U.S. underrated Saudi terror threat, Perry says Angry senators grill defense secretary about security

July 10, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary William J. Perry admitted yesterday that "fragmentary and inconclusive" intelligence underestimated the terrorist threat in Saudi Arabia and failed to predict the size of the truck bomb that killed 19 Americans in Dhahran last month.

He also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that security measures, recommended after a November 1995 bomb explosion killed five Americans at a Saudi National Guard facility in Riyadh, had "for a variety of reasons" not all been carried out before the latest bomb blast.

"The security measures we introduced after the bombing of the Saudi National Guard facility were focused on a threat less powerful than actually occurred," said Perry. He noted that the latest blast, at the Khobar Towers military housing complex, was 10 times as powerful as the Riyadh explosion.

"The Khobar Towers bombing was a tragedy that revealed vulnerability in the force-protection measures we had taken," he said.

"The security measures that were already in place undoubtedly saved dozens, if not hundreds, of lives," he added. "However, it is also undoubtedly true that significantly fewer casualties would have occurred if all of the pre-

scribed security measures had been implemented by the time of the attack.

"It seems clear local commanders would have put a higher priority on timing if they had perceived a threat as sophisticated and as powerful as actually occurred."

Sen. Richard H. Bryan, a Nevada Democrat, observed tartly: "It just seems to me that it's not a greatly sophisticated exercise of judgment that the larger the vehicle, the more of these explosives that can be placed in those vehicles."

The defense secretary warned that more terrorist attacks against U.S. targets were likely and said it was "reasonable to assume" the bombers had extensive support from an experienced and well-financed international terrorist organization. He did not identify any group, but said that if any foreign nation was involved it would face retaliation.

Angry senators, trying to pinpoint accountability for the security breach, grilled Perry on the adequacy of U.S. intelligence, the Pentagon's response to the terrorist threat and reports of Saudi reluctance to allow enhanced security at the complex.

President Clinton quickly jumped to Perry's defense, saying he had "full confidence" in the Pentagon chief.

Perry insisted that the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia served vital national interests by ensuring regional stability and a secure supply of oil, but said a move of U.S. forces out of urban settings, where they are more vulnerable to terrorist attack, "may be imminent."

Senators also pressed Perry and two other top brass witnesses -- Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. J. H. Binford Peay III, commander in chief of U.S. Central Command, which includes Saudi Arabia -- on whether the Saudis resisted extending the perimeter fence at Khobar Towers.

Peay said he had been told that on at least two occasions U.S. colonels had broached the issue with local Saudi officials. Without confirming reports of Saudi reluctance to expand the fence, Peay said no official complaints had reached reached his desk.

"We have got to determine the level of cooperation of the Saudi government," said Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican, before pressing Perry on whether he had instructed his subordinates to relay any Saudi resistance to security improvements.

"We always promote exercising the chain of command vigorously in both directions," replied Perry. "And that certainly includes calling for help when you need help. The judgment call here was whether they thought they needed help."

He added that "in retrospect" it was evident high-level "help" on the issue was needed. "It's quite clear that General Peay and General Shali and I would have been prepared to help had we gotten this request."

The Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, testified later to a closed-door session of the committee, saying that Saudi officials had not flatly rejected a request for expanding the perimeter fence.

Perry, asked by Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, if the Saudis had refused to allow U.S. officials to interrogate four terrorists executed for the November bomb blast in Riyadh, said he had been told of the refusal by FBI Director Louis J. Freeh.

Perry stressed that since the latest bombing, Saudi King Fahd had promised full cooperation with U.S. investigators.

"We must have full cooperation this time," said Perry. "We cannot accept the problems we had the last time."

Taking up the issue, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who is one of the most powerful voices on the committee, said: "You keep talking about full cooperation, Secretary Perry. Were we ever fully informed of the results of the Riyadh investigation? Did we press for it?"

When Perry replied that he believed the FBI pressed for the information, McCain retorted: "But Mr. Secretary, you're the one that's responsible for the security of these men and women. Wouldn't you want to have that information?"

McCain changed his line of questioning to cuts in Pentagon anti-terrorism spending, pointing out this had prevented purchase of shatter-proof Mylar for the windows at Khobar Towers.

"I think that was a bad cut. I have directed the service to increase the funding in anti-terrorism," said Perry, who has appointed a commission to investigate security and intelligence operations surrounding the truck-bombing.

Pub Date: 7/10/96

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