Saudi authorities turned down two requests by American military commanders, most recently in March, to expand the security perimeter next to the building that later bore the brunt of the truck bomb explosion in which 19 U.S. service members died on Tuesday, the base commander said Saturday night.
The officers were concerned that the existing barrier at Khobar Towers was insufficient because it permitted vehicles to drive into a parking lot next to the building, said Brig. Gen. Terryl Schwalier, who oversees the base in his capacity as commander of the 4404th Air Wing.
In November and again in March, base authorities asked the Saudi government for permission to fence off the public parking lot, a security measure that would have expanded the buffer zone next to the building from about 100 to 400 feet, Schwalier said.
Saudi authorities turned down the request, Schwalier said.
“The answer was, “No, not at this time,’ ” Schwalier said at an informal briefing for journalists Saturday night. “This is something we were all concerned about.”
Schwalier’s disclosure adds to questions about whether the Saudi government did enough to protect U.S. personnel following a smaller bombing that killed five Americans last November in the capital of Riyadh and a rash of threats against Americans by Islamic extremist groups.
A Saudi official said Saturday night that although he had no information on the American request to expand the buffer zone, security experts from both countries studied the Khobar Towers complex carefully after the November blast. He said the protective measures in place reflected a consensus of views.
“The security that existed at Khobar Towers the night of the explosion was the exact level of security that was recommended by the joint team that did all the surveys” following the November blast, the official said. “I find it very hard to believe that the U.S. military would say, “Block off the parking lot,’ and the Saudis would say no.”
As the search for the bombers continues, U.S. investigators have located several important clues in the rubble, including a blackened crank-shaft and a Mercedes hubcap that came from the explosives-laden gasoline tanker, Air Force officials said Saturday. The crankshaft has a serial number that presumably could lead to the owner of the vehicle.
A Saudi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said investigators had been provided with a good description of the two bombers by a U.S. Air Force security officer who saw them flee in a white Chevrolet.