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Published: Saturday, 10/28/2000

Who put the USS Cole in harm's way?

President Clinton said the right things at the memorial service for the 17 sailors killed when suicide bombers attacked the USS Cole in the harbor of Yemen's capital city. He thanked “the men and women of our armed forces for a debt we can never repay, whose character and courage more than even modern weapons makes our military the strongest in the world.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton's State Department was saying something else. It killed an editorial that the Voice of America was planning to broadcast condemning the attack on the Cole because the “17 or so dead sailors ... does not compare to the 100-plus Palestinians who have died in recent weeks.”

State backtracked quickly when the memorandum containing this inflammatory quote was leaked to a journalist. The department issued a statement Oct. 18 saying it was “wrong” to have killed the VOA editorial, but State refused to identify the persons responsible for sending the controversial memo.

At the memorial service in Norfolk, President Clinton said to the attackers of the Cole: “You will not find a safe harbor. We will find you and justice will prevail.”

He'd said much the same thing after terrorists blew up U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1997, after terrorists killed 19 airmen at an Air Force base in Saudi Arabia in 1996, and after terrorists killed 18 Rangers in a gunfight in Somalia in 1993. He has the rhetoric down pat, which is good, because his policies are likely to lead to more occasions to use it.

The Clinton administration and its many friends in the news media describe what happened to the Cole as if it were a tragedy beyond the control of human agencies, like an earthquake or a tornado. But someone sent the Cole to Yemen to refuel, and did so at a time when the risk of terrorism was considered so great that the U.S. embassy in Yemen was closed. Who did this, and why?

There are sound strategic reasons for trying to make nice with Yemen, despite its reputation as a hotbed for terrorism. Aden, the capital city, has one of the finest natural harbors in the world, from which naval forces quickly could reach the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, or the Indian Ocean.

If better relations with Yemen are a real and not - like the Middle East peace process - a pie-in-the-sky prospect, how does sending a single U.S. warship there to refuel advance them?

Even if it's a good idea generally for U.S. warships to make port calls in Yemen, was it prudent to do so at a time of such regional tension? Two days before the Cole arrived, thousands of Yemenis snaked through the streets of the capital howling “Death to Israel!” and “Death to America!”

Last month the U.S. intelligence community reported to policy-makers that a plot to attack a U.S. warship was in the wind. Was that warning passed on to the skipper of the Cole? If not, why not?

It could be penury rather than geo-politics that put the Cole in harm's way. The Navy prefers to refuel ships at sea. This is safer than refueling them in port, and permits aircraft carrier battle groups to stay together. But refueling at sea requires oilers. Since President Clinton took office, 22 have been mothballed. Did the Cole go to Yemen because there aren't enough oilers to service the fleet?

After the Cole was bombed, it was French rather than American emergency medical technicians who responded, and they were late. Service members told Insight magazine that U.S. Medevac personnel stationed at Ramstein AFB in Germany could not respond to the emergency because they did not have enough pilots. The Department of Defense says it called upon the French to help the wounded on the Cole because they volunteered. The Department of Defense had no comment on the alleged shortage of Air Force Medevac pilots. What's the truth here?

These are questions which ought to be asked. But don't hold your breath waiting for the news media to ask them. The answers might prove embarrassing to the Democratic Party.

Jack Kelly is a member of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail him at jkelly@post-gazette.com.



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