WASHINGTON - The Air Force general in charge when a truck bomb exploded in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 airmen, will soon get a second star - unless President Clinton intervenes.
Some within the Air Force view this as good news, arguing that a task force investigation wrongly blamed Brig. Gen. James Terryl Schwalier for inattention to security in the June 25 bombing.
Others see the advancement of an officer whose diligence has been sharply criticized as the latest example of a military that does a poor job of disciplining its own.
"The Department of Defense has become an excuse factory, as opposed to standing up and being accountable and responsible," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
It's not just the truck bombing of the Khobar Towers apartments in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that has raised questions. Lawmakers point to the seemingly light punishments meted out in several high-profile military debacles: the 1996 crash of Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown's Air Force plane, the friendly-fire downing of two Army helicopters over Northern Iraq in 1994, and the booze-soaked Navy Tailhook convention of 1991.
Retired Army four-star Gen. Wayne Downing led the task force that criticized Brig. Gen. Schwalier for failing to make base security a higher priority. The Downing panel also said Brig. Gen. Schwalier failed to heed intelligence reports that Khobar Towers was a likely target for a terrorist attack.
But an in-house report by the Air Force was far more forgiving of Brig. Gen. Schwalier, who was named for promotion last year before the Khobar Towers bombing. He will receive his second star unless Mr. Clinton, or Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall, acting under White House authority, blocks it.
Though not yet released, Pentagon officials say the report will contend that Mr. Downing misapplied Army standards to an Air Force officer. Unlike Army officers, Air Force commanders are responsible for security up to the perimeter of their base, but not beyond - a key issue in Khobar Towers since the bomb was in a truck parked just outside the apartment complex.
Some Air Force officers question why the Downing report did not also single out Army Gen. Binford Peay III, head of the U.S. Central Command, responsible for the Persian Gulf region.
A year ago, the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Ronald Fogleman, said in a videotape that was mandatory viewing for all officers: "`We cannot tolerate actions which appear to condemn inappropriate conduct one moment, condone it the next, or even worse, reward it."
His remarks were in reaction to the lack of punishment meted out in connection with the April 1994 friendly-fire downing of two Army helicopters over northern Iraq, killing 26.
The pilots of the two F-15s that shot down the helicopters, as well as some of the AWACS crewmembers flying that day, later came up for promotion or plum assignments. Only one officer, Capt. Jim Wang, an AWACS radar operator, was court-martialed, and he was acquitted in June 1995.
At Gen. Fogleman's direction, the Air Force grounded five officers involved in the northern Iraq shootdown. Administrative rebukes Gen. Fogleman placed in their files and those of two generals effectively ended their careers.
Some in Congress say that's not enough.
Sen. William Roth, R-Del., wants the military justice officials involved in the acquittal of the AWACS radar operator to testify on whether they were swayed by "improper influence."
"To date, no one has been held accountable," Mr. Roth said.