WASHINGTON, Nov. 14 -- Sailors on duty aboard the USS Cole when it was attacked last month in Yemen did not have ammunition in their weapons and were not authorized to shoot unless fired upon, The Washington Post reported in its Tuesday edition.
The newspaper report quoted crew members as saying their "rules of engagement" would have prevented them from firing without first obtaining permission from the Cole's captain or another officer.
Suicide bombers steered a small boat up to the destroyer on Oct. 12 while it was refueling in Aden harbor and detonated explosives, tearing a 40-by-40 foot hole in the steel hull. The blast killed 17 sailors and injured 39.
Petty Officer John Washak told the Post he was manning an M-60 machine gun during the attack and pointed the weapon at a second boat approaching the Cole. But Washak said a senior chief petty officer ordered him to turn the gun away.
Washak said he protested, fearing that the Cole was still under attack, but was told: "That's the rules of engagement - no shooting unless we're shot at."
"It's kind of hard to say what we should have done," added Washak. "In the military, it's like we're trained to hesitate now. If somebody had seen something wrong and shot, he probably would have been court-martialed.
Rules of engagement aboard a U.S. warship are set by its captain following Navy guidelines. Pentagon officials have declined to discuss publicly the specific rules in effect aboard the Cole, but senior officers said in congressional testimony that the ship had filed a detailed security plan, which they believe was followed.
The Washington Post also reported Tuesday that the Cole may have been boarded and surveyed by Islamic militants, possibly including one of the suicide bombers, as it passed through the Suez Canal a few days before the attack. The report was based on interviews with about 20 members of the Cole's crew.
The FBI also has been questioning crew members about the behavior of the Yemeni pilot who guided the Cole into port, which some described as "agitated." In addition, some crew members believe that Yemeni harbor workers acted suspiciously, the Post reported.
Dozens of people have been detained, but there have been no official reports of any arrests in connection with the attack.