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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Wassef Ali Hassoun Holds News Conference

Aired July 19, 2004 - 15:00   ET

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


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Wassef Ali Hassoun, the Marine corporal who disappeared from a base in Iraq before turning up in Lebanon mysteriously is expected to read a prepared statement any moment now. CNN, of course, planning to bring that to you live as it happens.
Let's listen to it right now, as a matter of fact. This is Lieutenant Colonel Dave Lapan.

LT. COL. DAVE LAPAN, MARINE CORPS SPOKESMAN: ... 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force based at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. That is the parent unit of Corporal Hassoun. Corporal Hassoun has asked that he be allowed to make a statement to the media, which is why we're here today. He will make a statement only, he will not take questions. Once he is finished, I will come back up, give you an update on his repatriation process, and answer a few questions.

Thank you.

CPL. WASSEF ALI HASSOUN, U.S. MARINE CORPS: Good afternoon.

In the name of God, I'm glad to come home. And thanks -- thanks for everybody who prayed and support me. I understand that there are too many questions, and respectfully, I ask that the media respect my need to spend time with my family.

I did not desert my post. I was captured and held against my will by anti-coalition forces for 19 days. This was a very difficult and challenging time for me. Since my release, I have been fully participating in the repatriation process.

I thank everyone. I thank everyone who was looking for me and give thanks for god for everything. I would like to tell all the Marines, as well as those others who are serving in Iraq, to keep their heads up and spirits high. Once a Marine, always a Marine. Semper Fi.

Thank you.

LAPAN: OK. Ladies and gentlemen, Corporal Hassoun remains part of the repatriation process; however, in the coming days, he and the repatriation team will return to Camp Lejeune and the process will continue there. So, again, the return in the coming days to Camp Lejeune does not signal the end of the repatriation process. It will continue. He has not yet been declared fit for duty, but he can receive the support and the services that he requires at Camp Lejeune. The other thing is that his brother, Mohammed, has joined him here at Quantico. As we discussed the other day, part -- or phase three of the repatriation process includes reunion with family. So after he arrived from Germany on Thursday, he made it known that he would like to have his brother come and visit him here. The Marine Corps arranged for that to happen. They have been together since Friday evening. And his brother will travel with him to Camp Lejeune and remain as long as necessary.

That's all I have in the way of an update. I'd be happy to take questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There were reports that the corporal promised his captors as a condition of his release not to serve further in the Marines. Has he talked about that? Does he have any reluctance to return to duty (UNINTELLIGIBLE) or return to Iraq?

LAPAN: The second part of the question first. In the time that he's been here, he has not expressed any reluctance to return to full duty when the time is appropriate. As to the first part of the question, those are the types of details that the -- the teams who have been debriefing him have asked about and have received, but they're not details that we're prepared to share at this point.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you have any sense of how he was captured?

LAPAN: Again, something that will -- that will await the outcome of -- of all the gathering of facts.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How long do you anticipate the repatriation process continuing in North Carolina now that we've gone past this step?

LAPAN: The -- the process itself can take weeks to months. It really depends on the individual. So far, what we have seen in the time here at Quantico has been positive, which is why we feel comfortable that he's ready to return to Camp Lejeune. So the process will continue as long as necessary down there.

Again, it could be weeks, it could be months. It just depends on his progress and when the repatriation team believes that he is ready to return to full duty.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why not continue that process at Quantico then? Why bring him here to begin with at all?

LAPAN: Well, Quantico was initially chosen by the repatriation team. It looked at a number of options. It felt that the location here, in proximity to the national capital region, provided some options that might not be available down at Camp Lejeune. But now that he's arrived here, the repatriation team here and the one that traveled with him from Germany have discussed it and have agreed that he can get the support and assistance he needs back at Camp Lejeune. And so they favor his return again in the coming days.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does the fact that he's being allowed to go back to Camp Lejeune, can that be interpreted as some kind of positive side that the investigation has so far aired (ph) at least suggested he's telling the truth, that there was no foul play on his part, that there's enough trust in him, that he's getting closer to returning to duty?

LAPAN: The decision to return to Camp Lejeune doesn't have anything to do with any investigations which might -- might be ongoing. The decision, again, is solely made based on the decisions of the repatriation team, having to do with his mental, physical condition. As we've discussed, any investigations into the circumstances of his capture are things that will be looked at down the road.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Has the NCIS started their debriefing with him? Have they done anything yet?

LAPAN: It would be fair to say they have not yet talked to him, but they may have already begun gathering information in other ways.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is there plan for NCIS to do a debrief with the corporal?

LAPAN: Yes. Somewhere -- that hasn't been decided when, but that is something that will happen in the future.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is the Corps able to at least affirm or support his own statement when he says, "I did not desert my post, I was held against my will for 19 days?" Can the Corps at least back up that?

LAPAN: At this point, the Marine Corps fully supports Corporal Hassoun in his repatriation process. However, any conclusions about what happened between the time that he disappeared and when he was returned to our control remains to be the focus of both the repatriation process itself and then any investigations that might go on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The fact that you brought him out to so soon would suggest that -- sort of positive notion. Is that -- is that a fair assumption here?

LAPAN: The -- well, the reason that -- that he came out here today is because he asked to -- to do so. He was concerned with some of the information that's been out there. He wanted the opportunity to provide, to the extent he could, what happened, and, again, the messages of support. The -- again, the decision to come out today was one that he made, but that his repatriation team concurred that it was an appropriate time and it was not something that would be harmful to him in his recovery.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Were his words approved by military officials?

LAPAN: I wouldn't say approved by military officials. The words are his own. They were reviewed to make sure that he did not divulge any classified information or say anything that might cause any problems.

And I can tell you, as a result of that review, not one word was changed. Those are the words that he penned. Again, they were reviewed to ensure that he did not either divulge information that would be harmful to himself or to the military.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But if there was any thought that he was being untruthful in his characterization of what happened to him, would that have been -- would that have been edited out, or would he have been discouraged from giving that much of his perspective?

LAPAN: No. Again, it's -- the decision was based upon his desire to make this statement. I think the only cause for changing that or recommending that he not do so was if, again, he was going to provide information that might prove -- might prove useful to enemy forces, might divulge information that is militarily sensitive, or might pose problems in some way. And, again, that was not the case.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But Colonel, you're not -- you are not endorsing what he said, you're not saying that his captivity was real or imagined, or anything else?

LAPAN: We're not in a position at this point to -- to make a judgment either way. We are still gathering facts and information, and until that process is complete, at this point, we are supporting our young Marine in -- in bringing him back from a very harrowing ordeal and supporting his return to duty.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When you say "harrowing ordeal," does he say that he was hurt in any way -- 14 (ph) days?

LAPAN: I think that -- that there have been reports out of Germany from the doctors that physically, other than weight loss, he did not suffer any type of physical trauma. But that's something that will be looked at more carefully in this -- in this repatriation process to see if there are things there that might cause concern. But in terms of the other details, we're really not prepared to talk about those yet.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you comment at all on the investigation and where it stands?

LAPAN: I can't, again, other than to say that it is standard in cases where Marines go missing to conduct an investigation into the circumstances. And that investigation is ongoing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How long might it take?

LAPAN: Investigations of any nature vary based, again, on the circumstances. So it could take months. It just depends on -- on when those who are looking into it are satisfied that they have all the information they need to make conclusions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you have an exact date of when he will be going to Camp Lejeune? O'BRIEN: Lieutenant Colonel -- we have been listening to Lieutenant Colonel Dave Lapan, who is the spokesperson there for the Marines at Quantico. And he was preceded by Corporal Wassef Hassoun, fist public statement since this mysterious episode unfolded.

The Marine spokesman there, Colonel Lapan, not indicating one way or another, saying, "We're not in a position to make a judgment either way as to the circumstances of Corporal Hassoun's disappearance or capture, whatever may, in fact, be the case."

Joining us from the Pentagon is our senior correspondent there, Jamie McIntyre.

Jamie, reading between the lines in this one, clearly the -- the determination has not been made. But I did hear Colonel Lapan state outright that it was a capture. He didn't say alleged capture or supposed capture. He said capture.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you may be reading too much between the lines there. Lieutenant Colonel Lapan was trying very careful -- carefully to not indicate that they reached a conclusion one way or the other about Corporal Hassoun's version of events. What we did learn today was that Corporal Hassoun has not been happy about the way his departure was characterized and some of the -- some of the speculation that's been going on about whether or not he might have deserted.

We reported before that he'd told the Marines that he was abducted, that he did not desert. Today, we heard it in his own words, him saying, "I did not desert my post. I was captured and held against my will," he said, "for 19 days." He said it was a very difficult time for him.

So that's the version of events that he's telling. Still some skepticism on the part of the Marines. And what we also heard from spokesman Colonel Lapan again is that the actual interrogation of Corporal Hassoun by Navy criminal investigators has not started. They've begun their investigation, but they've not yet talked to Corporal Hassoun directly.

What -- who he has been talking to are members of his "repatriation team," and that repatriation process, we're told, is about to start wrapping up as he heads back to his home base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and that's apparently where most of the debriefing of some of the tough questions he's going to face are going to -- going to take place. But they want to know a lot about the circumstances of his departure, why it looked like he may have cleaned out his locker and taken some of his personal belongings, what calls were made on his cell phone, how he made it through -- all the way through Syria into Lebanon if he didn't have help, and whether this was all genuine. But, again, they're being very careful in public not to reach any conclusion one way or another -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Jamie, it's a an important distinction between the repatriation team and, of course, the team that is involved in the investigation. Is any information that he has revealed to that repatriation team shared with the investigators, or is that in some way considered privileged?

MCINTYRE: My understanding is -- and, again, I'm not an attorney or an expert on military law -- but my understanding is, what he says in these repatriation discussions can be used against him. It's his account of what happened. But they're not -- the questions that he's being asked there are not by criminal investigators who are trying to make a case. They're people who are trying to help him find out what happened to him, figure out what kind of care he needs, what kind of support he needs or counseling he might need, or medical attention.

But at this point, he hasn't been charged with anything, he hasn't been read his rights, he hasn't been appointed an attorney. If you were to just judge by what we know publicly, there's no indication at this point that he's really in any trouble. But we do know privately that there are some suspicions about his story. And presumably, if he can clear those up, if he has a good explanation, and if the evidence supports it, he'll be out of trouble.

O'BRIEN: And a final thought here. His brother, Mohammed, has joined him. His brother said a week or so ago that -- when asked the question, "Have you hired an attorney?" He said, "Why would we need an attorney?" As far as you know, is he not represented in any way legally?

MCINTYRE: At this point, no. He has not asked for an attorney, nor has one been appointed to him. But if that were to happen, that would be an indication that this investigation had moved up a notch.

O'BRIEN: All right. Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon. Thanks much.

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