Sentries on Cole could not have fired

By THOMAS RICKS and STEVE VOGEL

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The sailors on sentry duty aboard the USS Cole when it was bombed last month did not have ammunition in their guns and were not authorized to shoot unless fired upon, according to members of the ship’s crew.

Even if the sentries had recognized the threat from a small boat approaching the guided missile destroyer in a Yemeni harbor on Oct. 12, their "rules of engagement" would have prevented them from firing without first obtaining permission from the Cole’s captain or another officer, the crew members said.

Petty Officer John Washak recalled that shortly after the small boat blew a 40-by-40-foot hole in the destroyer’s side, killing 17 sailors, he was manning an M-60 machine gun on the Cole’s fantail when a second small boat approached. Washak said he pointed the machine gun directly at the boat to warn it off. But, he recalled, a senior chief petty officer ordered him to turn the gun away.

Washak protested, fearing that the ship was still under attack. But even in the aftermath of the bombing, "with blood still on my face," he said, he was told: "That’s the rules of engagement: No shooting unless we’re shot at."

The rules of engagement aboard a U.S. warship are set by its captain following Navy guidelines. Pentagon officials have declined to discuss publicly the specific rules in effect aboard the Cole, but senior officers said in congressional testimony that the ship had filed a detailed security plan, which they believe was followed.

Interviews with about 20 members of the ship’s crew in recent days also revealed several other previously undisclosed aspects of the bombing:

  • The Cole may have been boarded and surreptitiously surveyed by Islamic militants, possibly including one of the suicide bombers, as it passed through the Suez Canal a few days before the attack, crew members said they have been told by FBI investigators.

  • The FBI also has been questioning crew members about the behavior of the Yemeni pilot who guided the Cole into port, which some described as "agitated." In addition, some crew members believe that Yemeni harbor workers acted suspiciously.

  • The boat that exploded may first have attempted to tie up to the Cole’s stern, then moved around to the side of the ship after being ordered away.

    Overwhelmingly, crew members dwelt on the limitations placed on their ability to defend the Cole, especially in the paradoxical situation of visiting a supposedly friendly port during a time of extreme tension in the Middle East.

    Kevin Benoit, a gunner’s mate, said the sailors "weren’t given any kind of instruction that it was dangerous" to refuel in Aden. "Nothing like that was put out … It wasn’t a big deal," he said, adding that he’d been surprised the ship even had armed "rovers" patrolling the deck.

    "I thought it was kind of far-fetched," he said.

    Even now, members of the Cole’s crew say they are hard-pressed to think of what they would have done differently as the small boat approached with no outward sign of hostility.

    "If we had shot those people, we’d have gotten in trouble for it," said Petty Officer Jennifer Kudrick, a sonar technician. "That’s what’s frustrating about it. We would have gotten in more trouble for shooting two foreigners than losing 17 American sailors."

    "It’s kind of hard to say what we should have done," Washak said. "In the military, it’s like we’re trained to hesitate now. If somebody had seen something wrong and shot, he probably would have been court-martialed."

    Benoit, who issued weapons for the security patrol during the refueling, confirmed that the guns were not loaded. He said he issued 9mm pistols to two sailors assigned as roving guards during the refueling, and that those sailors each carried two rounds of ammunition but did not load the weapons.

    "You can’t fire unless fired upon," said Benoit. "We were in no kind of threat-con where we would fire."

    But one of the Cole’s officers, Lt. j.g. Robert Overturf, added that the guards could have loaded and fired quickly if the threat had been more clear.

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