Aspin says he won't quit over Somalia


WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Les Aspin said yesterday he would not resign amid continued criticism of his failure to grant a request for tanks that might have saved U.S. Rangers in Somalia.

"Had I known at that time what I knew after the events of Sunday, I would have made a very different decision," Mr. Aspin told reporters at the White House. "I saw that they could have been used very usefully after the events on Sunday."

In a written statement later, Mr. Aspin said, "I accept responsibility for the consequences of that decision."

But Pentagon officials tried to shift the blame to the general who sought the reinforcements.

The backbiting at the Pentagon came amid scattered Republican calls for Mr. Aspin's resignation and continued assertions by well-placed military officials that Gen. Colin L. Powell, who retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last week, fully endorsed a request in early September from the U.S. field commander in Somalia for armored reinforcements.

Mr. Aspin said the military advice he was receiving was "mixed" and cited strong domestic political reasons not to send more troops and heavy weaponry to Somalia.

There has been no dispute that the four M1A1 tanks and 14 Bradley Fighting Vehicles sought by Maj. Gen. Thomas M. Montgomery, commander of U.S. forces in Somalia, would have sharply reduced the heavy U.S. losses in last weekend's prolonged battle. At the very least, heavily armored vehicles would have enabled rescuers to break through barricaded streets and survive ambushes and land mines.

Congressional leaders questioned Mr. Aspin's handling of the matter while meeting with President Clinton yesterday, but Democrats and the most influential Republicans -- including Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Republican Whip Sen. Alan Simpson -- chose not to demand that Mr. Aspin step down.

But all day, aides to Mr. Aspin and other officials were sufficiently worried about the criticism directed at their boss that some pointed fingers at their own military commanders.

They blamed the military for failing to convey an urgent need for armored reinforcements.

One official claimed the general's request was "inconsistent" with Mr. Aspin's strategy for withdrawing U.S. forces from Somalia, even though attacks were escalating against U.N. peacekeepers, especially Americans.

Mr. Aspin suggested that the military held up the request, which did not come to his attention until Sept. 23. The reinforcements appeared to be intended to help U.S. military logistics operations in Somalia, not to protect U.S. combat troops, he said.

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