Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Unfinished Business

This past Sunday, June 25th, marked the 10-year anniversary of the Khobar Towers bombing. As a former Air Force member, that event holds special significance. Not only did the blast kill 19 fellow airmen, it also leveled a building that once served as my temporary home. In the fall of 1994, Building 131 of the Khobar complex provided billeting for myself and members of my squadron, during our deployment to Saudi Arabia. The deployment was prompted by renewed threats against Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, so we made the long flight from the CONUS to the sprawling Saudi airfield at Dhahran.

Khobar Towers was roughly adjacent to the airfield, seperated by a busy Saudi highway that often resembled a NASCAR race. The housing complex had been built as a "gift" from the Saudi monarch to his Bedouin subjects, but when the nomads were told they couldn't keep their herds in the apartment buildings, they said "no thanks" and the complex remained largely vacant until the first Gulf War. During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the complex became home for thousands of allied military personnel. When operations shifted to no-fly zone enforcement, Khobar Towers remained a military housing area for units rotating in and out of Dhahran, including mine.

When we arrived in 1994, the potential threat to Building 131 was readily apparent. The multi-story apartment building, built from reinforced concrete, sat on a corner of the complex. Only a masonry wall separated the building from the surrounding area. Air Force security police (and Saudi MPs) protected the complex, but anyone could drive up or walk to the wall, which was located less than 100 feet from the building's main entrance. Even in those days, it was easy to envision a car or truck bomb attack, like the one that eventually transpired.

During our deployment to Saudi Arabia, my squadron shared Building 131 with a rescue unit from Patrick AFB, Florida. Dhahran had become a regular deployment for that squadron's aircrews, pararescuemen, maintenance personnel and support personnel. In the event a coalition aircraft was downed over Iraq, rescue HC-130s and helicopters would scramble from Dhahran and attempt to recover the pilot or aircrew. Combat search and rescue (CSAR) remains one of the most demanding Air Force missions, and the Patrick squadron was among the very best.

Eventually, Saddam backed down in the fall of 1994, and my squadron's deployment to Dhahran came to an end. But the rescue mission continued, so the Patrick airmen kept deploying to Dhahran and their billeting spaces in Building 131. Less than two years later, the terrorists struck, killing 19 USAF personnel. The Patrick squadron suffered most of the casualties, along with another deployed unit from Eglin AFB, Florida. In the aftermath of that tragedy, I scanned the pictures of the victims, trying to see if I recognized a familar face. I'm almost certain that I met some of those airmen in the Fall of 1994, during my sojourn in Khobar Towers.

Ten years after the bombing, former FBI Director Louis Freeh reminds us that we have unfinished business with those behind the bombing, specifically, the government of Iran. Despite consistent prodding from Mr. Freeh, the Clinton Administration refused to press the Saudi government to let FBI agents interview bombing suspects. When former President George H.W. Bush took up the request, the suspects confirmed what many already suspected: Tehran had sponsored the deadly attack. Alarmed that the FBI would spoil its overtures toward Tehran, the Clinton Administration quickly dropped the matter, and Freeh became a pariah at the White House.

More recently, there has been more discussion about direct negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, and we've pointed out the potential folly of that approach. But if there ever are talks with Iran, the issue of Khobar Towers must be at the top of the list. This bit of unfinished business has been ignored for far too long, despite indictments in the bombing case under the current Bush Administration. The victims--and their families--deserve justice, even if it is justice delayed.


POSTSCRIPT: Khobar Towers remains a controversial subject in the Air Force, despite the passage of time. The bombing occurred as the Commander of the 4404th Provisional Wing, Brigadier General Terry Schwalier, was moving to a new assignment; by some accounts, he was drafting a "changeover" report for his successor when the bombing occurred. A subsequent inquiry into the bombing, chaired by retired Army General Wayne Downing, faulted Schwalier for failing to take necessary force protection measures. General Schwalier responded with copies of letters to Saudi officials, asking them to beef up security, both in and around the complex. Then-Air Force Chief of Staff Ron Fogelman retired "early" from his post, in protest of Schwailer's treatment.

At the time, sentiment in the Air Force was divided. Some saw Fogelman's move at little more than the General Officers Protective Association (GOPA) in action. General Schwalier was considered a golden boy in some circles, and his tarring in the Khobar Towers attack derailed a career that might have carried him to the highest levels of leadership. At the time of the attack, Schwalier was on the promotion list for Major General--a list that General Fogelman had approved.

But others argue that Schwalier was sacrificed unnecessarily. They point out that force protection was a low priority in 1996--even for units deployed to Saudi Arabia, and despite information that the terrorist threat was increasing. Moreover (as even the Downing Commission acknowledged), General Schwalier was poorly served by a wing organization that lacked an organic intelligence capability.


Nancy Reyes said...

Well, a lot of Oklahomans still have questions about the OKC bombing too...which is why Terry Nichols beat the death penalty in a state that has more executions per capita than Texas.
And how much information from Philippine intelligence was ignore both in OKC and about 911?
Clinton got a pass on all this...

Lori said...

Thanks for this informative post. I live in Dhahran, listen to the jets leave the airbase every day, and visit Al-Khobar often. I have been driven past the Khobar Towers site but never really taken the time understand what happened there. What with the recent 10th annniversary of the event, there have been a lot of posts on the subject but none based on anything more than cut and paste technology. Thanks. I'm going to learn more.