General Downing's Other Legacy
General Wayne Downing (1940-2007)In five decades of public service, General Wayne Downing accomplished something that is rare in the armed services. He became a hero in the Army (and the special operations community), while earning near-pariah status within the U.S. Air Force.
General Downing, who died Wednesday from meningitis at the age of 68, will be rightfully remembered as a "warrior's warrior," a man who helped build American special operations forces (SOF) into assets that are respected and feared by our adversaries around the globe. At the time of his retirement from active duty in 1996, Downing was the nation's "chief snake eater," commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, the capstone assignment of his long career as a shadow warrior. A Washington Post profile recounted the general "fast-roping" with other Rangers into a West Point pep rally in 1995--at the age of 55. In later years, General Downing also served as an advisor to the Bush Administration, helping develop counter-terrorism strategies in the wake of 9-11.
But Downing will also be remembered as the point man for one of the most controversial investigations in recent military history--the 1996 probe into the terrorist bombing at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. In his report on the blast that killed 19 airman, General Downing placed most of the blame on Air Force Brigadier General Terry Schwalier, the wing commander on the scene. Later reports clearly debunked Downing's conclusion, but his report formed the basis for later decisions that derailed Schwailer's career, and prompted an early retirement by the Air Force Chief of Staff.
Downing's appointment to lead the investigative task force was made by then-Defense Secretary William Perry, and it came only days after the explosion. As reporter Matt LaBash later described in a seminal Weekly Standard article on Khobar Towers and its aftermath, the incident almost immediately took on a political tone. Congressional Republicans saw an opportunity to use the bombing against the Clinton Administration, demanding that someone be found culpable. Against that backdrop, Downing was dispatched to conduct his inquiry, and report back to Mr. Perry in only 60 days.
Matt LaBash also discovered that the Clinton team did little to insulate Downing and his task force from the growing political storm. Instead, Mr. Perry's staff relayed Congressional "concerns" to General Downing, which resulted in a changing focus for the investigation:
As early as July 10, a days after the first Khobar hearings, Perry instructed Downing that, "as a result of high Congressional interest, we must expedite portions of your assessment process. Downing should include in his report, Perry said, "what U.S. official(s) were responsible for actions to improve or upgrade the [perimeter] fence.
The Defense Secretary also told South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond that Downing was empowered to explore accountability, and that the retired General "fully understands what is expected of this assessment."
Downing told LaBash that Perry never made any informal demands on the investigation, and that he "resisted" efforts by SecDef staff members to "insert themselves into the assessment. But when his report was released on September 16, 1996, it clearly faulted General Schwalier, citing him by name, and ruling that "he did not adequately protect his forces from a perimeter attack."
That determination stunned military officials. Sources told LaBash that Downing had assured both the CENTCOM commander, General A.B. Peay, and the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Ron Fogleman, that he was finding nobody culpable, including Schwalier. Downing disputed that claim, although General Peay confirmed that he received such assurances from Downing. Interestingly, the Downing task force arrived at their conclusion after spending only seven days in Saudi Arabia, the despite the fact that the massive truck bomb was detonated outside the base perimeter, and documented efforts by Schwalier to improve security at his base.
Equally damning was a second inquiry into the bombing, headed by Air Force Lieutenant General James Record. Unlike the Downing team (which focused on regional security issues and the bombing attack), General Record was allowed to concentrate solely on the Khobar Towers incident. Using the work of the first task force as a starting point, Record's team conducted another 207 interviews and reviewed transcripts of the 200 interviews conducted by the Downing team. Record also allowed General Schwalier to provide a point-by-point response to the Downing report, which highlighted 37 incorrect statements, 61 misleading implications and 23 contradictions.
In his assessment, General Record concurred with many of Downing's recommendations for improving force protection, but sharply disagreed with its criticism of General Schwalier. As Matt LaBash wrote, the Record investigation "issued a strong rebuke to the Downing findings, saying that the desire to deliver quick results had caused individuals to be "unfairly and publicly criticized as being derelict in their duties." He also notes that Schwalier was exonerated a second time in a subsequent investigation by the Air Force Inspector General and Judge Advocate General.
After months of slow-rolling and internal debate, disposition of the Khobar Towers incident fell on the new Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, who replaced Perry in early 1997. Cohen's own, subsequent report was based heavily on Downing's findings. Both Cohen and Downing faulted General Schwalier for failing to protect his installation from outside attack, despite the fact that (a) the bomb was detonated in an area under the jurisdiction of Saudi security forces; (b) the Saudis had been previously unwilling to let the U.S extend the defensive perimeter at Khobar, and (c) Schwalier's unit had already implemented an impressive number of security improvements at the facility, while flying daily combat missions over Iraq.
In the end, Cohen decided that Brigadier General Schwalier was culpable, ignoring more detailed reports that proved otherwise. Cohen also rescinded Schwalier's promotion to Major General, claiming that it was justified in light of the casualties we suffered. "For me to face the parents of the 19 who died, and to say everything that reasonably could have been done was done--I don't believe that's the case," he told the New Yorker.
But Matt LaBash discovered that the Defense Secretary's claims were specious. Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon, told the Weekly Standard that Cohen had never been in contact with the families of the Khobar victims. Indeed, some family members interviewed by LaBash reported that they had written letters to the Mr. Cohen in support of General Schwalier. Those letters were obviously ignored, and Schwalier retired a few months later, his career ruined.
The Khobar bombing claimed another casualty with the early depature of General Fogleman. On July 28, 1997, the Air Force Chief of Staff requested early retirement, and the Schwalier decision was clearly a factor in his decision. He described his frustrations in an interview with former Air Force historian Dr. Richard Kohn, printed in the Spring 2001 edition of Aerospace Power Journal:
"...I then watched the way the investigation [Khobar Towers] unfolded. I watched the way the United States Air Force as an institution was treated, for purely political reasons, and the way an individual was treated and came to the conclusion that it was fundamentally wrong. I think a hell of a lot of other people came to that same conclusion."
As Fogelman concluded: "I simply lost respect and confidence in the leadership that I was supposed to be following."
More than a decade later, the mention of Khobar Towers and the Downing Report still leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many airmen--and rightfully so. By rushing to judgement in the aftermath of the bombing, and (apparently) acceding to political pressures, General Downing produced an assessment that was both inaccurate and unfair, destroying the career of an exceptional officer in the process. Downing was, by all accounts, a brave and thoroughly honorable man, and a gifted military commander. But his flawed report on Khobar Towers remains a dark stain on his record of service to our nation.