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  'We Acted to Preempt Future Terrorist Acts'

Berger and Albright
Sandy Berger and Madeline Albright. (AP)

Federal Document Clearing House
Friday, August 21, 1998; Page A19

Following are excerpts from a briefing and news conference last evening by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger:

For the past two weeks, we have been living with the results of horrendous bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam -- 12 Americans dead, hundreds of Kenyans and Tanzanians dead, and thousands injured. I've just returned from both sites and they are chilling, the tragic human face of indiscriminate terrorist murder.

We cannot allow such cowardly and destructive acts to go unpunished. Thanks to some excellent intelligence work, we were able quickly to determine the identity of those responsible for these latest attacks. We have also received solid information of new threats against U.S. citizens and embassies and installations. Yesterday, in a brazen public statement, Osama bin Laden's terrorist network informed the world that more Americans would be targeted for murder.

At the time of the latest tragedies, we said that our memory is long and our reach is far. Today we reached into two locations on the far side of the world. Today we acted to preempt future terrorists acts and disrupt the activities of those planning for them. While our actions are not perfect insurance, inaction would be an invitation to further horror.

While we did not seek this confrontation, we must meet our responsibilities. Bin Laden and his network were repeatedly warned to cease their terrorist activities. In response, they declared war on the United States, and struck first, and we have suffered deeply.

But we will not be intimidated. We will work hard to identify future threats and thwart them. As today's strikes illustrate, there will be no sanctuary or safe haven for terrorists.

Today the United States is asking every nation to stand publicly against those who perpetrate, finance or otherwise support terrorism. We're asking governments to join us in taking the actions necessary to deter and defeat terrorist acts. And we recognize that this is a long-term struggle, as the president said, but we recognize as well that it is a struggle we must win.

Together, decent people everywhere must send the message to terrorists everywhere that they can hide, but they cannot escape the long arm of justice. We owe this to ourselves and to our own future security and safety, and we owe it to the memory of the innocent victims of terror from our own country and from countries around the world. . . .

BERGER: We have been concerned about the threat that Osama bin Laden and his network posed to U.S. interests for quite some time. In 1996, we pressured the Sudanese government to disassociate themselves from bin Laden. And for some time, we have sought to have him expelled from Afghanistan. . . . These efforts were unsuccessful. . . . .

From quite early on in the investigation, the intelligence community began to receive substantial amounts of credible information from many sources and many methods indicating that the Osama bin Laden group of terrorist organizations was responsible for the bombing. And that information culminated in the last few days in a conclusion reached by the intelligence community that we have high confidence that these bombings were planned, financed and carried out by the organization bin Laden leads.

We have not ruled out that others share responsibility, however, and we are looking into every possibility. . . .

Further intelligence strengthened the case that bin Laden's network was responsible, and, in addition, we began to receive quite a substantial volume of credible and reliable information that there were other attacks planned against U.S. targets around the world.

We also had received, at that point, some information indicating that there may be a gathering of a large -- a gathering of bin Laden's terrorist network at the host camp today, on August 20th. That became a date that was, I think -- influenced our planning.

When the president returned from a trip to, I believe, the West Coast, he met with his foreign policy team in the situation room. And then later that day, we had a small meeting in his office at which the plans for this operation were laid out to the president by the, both the intelligence community and by [Joint Chiefs of Staff] Chairman [Henry] Shelton and by the secretary of defense. This was, I believe, Wednesday.

Last Friday, exactly a week after the bombings, [CIA] Director [George J.] Tenet, I think, had reached a judgment about responsibility, . . . and we met again with the president. . . . Chairman Shelton and [Defense] Secretary [William S.] Cohen had a military plan to present in more detail. The president approved it in principle, essentially told the secretary of defense and the chairman to go ahead with the operational steps. This was last Friday.

And this was subject to -- there's been a little confusion about this -- this was subject to the president's ability, essentially, to turn the switch off as late as six o'clock this morning.

During the week these plans have proceeded. Over the course of the last day, the secretary and I and the president, the vice president, have had a number of conversations. And early this morning, the president essentially said that we should proceed with the mission, which was launched at about 11 o'clock, and which culminated in strikes at about 1:30. . . .

Following are questions from reporters and responses from Albright and Berger:

What was the imminent threat?

BERGER: . . . We had very specific information about very specific threats with respect to very specific targets. You will have noted over the past week that we have closed certain embassies. We have drawn other embassies down. We have taken other measures to protect American citizens abroad so that, in addition to the general expressed intention of this organization to perpetrate terrorist incidents against the United States, there was very specific formation and very reliable information. . . .

You said that the president could turn the key off, essentially, on the military strike up until 6 a.m. this morning.

BERGER: That's correct.

Did you have a conversation with him or did the Pentagon?

BERGER: There were conversations through the night on a number of pieces of this. I know the president talked to the vice president last night. And I think there was never a question after the initial approval a week ago of -- not never a question, but I think the president was convinced this was the right thing to do.

Obviously, intelligence kept coming in day by day, and were we to receive something that would have suggested an adjustment, we were in a position to do that.

You mean you were essentially waiting for today? Laying in wait because you knew that there was this meeting was going to happen at the camp?

BERGER: Well, I think the fact that this meeting was taking place today was a factor.

Why did the president feel it was important to come back to Washington, since he's obviously got the command facilities up there to deal with it if he has to?

BERGER: Well, one of the things that was indispensable to this operation was secrecy. And I have to say I have some degree of collective pride on the part of my colleagues that we actually were able to, for once, do that. . . .

If General Shelton had showed up at Martha's Vineyard this morning, I suspect some of you might have been wondering what he was doing there. Or Secretary Albright or myself. . . .

We felt, on the other hand, the president had to say something before he left, make a brief statement to explain why he was coming back. He wanted to come back, talk to . . . his advisers.

He wanted to speak to the American people in a slightly more formal setting than the school in Edgartown or wherever we were this morning. And so the primary motivator here has been maintaining operational secrecy, and I must say this is the first operation that not only held until the fact, but actually it held 20 minutes after the fact.

ALBRIGHT: Could I just make one more point on that? I do believe that you all need to go back and look very carefully at what the president said and the seriousness of his speech, which is why it was very appropriate that it be done here in Washington in the Oval Office. Because I think that we are embarked on a venture in which we have to deal over the long run with what is the very serious threat to our way of life at the

end of this century and the next one. . . .

We are not going to take just an ad hoc approach to this. This is a very serious battle. And we are taking it in that regard. And what I think is very important for the American people to understand is that there may, in fact, be retaliatory actions.

We are very concerned about that. We have issued high threat warnings at our embassies. We are very concerned about what is going on internationally, which is why we are gathering international support and why the president believed the seriousness of the moment was one that required him to come back to Washington.

Why is that two years after the Khobar [Towers] bombing [in Saudi Arabia], the issue is still not resolved? What's different this time, where in the matter of a week, you have the intelligence -- definitive intelligence -- [to] move ahead?

BERGER: Well, I think without getting into too much detail . . . in the case of Khobar, the trail goes down more than one path. . . . We have a number of different theories . . . information that leads in a number of different directions. And neither the intelligence community nor the law enforcement community has drawn a conclusion.

In this case, I think most of the intelligence people I have talked to in the last week have indicated that they have never seen anything quite like this in the sense of the amount of information that mutually corroborated itself and pointed in this direction.

Is most of the evidence here then based on what the CIA has collected versus what the FBI has collected on the ground in Kenya and Tanzania?

BERGER: . . . Obviously, the construction of a law enforcement case is -- has different requirements than the construction of an intelligence picture. But I think that the evidence here that was presented to the president was convincing that they are responsible. The president relies on these judgments upon his intelligence community and others. And this is the judgment that they made. . . .

Can you say whether there are any steps being taken to protect civilian targets as well as government installations?

ALBRIGHT: There are, yes. I'm not going to go into the details of it, but obviously we are doing everything we can to protect Americans everywhere.

When were our allies told of the bombing, before or after it took place?

ALBRIGHT: They were told after. Let me make very clear here: This was a threat to U.S. national interests. The United States will act unilaterally when we are doing something in the defense of our national interests, and this was done in self-defense.

BERGER: Let me clarify, let me add one thing, though. We did -- there was prior consultation with the four congressional leaders.

Was there any discussion in your deliberations on that point on whether it was appropriate to fix this specifically for a day when there would be a large number of personnel there? And if it was the day fixed in that meeting you described on Friday or so?

BERGER: We don't know. We had -- we had information which suggested that this might be the case. And that was a factor in our judgment about timing.

A number of Republicans have spoken out in support of the president, but I heard two question motive. Is the president aware of this? And what is his reaction?

ALBRIGHT: I think the president made very clear that the reason for taking this action was in our national interest, and we have explained at great length here why the action was taken at a particular time.

The time was determined by what was going on on the ground in Afghanistan and by what had happened 10 days previously in Kenya and Tanzania. And I think that that is the -- it is a very clear reason why we took this action.

When were . . . [congressional leaders] notified first?

BERGER: I spoke to Senator [Trent] Lott and [House] Speaker [Newt] Gingrich last evening. I was not able to reach Senator [Thomas A.] Daschle until today, and I've -- Congressman [Richard A.] Gephardt is somewhere between Marseille and Paris and unavailable to talk on a secure phone. But, I briefed his staff. . . .

The president also spoke to I think three of the four leaders, not being able to reach Mr. Gephardt, on the plane down from Martha's Vineyard. . . .

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Co.

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