WASHINGTON -- The Yemeni coastline, where the USS Cole met disaster in an apparent terrorist bombing last week, is a "sieve" for terrorists but was the best option available for refueling Navy ships in the volatile region, the former U.S. military commander in the region said Thursday.
Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was commander in chief of U.S. Central Command at the time the Pentagon contracted for refueling services in the Yemeni port of Aden in December 1998, took responsibility for the decision.
"I pass that buck on to nobody," Zinni told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Zinni, who retired earlier this year, said he and the rest of the American government were well aware that terrorists use Yemen as a transit route into Saudi Arabia.
"Their coast is a sieve," he said.
Yet there were no better alternatives and Navy ships must refuel in that area while moving to and from the Persian Gulf, Zinni said. The port of Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa and just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, had been used but the refueling contract there was terminated in about 1997 because the facilities were unsatisfactory and "the threat conditions were far worse."
That left him with "options that were not very good," Zinni said.
The retired general told the committee that he personally checked on the refueling arrangements in a series of visits to Aden between May 1998 and May 2000.
Each time, Zinni said, it was clear to him that the Yemeni government was sincere in wanting American help in controlling its coastline. Zinni said his chief of security also visited Aden in May 1998 to check on security arrangements.
Zinni said Aden was one of the few ports in the region where U.S. intelligence had not detected specific threats to American interests. The threat conditions in Yemen, he said, "were actually better than we had elsewhere," including Saudi Arabia.
While the Senate committee began to examine the circumstances behind the Navy's use of Aden as a refueling stop, the Pentagon was preparing to move ahead with its own investigation.
A retired Navy admiral, Harold W. Gehman, and a retired Army general, William Crouch, will head an independent investigation of security practices on the USS Cole at the time the ship was hit by an apparent terrorist attack Oct. 12.
Meantime, the commander of the Atlantic Fleet, Adm. Robert Natter, said Thursday he is very confident that those responsible for the attack will be found, and he added that they must be punished. "We have got to go and attack the enemy."
"There has been an attack on U.S. sovereign territory -- that U.S. Navy warship. That's sovereign territory," Natter said on NBC's "Today." "If we are going to defend ourselves, we have got to go on the attack.
"You cannot continue to allow yourself to be attacked and attempt to defend yourself without at some point saying 'this is inappropriate,"' Natter said.
The Pentagon planned to announce on Thursday that Defense Secretary William Cohen had requested the probe be led by Gehman, who retired this summer as commander in chief of U.S. Joint Forces Command, and Crouch, who retired in 1999 as Army deputy chief of staff, a senior defense official said Wednesday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Crouch also is a former commander of U.S. Army Europe and chief of NATO's Allied Land Forces Central Europe. In that capacity he commanded the U.S.-led NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia in 1996-97, a mission that placed a high priority on troop security, or "force protection measures," in military parlance.
Gehman had extensive at-sea experience during his career, including tours in Vietnam and as commander of a destroyer. He later served as vice chief of naval operations, the No. 2 post in the Navy.
The investigation will examine the circumstances at the time of the Oct. 12 bombing in Aden, Yemen, and assess ways in which standard security precautions during visits to foreign ports can be improved.
The probe will be independent of the FBI's ongoing investigation of who carried out the attack.
U.S. officials believe that a small boat sidled up to the Cole while it was preparing to refuel in the middle of Aden's harbor and detonated a bomb powerful enough to rip a hole 40 feet high and 40 feet wide in the Cole's hull. Seventeen sailors were killed and more than 30 were injured.
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