WASHINGTON -- The government's investigation of a 1996 terrorist bombing that killed 19 U.S. airmen in Saudi Arabia has collapsed over disagreements with the Saudis, and Clinton administration officials now say they may never be able to determine who carried out the attack.
In frustration, FBI Director Louis J. Freeh has pulled out the dozens of investigators sent to the scene of the bombing at the Khobar Towers apartment complex in eastern Saudi Arabia, leaving behind one agent as a legal attache and liaison to the Saudis.
The Justice and Defense departments have vowed that they will not close the books on the investigation, which began two years ago this week after a fuel truck packed with tons of explosives detonated outside the apartment complex. About 500 people were wounded in the blast.
But the Clinton administration's insistence that it remains committed to the case is at odds with other signs that the investigation has dissolved amid a muddle of inconclusive evidence and ill feeling between the United States and Saudi Arabia, its closest ally in the Persian Gulf.
Evidence suggesting that Iran sponsored the attack has further complicated the investigation, because the United States and Saudi Arabia have recently sought to improve relations with a new, relatively moderate government in Tehran.
There is no indication that the White House, the State Department or intelligence agencies have directed the FBI to back off the case, but the prospect of improved relations may have made it less likely that broad assertions of Iran's role in the bombing would be accepted without concrete evidence.
As the case languishes, families of the American victims are, for the first time, complaining openly about the slow pace of the investigation. They also assert that the case is not being pursued aggressively because of U.S. fears of offending Saudi Arabia, a principal oil supplier to the United States.
"Ignoring us doesn't make us go away," said Fran Heiser of Palm Coast, Fla., mother of an Air Force master sergeant who was killed in the explosion. "Everybody is forgetting about this case. These guys didn't die so much for their country as they died because of their country."
Overall, the case offers a bitter, revealing, lesson in the limits of law enforcement in the post-Cold War world, in which the United States has asserted its authority to operate overseas to combat terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime.
What may have been the FBI's best hope of cracking the case -- the arrest of a Saudi dissident opposed to the royal family who initially suggested that he was involved in the attack -- evaporated last year when he reneged on a plea-bargain agreement and changed his testimony. He in- sisted that he had no information on the bombing.
The Saudi, Hani Abdel Rahim Sayegh, is in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service at an undisclosed location, awaiting deportation to Saudi Arabia, where he is likely to be beheaded. Even if he reverses himself again and agrees to testify, U.S. officials say, his credibility is tainted.
U.S. officials acknowledge that the FBI is stymied. They say there is no reason to believe that they will ever obtain the Saudi cooperation necessary to determine who carried out the attack. hTC "By ourselves, there's not much we can do," one U.S. official said.
Attorney General Janet Reno and Freeh have publicly criticized the Saudis for a lack of cooperation. Federal officials say the Saudis have refused to allow them to interrogate dozens of suspects arrested by the Saudis and to review critical evidence.
It took months, they said, for the Saudis to agree to allow the FBI to inspect the getaway car used by the terrorists.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington said it had no comment on the investigation, but U.S. business executives and others close to the Saudi government said the Saudis are equally frustrated by the FBI.
They said the Saudis described the bureau as high-handed in its dealings with the kingdom and reluctant to accept the validity of evidence gathered by the Saudis.
Pub Date: 6/21/98