SEPTEMBER 16, 1996
An independent report commissioned by the Pentagon on the terrorist bombing of a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia last June, has just been released. In it, Army General Wayne Downing, author of the report, suggested lack of guidance, and poor communications at all levels, contributed greatly to the attack's success. General Downing believes if ground command in Saudi Arabia had been better briefed on its security options, the attack may have been avoided. He joins Deputy Secretary of Defense John White in a Newsmaker interview with Jim Lehrer.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
July 17, 1996
In a Newsmaker Interview, Defense Sec. William Perry explains troops will be stationed farther away from urban areas in Saudi Arabia, Bosnia and other nations.
June 27, 1996
Elizabeth Farnsworth explores why our troops are in Saudi Arabia in light of two bomb attacks that killed 24 Americans.
June 26, 1996
Following a background piece by Charles Krause, three middle east experts examine the possible reasons for the attack.
Browse the Online NewsHour's coverage of the Middle East
JIM LEHRER: Our lead story tonight, the report on the terrorist bombing of a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia last June. The author of the report is retired Army General Wayne Downing. He is joined here tonight by Deputy Secretary of Defense John White. Gentlemen, welcome to both of you.
General, take us through some of your conclusions, your major conclusions. First, what were the problems with the Defense Department's security procedures that you all found?
GEN. WAYNE DOWNING, (Ret.) U.S. Army: Well, the thing that we found to begin with was there was a lack of overall guidance from the Defense Department as to what the standard should be for physical security. Going further, there was a lack--
JIM LEHRER: Give me an example of that.
GEN. DOWNING: Well, for example, how we were going to harden our buildings, new construction, how we were going to harden existing construction, what kind of stand off distances did we want from major thoroughfares.
JIM LEHRER: Meaning how far would traffic be allowed to--open traffic--
GEN. DOWNING: To come in proximity to our--
JIM LEHRER: Facility.
GEN. DOWNING: Mm-hmm. When and how would we put protective coating on our windows. Uh, how we would physically run checkpoints, some of the technological advances that could help us detect, deter, mitigate explosive devices. These types of things--
JIM LEHRER: You mean like a technical device that if--I hate to keep interrupting here--
GEN. DOWNING: Sure.
JIM LEHRER: --but the examples are important--that there are technical devices available that can detect the approach of an explosive, is that correct?
GEN. DOWNING: That's correct. There are also technical devices that--
JIM LEHRER: In a truck, what was in this case. Yeah.
GEN. DOWNING: In a truck. There's also technical devices to put up baffles and barriers that can contain blasts, that can detect contraband materials. There are things that you can use, sensors, seismic sensors, to detect movement, all these things integrated into a control center which can greatly enhance the, the effectiveness of your security forces.
JIM LEHRER: And your problem that you discovered was that these things existed but they weren't being properly used, or standards weren't set?
GEN. DOWNING: The standards were not used. One of the recommendations that we had made is that we have a focal point in the Defense Department to do this and to provide teams to go out and help our commanders in the field. We've got enough inspectors. We've got enough people going out, telling people what's wrong. What we need are people that are going to go out there, tell a commander what his vulnerabilities are, and then stay there and help him actually fix those vulnerabilities to install these modern, state of the art sensor systems, and put an integrated command and control network in so that he can sit there and control and monitor these types of things.
JIM LEHRER: What was the state that you found this to be in? Was it left to individual commanders, and they were just kind of on their own to figure this out for themselves?
GEN. DOWNING: Basically, Jim, it was left to the initiative of each one of the individual commanders, and, of course, when you take a case like what was going on in Saudi Arabia, the primary mission of that force over there was to launch air operations into the box in Southern Iraq to enforce--
JIM LEHRER: Into the no-fly zone.
GEN. DOWNING: Exactly.
JIM LEHRER: Enforce the no-fly zone.
GEN. DOWNING: Enforce the no-fly, no-drive zone.
JIM LEHRER: The southern part, yeah.
GEN. DOWNING: And so that was the primary focus of what was going on there. The, the commander over there was faced with an entirely new situation in November of 1995 when the bomb was exploded in Riyadh at the OPM Sang Building.
JIM LEHRER: This is the first bomb attack in Saudi Arabia.
GEN. DOWNING: This is the first bombing, and all of a sudden, his situation over there changed dramatically, so he needs--he needed some help to--you know, he's an Air Force officer. He needed some help to tell him how to cope and adjust to that change of situations.
JIM LEHRER: He knew how to fly the planes, but he wasn't an expert in security.
GEN. DOWNING: Absolutely. Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: I want to come back to his situation in a moment, but Sec. White, based on what the general's commission has found, have those situations now been corrected?
JOHN WHITE, Deputy Secretary of Defense: Yes, I think so, Jim. First of all, we have to understand that this terrorist attack has had to change our mind set. The complexity of it, the magnitude of it means we have to think about terrorism differently, and we're doing that. The Secretary immediately did a number of things. We relocated our forces to safer situations in the region.
JIM LEHRER: This was after the bomb.
SEC. WHITE: Right after the bombing. We brought many of our dependents home. We did a worldwide assessment. Of course, he asked Gen. Downing to do a candid, quick, hard look at this. Now as a result of that look, Gen. Downing gave us a whole set of recommendations, and we're following those recommendations.
JIM LEHRER: What about the ones he just outlined here?
SEC. WHITE: Well, those are some that we're following. For example, Gen. Downing said we didn't have adequate standards. We published yesterday at the Secretary's direction a directive on just those--just such standards. Gen. Downing pointed out that we needed a focal point. The Secretary has named the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Shalikashvili, to be that focal point. As part of that effort, he will see to it that these people in the field get more help.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, just to, to interrupt a moment, if this same situation were to duplicate itself, you suddenly have an Air Force commander whose job, who knows all about flying, suddenly confronted with a situation that involves security, he calls Shalikashvili?
SEC. WHITE: Well, in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we'll have a special unit that Gen. Shalikashvili is setting up whose responsibility will be to reach out actively to the various commanders as would be the case here. And then they have expertise, and they will go out and assist these commanders in making sure they have the force protection measures that they need.
JIM LEHRER: All right, now, does that satisfy your recommendation, General?
GEN. DOWNING: We think that that's going to get after it, and, uh, it's going to do a lot to solve some of the problems that we saw, but the devil's in the detail. The fact is we're going to have to stay after this, we're going to have to stay after it three months from now, six months from now, a year from now. We're not going to be able to all of a sudden get lulled into a false sense of security because terrorism represents a way that a weaker enemy can attack us. In other words, they can't attack us with our conventional military forces. We are too strong. We are too superior, but we've got an Achilles Heel with terrorism, and if we don't take the proper measures to defend ourself, we're going to be continued--we're going to continue to be subjected to these types of attacks.
JIM LEHRER: One of the huge elements in this Saudi Arabia bombing was the intelligence, where it came from, how valuable was it, and how it was utilized. What was your basic finding there?
GEN. DOWNING: Well, basically our finding was that there was a considerable body of information and intelligence available that would--that led us to believe, led the forces in Saudi Arabia to believe that there was a credible terrorist threat. Certainly Khobar Towers was pointed out as one of the three targets.
JIM LEHRER: That's the facility--
GEN. DOWNING: That's the facility where the bomb--
JIM LEHRER: --that was bombed, Khobar Towers.
GEN. DOWNING: --went off. Also there were a series of ten suspicious incidents in the three months preceding the bombing that indicated surveillance and reconnaissance of that site. Now some of those incidents were able to be explained but some were not, so there was a body of information over there certainly that led the commanders to, to take measures to improve their security.
JIM LEHRER: But they didn't take enough, is that your point?
GEN. DOWNING: That's correct. The commander over there did a lot of things to harden his base. He primarily protected himself from a penetrating bomb threat, in other words a bomb in a truck or a car crashing through his barriers, or a bomb secreted in enough--in a ruck sack or a knapsack, or a package from coming in. He did that very, very well. He did not protect himself from a stand-off bomb, and--
JIM LEHRER: What's a stand-off bomb?
GEN. DOWNING: A stand-off bomb like occurred. In other words, a bomb in a vehicle parked outside--
JIM LEHRER: Outside the base.
GEN. DOWNING: --of the area--
JIM LEHRER: All right.
GEN. DOWNING: --that he physically controlled.
JIM LEHRER: Outside the perimeter then?
GEN. DOWNING: Exactly.
JIM LEHRER: Right. You found that to be a failure of command, correct?
GEN. DOWNING: Well, we found that there was a division of responsibility between the U.S. and Saudis for security of that base, like there is in every one of our bases overseas. Generally, the U.S. forces protect the area inside the fence. The host country protects the area outside the fence. And there was a lack of coordination there, or there was a lack of relaying concern about the control of that parking lot outside of Khobar Towers, where that truck bomb was placed on the 25th of June.
JIM LEHRER: Sec. White, what is--what is the Pentagon's reaction to how the intelligence information was used? And what are you going to do to improve that?
SEC. WHITE: As Gen. Downing said, we had general warning and a lot of indications. In fact, at Khobar Towers, for example, they had taken some 130 steps from the time of the Riyadh bombing in November until this incident.
JIM LEHRER: Like what? Give me a feel for--
SEC. WHITE: Like they had put up these so-called jersey barriers, big shields that you see on the highway that would protect you. They had put guards on the roofs. They had an alert system to make sure that the guards could tell people, as they did when this bomb occurred. They had systems to make sure that the people couldn't crash through the gates and so on. So they set up a whole set of these activities. Obviously, it was not enough. As a result of that, we are increasing our efforts with respect to intelligence. Much of what we need in an area like this is human intelligence that will tell us more specifically where these attacks are going to occur and what will be the nature of these attacks. That's a long-term effort, but one that we have--
JIM LEHRER: That's the job of the CIA, is it not?
SEC. WHITE: Well, we have both those responsibilities in the Department of Defense and in the CIA and the director of Central Intelligence, Dr. Deutch, and we are working together on these efforts.
JIM LEHRER: Now, what did you find the culpability of the, of the wing commander?
GEN. DOWNING: The purpose of the assessment was not to determine culpability.
JIM LEHRER: That's a bad word, “culpability,” responsibility.
GEN. DOWNING: What we did find was that there were things that the wing commander could have done to make it--to make his defense posture better.
JIM LEHRER: That's General Chevalier. How do you pronounce his name?
GEN. DOWNING: Chevalier.
JIM LEHRER: Chevalier. The French way. All right. And what do you recommend? Should Gen. Chevalier be, be disciplined?
GEN. DOWNING: We made no recommendation. I referred that matter to the Secretary of Defense and to his chain of command.
JIM LEHRER: Is he going to be disciplined?
SEC. WHITE: Well, I think what happened here was that as soon as the Secretary got the report from Gen. Downing, before he even read it, he referred it to the Air Force and asked the Air Force to examine any discipline or other issues that they saw fit in terms of their implementation of their tasks as it related to supporting this particular operation. So the Air Force now has a formal process underway to examine how they performed in this regard.
JIM LEHRER: Is it your impression, Mr. Secretary, having read Gen. Downing's report, that there were serious lapses in command or performance by American personnel from the top or even further down?
SEC. WHITE: This was a terrorist attack. Terrorists killed these airmen. It was a cunning, clever, sophisticated attack. We think that's terrible. People died. They were killed by these terrorists. Our goal now is to make sure that we do everything we can to make sure that does not happen again. In doing that, we're going to make a lot of changes, as we indicated earlier, of the sort we indicated earlier. We're going to increase our funding. We're going to increase the technology, improve our intelligence, focus more on this as an issue, give that commander in the field more authority so that he can deal better with these threats. So in that sense, yes, we think we can make improvements, and we intend to.
JIM LEHRER: General, finally, the bottom line is, do you believe that if this had been handled properly before, that those 19 lives could have been saved?
GEN. DOWNING: You can never guarantee that. It's just like Sec. White has said. You can take every precaution possible, and there's--you can never get 100 percent assurance that you're not going to be attacked. Look at our allies, the, the British and the Israelis. They've been fighting a terrorist threat now for many, many years. They are excellent at their anti-terrorism measures, but even they occasionally get surprised. You give it the best shot you can give it. You make it an inherent part of everything you do within your command, and you'll have a high degree of assurance that you'll be successful. I'm confident that we can counter this threat.
JIM LEHRER: And this has the highest priority now in the Defense Department?
SEC. WHITE: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.