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President Clinton Vows to Hold USS Cole Attackers Accountable; Israeli Prime Minister Barak Defends Military Action Against Palestinians

Aired October 12, 2000 - 2:30 p.m. ET

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

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We are still awaiting a number of developments in association with the attack on the USS Cole and in Yemen early this morning and also the latest violence in the Middle East: the Israeli retaliation for the killing by a mob of two Israeli soldiers. We are also awaiting a news conference with the prime minister of Israel, Ehud Barak. That is all ahead.

In addition to the military investigators, agents with the FBI and State Department are heading now for Yemen. They are trying to figure out who might be responsible for that attack earlier today on the USS Cole. We are going to check in now with our senior White House correspondent, John King, for the latest from there.

John, what is going on?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, quite a busy day here at the White House, as you would expect -- the Middle East just two months ago the source of such high hopes for the of the president. He believed the Israelis and the Palestinians were on the verge of a historic peace agreement -- today that region once again the source of what one senior aide here calls one's of the president's most frustrating days in his nearly eight years in office.

The president met with his top national security team for a little more than an hour here at the White House security room -- the Situation Room -- receiving updates from agencies around the government and around the world on developments today. When the president came into the Rose Garden to speak to the American people today, he concerned himself first with that suspected terrorist attack on the U.S. Naval vessel on a refueling stop in Yemen -- Mr. Clinton voicing prayers for those killed, injured, and those still missing.

And he promised an aggressive investigation was already under way.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: First, as you know as, an explosion claimed the lives of at least four sailors on one of our U.S. vessels, the USS Cole, this morning. Many were injured. A number are still missing. They were simply doing their duty. The ship was refueling in a port in Yemen while en route to the Persian Gulf.

We are rushing medical assistance to the scene. And our prayers are with the families who have lost their loved ones or are all still awaiting news. If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act. We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable. If there intention was to deter us from our mission of promoting peace and security in the Middle East, they will fail utterly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The president saying that all embassies in the region, U.S. embassies in the regions, have been put on high alert -- any ships at port in that part of the world sent out to sea as a precaution, as that investigation under way -- the president also receiving updates on the renewed violence in the Middle East -- Mr. Clinton saying that, as he follows this situation, once again, urging the parties to stop the violence and get back to the peace table -- his attention focused, of course, on the murder of those two Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: I strongly condemn the murder of Israeli soldiers in Ramallah today. While I understand the anguish Palestinians feel over the losses they have suffered, there can be no possible justification for mob violence. I call on both sides to undertake a cease-fire immediately, and immediately to condemn all acts of violence.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The White House hardened by word from the Israeli government that the retaliation has stopped. They are looking for a strong statement from the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak when he seek speaks later today -- Mr. Clinton taking no questions from reporters. The White House view: the less said the better on both fronts right now, about the violence in the Middle East, about the suspected terrorist attack on a U.S. Naval vessel -- Mr. Clinton retreating back to the Oval Office.

Aides tell us he will be on the telephone this afternoon trying to speak both to Yasser Arafat and the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, as well as following the developments in the investigation and the rescue operation under way regarding the USS Cole -- Lou.

WATERS: Less said the better. I'll ask the question anyway. We are trying to get some official reaction to a report out of the Pentagon that Iraqi troops are out of their barracks and moving west. You hearing anything from -- at the White House about that?

KING: U.S. officials aware of those intelligence reports, Lou. For now, they say they are watching this very closely. They are not overly concerned. What they believe we have here is a demonstration by Saddam Hussein -- a reminder by Saddam Hussein, if you will -- that he is still a player in the region, trying to show his solidarity with the Palestinians and the Arab world at this moment -- U.S. intelligence monitoring those troop movements.

They're not viewed as threatening right now. But at the White House, they say they will closely watch this, of course. They also say it's no surprise that Mr. Saddam Hussein might want to raise his hand in the middle of this latest crisis.

WATERS: All right, John, we will check back -- senior White House correspondent, John King.

Natalie, what's next?

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: So again, any semblance of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians may have unraveled with developments today. Again, Israel launched a two-to-three-hour military assault on the West Bank town of Ramallah today. Helicopters, gunships and tanks fired on police stations and key buildings used by the Palestinian Authority.

This military attack came after a Palestinian crowd beat two Israeli soldiers to death. Israel says the pair, in civilian clothes, made a wrong turn in Ramallah. Palestinian police say they took the two into custody to protect them. But angry Palestinians broke into the police station and the soldiers were killed.

We have some video of this occurring. We want to warn you, it is among the disturbing images we have seen from the fighting in the Middle East the past few days. But, apparently, one of the soldiers is dropped from an upstairs window. And the crowd descends. And this person is beaten. This happened, again, today in Ramallah.

Now here is Ehud Barak with his news conference.

(JOINED IN PROGRESS)

EHUD BARAK, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): ... loathsome, awful, which was carried out by a mob, and we were all horrified by the pictures we saw of it. A state which strives and aspires to life cannot accept such events and it cannot ignore such events.

The responsibility for these very grave events must be borne by the mob and by the Palestinian police, which cannot control what goes on in its territory and it cannot control its people. We shall not ignore what has happened, the murder and its implications. Therefore, I have ordered the Israel defense forces to take action against certain specific points of the police authority in Ramallah, and as the actions were carried out precisely and successfully and with a minimum of casualties.

In the last few days I have said repeatedly that, unfortunately, at this time, apparently Chairman Arafat has decided that he is not interested in an arrangement and he is not acting and he does not appear to us to be a partner for peace during this time.

Regretfully, the Palestinian Authority is, in a very flagrant fashion, breaching the agreements that it is has signed under American auspices. The Palestinian Authority has deliberately released several dozen of the most cold-blooded, bloody killers of Hamas, and this is a very worrying development because it points to the great likelihood of terrorist attacks.

If there are such attacks, the responsibility for them will lie with those who send them and those who carry them out and those who have incited them. We know how to respond. I've instructed the security forces to do everything, everything that is required, in order to prevent attempts at terrorist attacks.

And we will do everything we can to get through the days in front of us. This is a time when we must all join ranks, where we must express solidarity with the security forces, with everyone, among ourselves, within Israel, within Judea and Samaria and the Gulf Strait, within an emergency national government.

It is possible that we will be facing in the future even more difficult days. But we do not lose hope. Together, as we always have been in times of trial, we will very energetically support and pursue Israel's goals, and we will succeed. We do not lose our hope of security and peace.

And I wish to express my support to the people in Judea and Samaria. And I call upon all Israeli citizens within Israel and within Judea, Samaria and Gaza to demonstrate restraint. Let us not, God forbid, take the law into our own hands.

I have instructed the police and the security forces to take very stringent action against anyone who breaks the law. The government of Israel will continue to maintain its interests -- security and political. The idea will continue with its full force to protect the security of Israel, and we will continue to aspire to and endeavor to achieve peace and security.

Our spirit, the Israeli spirit, is what will conquer security and peace. Even if they tarry, will come.

Thank you.

QUESTION (through translator): Chairman Barak, question: During this time when you say there was no (INAUDIBLE) other side, we see Israel taking what you have recently called unilateral separation. Could you explain to the people listening to you in live broadcast what kind of life will this give to the secular and the militaries and those on the other side of the green line? And do you foresee further escalation in the next few days?

BARAK (through translator): I cannot anticipate what will happen in the next few days, but we will know how to respond when we act. I do hope that things will be quiet. I call for quiet, and we will know exactly what to do if there is no peace and quiet. We cannot force the other side to come to peace.

For peace you need two. But for confrontation, it only takes one. If it becomes clear that the other side is not prepared for an arrangement and is striving for confrontation, then Israel's national strategy cannot just be to prove to the other side that it cannot set up its own state or that without us they cannot exist. That is not a country's strategy -- only strategy here.

If it becomes clear that we have no partner for an arrangement is to act -- even if it takes a long time, even if it involves major differences, it will be to implement our interests by separating ourselves from the Palestinians up here and then there even if it takes -- why do you still say if? -- even if it takes a long time. Is there still a question mark with regard to there is no partner because life is more complex than a television broadcast.

And therefore we shall act gradually with determination and resolution even if it takes a long time, even if there are major difficulties to ensure that there is a separation between us and the Palestinians in all respects.

And I have no doubt whatsoever that this will be an action plan or an action strategy that we will discuss with you and with the public more than once.

QUESTION (through translator): Prime Minister, how many of your Cabinet colleagues -- some overtly, some less overtly -- are claiming that the action today was not sufficient and that for the message you wish to transmit, the idea has to carry on acting and you shouldn't act just symbolically as the IDF spokesman said. Has the operation come to an end or is it ongoing? That's the first question.

Secondly, what kind of unity government or emergency government do you intend to suggest to Ariel Sharon whom you're going to meet with today? Do you intend specifically to suggest to him that he enter your government tomorrow?

BARAK (through translator): This operation is precisely what is needed under these circumstances. And at every single stage and at any moment, we will do exactly what is needed.

No one is ever satisfied entirely. Everyone waited too much or not enough, particularly when you're wise after the event. We will wait to do what is necessary for the state of Israel. We shall continue to define the country, its citizens and its interests, as required.

Today, as we stand here, there is no activity of combat helicopters against targets. If there is a need, then there will be such action, and we will do it when and to the extent required.

As for a national emergency government, this is necessary for the state of Israel, both in order to deal with the Palestinians. This is not to game, and also for the possibility of further development and escalation, that is not a game either, both with regard to the Palestinians, with regard to the Arab world and also with regard to friends and best friends throughout the world. And above all, it's necessary for the citizens of the state in this special hour.

And I repeat today my call to all the party leaders to be prepared to enter such a government to put aside all of their divisions, all of the little things, which I'm sure bother all of us, and to focus on the important thing, the need to stand shoulder to shoulder facing all the challenges where it's quite possible that there're more difficult challenges are still before us.

And the right thing to do now is a national emergency government, even if it takes three or four days to set it up and to go off with it. Believe me, everything else, the distribution of portfolios and this that and the other, all of that is dwarfed in the light of, compared with the problems facing us and the challenges that we'll have to tackle in the next few days.

QUESTION (through translator): Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, perhaps you could tell the public there are conflicting reports, was it two Arab soldiers or three who were murdered? One of the ministers before you said it was three. People want to know what the truth is.

And then, second question with regards to...

WATERS: The Israeli Prime Minister reacting to events of the day. We'll have more about that as the day goes on, including, we expect, a one-on-one interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour who is in Israel today. More about that later.

But we are receiving the first picture. CNN has obtained this first, and it is a photograph of the U.S.S. Cole, which was attacked earlier today. You see, in the center of the picture, about midship, a giant hole -- it was described to us by 20-by-40 feet or so.

As the Pentagon tells it, a harbor-tender boat came up alongside the U.S.S. Cole with two men aboard. As the ship was pulling into Aden, the Yemeni port for refueling, the men on the tender took a line from the Cole attached to what is called a dolphin, which is a large buoy. As the Cole prepared to refuel, the small boat moved alongside the Cole again and, according to these officials, the men stood at attention and then the small boat exploded.

We have with us, U.S. Navy Captain, retired, Alec Fraser.

That hole would suggest, what?

CAPTAIN ALEC FRASER, U.S. NAVY (RETIRED): I think it may be hard to see on the television screen, but that hole is right underneath the forward stacks, which indicates that it's next to the forward engine room. So where that explosion took place probably impacted the forward engine room of the ship.

It is listing to port; you can see about a four-degree list. They've announced that as a four-degree list. You can see that the ship is listing to port. It is hard to tell, from looking at that picture, if it is out in the harbor or whether it's actually up next to a pier on the right side of the ship, the starboard side. So it's difficult to see where, exactly, the locations are.

You can see, in the picture, there are no other small craft within the area. Either there are small craft along the side doing rescue operations, or security is keeping the other small boats in the harbor, away from the ship right now.

WATERS: As the Pentagon tells it, that scenario -- first the ship is piloted in and then the mooring party takes over. So I imagine it was in the process of being docked, wouldn't you think, if this is accurate?

FRASER: I think, from the picture we can see that it would be in the process of mooring to the pier from where that picture was taken, or it was mooring to a pier on the other side of the ship and it was already up against the pier. It's difficult to tell from the picture.

WATERS: What can you tell us about this ship? It's an Aegis- class cruiser with Aegis weapon systems aboard. What kind of weapon system?

FRASER: The Aegis destroyer has a radar system that is capable of tracking numerous targets. It does not have a radar that goes around and around, as most people are familiar with seeing at airports. It is a computer-guided radar system that has arrays on various sides of the ship. That's what gives it the name Aegis destroyer.

From that system, a computer can guide missiles to numerous targets simultaneously. That's the big difference.

WATERS: So you're assuming that there were several missiles aboard this ship?

FRASER: I would think that they have a numerous number of surface-to-air missiles, that they have harpoon missiles and they have Tomahawk surfaces-to-land missiles.

WATERS: And an explosion of this sort, in this particular area, would not explode these missiles?

FRASER: No, where that blackened area is on the photograph would indicate that it is near the forward engine room. The magazines are located on the forward part of the ship and the after part of the ship. That explosion is not near any of the magazines.

WATERS: So, this was a target of opportunity, would you say?

FRASER: I would think they probably put the boat up alongside wherever they could get it and detonated from there.

WATERS: There's a lot of questions being asked about how a mooring vessel like this could have gotten this close to the ship, do you have any thoughts about that?

FRASER: The mooring is a standard procedure, particularly in Middle East ports where a mooring boat will come alongside, take your mooring line and then ran it over to the pier. Once it's attached to a bollard on the pier, using winches we will pull the ship in next to the pier.

So that is a very usual, routine procedure. Would not be considered abnormal at all.

WATERS: Now this area of the ship, that -- we understand there were 350 sailors aboard, both men and women. This area of the ship, near the engine room, what -- who would have been there at that time, what would they have been doing?

FRASER: This would be a mooring evolution, where in the CN anchor detail, the engine room is fully manned. That the most senior people that the ship have are in those spaces and in the damage control central and then the control central for all of the engineering spaces.

So it's a very delicate area of operations, and the ship responds to it by putting it's full complement of people in the spaces at the time.

WATERS: And now this ship is listing. Would you assume, from what you've heard about the damage to the ship that the ship is secure until technical and other military help arrives?

FRASER: The ship is secure. The water that probably went into the forward engine room or whatever spaces flooded, and we don't have a report on that yet, would cause the ship to list.

The damage control central, which would be manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week, would respond to this type of crisis by, in a general quarters condition, of assigning a damage control party to both pump out those spaces and to counterbalance the flooding by increasing the water and the fuel compartments in the other side or another way of counterbalancing the list.

WATERS: What kind of a weapon -- what kind of load did this small craft have aboard to poke a hole like that in there?

FRASER: I don't know if I can answer that question because it could be a small tug boat or it could be a row boat. You know, various line-tending type of boats are used in these ports.

To do a hole of this size, it ought to be a considerable amount of explosives, so it was probably not a small boat. And that type of hole would be somewhat similar to a small cruise missile hitting the side of a ship.

WATERS: What's your understanding about the U.S. Navy now on the high alert that it's been placed on? What's going on there?

FRASER: Well, I think anytime you have a crisis like this when there has been an attack on the ships, that we respond around the globe to increase the height of area. Those ships would put to sea so in case there was a similar type of effort being done on a concerted basis around the area, that we're not susceptible to that. A ship at sea is much more able to maneuver and defend itself that it is in port.

WATERS: Of course it's easy to poke around and speculate about what might and might not have happen. But you're a Navy man, with recent anti-American demonstrations in Yemen, would you have guessed that there would have been better intelligence to warn against something like this? Is that too much of a stretch to get to you answer that?

FRASER: Well I think -- No, for years Yemen was the hot spot and it was not a good spot for security reasons to moor in or to refuel. I think those are looked at from a wide variety of areas from the State Department to the Defense Department and they reviewed the security situations and make the best judgment that they can at the time. I think ships have been refueling there now for over a year and not had problem. And then this erupts today.

WATERS: I imagine that that will be one of the subject that the military and State Department and FBI investigators will be looking into.

FRASER: Yes they will.

WATERS: They're being dispatched there now. Captain Alec Frasier, U.S. navy retired, we'll check with you again.

We are now going to call upon in New York Hassan Abdul Rahman. He is the Palestinian representative to the United States. Excuse me, I understand you are in Washington.

We, before we got the picture of the USS Cole we were listening to the prime minister of Israel who is telling us if there isn't some sign on the Palestinian side that they want to the pursue the peace, he said that there will be a major separation in all respects of Israel from the Palestinians. That's your so-called action strategy.

What would be your reaction to that?

HASSAN ABDUL RAHMAN, PALESTINIAN REPRESENTATIVE TO THE U.S.: I honestly don't know what he means by separation. If he means that he wants to get rid of the Israeli troops from the Palestinian territory, that, of course that will be welcome development and that Israel would not interfere in the lives of the Palestinians. We would definitely welcome Israeli withdrawal from our territories and from our life.

WATERS: That may be have been part of it, but he said separation at all levels. That would suggest to you the end of the peace process, would it not? The end of all...

RAHMAN: Well, if he has chosen to replace negotiations, talks along the negotiating table by missiles and helicopters and tanks, you know, that's a choice that I am sure that we would have to ourselves assess and see how to deal with it.

WATERS: How will the Palestinian Authority deal with this violence in Ramallah and in Gaza? We heard the prime minister calling for quiet and restrained. Are we going to hear a similar call from Yasser Arafat?

RAHMAN: Well, I believe from the very first day we have told Mr. Barak and the Israelis that calm will come immediately when Israel stops shooting at the Palestinian's civilian population, when they withdraw their troops, when they'll send the measures that they have imposed. And when they stop the vigilante settlers who have been rampaging Palestinian towns and villages.

All of those actions, I believe, that constitute an aggression against the Palestinians. If Israel stops this aggression, I assure you that there will be no need for Palestinian violence and there would not be Palestinian violence.

WATERS: With all due respect, sir, the rocket fire in Ramallah today followed an angry Palestinian mob beating two IDF Reservists to death.

RAHMAN: But there has been a hundred Palestinian deaths and there was not rocket attacks against headquarters of Mr. Barak or the Defense Ministry. I mean, is Israeli life worth much more than Palestinian life? Is Palestinian humanity less than Israeli humanity?

WATERS: We seem to be...

RAHMAN: I mean, this is the question that should be addressed to Mr. Barak.

WATERS: We will be talking to him later. We seem to be hearing one side asking the other to stop the violence. There's got to be a combination here, does it not?

RAHMAN: Well, but you know, you have also to look at the situation on the ground. It is Israeli troops that are in Palestinian territories. Palestinians are not attacking Israeli cities. Remember that the killing is in Palestinian towns and villages and Palestinian states. Israelis are in Palestinian territories.

We are not in Israel. We are not fighting in Tel Aviv or in Haifa or in Yafo. We are in Ramallah and Gaza and all our Palestinian territories. So it is more logical for Israel to withdraw from the Palestinian territory than ask the Palestinians not to defend themselves against Israeli aggression.

WATERS: The prime minister said, we have not lost our hope of security and peace. Would you echo that sentiment?

RAHMAN: We have always hoped and we have worked very, very hard. In fact, we made historic compromises for the sake of peace which were not reciprocated by the Israeli government. In fact, Mr. Barak is responsible for the escalation because he refused to implement what has been agreed upon between us and Israel.

WATERS: Hassan Abdul Rahman, Palestinian representative to the United States thanks for joining us, sir.

RAHMAN: Thank you, sir.

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