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Cohen Denies Promotion to Dhahran Commander

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 1, 1997 – While he did much to safeguard his troops at Dhahran Air Base, Saudi Arabia, certain lapses will cost the commander his second star, Defense Secretary William Cohen announced July 31.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Terryl J. Schwalier "is not being made a scapecoat, he is being held accountable," Cohen said at a Pentagon briefing. Nineteen U.S. airmen died and hundreds were injured June 25, 1996, in a terrorist truck bomb attack on the Khobar Towers housing complex in Dhahran.

Schwalier, commander of the 4404th Wing in Dhahran, "did not adequately assess the implications of a possible attack on the perimeter of the Khobar complex" and, as a result, "did not develop an effective plan for responding to such an attack," Cohen said. "Based on this finding, it would not be appropriate to promote Schwalier to the rank of major general."

Cohen said he made his decision after carefully reviewing three separate reports. The tragedy highlighted the terrorist threat U.S. forces face around the world and the need for effective force protection, he said.

Shortly after Cohen's announcement, Schwalier released a statement announcing he had requested retirement. Many years ago, the 28-year officer said, he resolved to leave active duty the moment his usefulness to the Air Force became limited.

He also expressed his disappointment over the ruling. "The 4404th Wing leadership and its people acted aggressively and responsibly in reaction to the known threat during the months before the bombing," he said. "Our actions clearly saved lives."

Schwalier said three things have constantly been in his thoughts since the attack: sadness for the victims and their families, a strong desire to see those responsible punished, and an intense hope field commanders are not unduly criticized every time something bad happens.

He offered a parting message to Air Force leaders: "In the long run, it's not important who on this earth judges you or how you are judged. It is important to do what's right, to listen to your heart and conscience, and to keep to the high ground. I have and will walk away with my head high."

Cohen said his decision to withhold Schwalier's promotion was a tough call. Determining accountability was particularly difficult, he said, because "we're dealing with human beings.

"On one side, there was a fine military officer, and on the other, there were victim's families, who need to know whether measures could have been taken which might have saved their sons and daughters," Cohen said. "It required me to spend a good deal of time reading as much as I could, trying to make as fair an assessment of the facts as I could." He said he carefully reviewed the three reports requested by former Defense Secretary William Perry.

Immediately after the attack, Perry asked retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing to review the attack and recommend ways to improve force protection. Downing responded with 26 recommendations, which DoD officials broke into 79 specific actions needed to strengthen force protection in the region. Most have been implemented.

Perry also asked the Air Force to report on personal accountability in the incident. Air Force officials filed two reports. The first concluded there was no basis for prosecuting anyone for dereliction of duty under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The second concluded no action should be taken against any officer.

Cohen said he disagreed with the Air Force conclusions. He released his own report titled "Personal Accountability for Force Protection at Khobar Towers" at the press briefing.

"Brig. Gen. Schwalier recognized that a car or truck bomb parked on the edge of the Khobar complex posed a serious threat to his personnel, but he did not take adequate account of the implications of this terrorist threat or develop an effective response plan," Cohen said.

Cohen concluded no adverse action should be taken against other officers in the chain of command. "All military successes and failures ultimately reflect the effectiveness of the chain of command, which shares responsibility for personnel safety," Cohen said. "But as Brig. Gen. Schwalier acknowledged, force protection is first and foremost the responsibility of the commander on the scene."

While Schwalier's chain of command kept him apprised of the threat and offered force protection support, Cohen said, Schwalier never referred any force protection problems up the chain. A request to move the perimeter fence, for example, never went beyond low-level Saudi officials, Cohen said.

Schwalier didn't raise the issue with his Saudi counterpart, who might have given it greater attention, nor did he raise it with his own superiors, Cohen said. Instead, the decision was made to compensate for the lack of perimeter distance by having more patrols and putting sentries with sniper rifles on top of the complex rooftops.

While Schwalier did a "fine job erecting the kind of barriers that would prevent a penetrating attack, he failed to safeguard the perimeter distance of roughly 80 feet -- less than that between home place and second base on a baseball field -- between that fence and the tower."

In reviewing the reports, Cohen said, two serious security deficiencies stood out. First, Khobar Towers had no effective alarm system to warn of an impending terrorist attack. Second, evacuation plans for residents were inadequate and had never been practiced or tested.

A siren known as the "Giant Voice" had not been tested since 1994, and when it was used, people inside complex buildings could not hear it, Cohen said. "There was no effective means of alerting them to a danger other than ... to go from floor to floor, knocking on the doors, saying 'Get out!' -- not saying where to go, but simply, 'Get out!'"

Expecting a commander in a high-threat area to have a means of alerting troops of danger and a trained and tested evacuation system is "elemental," Cohen said. "That's not zero defects, that's a test of reasonableness."

Cohen stressed his decision should not be interpreted as a zero defect attitude. "I know that perfection is impossible, and I also know that a zero defect attitude can make commanders very cautious and timid, jeopardizing success in battle," he said. "Service in our armed forces is inherently dangerous, and there is no way to avoid all risk, but we do expect high standards of performance for the commanders in the field."

Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he agreed with Cohen's decision to remove Schwalier's name from the promotion list.

"Some might say that we must support our operational commanders and not second-guess the decisions they make in the field," Shalikashvili said. "This is certainly true, but only up to a point. For it is also true that commanders are responsible for the actions and decisions they make and, where appropriate, they should be held accountable for actions and decisions that fall short of what we can reasonably expect of them."

Like Cohen, the chairman said accountability does not mean zero defects. "We are human and we expect there will be some mistakes made at all levels," he said. "From senior leaders to the most junior troops, all of us in the military profession expect to be judged against the standard of what it is reasonable to expect of a person of a given rank and experience."

Shalikashvili said the military should avoid the temptation to protect senior leaders. Young commanders in the field "must understand that we would do our profession no good if we got into the habit of circling the wagons around senior commanders to protect them because they're senior commanders. What we must do is use our best judgment and reasonable standards and hold commanders responsible and accountable against those standards."

When something goes wrong, Shalikashvili said, "we must not be afraid to look at the facts and take appropriate action."

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