Released: Aug 1, 1997
WASHINGTON -- Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen ended months of speculation July 31 when he released his findings on command accountability for last year's terrorist bombing at the Khobar Towers military apartments in Saudi Arabia.
He agreed with a previous Air Force report that concluded no one in the chain of command should be held criminally liable for the June 25, 1996, attack that killed 19 airmen and wounded scores of others. However, he disagreed with a second Air Force report that proposed that no action be taken against any officer.
"I found that Brig. Gen. Terryl Schwalier, the wing commander at the time, did not adequately assess the implications of a possible attack on the perimeter of the Khobar Complex," Cohen said. "As a result, he did not develop an effective plan for responding to a perimeter attack."
The secretary said this led him to conclude "it would not be appropriate" to promote Schwalier to the rank of major general.
Shortly after the secretary's remarks, Schwalier issued a statement saying he had decided to retire from the Air Force.
Schwalier, former commander of the 4404th Wing Provisional, said, "In spite of my disappointment with [Cohen's] decision, I know the 4404th Wing leadership and its people acted aggressively and responsibly in reaction to the known threat during the months before the bombing. Our actions clearly saved lives.
"In the long run it's not important who on this earth judges you or how you are judged. It is important to do what's right, to listen to your heart and conscience and to keep the high ground. I have and will walk away with my head high."
Secretary of the Air Force to Sheila E. Widnall noted that after the Khobar Towers bombing, the Air Force undertook two extensive investigations, building on an earlier review conducted by retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing.
"These investigations focused on force protection and accountability," Widnall said. "What we learned in the aftermath of the Khobar Towers bombing and from our review of the facts and circumstances surrounding it has drastically altered the way the Air Force thinks about, prepares for and defends against threats to the safety of our forces."
Widnall referred to a resulting Nov. 15, 1996, directive to the field on force protection from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman. He said, "It is clear that the nature of the threat to our forces operating worldwide on a daily basis has significantly changed in focus and magnitude."
In light of that changed environment, the Air Force directed actions to ensure force protection measures were instituted to meet the new threat.
A key action was the restructure of the Air Force security police and the creation of a new Force Protection Agency, which consolidates expertise from the Office of Special Investigations, the intelligence staff and the security police staff to provide force protection policy and guidance to the field.
Other actions included the expansion of planning and programming guidance to ensure increased visibility for force protection issues throughout the Air Force; the expansion of rules of engagement for force protection during deployment; increased education and training at all levels on force protection matters; a streamlined intelligence-counterintelligence structure for Joint Task Force-Southwest Asia; and other measures designed to provide commanders with significantly enhanced force protection measures and resources.
"These actions were in addition to steps taken immediately following the bombing and to ongoing efforts in the Air Force and throughout the Department of Defense to address force protection issues," Widnall said.
"The Air Force has relocated approximately 3,600 personnel and 100 aircraft in Southwest Asia from Khobar Towers and other urban areas to an isolated, less vulnerable desert location, primarily at Prince Sultan Air Base, Al Kharj, and constructed additional facilities there. Most dependents have been returned to the United States."
Fogleman agreed with conclusions drawn in the earlier Air Force reports but later saw decisions coming out of the Department of Defense that were contrary to his judgment on Khobar Towers. This was a factor in his decision to request early retirement from the Air Force by Sept. 1.
The general said he was "in an awkward position as chief of staff of the Air Force. I do not want the institution to suffer, and I am afraid that it will if I am seen as a divisive force and not a team player."
He thus asked to retire to devote more time to his personal interests and his family.
A few days later, Widnall recommended to Cohen and President Bill Clinton that Gen. Michael E. Ryan, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and commander of Allied Air Forces Central Europe, be nominated to become the next chief of staff. Clinton made the nomination official July 31.
"Military operations have always carried tremendous risk," Widnall said. "The painful lessons learned at Khobar Towers have been the driving force in changing the way the Air Force operates.
"Today, Air Force operations are conducted with a vastly different picture of force protection. Field commanders are given more in-depth force protection guidance. We have augmented major command staffs with trained force protection specialists. The integration of security risk assessments in planning and executing our missions is emphasized as a foremost consideration."
The Air Force, according to Widnall, will not let down its guard on force protection.
"We have invested a significant amount of additional money in equipment, weaponry and sensors," she said, "and we have activated a quick-response unit whose sole purpose is the protection of Air Force people conducting operations around the world."
Widnall also backed up the two Air Force reports on the Khobar Towers attack.
"After exhaustive reviews of the Khobar Towers bombing," she said, "the Air Force concluded that all individuals charged with the responsibility for force protection at that location acted in a reasonable and prudent manner under the circumstances as they then existed. The chief of staff and I accepted and support that conclusion."
Nevertheless, Widnall deferred to Cohen's judgment in his own report.
"The secretary of defense has thoroughly and carefully reviewed the investigative reports," Widnall said, "and has made his decision regarding the accountability of command personnel at Khobar Towers.
"I respect and will support the decision of Secretary Cohen on this very complex and difficult matter. I know that it was made only after a painstaking analysis of all the facts and circumstances."