Washington The former Marine general who arranged for U.S. warships to refuel in Yemen defended his decision Thursday before a Senate panel, saying all ports in the region are "rats' nests ... for terrorists."
In the first hearing on last week's terrorist attack on the USS Cole that left 17 sailors dead, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Yemeni coast is a "sieve" for terrorists, and that its port at Aden is the best of many undesirable locations to refuel.
Zinni, who headed the Central Command in 1998, when the contract to refuel Navy ships at Aden was negotiated, said some previously scheduled refueling stops there had been canceled due to terrorist threats.
But he said a U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf must be maintained to protect the economy in a region that produces more than half the world's oil. And he personally took responsibility for the decision to refuel at Aden, although he said it had been made in close consultation with security and intelligence officials.
"I pass that buck on to nobody," Zinni said. "The threat conditions in Aden were better than elsewhere. ... Sudan? Obviously not. Saudi Arabia? Back in 1997, when we were making this decision, we had just had two bombings in Saudi Arabia. We lost 24 people."
On Oct. 12, a small boat carrying powerful explosives blew a giant hole in the USS Cole as it refueled in Aden harbor, killing 17 sailors, injuring three dozen and leaving lingering questions about protection of military personnel abroad.
Although the State Department recently reported that Yemen remains a haven for terrorists, Zinni said he is convinced the Yemeni government wants to work with the United States to combat terrorism. He said he had not compromised security considerations in a bid to improve relations with Yemen, and argued that it's important to cooperate with Yemen so it doesn't become as problematic for the U.S. as such nations as Afghanistan, where Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden, a prime suspect in the attack, is sheltered.
Zinni met with skepticism from some members of the Senate panel, who asked why better security arrangements weren't made for the Cole and sought suggestions for improvements in protection of military personnel abroad.