THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary (Norfolk, Virginia) ________________________________________________________________________ For Immediate Release April 1, 1999
PRESS BRIEFING BY SECRETARY OF DEFENSE WILLIAM COHEN AND GENERAL HUGH SHELTON
Norfolk Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia
11:55 A.M. EST
MR. LOCKHART: We'll get going very quickly. As you know, the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs are here to brief you. And then I'll come back afterwards if you have anything else. Thank you.
SECRETARY COHEN: Good morning. President Clinton has come to Norfolk to meet with the colleagues, families and friends of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are part of and supporting Operation Allied Force over Yugoslavia.
While the President is talking to military families, General Shelton and I wanted to take just a few moments with you to bring you up to date on the NATO mission in Kosovo. Our forces are doing a magnificent job in the face of expected strong resistance. The President and all of his advisors knew that achieving our military goals would be difficult, it would take time, and it would impose a risk to NATO forces.
But President Milosevic has left us no choice. He refused to accept a peaceful resolution to the crisis in Kosovo. Indeed, even while negotiations were underway, he was positioning his forces to attack the Kosovo Liberation Army and the people of Kosovo.
There was no secret about his intentions. I issued public warnings at the time, and so did Secretary Albright that the President and all of his advisors were clear about what was at stake. In the last two weeks, Milosevic's behavior has illustrated exactly why we are now attacking in Yugoslavia.
This is a choice between a Europe that protects ethnic compatibility, or allows ethnic cleansing. It's a choice between democracy and despotism. It's a choice between freedom and fear. And it's ultimately a choice between life and death.
We are making progress in our goal to damage and diminish Yugoslav forces that Mr. Milosevic has been using in the past and continues to this day to use in his ethnic cleansing operations. And we intend to stay the course.
Yesterday, as you all know, there were three soldiers who are now in Serb custody. We will do everything in our power to secure their safe return.
Before taking questions, I want to stress one point: The President and all of his advisors knew there were no easy answers or solutions to dealing with the problems in Kosovo. It was a choice between right and wrong, and the President made the right choice. And, again, we intend to stay this course.
Q Mr. Secretary, are you certain that those three soldiers were on Macedonia territory, did they not the cross border? And do we know if they were taken by military or armed civilians?
SECRETARY COHEN: We really don't have sufficient information to reach a judgment on that. That's an ongoing investigation right now and may take some time before we know the answer to it.
Q Mr. Secretary, do you consider them prisoners of war?
SECRETARY COHEN: At this point, their status is that of being illegally detained. So they are illegal detainees at this point, and whether their status changes will depend upon the legal interpretation of where they were, what circumstances under which they came into Serb hands. And that will take some time to resolve.
Q Mr. Secretary, there are a number of reports that before this operation began military assessments from the Pentagon were sent to the White House saying that if the Serbs resisted, just air power alone could not accomplish the objectives -- are those reports correct? And, if so, how can an operation be begun if the end --
SECRETARY COHEN: First of all, I think all of us understand that in Milosevic's case, the past is prologue. He has engaged in substantial ethnic cleansing in the past, not only in Kosovo, but also his attempts in Bosnia -- that he had engaged in attempt of ethnic cleansing last fall, when we saw 300,000 to 400,000 people who were pushed up into the hills in danger of freezing or starving to death. And we were prepared to take action -- we, as a NATO alliance, at that time.
And so his past record is a very clear indication of what his intentions were in this case. We had information that he was, in fact, marshaling his forces, some 40,000 strong, poised to do exactly what he was doing. We knew that from the beginning.
You recall that the President said that we had three objectives: number one, to demonstrate NATO's resolve; number two, to deter him if we could from moving and ethnically cleansing the Kosovars; but number three, failing to deter him that we were going to make him pay a substantial price and degrade and damage the infrastructure and the military capability he has to continue these types of operations.
We knew that from the beginning. There was no dissent from that; all of us understood that from the very beginning.
Q You are not surprised --
SECRETARY COHEN: We are not surprised.
Q -- that air power alone does not appear --
SECRETARY COHEN: We understood what air power could and could not do. We understood that air power is going to be used to do exactly what we're doing today and we intend to continue doing what we're doing today.
Q Mr. Secretary, could you tell us what is being done to secure the return of the soldiers?
SECRETARY COHEN: Well, I'm not in a position to tell you at this point. There are discussions that are being carried on at various levels, but all I can tell you is we will spare no effort to secure their safe return.
Q Mr. Secretary, did we know they had been captured prior to their appearance on Serbian television early this morning?
SECRETARY COHEN: We knew that they were missing for a substantial period of time. We did not know into whose hands they might have been, whether in local forces or those in Serbia, itself.
Q So the first indication was when they were seen on television?
SECRETARY COHEN: I think the Chairman should answer that in terms of when we knew that.
GENERAL SHELTON: They were reported missing yesterday by their command, and the last transmission was that they were surrounded and involved in a firefight and felt that they were surrounded at the time. Whether or not they later had escaped from that and had driven in the wrong direction, or whether they were fleeing on foot we did not know. We knew they were missing. They were reported as missing. And it was confirmed when we saw them on television.
Q -- report they are saying they had been captured prior to that.
GENERAL SHELTON: There was no indication at the time they were reported as missing that they had been captured, no. The Macedonian -- police got involved in taking a look at questioning the villagers, trying to see if they could track it down. But we had not gotten the final word from them, based on their investigation until we had seen them on television.
Q General, were there any helicopters available to those soldiers at the time in which they were attacked, any assets that they could have called in?
GENERAL SHELTON: NATO did, in fact, have some helicopters in there that started to conduct a search after they were reported missing.
Q They did not, in fact, attack any of the opposing troops, though --
GENERAL SHELTON: I didn't hear the first part of your question.
Q They didn't get on station to attack any of the opposing troops, though. They weren't there in time to engage the enemy?
GENERAL SHELTON: No, they were not. No.
Q -- spare no effort, but the spokesman for the Army in Germany yesterday said, during the search that searchers had not crossed the border. Have you ruled out rescue attempts for these three soldiers?
GENERAL SHELTON: As the Secretary has indicated, we have some initiatives that are ongoing at this particular time and that's as much as we want to say about that.
Q General, can you give us an update on the status of the bombing campaign, and can you gauge its effectiveness? For instance, can you tell us how many Serb troops have been killed, or anything like that?
GENERAL SHELTON: We certainly don't want to get into -- it's an ongoing operation at this time. We have very clearly defined military objectives. We have continued to carry those out. I do not want to get into body counts or numbers or whatever. It has been an effective campaign and we're beginning to see some of the results of that now.
Q Are you still determined not to send in ground troops?
GENERAL SHELTON: I think the President and NATO has been very clear on that right now, that currently, there are no plans for employing ground troops.
Q Mr. Secretary, would you answer that question --
SECRETARY COHEN: The answer is yes, as the Chairman has indicated, there are no plans and no intent to use ground troops. We're carrying forward with our air campaign, and that's something that NATO is solidly behind and we're solidly behind.
Q Can you talk at all about the instructions that the Roosevelt will be given from here on out, and the Enterprise?
GENERAL SHELTON: Your question is on the -- the big stick?
Q The Roosevelt. Is it going to be diverted --
GENERAL SHELTON: That's an operational level of detail that I would not like to discuss this morning. That always remains an alternative. That's one of the great things about our carrier battle groups -- a significant amount of combat power, a significant presence when it's on station, and a very significant military capability. Where we employ it will depend on where we need it the most at that particular time.
Q General, the Russian navy is supposedly heading to that area right now, what they are calling some type of escorts to keep an eye on NATO ships. How are you taking that, and how will you be able to execute operations when you have the Russians tailing your every move?
GENERAL SHELTON: We have procedures and techniques. And, of course, where the Russians elect to send their ships in international waters is up to them, but we'll take the necessary precautions should they do that.
Q Understanding that you can't talk specifically about the Roosevelt, the Enterprise is there and headed back in this direction eventually. Are there plans to change that?
GENERAL SHELTON: There are no plans at this particular time.
Q Prime Minister Yeltsin -- or President Yeltsin had suggested that the G-8 meet. Do you see any promise in that?
SECRETARY COHEN: I don't understand what the benefit of a G-8 meeting would be. We've indicated to Mr. Milosevic that he holds the keys to peace in his pocket, and he can put those on the table at any time. He must, in fact, stop the killing, the slaughter, the ethnic cleansing. He must pull his army and police back. He must, in fact, embrace the principles that were negotiated at Rambouillet -- namely, that there must be greater autonomy for the Kosovars, that Kosovo itself would remain within Serbia, and that there would be an international peacekeeping force led by NATO.
Q Secretary Cohen, there is some growing criticism that the consequences of this campaign were not thought through before it began. I wonder if you're concerned about that criticism, do you think some of it is fair. If you don't think it is fair, why do you think you're hearing it?
SECRETARY COHEN: First of all, I have read with some interest reports in today's papers, and I have found for the most part they are completely fictitious. The consequences of this action were indeed considered. We had to consider whether or not we could sit on the sidelines and watch indifferently while 40,000 troops went on a rampage through Kosovo, while NATO took no action whatsoever.
Based on Milosevic's past performance, we have seen him engage in ethnic cleansing, and I think it would have been an abdication of responsibility for NATO to simply have stood on the sidelines and watched this unfold, with all of the human trauma and tragedy that is involved.
And so I believe he presented no alternative after he turned down the peace negotiations. The President was right to act. We looked at this, we saw what the potential consequences would be if we took no action or if we took action. We believe we're doing the right thing.
Q -- many people say is that if NATO acts as it has and is unable to stop the ethnic cleansing, that, too, is an awful consequence.
SECRETARY COHEN: Anytime you have ethnic cleansing it's a terrible outcome. It's catastrophic for those certainly involved. NATO intends to proceed with its plan to see to it that Mr. Milosevic is going to suffer considerable damage. That plan is underway. We intend to carry it through.
Q Thank you.
END 12:08 P.M. EST