The Shadow of Khobar Towers

Nov. 1, 2005

Not long after the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, the FBI hit a roadblock; Riyadh was refusing access to some major suspects. According to former FBI chief Louis J. Freeh, President Clinton was asked to use a private meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah to press the FBI’s case, but Clinton, instead, hit up Abdullah for a donation to his Presidential Library.

Freeh aired the allegation in his book, My FBI, and in an Oct. 9 interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” Given that 19 US airmen died in the attack, his charge is as serious as a stroke, and Clinton’s spokesman quickly denounced the claims as “untruths.”

The facts may never be established. However, even if the tale of Presidential panhandling is proved true, the deed would not rate as the worst feature of the Khobar Towers affair. The FBI eventually prevailed in the matter, so Clinton’s act—if it happened—did no lasting harm. The same cannot be said for other Administration actions.

Khobar Towers was a high-rise apartment complex situated in a congested section of Dhahran, a large city on the Gulf. Buildings 131 and 133 housed airmen from USAF’s 4404th Wing (Provisional), which since 1992 had flown missions to enforce a “no-fly” zone over Iraq. The structures were set back 80 feet from a perimeter fence to the north. At 10 p.m. on June 25, 1996, a driver wheeled a sewage tanker truck into the area and parked it just outside the fence. Within four minutes, the tanker exploded.

Investigations showed the vehicle contained 5,000 pounds of advanced plastic explosives, which produced a blast equivalent to 20,000 pounds of TNT—80 times larger than any bomb previously detonated in the kingdom. Its kinetic force sheared off the face of Building 131, not only killing 19 but also wounding hundreds, many severely.

In the first weeks after the blast, DOD officials blamed poor intelligence, saying it was “inconclusive” as a predictor of such an attack. Congress also zeroed in on “intelligence failures,” not any individuals. No fingers were being pointed—yet.

Though it took a while, the Administration finally settled on someone to blame. He was Brig. Gen. Terryl J. Schwalier, commander of the 4404th. In July 1997, after a year of press and political agitation for someone’s head, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen concluded Schwalier “could and should have done more” to protect his troops. Cohen emphasized two supposed failures: an ineffective alarm system and inadequate evacuation plans.

Cohen canceled Schwalier’s previously approved promotion to major general, ending his career. Schwalier resigned on the same day.

Only later did DOD fully release two comprehensive Air Force reports. Both found that Schwalier did quite a lot to protect his troops—130 specific security upgrades over his one year in command—and that no reasonable person could have expected him to do more. (See “Khobar Towers,” June 1998, p. 41.) Cohen faulted Schwalier for not conducting evacuation drills, but Khobar Towers troops had staged six real evacuations. Cohen was aware of these and many other facts, but he ignored them.

Said Army Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, Schwalier’s commander: “These guys went for a political decision and ruined a young general’s career.”

Cohen also stiff-armed the Air Force’s top uniformed leader.

Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, Chief of Staff, went before the Senate Armed Services Committee to argue the attack was an “act of war” and that punitive action would make future military commanders dangerously timid. He strongly advised against punishment, saying it would be “criminal” to “hold somebody accountable … because the media has created a frenzy based on partial information.”

In the end, Cohen, a former Republican Senator from Maine, did not accept Fogleman’s advice. This had immediate repercussions. It played an important role in the Chief’s decision to retire a year before the official end of his tour. Moreover, it raised this lingering question: Does anyone actually believe Cohen cared more than Fogleman about personal “accountability”

Finally, there is the matter of the perpetrators. Hours after the bombing, Clinton vowed, “The cowards who committed this murderous act must not go unpunished.”

It didn’t take long for investigators to identify the actual bombers; they were members of a homegrown Shiite extremist group, Saudi Hezbollah, an offshoot of the Iran-sponsored organization Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, investigators also developed evidence of a more-disturbing reality—the direct complicity of Iran in the attack.

As Freeh put it in a May 20, 2003, Wall Street Journal article: “The evidence became clear that, while the attack was staged by Saudi Hezbollah members, the entire operation was planned, funded, and coordinated by Iran’s security services, … acting on orders from the highest levels of the regime in Tehran.”

Indeed, a 2001 US federal indictment charging 13 terrorists for the Khobar Towers murders makes 37 specific references to Iran or Iranian involvement in the bombing.

Yet justice has not been swift. A few of the terrorists were rounded up in Saudi Arabia. Most fled and have remained at large. As for Iran, there have been no consequences. The Administration was distinctly unenthusiastic about pursuing the question of its complicity. In a June 1998 story, the New York Times pointed out that the Clinton Administration, at the time, was seeking to “improve relations with the new, relatively moderate government in Tehran.

To sum up: The Khobar Towers attack cost the Air Force 19 dedicated airmen, a talented commander, and a principled Chief of Staff. Most of the killers were never brought to justice, and their state sponsor was appeased. These facts were not lost on the troops, and that is the reason that the Khobar Towers disster—in the US military, at least—continues to cast a long shadow.