By ROBERT BURNS
WASHINGTON – The Navy has revised its timetable of the events leading to the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, raising new questions about how the attackers foiled Navy security.
The Navy said today the explosion occurred nearly two hours after the Cole was moored to a fuel dock, not during the mooring operation, as it had said before. That would mean the boat believed to have detonated the explosives did not blend in with a flotilla of harbor craft to mask the attack, as the Navy had said.
It is now less clear than before how the attacking boat could have approached the Cole without raising suspicion.
The Oct. 12 attack killed 17 U.S. sailors and injured 39. The last four bodies recovered from the Cole on Thursday were prepared today to be flown back to the United States from Bahrain. The remains of eight other Cole victims were returned to Dover Air Force Base, Del., today in preparation for burial.
Among the first set of five remains sent home last week was Craig Wibberley, a 19-year-old Maryland native. A wake and visitation were held today for Wibberley in Hagerstown, Md. He will be buried Saturday.
In a brief statement, the Navy’s Office of Information said earlier Navy statements now known to be erroneous were based on initial reports from the ship that were either wrong or were misunderstood by Pentagon officials. The Navy said it now has obtained additional information from the Cole’s records that change at least three points of fact in the official timeline.
_The explosion occurred at 11:18 a.m. local time (4:18 a.m. EDT), or about an hour earlier than originally reported.
_Refueling began at 10:30 a.m. and was ongoing at the time of the attack. Before, the Navy had said refueling had not yet begun.
_The Cole was completely tied up at the fueling dock in Aden harbor at 9:30 a.m., nearly two hours before the attack. The Navy previously had said the mooring operation was completed just minutes before.
This last point is of particular significance to investigators because it would seem to undercut the theory previously advanced by Navy officials that the small boat seen sidling up to the Cole at the time of the explosion used the mooring operation – involving several harbor workboats – as a means of masking its attack.
Navy officials had said the attacking boat did not raise suspicions because it appeared to be part of the mooring operation, in which small harbor boats take the ship’s lines to secure it to the floating dock.
The Navy has said the Cole and its crew were at the second-highest level of alert observed in the Fifth Fleet, of which the Cole was a part at that time. Crew members would have been assigned to watch through binoculars for boats approaching the Cole, and others keeping watch would have been armed with weapons.
Cmdr. Greg Smith, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon, said the revised timeline was established this week by using more precise information from the Cole’s records, information collected in response to an inquiry by the Navy Times newspaper, a nongovernment publication.
The Navy Times said an unidentified source associated with the port of Aden told it the Navy’s original timeline was incorrect.
On the day of the attack, Adm. Vern Clark, the chief of naval operations, told a Pentagon news conference the explosion happened at 12:15 p.m. local time, that the Cole had just finished being tied up at the fuel dock and that the refueling had not yet begun. He also said this information was based on initial reports from the scene and that he could not be sure it was “100 percent accurate.”
Pentagon and State Department officials canceled planned appearances today before a closed-door session of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The committee heard Thursday from retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, who said he made the decision to refuel at Aden, largely because there was no good alternative.
The administration told the committee it needed more time to prepare for the hearing, said committee chairman Sen. John Warner, R-Va.
Asked if Aden should have been used for refueling Navy ships, Warner said, “I don’t think any of us has had sufficient facts to reach any conclusions.”
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