Afghanistan and take them out." I don't think so. But other members can disagree. A judgment call. You sat on the other side of that decision.
KERREY: Well, that presumes that the president would come to Congress and request authorization for action there. But as you know, there have been many moments when the president doesn't request such authorization. He just does it.
COHEN: Can I make -- let me make one other point. One other point. You remember Kosovo.
COHEN: Here we had a campaign going on in Kosovo. I don't know how many times you came to the White House, but there were meetings after meetings with members of Congress coming down to the president saying, "This is a bad idea, when are you going to get out? What's the exit strategy? How much is it going to cost us?"
We had to sustain a 78-day bombing campaign -- frankly, without the support of Congress. And it was a successful campaign. And as a result of that, we saved a lot of lives.
But I give you that as an example to say the notion that somehow President Clinton or even President Bush -- absent 9/11 -- could have walked into the halls of Congress, say, "Declare war against al Qaeda," I think is unrealistic.
KERREY: But, Mr. Secretary, I must say you're making my argument. I supported what the president did in Kosovo. I supported what he did in Bosnia. I was in the minority in both times. But that didn't stop him from doing it. The fact that it was difficult, the fact that it was hard, the fact even at times that it was unpopular -- he believed in it, and he rallied the American people to the cause.
COHEN: He also rallied allies.
KERREY: He didn't rally, he didn't do that with bin Laden.
COHEN: But he also rallied allies to the cause. You had the NATO countries involved in Bosnia and Kosovo. You have, after 9/11, you have him rallying the international community to help go into Afghanistan.
Prior to that time, I dare say there is not a single country that would have been supporting the president of the United States declaring war and invading Afghanistan prior to 9/11. You can disagree with that judgment. I don't think there was a single country, and I frankly think that Congress would have overwhelmingly rejected it.
KERREY: I would disagree. I respectfully disagree. First of all, again, as I said, there are many instances where the president doesn't even come to Congress. Operation Just Cause in Panama. He didn't come to Congress and say, "Gee, is it OK to do that?" Grenada -- the president didn't come to Congress and said, "Is that OK to do it?" In Bosnia and Kosovo, the very examples that you cite, the president didn't have the support of Congress, and he went ahead and did.
I think he did the right thing. But the fact that it's unpopular, that it's difficult, that our allies are not necessarily with it shouldn't deter a president who believes that what we have is a serial killer on our hands who had begun killing us at least as early as 1993, who had issued a very specific declaration of war calling Islamic men to join an Islamic army on the 23rd of February, 1998, and then demonstrated that he had the capacity in a very sophisticated way on the 7th of August to carry out that threat.
We had a round in our chamber and we didn't use it. That's how I see it. And I don't know if it had prevented 9/11. But I absolutely do not believe that just because a commander in chief sits there and said, "Gee, this thing is unpopular therefore I can't do it," I don't think that's a good argument. I know Secretary Rumsfeld is going to use it here in a few minutes and I'm going to be just as harsh with him. I don't buy it.
COHEN: Well, Senator Kerrey, let's go back to the Persian Gulf war of '91. There you had Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait. There you had the president of the United States, President Bush 41, going to the international community, gathering support, and then deciding to come to the Congress to get congressional support. Close call. I think it passed the Senate by four votes under those extraordinary circumstances.
But I would submit to you the notion that you'd be able in the fall of 2000 to have rallied the Congress and the country to invade Afghanistan and to have had the support of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, all of the other people in the region, I don't think is realistic.
COHEN: Judgment call -- we can be faulted for that. I just don't think it was feasible.
KERREY: Well, I would just say for the record: Better have tried and failed than not to try at all. And I think in this particular case, again, what you've got, the thing that's most troubling about 9/11 is that it was carried out by the same group of people that had killed Americans the previous October, that had tried to kill Americans on the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) just before that in the Summer of 2000. It's a series of events stretching back for a decade. That's the problem.
COHEN: And we would...
KERREY: With a declaration of war by he guy who's leading the organization.
COHEN: And we were trying to kill those members whenever we could find them.
But you're not talking about people sitting in a city waiting to be attacked. It's like mercury on a mirror. You're talking about individuals who can hide. I mean let's look at what's taking place today. I point out again, you've got thousands of people on the ground in Afghanistan with the support of Pakistan, and we still are unable to track him down and to kill him.
KERREY: But if you look at the performance of the Special Operations units in Northern Afghanistan and the war against Afghanistan, and they leveraged thousands of GIs effort, they were enormously effective.
COHEN: I agree.
KERREY: Likewise in Iraq and likewise again right now in Afghanistan.
COHEN: I agree. I think we owe them a tremendous amount of gratitude for all of the sacrifice they make and the training they have. That's the reason we are the finest in the world, because of that training.
KERREY: What was the military objective on 20 August, 1998?
COHEN: The military objective was to kill as many people in those camps as we could, to take out the pharmaceutical plant because we had reason to believe -- actionable intelligence.
KERREY: But there were more men south of Kandahar than there was up by the coast. Why did we attack that particular camp?
COHEN: Because intelligence was that we believed that bin Laden and his associates were going to be there. We went after as many as we could and as high as we could. We didn't know whether he'd be there for sure. We hoped he would be there. He slipped away apparently.
KERREY: Did you consider putting a special ops -- a relatively small special ops team just to get eyes on the prize -- just to be able to be sort of forward air controllers, rather than having to rely on satellites or tribals to tell you where bin Laden was?
COHEN: I think that the judgment was that it was a more discrete operation likely to be less compromised than if we tried to put people on the ground at that time. Again, you can question that judgment, but that was a recommendation coming that had the best chance of success of getting him.
KERREY: We're going to hear from Secretary Rumsfeld in a little bit and I want to ask you one last question in that regard. During the transition, you briefed the secretary on 50 items and also briefed him on al Qaeda. And perhaps he's going to recall, but in a previous interview, he didn't remember much about the briefing on al Qaeda.
Can you offer any reasons why?
COHEN: I listed -- since I had limited time with Secretary Rumsfeld, I knew that he had -- was quite familiar with the office. And what I tried to do is to give him the whole panoply in a very short period of time knowing that there were going to be specific briefings by the chairman of the joint chiefs and others, the joint staff, the national security adviser and, also, the CIA.
COHEN: So we tried to cover as many subjects as we could.
The very first subject had to do with a major threat to the United States involving al Qaeda or bin Laden's associates, but an extremist group launching an attack domestically.
I don't think I want to talk about it any more than that, but that was a number one item. Everything else on the item were issues that I thought he should at least be aware of, but number one was my concern.
And frankly I came to Capitol Hill. I met I think with just a total of perhaps eight to 10 people to talk about the threat that existed and what needed to be done what needed to be done to help counter it. I don't think I want to talk about it more.
KERREY: I made the same conclusion, Mr. Secretary. But as I said at the beginning, Goldwater-Nichols, Special Operations Command, the men and women of the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard that won the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, that was your troops and you ought to feel very proud of it.
COHEN: Thank you very much, Senator.
KEAN: Governor Thompson.
JAMES R. THOMPSON, COMMISSION MEMBER: Mr. Secretary, let me see if I could get this straight. We've been talking for the last half hour on the issue of a response to the USS Cole.
If I understand the testimony of a lot of people, the Clinton administration didn't believe it had proof sufficient of al Qaeda's responsibility before they left office, and perhaps the Bush administration felt it wasn't on their watch and they had other fish to fry.
And passing that, you seemed to suggest in your answer to an earlier question that the only option for a military reprisal for the bombing of the Cole was an invasion of Afghanistan. And I think most people would agree -- and certainly prior testimony has cited -- that that was just not an appropriate response. We had no place to forward base from. We had no coalition. It was much different than Kosovo where we had overflight rights and we had allies.
But am I wrong in believing that just as appropriate a response would have been action against the Taliban, not necessarily just against Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda followers.
We knew where Mullah Omar lived, presumably. What about a missile strike on Taliban facilities, not just their training camps, but on their civil seats of government? There would have been collateral damage, yes, but I think you said you were willing to accept collateral damage. And the 13 sailors we lost in the Cole were not collateral damage, they were direct damage.
Was any consideration given to reprisals against the institutions and facilities, civil government of the Taliban, for the Cole?
COHEN: There were a number of proposals. And I can't recall specifically, but I think Mr. Clarke may be talking about those tomorrow. But there were a number of recommendations to go in and flatten a number of areas. It was the considered judgment at the time that that would not have either gotten bin Laden or have resulted in a positive reaction by either Pakistan -- that we were courting at that point to try and persuade them join us in this effort -- or any of the others in the region.
So, it was determined, again, that it would have not been effective, and it might have been counterproductive. That was a judgment call at the time.
As the secretary of defense, I have to make recommendations to the president. I have to do so certainly filled with passion in terms of what had happened to the Cole. I went to those funerals and services and I met with all the families, and so it was pretty important to me that I had to also take into account what would have been the impact of launching an attack against the Taliban at that point, when we didn't have the support of Pakistan, who was officially still supporting the Taliban.
Would that have been counterproductive and less effective? Our judgment was that it would not have been effective, and we didn't do it.
THOMPSON: Do you think it's appropriate to assert, as some people have, that one of the first acts of a brand new national administration, in this case the Bush administration, would have been to go to war over the Cole?
COHEN: No. I think the first act of the administration is to assess all of the information it can, to make an informed judgment, to take actions, not only one action, but to see what are the consequences of that action.
I don't think any administration should take a precipitous action. They should look at the facts and then make a determination: What are the consequences of this, what is the follow-up? If we take action to attack the Taliban, how much will it take? How many forces?
All of these factors have to be taken into account, and I think you never take step one without asking yourself: What's step five and six? Where are we? So, no, I don't fault the administration for not doing that immediately. THOMPSON: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
KEAN: Commissioner Gorelick.
GORELICK: Mr. Secretary, thank you for your testimony today. It is quite impressive, as always, very thoughtful and broad-gauged. I have been troubled about something that perhaps you can help on.
You were in these meetings where the various possibilities of getting Osama bin Laden were discussed. We now have huge and selective leaks coming from various levels of the CIA who are saying, "We really had him. We had great intelligence. We could have gotten him, and the policymakers overruled us."
At the same time you have Sandy Berger, and I think yourself, and others, saying, "No, the director of CIA told us the intelligence was not good enough and he was not recommending going forward."
That leaves us in a very peculiar position. Either the people below George Tenet didn't know what was happening above his level, or at his level, or he was telling them one thing and telling you another, or maybe there is some third possibility.
But this is an important issue for us to understand: Did we have it? Did we not have it? Was it good? Was it not good? And how could there be this dispute on something so fundamental?
And I would just like your view on this.
COHEN: There are 23,000 people who work at the Pentagon. Secretary Lehman probably knows from his own experience how disconcerting that can be in terms of trying to maintain control and to maintain the flow information coming up through the department of the Navy or the department of defense.
There were 3,000 people on the Office of Secretary of Defense staff that we tried to reduce by a third. That was one of my goals in taking the office itself, but 2,000 people in the Office of Secretary of Defense.
I can assure you, there are people inside the Pentagon who say, "If only they had listened to me." "If only this memo had gotten to the boss, we would have taken the following action."
I think all policymakers have to come to the following conclusion: You are judged by the people that you appoint.
You pick the best people you can, you rely upon their judgment. If you find that you have to question their credibility or their judgment, you get rid of them.
But the notion that somehow there is somebody down in the bowels that has a different view, or has submitted a different analysis that if only had you gotten to the right people would have made a difference, I think you have to take that into account. But if the director of central intelligence says, "We don't have it," then you have to rely upon that. If he says, "We do have it," you rely upon that as well and say, "OK, under these circumstances, we take the following action."
If the chairman of the joint chiefs comes to me and says, "I recommend the following," you have to rely upon that unless you doubt his actions. I'll give you an example. The chairman of the joint chiefs, I selected him for that position because he was the commander of Special Operations Command.
For that specific reason, I wanted to have more emphasis placed upon Special Forces than we had placed in the past. I saw what he did. And I put this in my written testimony. I saw what he did in Bosnia and Kosovo. We had some operation called the PIFWICs. These were persons who had been indicted for war crimes. And they were so- called snatch operations.
I saw some of the plans that were put into effect to grab certain people. I saw Chairman Shelton saying, "Don't do it that way. Here's a better way. Here's how you're really going to make this thing successful."
So I came to see how he operated and to rely upon his judgment. And if I had any doubts that he was giving me the straight information, which I never had, then I would have been derelict in my duty in not calling him on it.
So I think you have to take into account one of the challenges that this commission faces, all of us face: How do we have better vertical integration?
You've had information about what took place in some of the field offices and the FBI, information that didn't get put up the line, didn't get shared horizontally.
How do we construct a system that allows for better vertical information of intelligence and then horizontal cross-fertilization or sharing that information?
Tough job. You've got different cultures. You've got different sources and methods and standards. But it has to be done.
Now, it will never deal with the issue that you're raising now. If someone at whatever level, second, third, fourth level down says "I have a better idea," or, "I have information," it's just not getting to the right people. You will always have that problem. But you have to rely upon the judgment of the people that you appoint.
GORELICK: But you are convinced that the director of central intelligence in these instances said to you and your fellow policymakers, "We don't have it."
COHEN: On every occasion, he said that exactly. He would come in initially because he was getting some raw information, saying "I think we're going to have it," that we do have it. And then he would go back and he would refine it and after, again, we were prepared to take action to say, "We don't think so."
To his credit, I mean this is not a fault of George Tenet. This is to his credit, saying, "Let's be as sure as we can. If we're going to kill people, innocent people, as well as carrying out this operation, let's be as sure as we can that we've got the right target, the right information, and minimize if we can, killing innocent people." That's his job, and I think he did it well.
GORELICK: Thank you.
KEAN: Senator Gorton?
GORTON: Mr. Secretary, help me, with your experience and wisdom, with this very troubling two-word phrase...
COHEN: Actionable intelligence.
GORTON: ... "actionable intelligence."
It seems to me that actionable intelligence, with respect to going after Osama bin Laden after 1988, must have been based on the proposition that almost the sole goal is getting, capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, and that what a lack of actionable intelligence meant was either, one, you didn't have a 90 percent chance of finding him where whatever intelligence you had said he would be; or, two, if you could, you were going to kill 300 or 400 other people while you were doing it, that the collateral damage would be too great to run the risk.
But actionable intelligence on August 20th, after the embassy bombings, it seems to me must have been softer than that, and actionable intelligence must have been, "Well, we know there is a camp there and we're pretty sure there are going to be some bad guys there. And besides blowing up those two things, it was so bad we've got to do something."
Tell me if that's correct.
But most of all, tell me what, in general terms for the future, actionable intelligence means. How much of it is the goal? How much of it is your certainty that you can attain that goal? And how much of it is just related to the fact that under some circumstances you're going to have to do something even though you aren't certain that you'll be a success?
COHEN: Senator Gorton, let me give you a real case involving actionable intelligence, the so-called pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. I want to use that as an example because there we were given information that bin Laden, following the bombings of the embassies in East Africa, was seeking to get his hands on chemical and biological weapons to kill as many people as he could.
We were real concerned about that. I was very concerned about that.
Intelligence started to come in about this particular plant. They had been gathering information on it, and I think I point this out in my written testimony, but, frankly, I apologize for not getting it to you much sooner. I was still working on it as of yesterday, last night.
But to give you an example, this particular facility, according to the intelligence we had at that time, had been constructed under extraordinary security circumstances, even with some surface-to-air missile capability or defense capabilities.
That the plant itself had been constructed under the security measures, that the plant had been funded, in part, by the so-called military industrial corporation, that bin Laden had been living there, that he had in fact money that he had put into this military industrial corporation, that the owner of the plant had traveled to Baghdad to meet with the father of the VX program, and that the CIA had found traces of EMTA nearby the facility itself.
According to all the intelligence, there was no other known use for EMTA at that time other than as a precursor to VX.
Under those circumstances, I said, that's actionable enough for me -- that that plant could in fact be producing not baby aspirin or some other pharmaceutical for the benefit of the people, but it was enough for me to say we should take it out -- and I recommended that.
Now, I was criticized for that, saying, you didn't have enough. And I put myself in the position of coming before you and having someone like you say to me, "Let me get this straight, Mr. Secretary, we've just had a chemical weapons attack upon our cities or our troops and we've lost several hundred or several thousand. And this is the information which you had at your fingertips. You had a plant that was built under the following circumstances, had you manager that went to Baghdad, you had Osama bin Laden who had funded at least the corporation, and you had traces of EMTA and did you what? You did nothing? Is that a responsible activity on the part of the Secretary of Defense?"
And the answer is pretty clear.
So I was satisfied, even though that still is pointed as a mistake, that it was the right thing to do then. I would do it again, based on that kind of intelligence.
So that was an example of actionable intelligence. When it comes to other circumstances, you have to weigh it, each and every case.
You say, do you take action just for the sake of taking it, saying do something? I think we have a greater responsibility. Before I decide or make a recommendation to the president of the United States to launch a missile that's going to kill a lot of people, I want to make sure as much as I can it's not out of passion, but out of as much reasoned analysis as I can make to say, "This is a target that poses a threat to us, Mr. President. And yes, there are risks that you're going to kill some innocent people, but we have an obligation to take it out."
It's individual analysis. I can't give you specifics on it. I gave you an example of where I thought it was the right thing.
GORTON: Thoughtful answer. It preempted any further questions.
KEAN: Secretary Lehman.
LEHMAN: Mr. Secretary, I'd like to follow up on Senator Kerrey's line of inquiry.
COHEN: Good Navy man does that.
LEHMAN: I always follow the black shoes.
The question I have is, in the testimony of a number of the witnesses we've had, and of course, in Mr. Clarke's book, your Pentagon comes in for a lot of criticism for basically -- along two lines, the most important of which is that whenever there was an opportunity and a request for options, when the president requested options and so forth, the only thing the Joint Chiefs could come up with, the Pentagon could come up with, was either lob a few cruise missiles or the Normandy invasion.
And I recall the debates over the creation of the Special Operations Command in which I was initially skeptical and became a strong advocate as you laid out the case very well for that legislation, which was to provide a president with something in between, a much more discriminating set of options, between the kind of things that came out of the chiefs all those decades, which is either launch an alpha strike from the carriers, send in the 101 Airborne, or carpet bomb with B-52s.
And yet, it seems that every time that a request was made for some set of options -- at least this is the testimony we have -- the alternative was always given, "Well, we can't invade Afghanistan, Congress will never do it, so the only thing we have is to fire a few cruise missiles." And clearly, as Senator Kerrey was suggesting, there are lots of potential discrete options in between, like putting specialized Special Operations forces on the ground.
Now this is before. Yes, it takes 13,000 today and they can't find him. But before the war in Afghanistan, there was a lot -- he was much more accessible.
So there were options. But somehow the Special Operations Command -- either did not because it was, as our staff pointed out, a supporting rather than a supported command or because not much has changed after all these years with the new operations command -- did not come up with discrete options. Why was that? And is Mr. Clarke's criticism a valid one?
COHEN: Well, first, I would take issue with the fact that the Joint Chiefs of Staff can only go from B-1 bombers or cruise missiles or the Normandy invasion.
If you look at what took place in both Bosnia and Kosovo, Special Forces played a key role over there in terms of some of these operations. So JSOACC was always on tap to do whatever was reasonable to do.
I would have to place my judgment call in terms of: Do I believe that the chairman of the joint chiefs, former commander of Special Forces Command, is in a better position to make a judgment about the feasibility of this and perhaps, Mr. Clarke?
I had to make that kind of a call.
Was Richard Clarke in a better position to say this has a greater chance of success or General Shelton?
I indicated that I relied upon the senior military adviser to me, the president for the national security team. I have no reason to in any way ever doubt that he was very straight with me and was not trying to rig the system so you only had one of two options. But, rather, I think he always felt we are prepared to take action to put Special Forces on the ground if there is a reasonable opportunity to achieve the mission.
To do anything less than that, to put those young people at risk with the enormity of the task of that country, that size, with that many caves with, by the way, the support of the Taliban, and not the support of Pakistan, I'd have to question whether or not that was reasonable to do so. I did. And I supported the chairman saying, this doesn't make a good deal of sense in terms of putting those young men's lives at risk when the potential for success is very limited, if not de minimus.
LEHMAN: You'll be pleased to know that he's even harsher on the CIA's capability in these kinds of...
COHEN: Everybody can be critical. You can criticize the agency, criticize DOD. The real issue is: What action do we take from here?
Where are the fault lines? Where does fault lie? If you think that we were irresponsible in not putting a small unit into Afghanistan when you had virtually no support activities.
For example, I mentioned this operations in Kosovo. They had incredible intelligence support just tens of miles away. Now you're going to put a small unit of Special Forces into Afghanistan, where there is no intelligence support miles away, but thousands of miles away.
What do you do in terms of search and rescue? This is something I know you were concerned about certainly as secretary of the Navy. What about CSAR? If we lose one of our pilots, or lose one of our people, you got to send in search and rescue. Well, how about refuelers for the C-130 gunships, et cetera?
All of those factors were involved on the part of military planning. Do you just put special forces in and say, we know how good you are, go do the job and good luck? The answer is no. You try to make sure you protect them as much as you can and measure the probability of success against the risk that they are put at.
LEHMAN: That brings me to the point of these questions really. Many witnesses have criticized CIA for really not having the capability for covert operations and special operations. And yet they've been called upon to do them. On the other hand, the Pentagon has been criticized because they don't want to do them.
And so I guess the question that has arisen in our minds is, perhaps there should be a straightforward assignment of the counterterrorism mission to SOCOM and not pretend CIA can do it with civilians and not leave the Special Operations Command as just a supporting operation to the CINCs who are not likely to have the kind of focus for doing this. What would you think of that kind of reform?
COHEN: Well, actually, I think that Secretary Rumsfeld may be in the process of recommending that. I think he may see the use of Special Forces in a way that achieves that kind of more centralized role than being a support element and being a more central player in terms of Special Forces designed to go out and kill or capture a number of the terrorist groups.
I will also offer another comment, if I can, in this war on terror. It's my own personal judgment that the war on terror is, for the most part, not going to be won on the battlefield. I really believe that ultimately, aside from Iraq, which is a big aside, but aside from Iraq, I believe the war has to be wage by the sharing of information on almost a global basis.
Again, I pointed my opening statement that we're all at risk now.
We have to start sharing information, and it's going to require good police work, sort of what the Brits did by knocking down the door and finding a group of people with ricin in their possession -- sharing that kind of information, and covert operations, police work, Special Forces, and ultimately, finally, the military option.
But I think that that's really what's going to be required for the war against terror. And I think Special Forces being charged with a higher level of activity is probably warranted.
LEHMAN: One final question. Another line of criticism from a fair number of our witnesses has been that in making decisions and recommendations from commanders for action of this type, that there has been a huge growth in the role of general counsel, shall we say, epitomized by the CENTCOM general counsel advising the CINC that he could not shoot at Omar because that would violate the assassination order.
Just as a phenomenon -- well, I know that didn't happen on your watch, but just as an issue, it seems to us time and time again we see in interviews and queries that every one seems to be afraid to move in the policy level, and particularly in the Pentagon, without having a CYA memo from the legal counsel.
COHEN: I was not aware of any inhibition or prohibition against the Pentagon taking action directed against Osama bin Laden or anyone else.
There was no question in my mind that both the agency and the military had complete authority to take whatever lethal action was necessary. I never saw anything that would have inhibited that.
LEHMAN: Thank you.
KEAN: Congressman Roemer?
ROEMER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. Secretary, thank you again for a very, very helpful and thought-provoking statement that you gave us.
I want to probe and push a little bit harder on two things that you've already talked about a little bit. One is the decision to fire the missiles into Sudan at El-Shifa plant. You've outlined in very specific detail three or four reasons why you decided to do that and why you might have regretted doing that at a later point.
COHEN: No, I never regretted doing that.
ROEMER: There were three or four reasons you are glad you did it and why those things could have come back to haunt you if...
COHEN: OK, all right.
ROEMER: You can clarify my question and your answer.
With respect to Sudan, every single person in the Clinton administration has told us that it was a very difficult decision, that they didn't have regrets about it, as you have not had any regrets about it, and that they were roundly criticized for it, not only because there was some theory on Capitol Hill about "Wag the Dog," which you have clarified, I think, in your remarks, but I want to push you harder on the other part of this.
A couple of the people, including Sandy Berger in the private sessions with us, said they remembered the editorials across the country saying they didn't get bin Laden. They created, according to an Economist article, the Economist accused them of maybe creating a hundred Osama bin Ladens because they did not kill him with the cruise missile strikes.
How does that not impact to some degree your decision, subsequently, when you're having these kinds of decisions come forward to make the tough call, as you did in this particular instance?
COHEN: It had no impact. I looked at the question. I was satisfied. I regret that one life was lost during that particular attack. We were very precise. We timed it, as a matter of fact, so there would be very few, in any, people at the plant. It was at nighttime. It was timed simultaneously with the attack, virtually, in Afghanistan, so that we didn't lose the surprise element. And we tried to minimize any collateral damage to the extent that we could.
But we were prepared to take that down. The "wag the dog" issue I think was unfortunate. It was untrue. But that was something that reality of what was taking place on Capitol Hill. As far as the criticism was concerned, it had no deterrent whatsoever in terms of our commitment to look for, hunt for and to capture or kill bin Laden.
I do want to urge one cautionary note. And that is that even though it's important to capture or kill bin Laden, I think that we should understand that doesn't end it, any more than capturing Saddam Hussein has stopped some of the terrorist actions.
I think that we have seen al Qaeda is not -- it doesn't have a central headquarters. It doesn't fly a flag. It is spread through many countries. I know it can be argued that because there was no prior action, it is even more disseminated now.
But the fact is that we would take action against bin Laden or his associates wherever we thought we could do so successfully. What we didn't want to do was to take action that satisfied the passion of the moment, that gave us a sense, well, we're doing something, but in fact had the effect of simply generating opposition to what we were doing, undercutting the sharing of intelligence cooperation, making our goal of actually capturing or killing him more difficult.
So that was the only hesitation we had: Does this action that is being proposed have a probability of success? Is it likely to achieve our goal? Or is it more likely to undercut our efforts? Those were the only considerations that we had.
ROEMER: I'm very happy to hear that. Let me ask you the question to look forward. Secretary Rumsfeld, who will be with us momentarily, wrote a memo that I think outlined the problem in the future absolutely to the point. And he said, as you have just indicated, that the military is not the only weapon, that it's one of many arrows in the quiver, one of many tools in the tool box to use.
I'd like to push you a little bit harder on a country that is absolutely critical to the United States in our future, and that's Indonesia. What specifically, as these training camps produce this wrath of hatred and jihadists, what can we do, even if we're out there with the military killing people and trying to eliminate the terrorists and the jihadists, what can we do as they're cranking out these human conveyor belts of terrorists, in education, in a place like Indonesia, to replace the madrassas with a practical education? Or what can Indonesia do?
What can we do on IMET? What can we do reaching out to the moderates in the government there? How can we begin to put new types of military and State Department and intel efforts to reach out to these types of critically important countries in the future?
COHEN: Thank you, Congressman Roemer. You had the secretary of state here earlier, Secretary Powell. And I think he laid out some of the, quote, "diplomatic initiatives" that have to be undertaken. Some of it involves diplomacy. It involves the use of economic both incentives and disincentives. It involves sanctions. It involves a variety of things. But most of all, it requires engagement on the part of the United States in a very aggressive, diplomatic fashion. Sheik Salman, who is the crown prince of Bahrain -- and if any of you haven't had occasion to meet with him, I'd recommend that you talk to this young man. He's one of most progressive young leaders that I have met in, certainly my travels, but especially in the Gulf region, along with King Abdullah of Jordan.
But Sheik Salman made an observation a few months ago which I endorse, basically pointing to the problem that the United States has in dealing with this issue, that much of the Arab world looks through two lenses: one lens focused on how we conduct ourselves in Iraq, now that we're there, how we successfully resolve or achieve success in Iraq and treat the Iraqi people in that process; and the other happens to do with the Middle East conflict, that many Muslims throughout the world also look through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And so I think we have to become much more engaged there as well, and that's why I mentioned that I don't think it should wait until November elections are over. I think that we have to energize that process now. I have my own thoughts about what needs to be done and have written about that.
In addition to that, we'd have to engage Indonesia diplomatically; military, the IMET program is one of the most important programs that we have, the sharing of educational materials, exercises, planning with other militaries.
Because of the superiority I believe of the men and women who serve us, because of their excellence in education, discipline, leadership, follow-ship, all the things that make us the greatest force, military force, on the face of the earth, we should be trying to share that talent, technology, techniques with other countries.
And, yes, they may be accused of not living up to our standards of human rights. All the more reason why we should engage them, all the more reason why we have to persuade them that this is the way a military has to operate, not with clubs and batons, not with the law of rule, but the rule of law. That also has to take place.
So IMET's important.
I think we also have to go to other countries who support the madrassas and say that "you are feeding the flames of future destruction here."
That requires education, it requires giving countries also a hope. I'll come back to the Palestinians for a moment.
Unless you see people who have an opportunity for either sovereignty, dignity and opportunity, you are likely to see continued festering of violence in the region. So you have to give people a sense of hope: economic hope, individual liberty in terms of their opportunities -- all of that is involved. So that requires us to be engaged in a very aggressive way diplomatically.
The military, by the way, plays a role, a great role, in diplomacy. We have our State Department, and they do an outstanding job with very limited resources. But the military also plays a very big role.
When our men and women in uniform go to a country and the people are able to judge them and see how good they are, how disciplined, how well-led, how technically capable, et cetera, how good they are as human beings, they make a judgment about us. And they say: We want to be like you. We want to have the same kind of capability. We want to develop a relationship with you. We need to do more of that.
And so every time there's an issue that comes up on the Hill, they say, well, "Abusive human rights; cut off IMET," we should be holding on to IMET.
I could be carry on at length about this particular requirement, and I know that there are people on the Hill who would object to that. But I think we have a better chance of influencing people in their judgments about us and helping to persuade them that the way of the future is to have a military like that of the United States and our allies to subordinate that military to civilian rule, to educate the military, to help persuade them that they are in this war against terror with us -- all of that comes about with diplomacy and a very strong military capability and diplomatic effort.
LEHMAN: Thank you very much. I hope this commission will take into consideration those very provocative and thoughtful recommendations into our recommendations at the end of the day.
COHEN: Thank you.
KEAN: Secretary Cohen, thank you very, very much not only for your testimony today, but I know you've given very generously of your time to this commission in private sessions and with the staff. And for that, I thank you very much. I hope if we have additional questions, I know we're going to want to talk to you more as we get into our recommendations.
PHILLIPS: Live pictures now of Clinton's former defense secretary, William Cohen as he testifies there before the independent commission probing into the al Qaeda attacks. What did the government know pre-9/11 with regard to intel on al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden. The hearings continue.
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