Department of Defense USS Cole Commission Report

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Department of Defense USS Cole Commission Report

Attack on the USS Cole

Government Report

By: United States Department of Defense

Date: January 9, 2001

Source: USS Cole Commission Report, as released by the United States Department of Defense.

About the Author: On October 19, 2000, then Secretary of Defense William Cohen assigned retired Army Gen. William W. Crouch and retired Navy Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr. as co-chairs to head up a commission to carry out an investigation from the perspective of the Department of Defense into the circumstances surrounding the attack on the USS Cole. Separate investigations were also carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Navy. The purpose of the Defense Department investigation was to discover ways to avoid future similar attacks. The FBI was charged with discovering and apprehending those responsible for the attack and the Navy investigation focused on analyzing the standards of procedure before, during, and following the attack.


On October 12, 2000, a boat laden with explosives pulled up alongside the USS Cole, a United States Navy destroyer, and detonated while the Cole was refueling in the Middle Eastern port of Aden, Yemen. The explosion, which was set off by two suicide terrorists, blasted a hole in the side of the vessel 40 feet wide and killed 17 members of the U.S. Navy. An additional 40 people were injured in the attack.

The bombing was soon proven to have been carried out by a cell operating within the al-Qaeda network and who had ties with the Islamic Army of Yemen, an extremist group opposed to the government of Yemen as well as Western influence in Yemen.

The bombing of the USS Cole was the first major international terrorist attack on a United States facility since the bombings of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in the summer of 1998.

In the wake of the attack, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was sent to Yemen where they developed a close working relationship with the local government and opened up one of the largest ever FBI investigations for a crime occurring outside of the United States. It was later revealed that the successful attackon the USS Cole had been preceded by an earlier attempt by an al-Qaeda cell to carry out a similar bombing against the USS The Sullivans, which had been planned for January 3, 2000. Prior to reaching that destination, the boat carrying the explosives had sunk. The terrorists had salvaged the boat and the explosives, which were then used in the attackon the Cole.

The legal definition of an act of terrorism, as defined by the U.S. Code, establishes that terrorism is an act perpetrated against "non-combatants." Though some claim that this definition possibly precludes the USS Cole bombing as an international terrorist incident, the U.S. government and military both asserted that the ship was not engaged in combat and that the bombing was intended as terrorism. In the immediate hours following the attack, President Bill Clinton said, "If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act."

By the end of 2000, eight suspects had been arrested by Yemeni authorities in connection with the attack on the USS Cole. On November 3, 2002, Abu Ali al-Harithi, the suspected mastermind behind the attack was killed in a missle attack in Yemen fired by an unmanned drone operated by the CIA.


Since the attack on Khobar Towers in June 1996, the Department of Defense (DoD) has made significant improvements in protecting its service members, mainly in deterring, disrupting and mitigating terrorist attacks on installations. The attack on USS COLE (DDG 67), in the port of Aden, Yemen, on 12 October 2000, demonstrated a seam in the fabric of efforts to protect our forces, namely in-transit forces. Our review was focused on finding ways to improve the U.S. policies and practices for deterring, disrupting and mitigating terrorist attack on U.S. forces in transit. . . .



Finding: Combating terrorism is so important that it demands complete unity of effort at the level of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Recommendation: Secretary of Defense develop an organization that more cohesively aligns policy and resources within DoD to combat terrorism and designate an Assistant Secretary of Defense (ASD) to oversee these functions.

Finding: The execution of the engagement element of the National Security Strategy lacks an effective, coordinated interagency process, which results in a fragmented engagement program that may not provide optimal support to in-transit units.

Recommendation: Secretary of Defense support an interagency process to provide overall coordination of U.S. engagement.

Finding: DoD needs to spearhead an interagency, coordinated approach to developing non-military host nation security efforts in order to enhance force protection for transiting US forces.

Recommendation: Secretary of Defense coordinate with Secretary of State to develop an approach with shared responsibility to enhance host nation security capabilities that result in increased security for transiting US forces.

Antiterrorism/Force Protection (AT/FP)

Finding: Service manning policies and procedures that establish requirements for full-time Force Protection Officers and staff billets at the Service Component level and above will reduce the vulnerability of in-transit forces to terrorist attacks.

Recommendation: Secretary of Defense direct the Services to provide Component Commanders with full-time force protection officers and staffs that are capable of supporting the force protection requirements of transiting units.

Finding: Component Commanders need the resources to provide in-transit units with temporary security augmentation of various kinds.

Recommendation: Secretary of Defense direct the Services to resource Component Commanders to adequately augment units transiting through higher-threat areas.

Finding: More responsive application of currently available military equipment, commercial technologies, and aggressive research and development can enhance the AT/FP and deterrence posture of transiting forces.

Recommendation: Secretary of Defense direct the Services to initiate a major unified effort to identify near-term AT/FP equipment and technology requirements, field existing solutions from either military or commercial sources, and develop new technologies for remaining requirements.

Finding: The Geographic Commander in Chief should have the sole authority for assigning the threat level for a country within his area of responsibility.

Recommendations: Secretary of Defense direct that the Geographic CINCs be solely responsible for establishing the threat level within the appropriate area of responsibility with input from DIA. Secretary of Defense coordinate with Secretary of State, where possible, to minimize conflicting threat levels between the Department of Defense and the Department of State. Secretary of Defense designate an office or agency responsible for setting the threat level for Canada, Mexico, Russia, and the United States.

Finding: Using operational risk management standards as a tool to measure engagement activities against risk to in-transit forces will enable commanders to determine whether to suspend or continue engagement activities.

Recommendation: Secretary of Defense direct the CINCs to adopt and institutionalize a discrete operational risk management model to be used in AT/FP planning and execution.

Finding: Incident response must be an integral element of AT/FP planning.

Recommendation: Secretary of Defense direct the Geographic CINCs to identify theater rapid incident response team requirements and integrate their utilization in contingency planning for in-transit units, and the Services to organize, train, and equip such forces.


Finding: In-transit units require intelligence support tailored to the terrorist threat in their immediate area of operations. This support must be dedicated from a higher echelon (tailored production and analysis).

Recommendation: Secretary of Defense reprioritize intelligence production to ensure that in-transit units are given tailored, focused intelligence support for independent missions.

Finding: If the Department of Defense is to execute engagement activities related to the National Security Strategy with the least possible level of risk, then Services must reprioritize time, emphasis, and to prepare the transiting units to perform intelligence preparation of the battlespace—like processes and formulate intelligence requests for information to support operational decision points.

Recommendation: Secretary of Defense direct the Services to ensure forces are adequately resourced and trained to make maximum use of intelligence processes and procedures, including priority information requests and requests for information to support intelligence preparation of the battlespace for in-transit unit antiterrorism/force protection.

Finding: DoD does not allocate sufficient resources or all-source intelligence analysis and collection in support of combating terrorism.

Recommendations: Secretary of Defense reprioritize all-source intelligence collection and analysis personnel and resources so that sufficient emphasis is applied to combating terrorism. Analytical expertise must be imbedded, from the national, CINC, and Component Command levels, to the joint task force level. Secretary of Defense reprioritize terrorism-related human intelligence and signals intelligence resources. Secretary of Defense reprioritize resources for the development of language skills that support combating terrorism analysis and collection.

Finding: Service counterintelligence programs are integral to force protection and must be adequately manned and funded to meet the dynamic demands of supporting in-transit forces.

Recommendation: Secretary of Defense ensure DoD counterintelligence organizations are adequately staffed and funded to meet counterintelligence force protection requirements.

Finding: Clearer DoD standards for threat and vulnerability assessments, must be developed at the joint level and be common across Services and commands.

Recommendations: Secretary of Defense standardize counterintelligence assessments and increase counterintelligence resources. Secretary of Defense direct DoD-standard requirements for the conduct of threat and vulnerability assessments for combating terrorism. Secretary of Defense direct the production of a DoD-standard Counterintelligence Collection Manual for combating terrorism.


Finding: Better force protection is achieved if forces in transit are trained to demonstrate preparedness to deter acts of terrorism.

Recommendations: Secretary of Defense direct the Services to develop and resource credible deterrence standards, deterrence-specific tactics, techniques, and procedures and defensive equipment packages for all forms of transiting forces. Secretary of Defense direct the Services to ensure that pre-deployment training regimes include deterrence tactics, techniques, and procedures and AT/FP measures specific to the area of operation and equipment rehearsals.


With the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, the United States was reminded of the threats posed by international terrorist networks such as al-Qaeda.

This report was issued before the attacks of 9/11, but it marks the seriousness with which the United States regarded the threat of terrorism. This report specifically recommends that the job of counterterrorism become a central focus of the Secretary of Defense and that an Assistant Secretary be named to specifically oversee this process. The report calls for the Defense Department to provide a strategy that would allow the various governmental agencies to better coordinate with each other to prevent future strikes. Some of the recommendations made in this report were later adopted in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Critics of the handling of intelligence and the counterterrorism effort prior to 9/11 point to this report issued in January of 2001 as a possible indicator that the United States government understood the threat posed by al-Qaeda and similar international terrorist groups, but failed to expeditiously implement new counterterrorism measures. The 9/11 Commission, the body appointed to investigate government handling of the 9/11 attacks, noted that the brief span of months between the attack on the USS Cole and the 9/11 attacks did not leave enough time to significantly overhaul U.S. counterterrorism efforts.


Web sites "Congressional Research Service: Terrorist Attack on USS Cole; Background and Issues for Congress." <> (accessed July 1, 2005). "USS Cole (DDG 67)." <> (accessed July 1, 2005).

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