Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official
The Briefing Room
4:40 P.M. EDT
(in progress) --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Commander of UNPROFOR in Bosnia, General Rose, requested this response by NATO, as he has, I think, on two occasions since February. On both those previous occasions, as you'll recall, by the time it had worked its way through to a decision, there were not targets. This time there were. The decision-making process moved more quickly and more smoothly than it has in the past.
The weather conditions are not very good around Gorazde, but the planes found a way to get in. We do not yet have a damage assessment. The French, as the President -- I think the French NATO aircraft was -- did a reconnaissance, and we don't yet have the analysis yet.
But the authority was, as we have said repeatedly in the past, we were prepared to do -- we, NATO -- close air support for UNPROFOR forces. There are U.N. military observers in Gorazde, and our information is that at least two of them had been wounded -- and clearly, when the Serb tanks -- Bosnian tanks were firing into Gorazde, U.N. personnel were at risk.
The authority in the U.N. resolution -- and I won't bore you with all the details -- is both specific and quite broad. In this case, referring both to the safety of U.N. personnel and to, in this case, the U.N. personnel were in a safe area, safe haven. But that's too much -- don't worry about that. In any case, it was under existing authorities and completely pursuant to the policy that we've been enunciating.
Q: The reason was the wounding of two of these observers?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. The reason was the fact that U.N. military observers had been wounded is corroboration for the point that U.N. personnel are at risk in Gorazde when artillery pieces are being -- I mean, when the tanks were firing in.
Q: That wasn't the reason for the decision, these two U.N. observers --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q: What changed so that the decision process moved much more quickly this time?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This is the U.N. decision-making process, not ours. Akashi -- I'm not saying it was his fault before, but our information is that Akashi made a decision within minutes of having the decision presented to him. And the information moved smoothly through the U.N. system and back to NATO. And NATO, which is flying in any case overhead, was prepared to act promptly.
Q: If these people were wounded recently, why wasn't that sufficient reason to launch the air strikes then?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I presume because there wasn't a clear target.
Q: Does that mean they just didn't --
Q: So you had to have those two --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. I don't think --I think, in this case, they had -- they knew that the tanks were there. The forward air controller saw it and requested --
Q: So the target was a tank? The target we hit.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q: What was the target?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We'll find that out when we get the assessment.
Q: So the reports that it was a tank and also a command post?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Tanks were firing in. We don't know what was hit, whether command post, tanks. We'll know that soon.
Q: Well, not necessarily what was hit, but we don't even know what the target is, regardless of what they hit?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm just being careful because -- we've talked about this before -- and your first reports are almost invariably a little off. There will be a briefing, we believe, by the NATO people at Aviano. And we hope sooner rather than later.
Q: If the reports are a little off now, shouldn't we clear them up? What's a little off about our reports out there now? Shouldn't we get them right?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: How do you mean?
Q: You said our reports --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In other words, in any case, always when there's a military action, one has to be careful about being too specific about exactly what happened until you get the pilots' reports and all. And we're still gathering it. So I just don't want to log myself into exactly what the pilots were picking up.
Q: The U.N. observers that were wounded, how and where were they wounded? And do you know anything about the extent of their wounds?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All I know is that there were two who were -- our reports are that two had been wounded in previous days. I don't have --
Q: much more than that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q: This was the first time we've conducted a strike to halt an offensive, correct? That's different.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This is the first time that we have carried out a strike pursuant to the close air support commitment of NATO. Though we've been prepared to do that before, in the previous cases, NATO aircraft were positioned to do it but couldn't acquire targets when they got the go-ahead.
Q: This whole thing took something like 25 minutes from the time the request was made and the attack was made?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I think it may -- I wouldn't say that. It may have been longer than that.
Q: longer than that. How much longer?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Don't know. Again, I don't want to say exactly.
Q: Given Mr. Christopher's statements this morning on Meet The Press, did you have some early indication that this might happen?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we've had indications for days that U.N. personnel in Gorazde --
Q: But imminent.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: But that it was imminent, no.
Q: So when he went on this morning, he did not know that this was going to happen.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q: When was the President informed --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I know that because I was watching the tape of his interview when I got the word that it was happening.
Q: When was the President informed that that action was to be taken? Was he notified in advance?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I had sent him a note this morning on the situation both in Rwanda and Bosnia, first thing. And then Shali called me around 10:30 a.m., I guess, or something like that -- again, don't hold me to it, but in mid-morning, saying that the request had been filed. And the President was leaving for church and so I sent him a message through the military aide while he was at church.
Q: Was that when he came out --
Q: He came out of the church --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Did he?
Q: to take a phone call.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I told him not to. (Laughter.) Anyway, then when he got back I spoke to him again on the phone, telling him the action had taken place. Then he got two or three updates by phone as it was on it. And then he came -- well, anyway, then we called a principals meeting to talk about it and to make sure we were coordinating everything. And he joined the principals meeting for, I'd say -- Dee Dee? -- half an hour, 45 minutes, something like that.
Q: What time did that start?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The principals meeting started at 1:45 p.m. and concluded around 4:00 p.m.
Q: Was the Vice President here?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Vice President came in at the end. And the usual suspects were at the principals meeting.
Q: Christopher seemed to be talking kind of optimistically about a cease-fire coming fairly imminently this morning. Is that what Clinton was alluding to?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Ambassador Redman, who is in Sarajevo, has been working with both the Bosnian government and the Bosnian Serbs to try to organize the cessation of hostilities throughout Bosnia, as well as to resolve the situation around Gorazde, including a pullback of Serb forces from the pocket. And, in fact, those negotiations were taking place this morning when the attack on Gorazde occurred. And the U.N. will now be pursuing talks with the Bosnian Serbs about Gorazde so we can get the general talks about a cessation of hostilities throughout Bosnia back on track.
Let me emphasize that it's not just the cessation of hostilities, but a cessation of hostilities linked to, then, a resumption of the negotiations for a general settlement. The reason being that the Bosnian government wants to see both a cessation of hostilities, but the negotiations that can lead to the territorial adjustments, rather than just get locked into a standstill.
Q: Can we go back just one second on the thing that kicked this off? You said it wasn't the injuries of the two.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm talking about the authority that was -- that the injuries are an illustration of the danger that U.N. personnel are under in Gorazde. What specifically kicked this off and led to the request was -- because this fighting has been going on off and on for about a week or so, or more -- what led to this specific request was the Serbs had taken some high ground, I guess -- when -- yesterday, and from that high ground apparently had been sending rounds into the city. And U.N. personnel are in the city and were again at risk. And Rose requested the close air support.
Q: Oh, so we're getting shelled. As an example of our getting shelled, here's two guys who got injured during the day --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Earlier in shelling.
Q: earlier. So we need some help. Is that --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Exactly. But it's the triggering of close air support.
Q: Not to belabor this point, but it's not that these injuries, but the fact that these injuries had taken place?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's just an illustration of the dangers in the situation. And then when you've got a renewed direct shelling into the city, then Rose said our people are at risk and asked for the close air support.
Q: Did you hear anything about retaliation? There were some reports that they -- the Serbs had immediately launched antiaircraft missiles into the suburbs.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Not that we know of.
Q: The President -- on last thing -- he said the reasons --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, don't take anything in the first few hours to the bank.
Q: He also referred to heavy casualties in the town. Does that mean civilian casualties?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. And, again, there are varying reports of it. Both civilian and military.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 4:50 P.M. CDT
William J. Clinton, Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269391