Investigators so far unable to link blast to bin Laden

By ROBERT BURNS

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials investigating the bombing of the USS Cole are searching for links to Islamic militant Osama bin Laden but so far have found no hard evidence, American officials said today.

Asked whether a clear link has been established, FBI spokesman Jim Margolin said, “That’s an obvious question that’s being looked into. We’re not confirming such a link exists.”

Margolin said the FBI would not comment further.

A senior U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said today that while bin Laden, a Saudi who lives in Afghanistan, is a likely suspect, the investigation has not yet established firmly that he financed the operation or supervised it.

“There are no conclusions made at this point” about who is behind the bombing, which killed 17 U.S. sailors and wounded 39, he said.

The FBI is heading the on-scene investigation at the Yemeni port of Aden.

Bin Laden, the son of a billionaire Saudi Arabian family, is frequently mentioned as a possible suspect. He is on the FBI’s list of 10 most-wanted fugitives; he is wanted in connection with the Aug. 7, 1998, bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people, including 12 Americans.

The Pentagon has declined to comment on the Cole bombing investigation.

Defense Secretary William Cohen and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are urging military commanders use the USS Cole bombing as an impetus for strengthening anti-terrorist protections for their troops.

As Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton made that plea Thursday in a video teleconference with commanders and other top military leaders, the co-directors of a special commission investigating the Cole bombing headed to Yemen “to look for themselves” at the situation, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said.

Bacon declined to provide any details on the schedule of retired Adm. Harold Gehman and retired Army Gen. William Crouch, whom Cohen appointed to find “force protection” lessons in the Cole attack.

The Gehman-Crouch commission’s work is separate from the FBI’s investigation, which is aimed at determining who committed the crime.

In light of the Cole tragedy and reports of additional terrorist plots against American military targets, Cohen and Shelton used Thursday’s video teleconference to emphasize to U.S. commanders the urgency of shoring up any weaknesses in security protection plans.

“The goal basically was to make a good system better, and to use the concern that has been generated by the attack against the Cole as an opportunity for all commanders in chief to make sure that they are reviewing their force protection postures and their procedures, to make sure that they are making any necessary changes,” Bacon said.

The Cole was attacked by suicide terrorist bombers during a refueling stop Oct. 12 in the Yemeni port of Aden. Two men in a small boat edged up to the 505-foot Cole at a fueling dock in the harbor and detonated a package of explosives, blowing a hole 40 feet high and 40 feet wide in the ship’s steel hull.

One question that has arisen in the aftermath is whether Navy ships should have more or better-trained security aboard.

The private Pentagon conference, which lasted a little over an hour, included the heads of the U.S. regional commands – covering Europe, Latin America, the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East – plus the civilian service secretaries and the uniformed service chiefs and commanders of U.S.-based major commands.

Bacon was reluctant to reveal specifics of Cohen and Shelton’s remarks, but said the two men gave directions on improving protection for U.S. forces, both at home and abroad. These were not orders for specific measures but urgings to look for ways to correct any existing weaknesses, Bacon said.

The commanders spelled out the force protection measures they are taking and plan to take in the future, and they all expressed concern about paying for the improvements, he said.

“Obviously, if there’s going to be enhanced force protection in certain ways, it would require greater resources,” Bacon said.

The commanders also were in agreement that more emphasis needs to be placed on finding technological solutions to such problems as defending the perimeters of U.S. military installations, Bacon said.

He said the conference did not address specific threats, although that remains an issue as congressional committees investigate the circumstances of the Cole bombing.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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