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Were Cole sentry guns loaded?
Pentagon mum on specifics as bombing investigations continue
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Pentagon said Tuesday it would not confirm or deny a report that sailors guarding the USS Cole did not have ammunition in their weapons when the warship was bombed in Yemen last month.
However, Navy officials told CNN that such a scenario is "normal procedure" for the threat condition the destroyer was under at the time. They said sentries could have loaded their guns at a moment's notice if they had detected "hostile intent."
Suicide bombers in a small, explosives-laden boat approached the Cole while it was refueling October 12 in Aden harbor and detonated the explosives, ripping a 60-by-40-foot hole in the steel hull.
The blast killed 17 American sailors and injured 39.
The Washington Post, citing recent interviews with 20 members of the ship's crew, reported Tuesday that sailors on sentry duty aboard the Cole at the time of the bombing did not have ammunition in their guns and were not authorized to shoot unless fired upon.
Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said he would not comment on the story because of ongoing investigations into the attack.
"We have a number of inquiries under way at the moment," Bacon told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. "The idea is to produce a (complete) picture of what happened from start to finish, and I just don't want to speculate on various slices of these inquiries until they are completed."
Stopping short of confirming the Post account, Navy officials told CNN that standard procedure calls for ammunition to be issued to sentries in the event of an attack.
When the Cole arrived in Aden, the ship was operating under "Threat Condition Bravo," the second-lowest on a scale of four threat conditions.
Under this moderate posture, crew members said, the ship had a few guards on deck, but no one was posted on big .50-caliber machine guns near the bow and stern. However, the captain is required to ensure that ammunition for those weapons is readily available.
Shortly after the attack, Navy officials explained that their rules of engagement do not allow firing on suspicious small craft because of the high likelihood of killing innocent boaters.
The Post said crew members said they had also been told by FBI investigators that the Cole may have been boarded and surreptitiously surveyed by Islamic militants, possibly including one of the suicide bombers, as it passed through the Suez Canal a few days before the attack.
Paul Riddle, an operations specialist who worked in the Cole's combat information center, said FBI investigators told him that "they think the Egyptians might have been doing a reconnaissance on us," according to the Post.
The FBI is heading up the search for the perpetrators of the attack, while a Pentagon panel is looking at how warships and troops in transit can be better protected in a time of growing terrorist threats.
In a separate probe, the Navy is investigating the actions of the commander and crew of the USS Cole, examining whether their security procedures were adequate and whether the procedures were followed.
CNN Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.
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