Air Force chief resigns over disputes '97 terrorist bombing was source of division


WASHINGTON -- The Air Force's top officer yesterday asked to retire a year early, citing "a variety of reasons" that included differences over responsibility for failing to defend against a terrorist attack that killed 19 U.S. servicemen last year in Saudi Arabia, Pentagon officials said.

"I do not want the institution to suffer and I am afraid it will if I am seen as a divisive force and not a team player," Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, the Air Force chief of staff, said in a written statement.

Cohen accepted Fogleman's request, praising him for serving his country with "courage, vision and distinction." He becomes the first of 16 Air Force chiefs to step down voluntarily before completing his full term.

Fogleman, 56, a blunt four-star officer and decorated Vietnam War fighter pilot, sent a terse handwritten letter to Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall yesterday morning, requesting retirement no later than Sept. 1, a year before his four-year tenure ends.

Fogleman's resignation came as the Pentagon prepared to release a report on the June 1996 terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia and on the performance of Air Force Brig. Gen. Terryl J. "Terry" Schwalier, the officer responsible for the security of the 2,000 service members housed at the Khobar Towers complex in Dhahran. Terrorists parked a fuel truck just outside the perimeter of the complex, 85 feet from one of the eight-story buildings. In addition to killing 19, the blast wounded hundreds and left a house-size crater. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

A scathing Pentagon report last fall faulted Schwalier and other senior officers, saying they did not make security a high priority and failed to heed intelligence reports that Khobar Towers was a likely terrorist target.

An internal Air Force report in January absolved Schwalier and other officers, saying the the Pentagon investigation -- spearheaded by a retired Army general -- misapplied Army standards to an Air Force officer.

But earlier this year, the Pentagon and Congress pressured the Air Force to re-evaluate the exoneration of Schwalier. The findings of this latest probe are expected to be released this week.

Fogleman indicated to congressional and Pentagon officials that would resign if Schwalier were found culpable, said Air Force officials.

"The Air Force has always taken the view that our security responsibilities are inside the fence and outside the fence is the responsibility of the Army or the host country," said retired Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, Fogleman's predecessor.

McPeak, in a telephone interview, said many in the Air Force feel that if Schwalier is held culpable "we'd better start building our own Army so we can patrol outside our facilities."

Earlier this year, Fogleman told a Senate panel that U.S. commanders ordered 137 security measures before the bombing and that his own review found no need for punishment. He said unfair punishment would be demoralizing to the Air Force.

"It is criminal for us to try and hold somebody accountable or to discipline somebody for political correctness or because the media has created a frenzy based on partial information and not the full facts," Fogleman told the Armed Services Committee in February.

But in his statement yesterday, Fogleman played down the controversy, saying he wanted to "defuse the perceived confrontation" between himself and Cohen over Khobar Towers.

One Air Force official said another reason for Fogleman's early retirement was his disappointment in a blueprint for the Pentagon's future that was released earlier this year by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.

Fogleman thought the Quadrennial Defense Review failed to make more drastic cuts in troop strength, a move the general thought would free up more money to modernize the Air Force and weapons systems, the official said.

Fogleman, a 1963 Air Force Academy graduate who was awarded the Silver Star for heroism in Vietnam and the Purple Heart for his wounds, also had other run-ins. In May, he tangled with senators over the case of First Lt. Kelly Flinn, the Air Force's first female B-52 pilot who was charged with adultery, lying and ++ disobeying orders.

When one senator -- like many others on Capitol Hill and the public at large -- focused on the adultery charge and criticized the Air Force for wanting to court martial Flinn, Fogleman grew testy. "This is an issue about an officer who is entrusted to fly nuclear weapons who disobeyed an order, who lied," the general snapped. "That's what this was about."

"He has a good nose for getting in trouble, I mean that in the best sense," said McPeak. "If there's a fight out there, he can find it."

Fogleman also strove to hold all Air Force personnel to high standards, said McPeak, who was Fogleman's squadron commander in Vietnam.

In 1995, Fogleman grounded five officers and imposed administrative penalties on several others for their role in the accidental downing over Iraq of two Army Blackhawk helicopters Twenty-six people died. That move earned him the title of the "accountability general."

Last summer, Fogleman strongly reprimanded 16 officers, including two generals, for their involvement in the plane crash in Croatia that killed Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown.

Widnall will make a recommendation to Cohen for a replacement. Among those mentioned are Gen. Ralph E. "Ed" Eberhart, the vice chief of staff, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, who is based in Germany, and Gen. Richard B. Myers, commander of Pacific Air Forces, and based in in Hawaii.

Pub Date: 7/29/97

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