Perry Accepts Blame for Force Protection Lapses
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sep. 20, 1996 Defense Secretary William Perry stood by his commanders and accepted responsibility for what many in Congress and the media are calling a tragic failure to adequately protect U.S. forces at Khobar Towers.
"To the extent that this tragedy resulted in the failure of leadership, that responsibility is mine and mine alone," Perry told members of the House National Security Committee Sept. 18.
A terrorist truck bomb exploded 80 feet from the Khobar Towers housing complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, June 25, killing 19 airmen and wounding 500 others. An earlier bombing, Nov. 13, 1995, at a U.S.-led training facility in Riyadh killed seven, including five Americans.
Along with taking immediate steps to enhance force protection after the Khobar Towers attack, Perry appointed retired Army Gen. Wayne A. Downing, former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, to look into circumstances surrounding the attack.
"I did not want a whitewash," Perry said, "I did not want a cover-up. I wanted a hard-hitting analysis, and I wanted thoughtful recommendations on how to improve our system ... I got what I asked for, and I expected no less from Gen. Downing."
Downing's report said the commander of the 4404th Wing (Provisional) "did not adequately protect his forces from terrorist attack," and the chain of command "did not provide adequate guidance and support to the commander." The report also stated the commander was "ill-served by the intelligence arrangement within his command, which focused almost exclusively on the air threat for Operation Southern Watch."
Perry said the tragedy was indeed a failure to adequately protect U.S. service members, but he said he will "not participate in the game of passing the buck."
"We have a systematic and judicious process of military justice," he said. "I will let it proceed carefully and objectively." Perry sent Downing's report to the secretary of the Air Force to determine accountability and to consider possible disciplinary actions. The Air Force convening authority is to report its findings by Dec. 4.
In the meantime, Perry said, he will not seek to delegate the responsibility for this tragedy on any of the military commanders. "They have served our country with enormous distinction and considerable sacrifice, and they deserve our gratitude, not our blame," he said.
"I have thought very carefully about my responsibility to select leaders, particularly my principal military leaders in this field, [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army] Gen. [John M.] Shalikashvili and [Commander U.S. Central Command Army] Gen. [J.H. Binford] Peay," he said.
The defense secretary said he recommended them to the president with full confidence in their abilities and would still recommend them with full confidence. "They are superb soldiers," he said. "They are strong military leaders. They are dedicated to the safety and the welfare of their troops."
The location of the perimeter fence was a crucial factor in the attack. Congressional leaders asked Perry if he knew the fence at Khobar Towers was only 80 feet from the living quarters. "I did not know that the fence was 80 feet from the building," Perry said. "If you think I should have known that, then you can regard that as a failure on my part. There are many security fences around many of our installations, thousands of them around the world, and I do not know the details of all of them."
Perry said he is responsible for the safety and welfare of all U.S. forces, but he cannot inspect every security defense or determine the adequacy of every security patrol. "But there is much that I can do," he said. "I can establish policies which guide our commanders, including policies on force protection. I organize and structure the department, including ways to optimize our approach to force protection. I allocate resources so that ... commanders can do their jobs properly, including the resources for force protection. And I must carefully select and supervise the military and civilian leadership of the Department of Defense."
The Khobar Towers attack was a watershed event that has caused dramatic changes in the way DoD must protect its forces from the growing terrorist threat. Beefed up security at Khobar Towers prevented a penetration of the security perimeter at Khobar Towers, thereby saving many lives, but clearly were not enough, Perry said.
"We now know that we face an unprecedented threat," he said. DoD is now relocating its forces overseas, restructuring its command structure and refocusing its focus on force protection.
"As we decide where and how to deploy our forces overseas, we will place the threat of terrorism front and center," Perry said. "Force protection against terrorist attacks will now be one of the most important considerations we weigh, along with other key mission tasks, when we decide how best to undertake a deployment."
Putting force protection up front will require trade-offs in areas such as cost, convenience and quality of life, he said. "This is a tough answer for our men and women in uniform who will live in less comfortable surroundings," Perry said. Khobar Towers was an apartment building; troops now relocated at the Prince Sultan Air Base are living in tents at an isolated, desert base.
"It is a tough answer for them and their families, more of whom must now experience the loneliness of unaccompanied tours," Perry said. "We will have to compensate for these changes and greater hardships in order to continue to maintain the superb quality forces which we have today."
As a result of Downing's review, Perry said DoD is making the following changes:
- Issuing DOD-wide force protection standards;
- Ensuring local commanders have full authority and responsibility for force protection;
- Transfering responsibility for force protection for noncombatant troops in the Arabian Peninsula from the State Department to DoD and considering making this policy change at other locations;
- Taking steps to improve intelligence collection on the terrorist threat, making it more useful to commanders in the field;
- Taking steps to improve U.S.-host nation cooperation on force protection;
- Seeking more money for force protection and new technology; and
- Designating the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the single DOD-wide focal point for force protection.
"Since the first day that I have been the secretary of defense, my first priority has been the safety and the welfare of our forces," Perry said. "We have large forces often exposed to danger. We do have incidents where our military personnel are killed by accident, killed by terrorists or killed in military conflict. Each time that happens, I feel the loss deeply, and each time I review what we can do to improve our processes; what we can do to reduce the risk to our military force."