Downing Task Force Studies Bombing
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 11, 1996 The mission is vital and the deadline is short for a newly created anti-terrorist task force.
The mission is to look at the circumstances surrounding the Khobar Towers bombing at Dhahran Air Base, Saudi Arabia, June 25 and recommend ways to lower the risk of future terrorist attacks. Aug. 15 is the deadline for a written report on the findings.
President Clinton and Defense Secretary William J. Perry called on retired Army Gen. Wayne A. Downing, former head of U.S. Special Operations Command, to head the task force. They charged the group with assessing the bombing and evaluating security at other U.S. Central Command facilities in the region.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, former head of the Defense Intelligence agency, and about 30 military anti-terrorist experts are now members of the Downing Task Force.
"My mission is similar to a safety investigation in the service - - find out what happened and see how we can apply those lessons learned to the future," Downing said at a Pentagon news briefing July 10."
The short deadline reflects the urgency of the undertaking, according to the former general. Forty-five days is a very short period of time for a study of this magnitude, he said.
"The president and the secretary want us to get out there to determine any immediate vulnerability so that people can react to them very quickly," Downing said. Both senior officials have pledged their full support and cooperation, he said.
Downing said he'll be surprised to find a great need for immediate action. "There is a real sense of urgency out there, and some extraordinary things are being done by all the commanders to protect their forces," he said. "They recognize that there's a new threat. The magnitude of the device that went off shows a major escalation in the threat."
The task force will not wait for the mid-August deadline to report anything critical, however, Downing said. "If I find something significant that we need to do right away, I'll tell the secretary and we'll take appropriate action."
Downing stressed the purpose of the task force investigation is to assess the facts and make recommendations. "It is not a criminal investigation to determine culpability," he said. "If I find instances of malfeasance of duty, I'm to report that to the chain of command."
The task force is to spend several weeks interviewing people in the United States and in the Middle East. "I intend to talk to every member of the chain of command, from Gen. [J.H. Binford] Peay [commander in chief of Central Command] right down to the sentries on the roofs at Khobar Towers," he said.
"Our principal focus will be Saudi Arabia, not only Dhahran, but the other [U.S.] sites in Saudi Arabia," he continued. "Then we plan to visit some other key sites in the Middle East where we have large numbers of U.S. military and where there is a possible threat."
The task force will look at threat assessments done by the intelligence community before the Dhahran bombing and as a result of a November car bombing at a U.S. facility in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee July 9, Perry said intelligence officials had underestimated the terrorist threat in the region. Perry said the threat assessments were not useful at the tactical level.
"We will look at the usefulness of the information, what did it mean, how was it interpreted," Downing said. "We'll see how the information was disseminated, how it was understood at different levels of the chain of command, and see how it is today."
In Saudi Arabia, Downing said he plans to interview all eyewitnesses and the Saudi officials responsible for physical security. "One of the things we are going to be looking at is the division of responsibility for physical security between the U.S. forces and the host country forces," he said.
Task force members will have to be "deft and diplomatic" as they search for the facts, Downing said. "We have to recognize that we're dealing with governments and societies which are very different from ours. We're going to be getting into different people's perceptions of what their responsibilities were."
Downing retired recently after a 34-year Army career. He served in a variety of command assignments in infantry, armored, special operations and joint units culminating in his assignment as commander in chief of U.S. Special Operations Command. He served two combat tours in Vietnam as a junior infantry officer. As a general officer he commanded the special operations units of all services during the 1989 Panama invasion. He also commanded a special operations task force operating behind Iraqi lines during Desert Storm.