Monday, January 14, 2008

The Vindication of General Schwalier

Air Force Brigadier General Terry Schwalier was the on-site Air Force wing commander during the Khobar Towers terrorist bombing in 1996. A flawed investigation held him partly responsible for the attack, and ruined his career. Almost 12 years later, a corrections board has ruled that it was unfair to blame him for the attack by denying him a second star (USAF photo via Air Force Times)

It remains one of the defining moments in the long run-up to 9-11; a reminder that Islamic terrorists long had Americans in their sights, even if we were slow to acknowledge that fact, let alone respond.

"It" was the bombing of the U.S. Air Force housing complex at Khobar Towers on 25 June 1996. Nineteen airmen died when a massive truck bomb was detonated just outside their dormitory, on the edge of the sprawling Khobar complex. The toll would have been much higher except for the quick actions of Air Force security policemen. Spotting the truck as it moved into position, they began evacuating personnel from the building, saving scores of lives in the process.

Subsequent investigations--there would, ultimately, be a total of four--focused (rightly) on force protection issues, and whether more could have been done to protect personnel living at Khobar Towers. The best-known inquiry was the first, led by retired Army General Wayne Downing, whose last active-duty assignment was as commander of U.S. Special Forces Command.

Downing, who died last year at age 68, enjoyed a legendary reputation as a special forces operator and leader, with little tolerance for internecine bickering or political correctness. Yet, the Downing inquiry quickly became a political football. Under pressure from Congressional Republicans, Defense Secretary William Perry ordered the general to complete his probe in 60 days--a deadline that did not provide enough time to fully investigate the blast, or determine potential culpability within the chain of command.

And, as the Weekly Standard's Matt Labash later discovered, Downing--and his bosses in the Pentagon--did nothing to insulate the probe from partisan politics. Mr. Perry relayed Congressional "concerns" to General Downing, and the focus of his probe began changing in early July, less than a month after the bombing.

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."

In its rushed assessment, the Downing Commission placed most of the blame for the Khobar debacle on Brigadier General Terry Schwalier, the Air Force wing commander on the scene. That determination stunned senior officers; sources told Labash that both the CENTCOM Commander (General A.B. Peay) and the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Ron Fogelman, had been assured that no one would be found culpable, including Schwalier. General Downing disputed that claim, although General Peay confirmed that he had received such assurances.

While three subsequent inquiries would exonerate him, Schwalier's career was ruined by the Downing investigation. He was denied a second star and retired from active duty in 1997, stung by the harsh judgment of the flawed report, which contained at least 37 incorrect statements, 61 misleading implications and 23 contradictions. General Fogelman became an indirect casualty of the probe; angered by its politics (and its conclusions), the Chief of Staff retired early in protest.

Over the decade that followed, General Schwalier fought a long battle to clear his name. His efforts were largely unsuccessful until he came across an Air Force Academy classmate, Michael Rose, at a conference in 2005. Schwalier told Rose, an attorney practicing in South Carolina, that he had just received another rejection from the Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records, denying a request for reinstatement of his promotion to Major General. Three months before the bombing, Schwalier had been confirmed for his second star by the Senate, but then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen removed his name from the promotion list after release of the Downing report.

Rose agreed to represent Schwalier for free and submitted a new request for correction last September. While preparing that appeal, Rose made some rather startling discoveries. In 2004, he learned, the corrections board ruled that Schwalier, had (in fact) been promoted to Major General on 1 January 1997, although he never pinned on that rank. However, the same official who approved the correction later reversed his decision. According to Mr. Rose, that marked the first time that a civilian Air Force attorney had interfered with a board decision, an action he described as a clear abuse of authority.

In the updated request to have his client's records corrected, Rose argued that Pentagon officials had no authority to overrule the board, and claimed that holding Schwalier responsible for the attack was an injustice.

Last month, more than eleven years after the bombing at Khobar Towers, the Air Force Corrections Board finally ruled in Schwalier's favor, deciding that holding him responsible for the attack (by denying him a second star) was unfair. The board also reinstated his promotion and retroactively changed Schwalier's retirement date from 1997 to February 1, 2000. That will mean a "substantial" amount of back pay and retirement pay, based on his higher rank.

But, as Air Force Times reports, Schwalier views his redemption efforts as more than a chance to regain a lost promotion or the pay. The real issue, he says, is the standard to which commanders ought to be held, and the precedent set by making him the scapegoat for the attack.

“When the government tells a commander to take troops into harm’s way, there’s a risk that precious lives are going to be lost,” Schwalier said. “To me the standard [should be] how can the commander be reasonably expected to perform with the information he has at hand.”
The board also affirmed what General Schwalier had argued for more than a decade: he did everything within his power to protect his troops. That's the same conclusion reached by the three other panels who investigated the Khobar bombing. Sadly, their findings were almost completely ignored, in favor of the Downing report.

Based on we've subsequently learned about the Khobar Towers attack--and the fatal flaws of the Downing inquiry--General Schwalier deserves his personal vindication, and the financial windfall that comes with it. We only wonder why it took so long.

We also wonder why General Schwalier has never received a formal apology from the political and military leaders who were so quick to throw him under the bus. Someone ought to ask Mr. Perry, Mr. Cohen (and their former boss, Bill Clinton) when they will publicly apologize to Terry Schwalier.

Don't hold your breath.


Robert Dudney said...

FYI, the original report on Schwalier's victory was posted last Friday at this web site:

AIR FORCE Magazine Daily Report
Friday January 11, 2008

Reversing the Schwalier Injustice: The Air Force, in a major action, has officially reversed the 1997 DOD "verdict" against Terryl J. Schwalier, restoring his contested second star after a 10-year struggle. USAF today confirmed the action. According to independent sources, an Air Force Review Board recently reached the decision, noting that Schwalier had suffered "an injustice." Further, said the sources, the Air Force soon afterward issued an official order implementing the review board's decision. It is, in a sense, an exoneration of Schwalier, a USAF brigadier who had been scapegoated by the Clinton Administration and some members of Congress for alleged command failures in the 1996 terrorist bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. The blast killed 19 airmen and wounded hundreds more. Though the Senate had confirmed Schwalier's promotion to major general before the attack, and though critics produced no credible evidence of fault on the part of Schwalier, Secretary of Defense William Cohen in July 1997 stripped him of the second star, alleging the he "could have and should have done more" to defend the Khobar complex. Cohen's action was widely viewed as an attempt to mollify political critics on Capitol Hill. Schwalier suffered another reverse in 2005, when Pentagon lawyers thwarted an earlier board reversal. AFA has long viewed Cohen’s 1997 action as an injustice, and has issued a statement about the matter. The service has already changed the general's official biography to reflect the new situation, giving his new grade, promotion date, and retirement date.


AFA Statement
From Michael M. Dunn
President & CEO, the Air Force Association
January 11, 2008

AFA is pleased to learn that the United States Air Force has rectified a decade-long injustice against an outstanding former general officer—Terryl J. Schwalier.

The Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records, having conducted a voluminous and confidential review of his case, recently concluded that he was the victim of "an injustice" and never should have been denied his second star. The board ruled he should regain that star, retroactive to January 1, 1997, and that he be placed on the retired list at the grade of major general. The Air Force affirmed the board's decision with an official order dated Dec. 21, 2007.

Schwalier, as many recall, was a brigadier general who was unfairly blamed by the Clinton Administration in the 1996 terrorist bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 airmen died. Though the Senate had confirmed his promotion to major general before the Khobar Towers attack, and though no evidence of wrongdoing ever was produced, Defense Secretary William Cohen on July 31, 1997 cancelled this second star and effectively ended his career. Cohen alleged that Schwalier "could have and should have done more" to defend Khobar Towers.

For more than 10 years, Schwalier persevered in seeking redress. He has finally succeeded. The Air Force's action was entirely logical and proper. We applaud it, as will any fair-minded person.

We at AFA have more than a passing interest in this result. We have followed the case in detail from the beginning, and it has been a matter of discussion among many in AFA who have had considerable experience in the responsibilities of command. Our view over the intervening 10 years has been strong and consistent: Those responsible for the deaths of the Khobar Towers airmen were the terrorists —not the commander who did everything reasonably within his power to protect them. In fact, General Schwalier took more than 100 separate measures to protect airmen under his command.

We have pressed that message on two secretaries of defense. AFA Executive Director, John A. Shaud, in a July 28, 1997 letter to Cohen, declared, "In our opinion, there is no way that Brigadier General Terryl Schwalier can be held at fault. What happened is that his command took casualties in an attack by an adversary. Without the security initiatives he put in place, the casualty toll would surely have been higher."

Shaud went on to say, "We urge you to consider the precedent and message that would be sent by a finding against General Schwalier. The message seems to be that reasonable attention to security (or any other area of responsibility) is not enough; a commander becomes punishable if he leaves anything—anything at all—undone, even when discovered with 20/20 hindsight. That is a very tough standard for mortals to meet. It will also tend to put your field commanders in a self defensive mode, and that is not what you would want. Except for propitiating those who demand a sacrifice, there is nothing to be gained and some things to be lost by acting against a conscientious officer who did his best under difficult circumstances."

In a June 1, 2006 letter to Secretary of Defense Donald L. Rumsfeld, AFA Chairman of the Board Stephen P. Condon had this to say: "To us, it is obvious that General Schwalier never should have been blamed. His men died in an act of war, one that was no different from the August 1998 attack on US embassies in Africa, October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, or September 2001 attack on the Pentagon." Condon noted that none of these events produced such harsh punishment of individuals.

"A decade ago," Condon went on, "one administration bowed to political forces demanding a sacrifice for the deaths at Khobar Towers, and the result served neither justice nor US security interests. Today, a decision by you to act on his [Schwalier's] behalf would go far toward ending the injustice that continues to weigh on a conscientious military officer who did his best in a difficult and dangerous situation that was not of his making."

We still believe that all of those words are true. Neither justice nor security was well served in the handling of the Khobar Towers case —either in 1997 or at any time since. Finally, though, justice has been done. We are free to refer to this fine officer as Major General Terryl J. Schwalier, USAF (Ret.).

For that, we—and all of America's men and women in uniform—can breathe a sigh of relief.

Unknown said...

Why were Airmen living in Khobar Towers in the first place? They belonged on the air base where they worked. Who in the Pentagon or State Dept. forced the AF to move its troops into KT? Who profited from this move? Why, after the KT incident, did the AF continue to house Airmen in another Saudi complex, Eskan Village, miles from the base where they worked. In both instances these arrangements meant that our Airmen had to travel through Saudi communities every day to get to work. For security reasons they should have been housed on the bases where they worked, the normal arrangement, even it they had to be housed in tents. My suspicion is that the Saudis, either the government or private investors with government connections, pressured the AF to use KT and EV, to their profit. The real persons responsible for the carnage at KT are those in our government who directed our troops to be housed there in the first place.

Unknown said...

John--The decision to base troops at Khobar was based largely on availability and convenience. As I've noted in previous posts, the Khobar complex was first built as a "gift" from the Saudi king to the Bedouin subjects, offering them free housing and a chance to end their nomadic ways. When the Bedouins learned that they couldn't keep their herds in the apartment complex, they said no thanks, and Khobar sat largely empty for years.

When Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990Dhahran became a major hub of U.S. military activity; thousands of AF and Army troops were stationed in the area. The Saudis offered Khobar (for free, as I understand it), and we accepted. The massive complex had few tenants, the buildings were ready for occupancy and they were air conditioned--a better option that building more "tent cities" in the desert.

Of course, we weren't as sensitive to force protection issues back in those days. Despite the Beirut bombing, we assumed (mistakenly) that the complex was relatively safe. The American side of Khobar had been walled off, and there was a strong sercurity presence inside the perimeter. Obviously, the weakness was outside the perimeter, the area controlled by the Saudis. Incidentally, I stayed in the building that was bombed two years before the attack. Even in those days, it was obvious that some of the buildings were too close to the perimeter. To his credit, Gen Schwailer tried to get the perimeter moved back, but the Saudis refused.

Truth be told, no one made a lot of money of Khobar, except the contractors that ran the dining halls (and the food was lousy). The decision to put troops into the complex was the result of necessity and convenience (in 1991), and, as our stay in the Middle East continued, we became complacent. Schwalier pushed for security improvements, but he didn't get a lot of help from folks up the chain of command. And, when the truck bomber struck, they hung him out to dry.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Automatic_Wing said...

To say that "we weren't as sensitive to force protection issues back in those days" before KT would be a major understatement. In my 3 months at Eskan/Riyadh AB back 91/92, you could pretty much do whatever you wanted long you wore a collared shirt!

Knowing what we know now, it is amazing that a major terrorist incident didn't occur earlier.

Chris said...

The only written comment I ever made to Air Force Magazine was re:
Generals Schwalier and Fogleman.

A chapter in the officer's leadership guidance will include their respective experiences with the distinction they have earned.

Chris Rubacha
Major, USAF, (Ret)

Larry Oliver said...

Schwalier was used by the leadership above him as a patsy. He was not served well by his subordinate officers, plain and simple.

As a Khobar survivor, there is a lot more here than is being told, such as a RATA being illegally destroyed and not forwarded to Schwalier. This RATA foretold the attack.

Never heard that, huh? Did anyone ever hear of the video tapes made by the USAF Security Policemen of the terrorist probing activities? Yeah... the FBI didn't know of this either.

Shocked? I'm not...

Khobar Officer said...

I was there and worked in his chain of command. I remember briefing leadership with members from Office of Special Investigations (OSI), Security Police, Disaster Preparedness, and Explosive Ordnance on our concerns of a "Oklahoma City" type bombing at one of two towers. The threat was based on specific intelligence gathered of the previous months. Leadership said there was nothing more they could do. Moving the security fence further away from the towers in into the parking lot of a local Mosque had been asked before and denied by the local government. The parking lot was never more than half full in the 4 months I was there. The security police squadron implemented the extra patrols on their own and are solely responsible for the lives they saved. I blame our leadership for not doing more such as raising the issue to the CENTAF, CENTCOM and the State Department.