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Report on Saudi Bomb Blast Singles Out Defense Officials

By Bradley Graham
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

A government report on the June bombing of a U.S. military housing complex in Saudi Arabia released Monday faulted the Defense Department's entire command structure for paying insufficient attention to terrorist threats and failing to do enough to protect U.S. forces in the Middle East.

The on-scene commander, Brig. Gen. Terry Schwalier, was singled out for being so focused on preventing a car bomb from penetrating the Khobar Towers housing complex that he did not guard against a giant blast just outside the perimeter fence, which is what occurred.

But Schwalier's superiors at the U.S. Central Command, responsible for operations in the Middle East, also were excoriated for not providing him with adequate guidance and support. No senior member of the command ever inspected the security measures at Dhahran, the report observed.

The report, commissioned by President Clinton, made clear that the structure of the U.S. military operation that has evolved in Saudi Arabia since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War - involving a frequent rotation of U.S. military personnel and lack of clear command authority among military services - confounded attempts to safeguard the troops there.

Although U.S. intelligence had been unable to forecast the time and place of the attack, investigators asserted that "a considerable body of evidence was available" indicating "terrorists had the capability and intention to target U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia" and "Khobar Towers was a potential target." The report noted a series of security warnings as well as 10 suspicious incidents in weeks before the attack that, "while individually insignificant, indicated possible reconnaissance and surveillance of Khobar Towers."

The report stopped short of recommending criminal charges. Wayne Downing, the retired four-star Army general who headed the investigation, told reporters Monday his charter had been simply to make an assessment, not assign culpability. The Air Force is conducting a separate judicial inquiry to determine whether courts-martial or other action is warranted.

Nor did the report shed any light on who may have been behind the bombing that tore the face off an eight-story building in the housing complex, residence of the several thousand airmen and support personnel involved in enforcing a ban on flights by Iraqi military aircraft over southern Iraq. Defense officials said the hunt for the perpetrators is being handled by the Saudis and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Monday, faced with a report bluntly taking his department to task for being inattentive, Defense Secretary William J. Perry asserted he had gotten the message.

"The Khobar Towers attack should be seen as a watershed event pointing the way to a radically new mind-set and dramatic changes in the way we protect our forces deployed overseas from this growing threat," Perry said in an introduction to the report, sent to Clinton over the weekend.

The extent of Perry's earlier attention to the threat had been called into question immediately after the Dhahran bombing, with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., urging a Pentagon "shake-up" and suggesting he might push for Perry's resignation. But the investigation report did not cite Perry or any other top Pentagon leader by name in castigating the Defense Department for failing to issue orders on protecting forces housed in fixed facilities and for inadequately funding security measures.

Clearly hoping to cushion the report's criticism, Perry packaged it with an announcement of several major initiatives intended, he said, to "ensure that responsibility (for protecting U.S. forces) is assigned clearly and receives the highest level of attention." He said a new office dedicated to this mission had been established on the Joint Staff, and the Defense Department would issue new standards for combating terrorism.

Deputy Defense Secretary John White told reporters the Pentagon also is taking steps to raise funding levels for anti-terrorism programs, give local commanders operational control over force protection, strengthen cooperation with host nations and improve the collection and use of intelligence.

But Downing, a combat veteran who headed the Special Operations Command before retiring in April, interjected a note of skepticism about the Pentagon's initiatives. He told reporters that some of the same issues raised by his task force were cited by investigators following the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut that killed 241.