WASHINGTON (AP) â€” A commission appointed by Defense Secretary William Cohen is examining a key question raised by the USS Cole bombing: Have efforts to guard against terrorist attack on U.S. military bases abroad focused too little on the vulnerability of ships and planes in transit around the world?
The commission, headed by retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman and retired Army Gen. William Crouch, will look not only at protection policies for U.S. ships in transit but also U.S. warplanes, which make refueling stops in many obscure parts of the world while en route from one established base to another.
``Maybe we have a crack here, maybe we have a seam'' in the Pentagon's system of force protection, Gehman told a news conference Thursday. Force protection measures usually are thought of in terms of fixed military encampments like the U.S. peacekeeping bases in Bosnia and Kosovo or the air base in Saudi Arabia for U.S. fighters flying missions over Iraq, or established bases like those in South Korea or Germany.
Gehman and Crouch will attempt to determine whether the Pentagon needs to pay more attention to in-transit troops, like the more than 300 aboard the Cole when it was attacked during a a refueling stop in Aden, Yemen.
``It could be that there are some improvements we could make to improve the force protection of these soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines as they go around the world doing our business,'' Gehman said.
Gehman said his commission would not try to pin blame on anyone for the security lapse in the Cole bombing.
``We're not out here to find fault with anybody,'' he said. ``We're out here to make recommendations for improvement. We're out here to find ways the Department of Defense can better execute our national strategy. We're not out to find culpability, we're out to make the process better and safer.''
Gehman said determinations on whether the ship's captain or others in the Navy are culpable will be made by the Navy's own internal investigation, which has been quietly under way since the bombing on Oct. 12.
Questions have arisen about whether adequate steps were taken to protect the ship. The attackers managed to maneuver alongside the 505-foot Cole in a small boat and detonate their bomb. The Cole had armed patrols on the top deck, but there is no indication anyone tried to stop the small boat.
The FBI is doing a separate investigation to find out who was behind the bombing. That effort has bogged down this week in a dispute with the Yemeni government over FBI access to suspects and witnesses.
Crouch said the review will not investigate the circumstances surrounding the explosion or the actions by the ship's commander and crew in the hours leading up to the attack, which occurred at 11:18 a.m. local time, shortly after the Cole entered the port of Aden for a scheduled four-hour refueling stop.
The Cole was traveling alone en route to the Persian Gulf to patrol in support of the U.N. embargo against Iraq.
The bomb blast â€” believed by U.S. authorities to be the work of terrorists â€” tore a hole in the left side of the Cole's hull estimated at 40 feet high and 40 feet wide. It killed 17 sailors and injured 39.
``This was a horrific weapon. It was a big weapon,'' Gehman said. FBI laboratory tests have concluded that it was made from C-4, a military-style plastic explosive that can be shaped to direct the force of the blast.
Gehman and Crouch spent a few hours aboard the Cole last Saturday and spoke with the ship's commander, Cmdr. Kirk Lippold. They said it was clear from their visit that the Cole was in danger of sinking after a drive shaft seal broke two days after the bombing, causing additional flooding and power losses.
The crippled Cole now is loaded atop the main deck of a heavy lift ship, the Blue Marlin, which will bring it back to the United States. Although some Navy officials had said Wednesday that the Blue Marlin had begun its voyage, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said Thursday it remained in the Gulf of Aden.
Quigley said the Pentagon would not reveal the Blue Marlin's transit schedule or route, due to security concerns. He said he was not sure a decision had been made on whether to send the Blue Marlin through the Suez Canal, where security has been beefed up, or on a longer route around the southern tip of Africa.
On the Net: The USS Cole: http://www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/news/newsâ€”stories/cole.html
The Blue Marlin: http://www.oht.no
Cohen instructions: http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Oct2000/b10192000â€”bt642-00.html