WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Les Aspin, faced with congressional calls for his resignation, acknowledged Thursday that he had refused a request to send protective armor to American forces in Somalia and conceded that it had been a grave mistake.
While noting that, in hindsight, he would have made "a very different decision," Aspin said after a private meeting with President Clinton that he would not resign over what congressional critics contend has been his "very poor" handling of the Somalia crisis.
A senior White House source said that Clinton was alarmed by reports that Aspin had denied a field request for tanks that could have helped to protect American forces that suffered heavy casualties in Mogadishu last weekend. The President summoned the secretary to a one-on-one meeting late Thursday afternoon.
The source said that after the meeting--which was followed by consultations with senior Pentagon officials to confirm Aspin's version of events--the President reiterated his confidence in the secretary. Clinton "is not dissatisfied" with the secretary, the senior source said. "Aspin's job is absolutely not in jeopardy."
In a statement released by the Pentagon and later at a White House briefing, Aspin acknowledged that he denied military requests for more heavy armor for Somalia before last weekend's fatal raid in Mogadishu, sparking calls from a number of lawmakers that he resign or be dismissed.
"The ultimate responsibility for the safety of our troops is mine. I was aware of the request and could have directed that a deployment order be drawn up. I did not, and I accept responsibility for the consequences," Aspin said. "Had I known at that time what I knew after the events of last Sunday, I would have made a very different decision."
Without protective armor to back them up, American forces suffered heavy casualties when they were pinned down by fierce gunfire in a raid on one hide-out used by Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid in Mogadishu on Sunday; the incident has claimed the lives of 13 U.S. troops and has left 77 wounded.
The armor that American commanders in Somalia had requested "could have been (employed) very usefully" to rescue the trapped forces, Aspin conceded.
Explaining the decision to Clinton and to congressional leaders earlier, Aspin said the request came to him through Pentagon channels at a time when the United States was trying to reduce its forces in Somalia and to stockpile armor for possible deployment of American troops to Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of a peacekeeping force.
He also said the request from Maj. Gen. Thomas Montgomery, commander of U.S. forces in Somalia, came to him indirectly and was presented as a request for equipment to protect supply lines--not the lives of American troops searching the Somali capital for fugitive Aidid.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Aspin told lawmakers that, under those circumstances, he was concerned that approving the heavy armor request would have sent "the wrong signal" at a time when the United States was trying to "draw down its presence in Somalia," not increase it.
But some lawmakers, already upset by what was widely perceived as Aspin's disastrous performance at a Somalia briefing for members of Congress on Tuesday night, were unsatisfied.
"Secretary Aspin let us down by turning a military decision into a political decision. That was wrong and he must be removed," Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) declared in a fiery Senate floor speech. "He should be fired now or he should resign now," D'Amato said.
In the House, Republican Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia joined D'Amato's call for Aspin's resignation. "The secretary of defense must be held accountable," Gingrich said, saying Aspin was one of the "civilians who, frankly, don't know what they are doing" at the Pentagon.
The fierce attacks drew Democratic leaders to Aspin's defense. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) quickly praised the former congressman as an "extraordinarily able and fine secretary" of defense, and Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, dismissed suggestions that Aspin should resign.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) also turned aside calls for Aspin's resignation, saying it was "a little early" to search for "a scapegoat" for Clinton's Somalia policy.
While the most intense criticism of Aspin came mostly from a small minority of conservative Republicans with reputations for combative partisanship, the disaffection with his handling of the Somalia crisis was clearly shared by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Lawmakers who attended Tuesday's briefing variously described it as "disastrous," "appalling" and "meandering" and said it fed the growing congressional clamor for an immediate withdrawal of American forces from Somalia. The resulting furor forced Clinton into a hurried reappraisal of his Somalia policy to prevent a cutoff of funds for further military action there.
"This certainly has not been Les' finest hour," one senator, who requested anonymity, said of Aspin's performance on Capitol Hill.
Times staff writer Art Pine contributed to this report.