Senators question military on Cole bombing
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- No efforts to safeguard forces from terrorist attacks will ever be foolproof, military officials told members of the U.S. Armed Services Committee on Thursday, but the military is doing everything it can to minimize the danger.
The Senate committee is conducting hearings on the bombing of the Navy destroyer USS Cole last October.
"While we can never fully eliminate the possibility that terrorists will strike against us, we are doing our utmost to ensure the security of our forces so they can carry out their important missions at minimum risk," said Gen. Henry Shelton, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"Our goal is not only to reduce the exposure of our in-transit ships and plans, a shortcoming which was exposed by the bombing of the USS Cole, but also to ensure that our anti-terrorism force protection program remains dynamic, thus reducing our vulnerability," he said.
Seventeen sailors died in the suicide bomb attack that punched a 40-by-40-foot hole in the $1 billion warship's port side as it took on fuel in a Yemeni harbor. Forty-two sailors were wounded, according to the committee, and the ship itself was damaged so severely it had to be carried on a transport ship back to the United States for repairs. The senators, headed by committee Chairman John Warner, R-Virginia, want to know how a small explosives-laden boat was able to pull alongside the 505-foot Cole.
Responsibility vs. accountability
Pentagon and U.S. Navy investigations, while concluding that the attack could not have been stopped, nevertheless cited several lapses in security procedures. And then-Defense Secretary William Cohen agreed with top officials overseeing the reports that the Cole's commanding officers were due no punishment for the actions.
Some senators, however, were not entirely convinced.
"The commanding officer throughout history has been given unquestioned authority and the concomitant of unquestioned accountability," Warner said. "It was understood that the commanding officer of a ship was responsible and ultimately held accountable for anything that happened on his or her watch."
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said he was "concerned that in this case ... there was no comprehensive effort to look at the actions or inactions of several layers of command above the ship itself."
But Shelton, Navy Adm. Vernon Clark and Air Force Gen. Charles Robertson defended the military's work.
"We continue to make considerable progress in our anti-terrorism and force protection program," Shelton said. "Our people are better protected today than in the past."
Improving safeguarding systems
Shelton told the senators that the military had implemented a number of recommendations that came out of investigations by the Navy judge advocate general and the Pentagon.
"Our efforts have resulted, I believe in a much higher level of anti-terrorism readiness, both here at home as well as abroad," he said.
Chief of Naval Operations Clark reiterated Shelton's comments, adding that he was "making it clear to our people that operations forward will never be risk-free."
"We must do everything that we know how to do to deter attack and to limit the damage in case deterrence fails," he said."
Shelton, Clark and Robertson -- commander-in-chief of the U.S. Transportation Command -- answered questions about various protection systems employed by the military, both before and after the Cole bombing.
The senators, concerned about the collection and dissemination of intelligence that may or may not have prevented the bombing, planned to move behind closed doors to discuss more sensitive issues with the military men at the close of the public hearing.
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