LAMB BRIAN: Kirk Lippold, former Captain of the United States Ship Cole, why did you take the blame for 9/11, in your book?
KIRK LIPPOLD: I don’t think I took blame, but I certainly felt that I bore some responsibility. It was my job years ago when I rose my raise my right hand, swore an oath to support and defend my constitution. That meant defending my nation.
And when our country is attacked, I was on act of duty at that time. I had clearly been through a major terrorist incident. I was familiar with Al-Qaeda and I just felt the degree of burden that I should have been saying or doing something having been at the focal point of that fire storm back on 10/12, October 12, 2000 that I should have been saying something to our leadership, to anybody that might have listened that could have done something.
LAMB: Right away in your acknowledgement upfront, you say, ”The war on terror started with us.” Explain.
LIPPOLD: The way I look at it is when you attack buildings or embassies whether it’s World Trade Center One, Khobar Towers or the embassies in Africa, those are things that house and represent U.S. interest.
When you attack a warship, that’s different, that’s something that defends U.S. citizens and our interest around the world. And when you try to take away a nation’s ability to protect itself, it’s an act of war.
LAMB: Let’s go back to the beginning. I am sure you have told this story many times, but what day was the ship you were commanding bombed?
LIPPOLD: October 12, 2000.
LAMB: What were the circumstances?
LIPPOLD: We had been operating in the Mediterranean for about six and a half weeks, had come through the Suez Canal on the 19th or excuse me, the 9th of October down the Red Sea. We have been held back until the last possible minute in the European Theater of Operations. And consequently we had to go at a high-speed transit, 25 knots which is about 30 miles an hour. That’s double the normal speed that ships would transit to the Middle East.
And it was because of that transit that as we went through the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb and rounded the south west corner of the Arabian Peninsula, we needed fuel. We are below 50 percent, ship like USS Cole carries over a half million galloons. So, we have to find some place to stop.
Because of the draw down in the naval forces over a number of years, if not decades, we’ve gone from a Navy of 4,000 ships following World War II to a little shy of 600 ships at the height of Reagan build up to 315 ships the morning of October 12th. There wasn’t an oiler within about a thousand miles.
So they looked at two ports for us to refill, Aden at the southwest corner to the Arabian Peninsula, Djibouti on the east coast of Africa and said, ”Aden is the safer port, the higher terrorist threats Djibouti, that’s where we’re going to pull you into the refuel,” expected to be there for about six to eight hours taking on a little over a quarter million galloons.
LAMB: Yemen today sounds like maybe even the headquarters of Al-Qaeda. What was it known then and why were you and I know you even asked this question in the book, what were you doing in Aden, Yemen?
LIPPOLD: Our nation had made a decision a couple of years before USS Cole ever pulled into that port to do engagement on a broader level with the Yemenis government, with President Saleh and the capital of Sana’a. And we had decided that Yemen was a or Aden was a good port for Navy ships to pull into. It was a way for us to have a refueling port. It was also a way that we could introduce money into their economy and help them out in a very bilateral type of engagement.
We had put de-mining teams in there to help the country de-mine following the Civil War in the early ’90s. So, there were a number of activities going on. What we weren’t doing was investing in our intelligence and knowledge of what was going on in that country.
While, I think every ship that operated in that region knew that there was a general threat from Al-Qaeda, obviously, we’ve had the bombings two years before in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya, there was nothing on toward to indicate that there was a threat to Navy ships in the fifth fleet or the Central Command Middle East area of responsibility.
LAMB: What is first of all, what’s the name Cole come from?
LIPPOLD: USS Cole was named after Darrell S. Cole. He was a Marine Sergeant who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Iwo Jima in World War II.
LAMB: And how old was this ship when you were in Yemen.
LIPPOLD: Four and a half years old when we pulled in. She had been commissioned in the Navy. Official ceremony was in June 1996, so, a fairly new destroyer, modern equipment. She had already made one deployment and had come back to the United States, had gone through a small maintenance and retrofit period and had done a training cycle of about 16 months before we deployed in August of 2000.
LAMB: How long had you been on her and what was your rank and position?
LIPPOLD: On October 12, 2000, I’ve been in command of the ship for about 15 months and I was a Commander in the United States Navy.
LAMB: Explain how a man can be or a woman can be a commander on a ship, but still be the Captain?
LIPPOLD: Well, the way the Navy works, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Lieutenant in charge of a patrol craft, or whether you’re a Navy Captain in charge of a cruise or an aircraft carrier, you earn during the time that you’re in command that honorary title of Captain.
LAMB: How big is this ship?
LIPPOLD: USS Cole is 505 feet long, 66 feet wide and 8,400 tons approximately.
LAMB: How many sailors on there and how many officers and how many enlisted?
LIPPOLD: Normal compliment is about 25 officers and about 275 enlisted. We were just a little bit shy of 300 that morning.
LAMB: How many were killed and how many injured?
LIPPOLD: There were 17 killed and 37 that were wounded and awarded purple hearts for their injuries.
LAMB: So, exactly what happened and at what time?
LIPPOLD: We had pulled in for the refueling that morning around 9.30. We had moored the ship to a pier in the middle of the harbor. We were right side or starboard side to that pier. Our balance pointed out of the harbor. I turned the ship around, there’s a force protection measure in case we had to get underway in a hurry.
At about 10.30, we started refueling the ship. And the clock was ticking at that point. During the course of operations that morning, my suppliers had come to me, made arrangements for three garbage barges to come out to the ship in addition to the normal arrangements, the logistics agent and the port of maid to remove sewage and top off our fresh water tanks. We also knew that we wanted to get rid of our trash, our hazardous material and plastics none of which we dump at sea.
So, we’d arranged for three garbage barges to come out. And by around 11 o’clock that morning, two boats had come out and the crew was unloading trash. I was turned back to my desk and doing routine paper work when at 11:18 in the morning, there was a thunderous explosion.
You could feel all 505 feet and 8,400 tons of destroyer quickly and violently thrust up into the right. It’s almost like we seem to hang for a second in the air as the ship was doing this odd three-dimensional twisting and flexing. We came back down in the water, lights went out, ceiling tiles came and popped out, everything on my desk lifted up about a foot and slammed back down. I literally grabbed the underside of my desk in a brace position until the ship stopped moving and I could stand up.
I went to the door of my cabin. As I looked down the passageway or hallway right there, there’s a great cloud came toward me. There wasn’t a sound on the ship and I didn’t know what, but that great cloud silently washed over me. I could smell the dust. I could smell the fuel, but I could also smell this acrid metallic tang and didn’t know what it was.
Within a matter of seconds though, I knew we’ve been attacked. I knew it wasn’t a fuel explosion. When I turned the ship around in the harbor and moored it right side to the pier, if it had been an explosion on the pier of the ship, I should have been shoved left. I’ve been thrust up into the right and the only thing on the left side of that ship was open harbor.
So, I knew something had probably come alongside and detonate.
LAMB: What was your first reaction on what you found?
LIPPOLD: When I first got there, my chief gunner’s mate I thankfully saw was reestablishing the defensive perimeter around the ship with the rest of the security teams. I immediately went over to the port side, looked over and you could tell in that moment that there was an attack.
The explosion had blown metal into the ship. Nothing was pointed outward. Unfortunately there were four orange rafts alongside the ship. The first thing that went through my mind was one of these rafts clearly got alongside and has blown up. It turns out, it wasn’t.
The two garbage barges that had been alongside the ship had left at about 11:15 transiting back across the harbor. What we didn’t know is Al-Qaeda had been in that port for a number of months observing us, observing Navy ships and the third barge that came out masqueraded as the garbage barge.
We were operating under peace time rules of engagement. It didn’t exhibit what we call hostile intent like aiming guns at us or hostile act like shooting at us. So, people thought naturally, it was the third garbage barge, came down the side of the ship, two guys were in it, stood up and even waved to the crew. It came to the exact same spot in the middle of the ship where the previous barge have been and then initiated the explosion.
LAMB: You say in your book that the guys waved and they couldn’t smile and then blew themselves up as well as the people in your ship. What kind of people are these?
LIPPOLD: I think what you’re seeing is a very dedicated and focused enemy. They will stop at nothing to further their ideology, to try and get you know you have to remember what Bin Ladin’s entire fatwa declaration of war says. He wanted all U.S. forces out of the Middle East and then they want to expand the radical Islam caliphate beyond the Middle East to take over the whole world.
LAMB: I’m going to come back to some of these, but I want to jump to 9/11. I want to jump to September 9th, 2001. Where were you?
LIPPOLD: That morning I had been briefed up at the CIA. I had received a call a former commander officer of mine who’s now retired and working up there and I had driven up the George Washington parkway, arrived up at the old headquarters building, walked inside.
And it was just in some ways, it was like a movie set to me. I mean that 16-inch granite seal in the floor right in the main entry way there. To the left is the single star for all those that have died in the OSS, the precursor to the organization to the CIA. And on the right were row after row of gold stars of those that have given their life as part of the agency to protect our country.
We started the briefing at seven o’clock that morning. It went for an hour and a half. And at the end, I was talking with Mr. Charlie Allen who was one of the assistant deputy directors and I said, ”Thank you, sir for taking the time, but America doesn’t understand.” I believe it’s going to take a seminal event probably in this country where hundreds if not thousands die before Americans realize we’re at war with this guy.
He said, ”Well, we’re doing our best to make sure that doesn’t happen.” But 20 minutes later, we watched as the first plane hit. I looked at the TV with the smoke coming out at the World Trade Center wondering what a site seeing plane on a beautiful clear day like this could fly into the side of a building, but you could also tell from the size of the hole, something just wasn’t quite right.
And a few minutes later, I was standing in the counter terrorism center literally about to walk in the meet Cofer Black at that time when we watched in horror like the rest of the nation did as that second plane banked in to the South Tower and slammed in.
LAMB: Who is Cofer Black?
LIPPOLD: He was the Director for the Counter Terrorism Center at the CIA.
LAMB: Under what auspices where you at the CIA?
LIPPOLD: I was purely there as a military officer receiving an off-the-record briefing on what the agency knew before, during and after the attack on USS Cole.
LAMB: And what were the circumstances for you in the Navy at that point? What was your job?
LIPPOLD: At that time, I had had change of command on USS Cole in March. I had attended the Joint Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia and then reported to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The office I was dealing with was called United Nations and Multi-Lateral Affairs.
So, we were dealing with a lot of international treaties. And the offices I was in was unique in that we were the only global strategy office. Most of them are broken down by regions. We were the only one that kind of spanned the entire world as far as treaties, United Nations and other multi-lateral issues that affected our country.
LAMB: But what was the Navy saying to you about your future at that point?
LIPPOLD: At that point, my career looked to be on track.
LAMB: You were still a Commander?
LIPPOLD: I was still a Commander.
LAMB: Let me run a piece of recorded video with Senator John Warner and we’ll ask you about this.
JOHN WARNER: In the case of the Cole, the report of the jag man’s investigation office was clear. It was precise and in my personal judgment, it was a professional job well done. The report found that instructions, directives, and orders issued by the Chief of Naval Operation and the Central Command had been violated.
In fact the report stated that failure by the Commanding Officer to implement half of the required 62 force protection measures. Further according to the investigating officer, there were 19 force protection measures that could possibly have prevented or at a minimum mitigated the effect of the attack on the USS Cole.
Of these 19 measures, only 7 were implemented by Commanding Officer of the Cole and his crew.
LAMB: By the way no time is your name mentioned, but they’re obviously talking he’s obviously talking about you.
LAMB: That was in 2001. What are the circumstances and what are the I don’t want to get too far in the weeds because it’s hard to understand all the language, but what’s going on here?
LIPPOLD: What you’re really seeing is a senior Senator who clearly did not delve into the investigation the way he should have and is manipulating facts for the purpose of a political agenda.
It’s very unfortunate what the Senator fails to mention when he talks about half the measure is not implemented is when you look at those 63 measures, half of them didn’t even apply to the physical circumstances that we faced that morning we pulled in.
So, right off the bat, half of those measures, we were up here in the middle of the harbor. I’m not worried about vehicular access or checking vehicles coming out to the pier, so they didn’t apply. And when you look at the other measures, what he doesn’t fail to mention is he only speaks about the investigating office. That investigating officer had a very narrow scope given to him for the investigation to only look on the ship and could take nothing else into context.
He couldn’t take the context of how we came to be in that port, what the intelligent was that we had on board the ship, what force protection measures other ships may have followed when they were there and as the investigation went further up the chain of command and was reviewed by much more experienced than senior officers than the investigating officer who is just a Navy Captain, they would ultimately determine that there was nothing that the crew or I could have done that morning that would have mitigated or prevented that attack.
And that was upheld all the way through the Secretary of Defense.
So, while the Senator says those things, clearly, he either didn’t read the investigation the way he should have or he is picking facts selectively in order to paint a picture so that he can achieve an agenda that he wants.
LAMB: Where is Cole headquartered?
LIPPOLD: Cole is home ported in Norfolk, Virginia.
LAMB: Senator Warner is from Virginia.
LAMB: What role did he play in your future?
LIPPOLD: Well, he clearly would play a role two years later after the attack in January of 2002, I would be selected for promotion to Captain. My name would be supported through my entire chain of command from the Chief of Naval Operation, Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of Defense. Even the Commander in Chief and President Bush because what a lot of Americans don’t know is every officer promotion has to go to the Senate and they give their advise and consent on every officer just like they do every political appointee or a Federal Judge in the United States.
So, when the list went over there, Senator Warner looked at it and told basically told the Navy, I’m not I don’t agree with your decision to promote Commander Lippold. I see he is on the list. If you keep him on the list, I will hold this list up and not allow any officer on this promotion list to go forward.”
LAMB: Here is a former Chief of Naval Operations, Vernon Clark.
VERNON CLARK: And this particular case was about an attack being conducted on the ship. And in my judgment this commanding officer was held accountable. And I judged him. And I’m as you said in your statement, I found some things that I think he could have done better, but I don’t believe that those things rise to the level of punishment to Court Marshall hammers something. I didn’t believe that that was the case and that’s the way I made my judgment, Mr. Chairman.
LAMB: What are we watching there?
LIPPOLD: Well, one thing I’d like to make very clear is that that morning there was one accountable officer on board in USS Cole and that was me. And all I’ve ever asked for in that investigation and anything else is that you view that accountability, determination in how my ship performed before, during and after the attack.
I think Admiral Clark is absolutely right. When he looks at it, he says, ”Yes, there were probably things I could have done differently when I pulled in that morning.” I made a decision as every commanding officer has the latitude to do based on the physical circumstances that they face when they pull in to make a judgment decision on which force protection measures to follow and not to follow so that they are specifically tailored to the situation they face and the intelligence that they have available in that particular time.
I made that determination. There were some measures that I didn’t with the CNO faulted me for and rightly so was that I did not immediately informed the chain of command that I had adjusted my force protection posture based on the physical circumstances that morning.
He didn’t say that he clearly said there was nothing that could have been done that would have mitigated or prevented the attack, but I was held accountable by the chain of command. Senator Warner however does not clearly understand the difference between accountability and blame.
LAMB: But why does he want to get in the middle of this?
LIPPOLD: Senator Warner?
LAMB: Yes, I mean, any idea?
LIPPOLD: The only thing I could ever surmise is that he had gotten some he had been in discussions with some of the families that were concerned about the fact that I was being promoted. It was clearly a political decision for him, 2002, he was up for election that fall and did not want to move it forward.
LAMB: He’s no longer in the Senate. And in your book, you talked about seeking a meeting with him.
LIPPOLD: I did.
LAMB: What year was that?
LIPPOLD: That was in 2006.
LAMB: Why did you want to meet with him?
LIPPOLD: I had worked through the chain of command and given the Navy and the Department of Defense every opportunity to try and push my name forward so that it could receive the advice and consent of the Senate as is allowed by our constitution. But I finally reach the point where it was clear that they were unwilling to put that political stake in the ground against Senator Warner’s wishes.
So, you have to go to the source at some point.
LAMB: Well explain this, Vernon Clark who is the Chief of Naval Operations was on your side in that hearing, but later on the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who’s also a Navy man, Mike Mullen did not approve of your promotion going forward. Why?
LIPPOLD: You’ll have to ask Admiral Mullen. I really don’t understand. I clearly I had been supported throughout the chain of command. He walked in and did a complete reversal to what the entire chain of command had previously supported including the President.
Obviously he felt he knew better, but through the reasons behind it, they are still a mystery to me.
LAMB: Who’s responsible, the Secretary of the Navy or the Chief of Naval Operations, or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on promotions for officers?
LIPPOLD: Boards belong to the Secretary of the Navy. That’s why we have civilian oversight. That’s why we have civilian control over the military. It is the Secretary of Navy’s actual promotion board. It is not the Chief of Naval Operations and it is not the Chairman.
They can provide advice on it, but it is not their board.
LAMB: So, in 2006, you say, ”I want to talk to Senator Warner.” And you had spoken with him up until that point?
LIPPOLD: Absolutely not. I wanted to allow my chain of command as much opportunity and latitude as possible to resolve this issue out of the lime light of having to actually deal one-on-one with the Senator.
LAMB: So, what happened?
LIPPOLD: I would sit down with the Senator over in the at one of the meeting rooms that the Senate Arm Services Committee has. We would spend about 29 or excuse me 24 minutes together chatting about it. And ultimately he would be unmoved and refused to do it unless the Navy was willing to put up with a full Senate Arms Services Committee hearing re-opening the Cole investigation and specifically looking onto my suitability for promotion.
LAMB: But you say in your book when you showed up the morning at the meeting, there were microphones and several people there and somebody they’re asking you why didn’t you have a lawyer, why didn’t you have a P.R. person with you?
LIPPOLD: Well, I think Brian, you know, as well as I, politicians in this town love the theatrics that go along with something like this. And when I walked it was a table set up with a bank full of microphones going to a transcriptionist and they grandiosely waved their hand and said, ”We are going to record it and where are all your people? Where is your public affairs person that you would have guiding you? Where is your attorney to be able to give you legal advice?”
And I just looked at the staff and the Senate Arms Services Committee and said, ”If I can’t clearly articulate to the Senator why I should be promoted to Captain, then I probably shouldn’t be a Captain. I’ll speak for myself.”
LAMB: So, what’s your I mean obviously this book has something to do with where you want to set the record straight?
LIPPOLD: Well, what that book really has to do is not with me. I know we’ve had kind of a long discussion here about Senator Warner, but the reality is I wanted that book to honor my crew because it is my crews that are the true heroes of USS Cole.
They are the ones that sprang into action that morning. They’re the ones that saved that ship from sinking. They’re the ones that kept their crewmates alive and made sure that in the 99 minutes after the attack of the initial 33 we’d evacuate off the ship that morning, 32 of those people would survive. That doesn’t happen by magic.
LAMB: How many of these people are you still in touch with?
LIPPOLD: Oh, the vast majority of the crew. We’re a very tight group. We still stay in touch with each other almost on a daily basis whether it’s through Facebook or e-mails, number of ways.
LAMB: You also report that you met with each of the people that either loss their lives or were injured. You went to their family’s location, but one family wouldn’t see you. Why?
LIPPOLD: That’s true. I think they were still angry. They still looked at me as being the commanding officer and being responsible for having allowed the attack to occur.
I’ve reached out to that family over the years and overtime while we have never officially sat and met. That offer stands for my life time. But I’ve talked with the parents, I’ve talked with the brothers of the person that was killed and we have discussed in many ways a number of issues that surround the event itself and what went on.
LAMB: When did you have those meetings?
LIPPOLD: Right after the investigation was released on January 19th, it was that afternoon and evening that I sat down picked up the phone and began to reach out and call all the families and say initially established contact with them and make sure they received the investigation, answer any questions. Many of them were curious why I waited until that point to reach out to them.
And I realistically told them, I said, ”It would be unfair for me to have established any kind of relationship with you as a family for good or for bad because what if the investigation had come out and found me totally accountable and responsible for this attack and yet I had tried to do that. You would have felt that I had manipulated you or I had used you somehow.”
”I had to wait for that investigation to run it’s complete and thorough course and be released before I ever reach to any of those families.” And then ultimately over the next couple of weeks, we would establish a time period to go out and meet with them. When I had initially proposed it to the Navy, they were very reluctant. As a matter of fact, the answer initially was absolutely not. But I knew it was the right thing to do.
And to the Navy’s credit, they would eventually give me a blank check to get on the road with my command master chief who is the senior enlisted on board and I would spend three and a half weeks visiting with each of those families.
LAMB: When did you leave the Navy?
LIPPOLD: I retired in June 2007.
LAMB: Why did you leave?
LIPPOLD: Well, when you joined the military that is a unique thing. It’s never a job for life and eventually you retire, you get a check every month from the government and then you go find a real work.
LAMB: Why did you run for Congress and when?
LIPPOLD: I ran for Congress last year in 2011 aiming for 2012. I ran because in the four years that I had been out, I just took a look and said, ”You know, you don’t spend 26 years in a great organization like the United States Navy and not miss that sense of service to your country.”
And I looked at the way our political situation was going in our country and I said, ”You know, I can sit on the fringes. I can talk about it. I can complain about it. I can make recommendations on how to improve it, but if you really want to affect the direction and course of the nation, you have to roll up your sleeves and get ready to go swim in that dirty end of the pool called politics.”
And so, I took a good hard look, laid out the plan, ask a lot of questions and then finally said, ”You know, this is going to be the time and the place.”
LAMB: What happened?
LIPPOLD: When I entered the race, I had 14 months to a primary in June of this year, unfortunately the week after I entered to run for Congress in Northern Nevada, our ethics challenged Senator John Ensign would resign. That would cause the Governor to then appoint the current Congressman in the district to his fill out the remainder of his term which triggered a special election.
So, we went from 14 months to a primary, to four months to a special election. Then the GOP and the states sued so that they could make the pick of the party choice rather than allowing it to be an open primary where the people could have a voice.
Eight weeks later, that pick was made. It would be the GOP chairman. That was upheld by the Supreme Court in Nevada a couple of weeks later and the next I know I’m standing on the street corner going, ”What just happened?”
And realistically, that’s how it works. I am hoping that when the next legislative session in Nevada meets that they will reform the law. We do live in the 21st Century. We should be able to have a primary process even for a special election and we’ll see what the future brings.
LAMB: Are you going to run again?
LIPPOLD: We will see what the future brings. I think that there is ample opportunity in the state for both the political future, but also just the future to contribute out there in Nevada.
LAMB: I have in my hand something called a challenge coin. You can see the size of it. I don’t remember when this started, but it’s been a few years ago that military people give this out and secretaries of the Navy and Army and all that. What is this thing?
I’m asking you for a reason.
LIPPOLD: Well, what they are is they are a way that a commander can give a coin, a small token to the people working for them for an exceptional job where maybe a medal is not merited, but it gives them an opportunity to get these coins and know that the commander truly cares and recognizes their superior performance.
LAMB: Who pays for these?
LIPPOLD: Typically if you’re in the military, a lot of times, they are paid for through what they call official representation funds, the commander does. And some commands though they’re not allowed to use any kind of government funds to buy those things as part as representing the command and they come right out of the commander’s pocket.
LAMB: The reason I held it up and asked you about it is because there was a point in your book where you’re quite irritated by General Tommy Franks.
LIPPOLD: Well, I wouldn’t say I was necessarily irritated is that I was just astounded at the fact that he came aboard the ship a few days after the blast and was totally disconnected from the reality of what we have been through.
He was walking around the ship like it was a garrison tour on board at peace time base and kept walking around saying, ”You know you’re doing a great job here. Have one of my coins.” And back slapping with the sailors and having it.
And it wasn’t that I don’t think that the crew didn’t appreciate what he was doing. But from my vantage point, he was the Central Command and Commander. He was the guy responsible for putting my ship into that port and having the access to the broadest level of national intelligence, should have been able to make a determination whether we even belong there or not. We’ve been completely blindsided and yet he made no mention of that fact at any time during the visit.
LAMB: We have some video though, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this from General Tommy Franks.
UNIDENTIFIED REPRESENTATIVE: I’m interested now because that’s a readiness issue now because if we’ve got that many people deployed in the year part of the world and we don’t have the ability to support them and the first people on scene were a French medical team and then a Royal Navy vessel of some kind and then we start getting people on by air shortly after that, that skipper had his hands full for a long time before anybody could help him with
GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Sir, that skipper had his hands full, skipper Lippold. And if I could say before this body, did an absolutely miraculously job both on behalf of his crew and his ship.
UNIDENTIFIED REPRESENTATIVE: Without having any other briefing, I would have concurred because his ship still afloat.
LAMB: Surprised that he gave you that kind of support?
LIPPOLD: Actually I’m not. General Franks is a very, very generous and kind man. And he also is very good at recognizing superior performance. The only thing that I when he was aboard that morning was he just appeared to not really just really understand the impact that this attack had had on us and the fact that we have already gone through.
We were hit on Thursday and he didn’t come aboard till the following Monday. I mean, so, we’ve had four days where we had almost lost the ship Saturday night. The ship in the initial attack was fairly stable right off the bat and we were able to contain the damage. But on Saturday night, when we go through a cascading series of tragedies where we lose my only operating generator, I cannot restart it despite three tries. The emergency generator on the pier doesn’t work.
I go to cut a hole in the side of the ship to get emergency pumps, to get water out in the flooding engine rooms and I can’t initiate the spark to get the torch to work, literally we’re at a point where come early Sunday morning, we are using a bucket brigade for 15 minutes with every bucket and 200 plus sailors bailing out USS Cole for a period of time to try and save it.
And finally we were able to do that. Sailor ingenuity, we jury-rigged some high pressure air compressors that were portables to recharge the flask for the generator. And a little about five minutes after midnight on Monday morning, we would restart the generator and keep it afloat.
I mean it’s an amazing testament to the crew, how well they were trained and what they did in responding to an emergency like that.
LAMB: Through your book though, you show an irritation about the support you got from the Navy and not only that, but the intelligence force. So, for instance, you that the intelligence, CIA station chief in Sana’a, in Yemen didn’t even bother to communicate with you at all about the possibility of Al-Qaeda being there.
LIPPOLD: Well, he wouldn’t communicate directly with me, but it certainly is his job as the senior US intelligence representative for the United States government in the country of Yemen to be able to develop assets throughout that country and especially in a port like Aden where we’re pulling ships in to be able to allow the U.S. Military and the Department of State and Department of Defense to make a determination on whether it is safe for us to be there.
While I may have been the 27th ship to pull in after a couple of years of doing routine refueling operations in that port, clearly, there was something going on there that he was blind to and didn’t know what was going on. So, you have to wonder.
But I want to go back just a second and touch on the issue with the Navy. The phenomenal sport that I got from USS Hass, the guided missile frigate, USS Donald Cook, the guided missile destroyer, and USS Camden and Oiler (ph) was absolutely phenomenal.
They really, really took care of my crew, and
LAMB: But you got well, he had a sense though that you were irritated by the lack of support from back here in Washington.
LIPPOLD: Well, it seemed like Washington was keeping their distance from this because everybody knew that this was going to turn into a blame game of why was that ship in there? Who ordered it in there? What did you give that ship for intelligence? What did you give it for training and protection before they ever pulled in there?
Everyone was going to ducking and dodging on this one rather than being stand up individuals and saying, ”I was accountable and I was responsible.” It even took General Zinni a couple of days to finally stand up and saying, ”I’m the one that started the program putting ships into that port,” and speak up about it.
So, you have to wonder, there comes a point in time when I’m the lonely guy out there at the tip of the spear having taken a major hit and never flinched or wavered out there doing what was necessary to keep my ship afloat and my crew safe. Where were all these other people back in Washington and what were they doing other than trying to avoid responsibility when in fact, I was seeing a ton of support flown my way.
Washington by the same token was very tied up in that particular moment with the huge influx of forces that were coming to support us.
LAMB: When did your President called you, President Clinton?
LIPPOLD: Friday night.
LAMB: I mean this happened on what day?
LIPPOLD: We got hit on Thursday and he would call Friday night. I will tell you right now Brian, nothing in your training ever prepares you for sitting at the back end of the ship on a cell phone talking to the President of United States about what had just happened to your ship and crew.
LAMB: How long did he spend with you?
LIPPOLD: Less than a minute. It was a very short conversation. He basically said that the thoughts and prayers of the American people are with you. You’re doing a great job keeping the ship afloat.
At that point the Middle East was starting to unravel a little bit. We have the follow-on days attack at the embassy up in Sana’a or the British embassy in Sana’a. You would have the Intifada that had kicked off earlier that week.
So, there were a number of issues starting to pop up throughout the Middle East that he had his hands full more on a strategic and broader scale than just one Navy ship in the port of Aden that have been bombed by Al-Qaeda.
While important to me on a larger strategic perspective he’s looking at the entire pattern of attacks that are starting to occur throughout the Middle East and is wondering if this is this the signal for a larger war that maybe breaking out with not only Al-Qaeda, but other areas throughout the Middle East.
LAMB: Again, on the timing you said, earlier that on January the 19th the report came out. January the 19th of what year?
LIPPOLD: January 19th, 2001.
LAMB: How about President Bush, did he give you any more attention? I mean I’m talking about the USS Cole when he came into power?
LIPPOLD: Absolutely none. When President Bush came into port, there, the administration basically looked at it. Secretary or Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz basically said, ”The information on Cole is stale.” And they had an attitude of we’re forward looking not backward acting.
And consequently USS Cole became a footnote in history. They ignored it. They moved on as a new administration. It had been an act of war. We had watched the Clinton administration do nothing literally waiting until the day before the inauguration of a new administration to release the port end of the attack.
The new administration took over, could have made a decision to take a new direction and do something about this act of war and did nothing. And 11 months after the attack on USS Cole, the nation would pay a tragic price.
I will tell you, we will answer, be able to answer the question on whether the attack on USS Cole and responding to it would have tipped our hand in the intelligence world so that we might know whether or not 9/11 was in progress and what was going on. But I guarantee you doing nothing in response to the attack sealed our fate.
LAMB: On October the 18th 2000, there was an event that at Pier 12 at the Naval, Norfolk Naval Station. We’ve got some video of that were there were ships there, men dressed and women in their whites. The President of the United States shows up. What was that and were you there for that event?
LIPPOLD: No. That was a Memorial Ceremony that was put together by the Navy. A number of the wounded who would have been brought back and were in ports with naval hospital and could be brought over by ambulance were able to attend that. And that was to honor the 17 that have bee killed.
LAMB: But you are frustrated throughout your book when you talked about through the years, you wanted more than that. And there was a meeting eventually that was held with members of the the family members. What year was that?
LIPPOLD: That happened actually in January, early January in 2001 before the investigation was released. There was a meeting held were all the families were assembled at the Base Theater in Norfolk and that they had the Commander in Chief at the Atlantic Fleet at that time Admiral Bob Natter as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Louis Freeh were there.
And they basically gave a briefing on where they stood with the investigation, what was going on and the families basically unloaded on them. They didn’t feel that they were getting the attention. They didn’t feel the questions were being answered properly. They felt like Cole was being ignored in many ways by the Navy leadership. They were not paying attention to it and they wanted some real answers. And they weren’t getting them.
LAMB: What about the meeting that was subsequently held with President Obama?
LIPPOLD: That happened on February 6, 2009 right after he took office. That meeting was actually triggered by his Executive Order decisions to close Guantanamo Bay, suspend military commissions and conduct a review of every detainee that was held in Guantanamo Bay.
LAMB: But you say that in order to get the members of the family members there that they ended up going to the Obama contributor list?
LIPPOLD: Well, initially what happened is when President Obama wanted meet, he initially wanted to meet with just 9/11 family members and it was going to be only the 9/11 family members that were known to be supporting him in his run up for office.
Because you have to remember, when he signed up those three Executive Orders, not once before he did those did he ever consult with the Departments of State, Justice or Defense. He didn’t know the real impact was going to be on making that decision to say, ”I’m closing Guantanamo Bay within a year and getting rid of all the detainees because they’re clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the other ones, we’ll just put in to the federal court system.”
All you have to do is look at one year later and it was very clear, the American people have spoken out crystal clear despite what the attorney general wants to do and said, ”Guantanamo should remain open.” It was never intended to be the detention facility that became. We always wanted it to be an intelligence facility that’s what I believe it still should become. But in talking to the families that were there, it was actually one of the families from 9/11 that said ”You know, USS Cole has been ignored in this all along. You need to invite them.”
But on less than 48 hours notice, he notified the families of Cole and unfortunately the only ones that could really attend were the ones close by here to Washington D.C. who came at the last minute and were able to make it.
LAMB: Where is Cole today?
LIPPOLD: Great news. USS Cole deployed for the sixth time since she was repaired back out there under the high seas. And she left home port of Norfolk about six weeks ago.
LAMB: So, after the explosion when you lost 17 of your crew and 37 wounded, how long did it take to get Cole back in active duty?
LIPPOLD: It took a period of about 15 months. From the time USS Cole was brought back on that heavy lift ship Blue Marlin and arrived in mid December until she sailed away from the yard at the Huntington Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi in April of 2002. It was about a 15-month rebuild period.
LAMB: What it cost us?
LIPPOLD: $250 million.
LAMB: So, go back to this book, what scores did you feel that you settled in this book that you wanted to besides saying the things you do about the families and about the crew?
LIPPOLD: I didn’t want to settle any scores. What I wanted to do in that book was memorialize a great crew that did a phenomenal job saving that ship and saving their shipmates.
That book is truly about the heroic effort that they made the arduous and terrible circumstances that we have to live under for the 17 days we were in the port of Aden. The fact that we lost the ship, almost lost the ship that first day once, almost for sure lost it Saturday and they were able to save it and bring it back and then all the things that we endured afterwards whether it was from the investigation, to feeling ignored in the long view of history by a Navy and a nation who we fell under the footprint of 9/11.
And consequently we’ve been kind of relegated to that dust bin and left to drift into this obscurity which is why I finally said, ”You know, this has to be captured for the American people.” The American people need and deserve to know the heroes that I was privileged to command that day and what phenomenal job they did.
LAMB: You don’t really say much about this, but I want to read it get your further explanation. Kevin Sweeney walked into the ship’s detachment office and announced that the pity party was over and suddenly all letters, gifts, posters from the local school children and patriotic Americans across the nation, everything was order disposed off by the end of the day.
LIPPOLD: I was shocked when I heard that from the crew. I heard it several days later. It was very surprising by the way.
LAMB: Who is he by the way?
LIPPOLD: Kevin Sweeney was my relief as the commanding officer on board USS Cole. And when I had heard that that had happened, what bothered me most is that he was clearly receiving guidance pressure from the leadership of the Navy to put this attack behind you, look forward, and turn that ship around and get it moving forward.
The crew never felt like there was a pity party. They never felt or asked for anyone to be sorry for them. All they wanted was help in dealing with some of the issues that they were dealing with. Everyone on that ship including me had post-traumatic stress. But it’s how you deal with it as to whether or not it becomes a disorder.
They were still working through that process, but having a harsh, ”Let’s cut it off and just look forward and not do anything,” he would in fact pull the crew together on several occasions that chose to remain behind and help rebuild the ship and encourage everyone that have been there during the attack to leave at some point.
LAMB: Were you did you know him?
LIPPOLD: I didn’t know Kevin before he did that. One of the unique things about the Navy is once you assume command, it’s your ship. Once you relinquish command, it’s no longer your ship. And while I may have had feelings myself for how he made decisions while he’s in command, those were his decisions to make.
He did what he thought was best as the commanding officer for right or for wrong. Every commanding officer has that opportunity. You make decisions that in the long view of history might be right and maybe wrong. But that’s one the great, great things about being in command. It is a privilege and it’s a burden as well.
LAMB: Back to the actual event, how were those 17 killed? In other words, where were they that they lost their lives?
LIPPOLD: It was a combination of people that were working in the galley area, the mess line itself and down in main engine room number one and the general workshop where would we do a lot of repair work for the ship right next to it.
The force of the explosion when it came into the ship literally took the deck of the galley area itself, which was the ceiling, our overhead and main engine room number one, and blew it into four pieces.
One cut off the left side of the ship, one slammed forward into my chief petty officer’s mess, one slammed into the mess line, crushing and trapping sailors in the wreckage. The other acted as a scoop and took everyone working the galley along with the equipment and those that were standing in the mess line, and began to shove and crush them toward the starboard side or right side of the ship.
LAMB: And among the injured, how many of them were severely injured to this day have a problem?
LIPPOLD: You know, I haven’t kept track on what their medical conditions are, so I don’t really know. I know that a number of them are still getting treatment through the VA. A number of them retired with disabilities because of the injuries they did receive in the attack.
And that’s part of the consequences of raising your right hand and choosing a life of consequences. When these things happen, the nation assumes an obligation to those sailors to take care of them for the rest of their lives, and to my knowledge, they’re doing a good job with it.
LAMB: One of the surprises to me was I read about Debbie Courtney.
LAMB: I read about Denise Woodfin, I read about Ann Chamberlain, I can go on, and you see where I’m going with this. A lot of women in this ship.
LIPPOLD: Absolutely. But I’ll tell you something that morning, I didn’t have men and women aboard USS Cole. I had sailors and each of them performed phenomenally. The fact that I singled them out and the fact that you pointed out that there are women aboard the ship, I just looked at it and said, look, I don’t have men and women aboard this ship. I’ve got sailors and officers. They’re all going to get treated fair and square and we have a mission to do, and that’s to get USS Cole ready to conduct sustained combat operations at sea.
And that’s exactly what we did. And when did blast hit, it didn’t matter whether you are a man, whether you are a woman, they all performed phenomenally, they came together as a team and did what was necessary to save the ship.
LAMB: Let me read this from your book. Throughout the process the Navy remained publicly silent on the issue of the additional crews’ remains despite repeated queries. The longer the wait, the more difficult it was going to be for the families to deal with the continuing tragedy, as many saw a degree of solace and closure in the healing nature of time. Months had gone by with no word as the families waited in silence.
LIPPOLD: What happened is, they were still working on identifying some of the remains that had been found as Cole was disassembled for repair. And when 9/11 occurred we got put on the back burner. 9/11 now became the priority. The identification of those remains became the priority. Cole, which has been one of my complaints all along was relegated off to the side and we would be told to wait.
And I knew that there were families out there that deserved better. Those people in the Pentagon were in no higher priority than we were. We had been waiting for months. Now, it was going to turn into more than a year before we would get those remains identified, and they needed to be handled in a dignified manner and I was not seeing that happen.
LAMB: There’s a person that you felt was responsible for this and is in Guantanamo, who is as we talk due for a tribunal. Can you explain that and why did that when you wrote this book, it hadn’t been determined that he going to get a tribunal?
LIPPOLD: Well, as part of the whole process with the Obama administration, while they wanted to shut down military commissions and bring everyone here, during the end of the Bush administration, the guy you’re speaking to is Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. He has been brought to Guantanamo Bay. He is there waiting for a military commission to be conducted on him.
We have eventually seen that the attorney general is moving forward with that process. He has allowed the Department of Defense to finally move forward. We are beginning to see the charges have once again been reinstated against him. They are now going through the numbers of motions. You’re seeing his attorney try every legal shenanigan in the book, trying to get to delay the trial.
You know, this is a classic lawyer, OK? We’ll use as many motions as we can to try and delay the trial, and in two years, when we still haven’t gone to a commission, they’ll claim the United States government is delaying a fair trial. I mean, you can...
LAMB: Who was he by the way? Who is he?
LIPPOLD: He was the principal explosives guy that was brought into the country to coordinate, pulling together all of the assets to conduct the attack after a failed attack in January of 2000 against another Navy ship. USS The Sullivans had pulled in. They had already put together a boat with explosives and attempted to set it out to the ship. Unfortunately, they would swamp the boat. It would sink at the pier.
The people there scattered, came back, recovered all the equipment, the boat, the truck, the explosives, tested them in the desert. Then they would bring Al-Nashiri. He would reorganize the entire way they were planning to conduct the attack, move to a new safe house, rebuild the boat, put it in there properly, and then waited for the right time.
No more than 9/11 was picked as the day USS Cole wasn’t picked as the ship. When they were ready, they made the call, we pulled in, and that boat came out to us masquerading as the third garbage barge and detonated.
LAMB: How do we know that Nashiri did that?
LIPPOLD: I can’t go into the specifics, but I have been told that there is a number of a lot of good forensic evidence that definitely ties him to the attack on USS Cole.
LAMB: What should happen to him do you think?
LIPPOLD: I think he should get the death penalty.
LAMB: And what are the chances he will under the way this the legal part of this is set up?
LIPPOLD: I think it is fairly good if we have an administration that has the political will power to do it. If he is tried and convicted of that crime, he should be sentenced to death and it should be expeditiously carried out. We’re at war. This isn’t the Federal Court System, and I think American people have made it very clear that they realized that what is going on in Guantanamo Bay is the result of a war effort, not a large scale criminal action backed with military force.
LAMB: You’ve spent 27 years in the Navy?
LAMB: Excuse me. Then you have another four years at the academy. So that’s 30 total years. What are you doing now to make a living?
LIPPOLD: Most of what I do now is I go out and I talk to groups about USS Cole. I serve with a wonderful group on the board of directors of Military Families United. I also am on the board of advisers for a startup company that is working to actually build barriers for waterside protection for ships. It’s called HALO Defense Systems. They’re out of Massachusetts.
So they’re very much starting and interested in doing it. It looks like they’ve got a superb product. And just trying to make sure that the American people stay aware. I’m engaged in the future of my state out in Nevada obviously, working out there to make sure that we are getting the kind of representation we need to carry the nation forward.
LAMB: In the book, you referred to your closest friend as Nicole Segura.
LAMB: You don’t explain who she is. I must ask you, what relationship is she to you?
LIPPOLD: She and I have been together for well over 10 years now and is probably my closest companion.
LAMB: Have you been married and do you have children?
LIPPOLD: I have not been married and do not have children.
LAMB: So what are your thoughts about because in the next page in your book, you said the attack on Cole fundamentally changed how the Navy viewed force protection and with the attacks on September 11th, the nation felt vulnerable. What has changed now for someone to be a captain of a ship in the Navy?
LIPPOLD: What you’re seeing now is the Navy has done a very good job in doing a lot of exercises and giving those commanding officers that are out there, when it comes to force protection for their ships, they have now provided them with a lot more procedures and equipment and training to be able to do it.
I’ll give you an example. One of the one of the force protection measures that I will always live with is, keep unauthorized craft away from the ship. Hey, it sounds pretty straightforward, Captain. Why didn’t you do it? Well, here’s the reality. At the time USS Cole deployed, we had never had any force protection exercises. We had had moderate little intrusion exercises conducted on us from the pier where people would try to get past the quarter deck watch on the ship. But we never experienced anything like the potential for a car-born IED coming down the pier, a water-born IED like we would face.
And nowadays, when I tell these commanding officers out there about to go to sea, when you go out there and you’re told to do a force protection measure, ask yourself the questions, what procedures do I use, what equipment do I have, what training have I given my crew, what rules of engagement do I have available that are going to allow me to use those measures, what intelligence are driving me to in fact do those measures themselves, and if I go into a host nation.
Are they trained at the same level and do they have the same staying capability to check out those small boats that are coming out to your ship, do they have the ability to keep boats away from the ship, do they have the ability to check vehicles that might be coming down the pier, and if not, you have to expand your presence to do that. If local authorities won’t let you do it or the Navy is uncomfortable with you doing it, don’t pull in.
LAMB: Where is Nashiri from?
LIPPOLD: I would need to go back and look. I believe he is from Yemen.
LAMB: And where were the two that were on the little boat that pulled the plug I mean, pulled the trigger on the bomb? Where are they from?
LIPPOLD: One was Saudi and one was Yemenis.
LAMB: And were they killed instantly?
LIPPOLD: Instantly. They were vaporized by the explosion. We found little pieces of boat and bomber all over the top side of the ship.
LAMB: And what was the explosive that they used?
LIPPOLD: It was a combination of a plastic explosive called RDX, which is similar to what we call C4. It was interleaved with TNT.
LAMB: The title of the book is Front Burner. Our guest has been Commander Kirk S. Lippold, United States Navy retired, and we thank you very much.
LIPPOLD: Well, one thing I’d like to do, Brian, if I could, is give you one of my challenge coins for having me on the show. And thank you for thank you for letting me share the story of some great heroes with people today.
LAMB: Thank you, Commander.