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Khobar Towers Shame – Ten Years After By: Kenneth R. Timmerman
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, June 23, 2006

Brig. Gen. Terryl Schwalier was stunned when he read the account of the June 25, 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that appeared in my recent book, Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran.

I was writing many years after the fact, drawing on sources from inside Iranian intelligence but also on published U.S. government reports.


It was those U.S. reports that prompted General Schwalier to contact me a few months ago.


“You paint a picture of significant government awareness that “Iran was up to something” in the months prior to the Khobar Towers attack,” he wrote to me by e-mail. “Unfortunately, I was not part of that “significant government awareness” circle.”


Why is this not just important, but critically important today, as we face the double challenge of intelligence reorganization and an aggressive Iranian regime, possibly armed with nuclear weapons?


Because Terry Schwalier was the commander in the field with responsibility for the Khobar Towers complex. Apparently someone had forgotten to give him the memo on the threats to his base. Then they covered it up by making Schwalier take the fall.


In Countdown to Crisis I cited an “extensive review” of the attack that cost the lives of 19 U.S. servicemen at Khobar Towers, released by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee on Sept. 12, 1996.


Chaired at the time by Senator Arlen Specter (R, Pa), the report concluded there was “no intelligence failure” that led to the Khobar Towers bombing, “but a failure to use intelligence.” And that failure, Specter concluded, belonged to Schwalier.


“From April 1995 through the time of the Khobar Towers bombing in June 1996, the analytic community published more than 100 products on the topic of terrorism on the Arabian peninsula," the report stated, including specific intelligence warnings that the Khobar Towers complex was under surveillance by Iranian intelligence agents and local surrogates.


The intelligence reports contained specific warnings of “ongoing Iranian and radical Islamic fundamentalist groups' attempts to target American servicemen in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia for terrorist acts,” the SSIC said.


“By March 1995,” the report went on, “the Intelligence Community had determined that Iranian operations in Saudi Arabia were no longer simply intelligence gathering activities but contained the potential for the execution of terrorist acts. It had been previously learned that weapons and explosives had been moved in and stored in apparent support for these acts.”


Schwalier was informed of the “potential” of Iranian surveillance shortly after he arrived in Saudi Arabia in July 1995 to assume command of the 440th Wing (Provisional) in Saudi Arabia.


But the surveillance was suspected of being directed from a cell operating out of Jeddah, and was aimed at Riyadh, he was told by the CIA station chief in the Saudi capitol. No one ever gave the slightest indication that it was directed at U.S. flyers in Dhahran or at their living quarters, he told me.


As to those “more than 100 products” on terror threats, forget it. No one thought to put Schwalier into the loop.


At the time, Schwalier’s pilots were flying daily missions against Iraq. He received daily threat intelligence – but it was battlefield information, with a focus on Iraq and their surface-to-air missiles. “Terrorism simply was not on the radar,” he told me. At least, not until the November 1995 bombing – later attributed to Sunni fundamentalists with ties to Osama Bin Ladan – against a Saudi national guards barracks in Riyadh.


After that, Schwalier ordered a lock-down at Dhahran –on his own authority, not because he was warned of a greater threat to Dhahran. He installed triple jersey barriers – those heavy, concrete blocks that now adorn the entries to most government buildings in the United States. At the time, they were relatively rare, and Schwalier still recalls having to scrounge around to get enough of them to line the perimeter of the 30-building U.S. section of the Khobar Towers housing complex.

He put up new fencing, and new, more secure gates – all of it, without the slightest indication from Washington or from the CIA that his men faced any particular threat.


“Chairman Shalikashvili came to Dhahran in May 1996 with his wife,” Schwalier says. “That’s how safe he felt.”


In April 1996, Schwalier met with the CIA station chief in Riyadh, who came to brief him on a recent seizure by the Saudi authorities of a large amount of explosives coming across the border from Jordan. It was the only face-to-face meeting they had during Schwalier’s entire stay in Saudi Arabia.


The CIA man said the U.S. suspected the explosives were being “transferred” to Saudi Arabia, or were “passing through” Saudi Arabia, and that a Saudi “dissident financier” named Osama Bin Laden was likely involved. But he made no mention of Iran or of any potential threat to Dhahran.


“The station chief’s analysis was that ‘the primary threat was Riyadh but other areas were possibilities as well,’” Schwalier said. “When I asked what else I should be doing in light of this new input, the station chief response was (I remember it well), ‘just keep doing what you are doing…’


“Contrary to what the intelligence community may have suggested, I was never advised of a specific terrorist threat to Khobar Towers,” Schwalier told me.


On his own initiative, Schwalier had posted roof top guards at the housing complex several months before the attack. Khobar Towers was the only U.S. military housing in Saudi Arabia to have such tight security.


Those guards managed to clear half of the building in the three to five minutes between the time they first saw a suspicious truck ram into the rear gate and the explosion. Without Schwalier’s foresight, and their alert reaction, the death toll would undoubtedly have been much higher.


As often happens in Washington, Schwalier was not rewarded for his actions, but punished. A hasty investigation, chaired by General Wayne A. Downing, a retired Army officer and former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, blasted Schwalier for having failed to “adequately protect his forces from a terrorist attack.”


But Downing never interviewed key witnesses. And his report was factually wrong on at least one key point: the size of the bomb. Downing said it was “most likely 5,000 pounds,” whereas subsequent reports – including one from an FBI forensics team -  concluded it was at least four times that size.


“Comparable to 20,000 pounds of TNT, the [Khobar towers] bomb was estimated to be larger than the one that destroyed the federal building in Oklahoma City a year before, and more than twice as powerful as the 1983 bomb used at the Marine barracks in Beirut,” the FBI concluded in a statement on June 21, 2001.


Although Congress had approved Schwalier’s promotion to Major General shortly before the Khobar Towers attack, Senator Specter immediately placed it on hold.


Following the Downing report, the U.S. Air Force conducted two extensive inquiries into the causes of the attack, both of which concluded that Schwalier was not at fault.


“The goal posts changed after a few weeks,” Schwalier says. “That’s when they decided to go after me.”


When Lt. Gen James Record, who conducted the second Air Force investigation, found that Schwalier had done all that could have been expected as commander to protect his men, Secretary of Defense William Perry put a gag order on his report.


“The report was scheduled to be released on Dec. 10,. 1996, but shortly before the press conference the SecDef said ‘cease and desist,’” Schwalier said.


On July 31, 1997, Perry’s successor, William Cohen, declared that Schwalier “could and should have done more” to protect his men, and announced that his promotion was cancelled. Asked by the press if Schwalier was being made a scapegoat, Cohen replied testily:” He’s not being made a scapegoat. He is being held accountable.”


Air Force commanding General Ronald R. Fogleman was so outraged at Cohen’s behavior that he resigned in protest, as did Schwalier.


After leaving the Air Force, Schwalier moved to Whidbey Island, Washington, lectured, and took college credits to become a public school teacher. In 2000, he joined Lockheed Martin as vice president for Business Development in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


Following the September 11 attacks on America, a number of Pentagon top brass convinced Secretary of the Air Force James Roche to take a fresh look at Schwalier’s demotion.


In a lengthy account of these efforts that appeared recently in Air Force Magazine, Rebecca Grant wrote that Roche was “especially bothered by what he viewed as the double standard of the previous five years.”


No one at the State Department had been held responsible for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. And after 9/11, no one accused Donald Rumsfeld of having failed to protect Pentagon employees from the al Qaeda strike., Grant noted.


The reason Rumsfeld was not held responsible, Roche told Air Force magazine, was because “he isn’t responsible.” Blaming an individual for not stopping an act of war “would be ludicrous,” Grant concluded in her article.


Roche’s efforts to get Terry Schwalier’s promotion to Major General reinstated was ultimately frustrated by Defense Department lawyers. Roche said that continuing to blame Schwalier for Khobar Towers, even after 9/11, was “worse than a double standard.”


Congress should restore Terry Schwalier’s second star, in tribute to his dedication to his men, and in acknowledgement of yet another incredible screw-up by our intelligence community.


And for the indignity they caused him and for the shame they surely do not feel, Senator Specter and former Defense Secretary William Cohen – who is cashing in on his contacts as a Washington, DC defense consultant – should dip into their own pockets to restore Maj. Gen. Terry Schwalier’s ten years of docked retirement pay.


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Kenneth R. Timmerman was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize along with John Bolton for his work on Iran. He is Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, and author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran (Crown Forum: 2005).

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