PERSONAL ACCOUNTABILITY FOR FORCE PROTECTION
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE
On June 25, 1996, terrorists exploded a massive truck bomb outside the Khobar Towers housing complex, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. That terrorist act killed nineteen American service members, and hundreds of other service members and Saudis were injured. Since this tragedy, the Department of Defense has engaged in searching investigations of what took place at Khobar Towers. Our goals have been, first, to determine as precisely as we can what happened that day, and why so many of our service members were killed and injured; second, to assess the implications of this tragedy for our future force protection efforts; third, to make needed improvements in force protection; and fourth, to assess issues of personal accountability for force protection at Khobar Towers.
This final issue -- personal accountability -- is the subject of this report. After carefully reviewing the previous reports on the Khobar Towers attack, as well as some of the underlying evidence, I have reached the following conclusions with respect to this question of accountability.
In light of the available strategic intelligence and a precursor attack in Riyadh in November 1995, the risk that there could be further terrorist attacks on U.S. forces in Saudia Arabia was clear. Brigadier General Terryl Schwalier, Commander of the 4404th Wing (Provisional), recognized that a car or truck bomb parked at the perimeter of the Khobar Towers compound, where many of his forces were housed, represented one of the most serious threats facing his command. He did not, however, take adequate account of the implications of this threat or develop an effective plan for how his command should respond to it. Deficiencies of the compound's alarm and evacuation systems make this clear:
-- Khobar Towers had no effective alarm system with which to warn our service members of an impending terrorist attack. The principal means for sounding an alarm at Khobar Towers consisted of having personnel go from door-to-door throughout an eight-story dormitory, alerting residents to the danger. This primitive approach was not appropriate for a high-threat environment like Dhahran. On the night of the attack, even with heroic efforts the sentries were able to contact fewer than half the floors in the building before the bomb exploded.
-- Although there was a base-wide siren and loudspeaker system (the "Giant Voice" system) that could, in theory, have been used to alert residents to the terrorist threat, that system also was plainly inadequate. The siren component of the system had not been tested since 1994, out of deference to the local authorities; the loudspeaker system was incomprehensible to those inside the buildings, according to the testimony taken by investigators; and the procedures in place to activate either portion of this system were cumbersome and slow. On the night of the attack, Wing personnel were still seeking permission to activate the system when the bomb exploded.
-- There were no plans and procedures informing Wing personnel how to respond in the event of a suspected perimeter bomb attack. There were no instructions explaining when individuals should evacuate the buildings, and when they should instead take cover inside the buildings.
-- Although the buildings had been evacuated on several prior occasions in response to suspicious packages, evacuation drills were never conducted at Khobar Towers. Without regular, timed drills, the Wing leadership was unable to assess the adequacy of its evacuation plans or to make needed improvements in those plans; and Wing members had no opportunity to learn recommended evacuation procedures. Moreover, because of the frequent rotation of personnel at Khobar Towers, many service members had never participated in an evacuation.
The testimony of the sergeant who sounded the alarm on the night of the attack demonstrates the inadequacy of the procedures that were in place. As this sergeant testified, he had not been told what method to use to evacuate the building in question; indeed, initiating evacuations was not even part of the responsibilities of the roof-top sentries. He had never participated in any practice evacuations at Khobar Towers, and had evidently not been given any instructions as to when residents should evacuate the buildings, and when they should take cover inside the buildings. This sergeant's good judgment and prompt action unquestionably saved lives the night of the bombing -- but one individual's exemplary performance cannot take the place of functional alarm systems and well-conceived evacuation plans and procedures.
Other issues also reflect a lack of sufficient attention to the possibility of a perimeter bomb attack. For example, the Command was aware that the parking lot on the northern perimeter of the Khobar Towers compound -- which was only 80 feet from the nearest building -- was a point of serious vulnerability. While Brig Gen Schwalier's subordinates were unsuccessful in persuading the local authorities to extend the perimeter even a small amount, he never raised this issue himself with his Saudi counterparts. Nor did he ever raise this issue with his chain of command. Because it is questionable, however, whether the northern perimeter could have been extended far enough to protect against the massive bomb used by the terrorists, this issue was not as important in my decision as the other issues discussed above.
The same is true of the Command's decision not to install Mylar (a shatter-resistant coating) on the windows in Khobar Towers, contrary to an express recommendation in a vulnerability assessment on Khobar Towers prepared six months before the bombing. Although the Wing commander implemented most of the recommendations of the vulnerability assessment, he decided to defer this important item. In light of the size of the bomb used at Khobar Towers, it is unlikely that Mylar would have prevented the vast majority of the fatalities, which resulted from the partial collapse of one of the buildings. Mylar might, however, have reduced the number of injuries from flying glass. The decision not to install Mylar is further evidence that the Wing commander did not effectively analyze how to minimize the risk of injury to his forces in the event of a perimeter bomb attack.
We expect a high standard of performance from our commanders in the field who are entrusted with the safety of our troops. A general officer must display judgment and resourcefulness well beyond that expected of more junior officers. Commanders must display insight capable of a comprehensive assessment of the command's vulnerabilities, and they must continually weigh the risks and benefits of measures to address those vulnerabilities. I have concluded that Brig Gen Schwalier's actions with respect to force protection did not meet the standard required for a Major General, and I have therefore recommended to the President that his name be removed from the list of those to be promoted to that grade. This was a difficult decision. Brig Gen Schwalier is a fine officer, who has had a distinguished career and who ably discharged his primary mission of enforcing the no-fly zone in Southern Iraq through Operation Southern Watch. I have concluded, however, that the security lapses at Khobar Towers make his promotion inappropriate.
We also expect a high standard of performance from the entire chain of command. Our field commanders, who in the final analysis are accountable for all that their units do or fail to do, must know that they will receive support from the chain of command that enhances their ability to succeed in the difficult missions with which the nation has entrusted them. It is incumbent on senior headquarters to provide comprehensive assistance to those subordinate units most at risk. The true nature of accountability mandates that all who serve in uniform understand that a tragedy such as the Khobar Towers attack reflects on more than one man. All in the chain of command need to draw from this experience those lessons, however painful, which may help others who follow, and who will be at similar risk. Indeed, the sacrifice of our service members at Khobar Towers demands that we do so.
Although the chain of command shares responsibility for the safety of our troops, force protection is, as Brig Gen Schwalier himself has acknowledged, first and foremost the responsibility of the commander on the scene. His chain of command kept him apprised of the level of the threat in his area of responsibility, and they consulted with him about force protection issues. He never referred any force protection problems -- including those discussed above -- to his seniors. If he believed that he needed further assistance to implement additional force protection measures, he could have requested it. He did not do so. That failure should not be imputed to all above him in the chain of command. I have therefore concluded that no adverse action should be taken against those senior to Brig Gen Schwalier in the chain of command.
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Updated: 15 Jun 1998