BOOK REVIEW: ‘Front Burner’: Commander of USS Cole Questions Lack of Intelligence That Led to Al Qaeda Suicide Attack in 2000

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Front Burner': Commander of USS Cole Questions Lack of Intelligence That Led to Al Qaeda Suicide Attack in 2000

As I was finishing “Front Burner: Al Qaeda’s Attack on the USS Cole” (PublicAffairs, 408 pages, 8-page photo insert, index, notes, $27.99) Commander Kirk S. Lippold’s engrossing and eye-opening book about the Oct. 12, 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, I came across a news item that the US is adding yet another intelligence agency to the sixteen already in existence.

link to news story about the new agency:
http://www.themarknews.com/articles/8442-u-s-creates-new-spy-service

Here’s a brief account of the new Defense Clandestine Service from the above reference:

“Because 16 intelligence agencies just wasn’t enough.

“U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the Pentagon will soon launch a new intelligence agency to be known as the Defense Clandestine Service that will be tasked with tracking issues of “global strategic importance,” such as nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea. The DCS will become the 17th active intelligence agency within the sprawling U.S. government and is expected to complement Defense Intelligence Agency, which is more focused on finding out information on battlefield tactics and maneuvers of enemy combatants. DCS, then, will take a broader approach to military intelligence, which is sort of what the Central Intelligence Agency already does, but hey, at least it means someone in the U.S. government will be doing some hiring in the near term. It’s expected that the DCS will also take a lead role in intelligence operations in Africa and the Middle East in efforts to stay on top of the amorphous spread of radical Islamicism and other such terrorist operations, as well as in emerging powers such as China, India, and elsewhere.” 

* * *

In “Front Burner,” Lippold, the former Commander of the USS Cole tells the full story of the deadly terrorist attack on his ship and its frustrating, fateful aftermath. He also deals with the issue of why he wasn’t promoted from commander (the rank he held in October 2000, equivalent to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army, Air Force, and Marines) to captain, the Navy equivalent of the rank of colonel in the other services.

On October 12, 2000, eleven months before the 9/11 attacks, Al Qaeda detonated a gigantic bomb in a boat manned by two suicide bombers that struck alongside the Cole in the port of Aden in Yemen. Kirk Lippold knew in a matter of moments that the Cole had been attacked. What he didn’t know was how much the world was changing around him.

One of the questions Cmdr Lippold (US Navy Retired) asks in “Front Burner” is why was there no heightened terrorist alerts as the Aegis destroyer Cole approached Aden in October 2000 for a “routine” refueling. With sixteen intelligence agencies — plus the Navy’s own intelligence unit — one would think that an American warship approaching the home country of Osama bin Laden would be on high alert. The investigation into the attack that punched a gaping hole in the 8,400-ton Cole and resulted in the deaths of seventeen sailors and the wounding of 37 cleared Lippold of wrongdoing or negligence, but the attack brought out a cadre of powerful enemies who denied him the promotion, including U.S. Sen. John Warner, R-VA., representing Norfolk, VA., the Cole’s home port.

 

Although he and his subordinate officers were cleared of any wrongdoing or negligence, Lippold cites (Page 244) the comment in the “command investigation report” what was to Lippold, “as commanding officer, as captain, the most devastating finding — again, in the opinion section of the report — was in conclusion that I and my executive officer, Chris, and two of our subordinate officers has shown ‘a notable absence of supervision’ and ‘did not meet the standards set forth in Navy regulations.'”

 

That sounds pretty damning and probably contributed to Lippold’s being denied a promotion that he thought he deserved. When he visited the families of the men and women killed in the attack, Lippold relates how family members questioned why the Cole was in Aden in the first place. It’s a good question that came to me as I was reading the book. I think it’s due to the politically correct view of Arab and islamic countries that prevailed in the Clinton Administration — and continued in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. A safer refueling port could have been found or the Cole could have been refueled on the high seas. On Pages 247-8, Lippold reveals that the CIA — one of the sixteen agencies now joined by a seventeenth — didn’t have a single asset in Aden:

 

“Ultimately,” he writes, “prison interrogations and other evidence showed that bin Laden had not only ordered the attack [on the Cole], but also paid for it himself. None of this, none of this at all, was known. Not to me as commanding officer, not to Admiral Moore as Commander, Fifth Fleet, not to anyone in Washington when Cole pulled up the refueling pier on October 12. The admiral did not know that the Central Intelligence Agency had absolutely no assets in Aden to monitor and assess the terrorist threat there. In reality, without relying on local Yemeni authorities to prove NCIS with information, the United States was essentially blind in its ability to accurately evaluate threats in the port. As the FBI investigator Ali Soufan put it much later in his book, Cole was a ‘sitting duck'”.

 

In the extensive epilogue, beginning on Page 297, Lippold deals with the question why the Clinton Administration didn’t punish al Qaeda and bin Laden for the Cole attack. It was asked of him by the families of the killed and wounded in the attack and he asks the question himself. He says both the FBI and the CIA were overly cautious about pinning the blame on al Qaeda, citing a statement (Page 297) by Richard A. Clarke, the White House official in charge of counterterrorism under Clinton and Bush from 1998 to 2003: “Neither the FBI nor the CIA would state the obvious: al Qaeda did it. We new there was a large al Qaeda cell in Yemen. There was also a large cell of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, but that group had now announced its complete merger into al Qaeda, so what different did it make would group did the attack?”

 

Lippold reveals the details of his harrowing experience leading a crew of valiant sailors through the deadliest terrorist attack on an American warship in history. He also relates how bureaucrats and politicians reacted to the attack, ignored the dangerous warning signs it foretold, and avoided responsibility before the event was overshadowed by 9/11. “Front Burner” is an important work of military history and stands as an essential recounting of a critical moment in America’s battle against Al Qaeda.

 

About the author

 

Kirk Lippold, 53, a 1981 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was the commanding officer of the USSCole during Al Qaeda’s attack in October 2000. Lippold’s personal awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, and Combat Action Ribbon, among others. He retired from the Navy in 2007 and remains active in current events and national security affairs. He lives in Carson City, Nevada. The epilogue discusses in great deal why Lippold wasn’t promoted to captain, even though several Navy promotion boards had recommended the promotion. Lippold’s final U.S. Navy assignment was to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. he retired a a commander in May 2007, at the age of 47.
Note: A few weeks after the attack, the Cole was taken to a shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., and was rebuilt over a period of 14 months at a cost of $250 million. It was back in service in April 2002.
Here’s a link to the story of the ship’s rebuilding: http://www.navy.mil/search/display.asp?story_id=1415

Publisher’s website: www.publicaffairsbooks.com

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