Despite warnings of a terrorist threat, the Pentagon failed to take adequate security measures at the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia before a truck bombing last June killed 19 U.S. airmen and wounded more than 250 others, a study of the attack said Monday.
In a highly critical report, a Pentagon task force headed by retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing said military leaders failed to provide clear standards, adequate funding and attention to protect American forces against a recognized terrorism threat in Saudi Arabia.
The only person singled out for blame was the commander of the forces that were hit, Air Force Brig. Gen. Terryl “Terry” Schwalier, who was described as failing to heed warnings of a terrorist attack on the Khobar Towers in Dhahran.
But the report by Downing, a former Army Special Forces commander, suggests high-level inattention to security problems and contradicts many of the explanations Defense Secretary William Perry gave shortly after the bombing.
The description of serious security lapses is likely to renew congressional criticism of Perry over the incident and could lead to calls for his resignation from some Republican lawmakers.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., campaigning in his home state, accused the Clinton administration of being “consistently weak in its approach to protect Americans from terrorism.”
President Clinton praised the report, calling it “unvarnished, blunt, straightforward.” He promised to implement its recommended improvements in security measures.
Responding to the report, Deputy Secretary of Defense John White and Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized steps the Pentagon is taking to improve security and efforts to collect and analyze information on terrorist groups.
“Americans didn’t kill these airmen. Terrorists killed these airmen,” White said. “And our focus then is on what we can do in order to make sure that we minimize and protect against these kinds of enormous, complicated and sophisticated threats in the future.”
The Downing task force describes the attack quite differently from the way Perry explained it to Congress and the American public a few months ago.
Warnings: Perry said officials had only “fragmentary and inconclusive” intelligence about a possible attack. But the Downing report cited 10 suspicious incidents in the 90 days before the attack, as well as other signs that had raised concerns.
“While intelligence did not provide the tactical details of date, time, place and exact method of attack on Khobar Towers, a considerable body of information was available that indicated terrorists had the capability and intention to target U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia, and that Khobar Towers was a potential target,” the Downing report said.
Bomb: Perry described a mammoth and sophisticated truck bomb - beyond the known capabilities of terrorists in Saudi Arabia - that simply overwhelmed the reasonable security measures at Khobar Towers.
The Defense Special Weapons Agency, which analyses nuclear weapons blasts, estimates the Khobar Towers bomb was equivalent to 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of TNT, much larger than the bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City.
But the explosives experts on the Downing task force estimated the bomb at 3,000 to 8,000 pounds, about a quarter to half the size of the terrorist truck bomb used in the 1983 Beirut barracks attack against U.S. Marines that killed 241 Americans.
Downing noted that a security guard 80 feet from the blast had survived, though his injuries included punctured eardrums, and that the explosion didn’t blow all the leaves off nearly plants.
“There is no way that bomb could have been 20,000 pounds and have that man survive and have the really superficial damage that was done to some of the outlying vehicles and vegetation,” he told reporters.
Saudi inaction: Perry said military officials had sought to move a security fence that was 100 feet from Khobar Towers to 400 feet for additional protection from a possible bomb blast but that Saudi officials didn’t permit it.
Downing said U.S. officials apparently wanted to move the fence just 10 to 20 feet for better observation, not further for blast protection. He said U.S. officials claim to have asked the Saudis, and the Saudis said they didn’t. In any event, the matter wasn’t raised by the Americans at higher levels.
Security measures: Perry credited 130 security-related improvements made at Khobar Towers before the attack with saving dozens, if not hundreds of lives.
But Downing said that force protection was not given a high priority for funding and there were no established Defense Department standards for physical security. The report cited the decision by Gen. Schwalier, commander of the U.S. Air Force 4404th Wing in Dhahran, to defer a budget request for protective Mylar film for windows to prevent shattering glass.
The Downing report said 12 of the 19 deaths at Khobar Towers were caused by flying glass. The report estimated that shattered glass from even a 200-pound bomb - the size of one that exploded outside a U.S. military training building in Riyadh in November 1995 - could have caused 5 to 11 deaths.
The report is likely to open Perry and other top military officials, including the commander of the forces in the Persian Gulf region, Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, to contentious questioning when they appear before the House National Security Committee on Wednesday.
Perry, in a cover letter forwarding the report to Clinton, reaffirmed his support for retaining Gen. Peay. But Perry ordered a review that could lead to disciplinary action against other officers, focusing on Schwalier, who was responsible for the safety of the 2,000 airmen living at Khobar Towers.
“Khobar Towers was identified to Gen. Schwalier as one of the three highest-priority soft targets in the region,” the report notes. But Schwalier seems not to have made terrorism a top priority, the report said, contending that he “never raised to his superiors force protection matters that were beyond his capability to correct.”