Pentagon Cautious on Cole Retaliation

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As lawmakers prepared to huff and puff Wednesday over the recent terror attack on the USS Cole, Pentagon officials cautioned that a retaliatory strike isn't likely any time soon. One senior officer said the case "looks a lot more like Khobar Towers than the east Africa bombings." The U.S. responded to the embassy bombings by lobbing cruise missiles at targets they associated with Osama Bin Laden, but the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. airmen, remains unsolved and unavenged.

"I'm just not sure we're going to catch anybody," a senior Pentagon officer involved in the hunt for the Cole attackers said Wednesday. "If we can find them, I am sure we will retaliate, but finding both motive and targets worth hitting could prove difficult." There is also some skepticism among U.S. officers over the neat dovetailing uncovered by local police work in Aden. "This whole tale of the 12-year old boy, the dinghy and the trailer seems just a little too neat, a little too quick," one senior Pentagon official says. "The Yemenis might be cooperating a little too much, which should raise some flags." Pentagon officials say that any decision to launch a retaliatory strike would have to factor in the current violence in the Middle East and the looming presidential election, both of which might act as a brake on U.S. action.

Senior Pentagon officials will be grilled by both the Senate and House armed services committees, but are expected to stick to the account they have embraced since the bombing: That the sneak attack on the Cole was unanticipated and that all prudent steps were taken to prevent it. But that line already is weakening, especially following the Navy's admission last week that the terrorist boat exploded alongside the Cole as the destroyer was taking on fuel. For more than a week after the attack, the Navy had said the small boat had come alongside the Cole among a fleet of small boats guiding the destroyer to her refueling mooring.

Once refueling is under way, no boats are supposed to approach a ship taking on fuel for safety reasons, Navy officials say. That suggests that even if the sailors scouring the horizon in Aden harbor suspected the small boat was friendly, it should have been kept at least 100 yards from the Cole. "Typically, that is the harbormaster's job," one Navy officer says. "But if he screws up, it becomes the [Cole's] crew's job. And if the crew doesn't do it, it's the skipper's problem."