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Commanders must ensure troops' safety

America's troops are certain to face terrorist threats in the future, and their commanders must take "extraordinary precautions" to ensure their safety - and be held accountable when they do not, Defense Secretary William Cohen says.

Cohen and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili explained their reasoning Thursday for recommending that Air Force Brig. Gen. Terryl Schwalier be denied promotion to major general for failing to take what they deemed to be adequate steps to protect his base at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.A truck bomb explosion on June 25, 1996, killed 19 airman and wounded hundreds at the base Schwalier commanded.

Cohen said Schwalier was responsible for several security failures at the Khobar Towers barracks, including the lack of an effective alarm system, inadequate evacuation plans and little anti-terrorism training for troops.

Therefore, Schwalier did not merit getting a second star, Cohen said.

Reacting to the decision, Schwalier said he would retire and that he will walk away with his "head held high."

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., lauded Cohen for taking the action but said he believed others, such as Shalikashvili and apparently former Defense Secretary William Perry, should share in the blame.

"I believe this is a responsibility that went to the top of the Pentagon," Specter told reporters.

Cohen told reporters, "It seems to me that what we have to insist upon is that our commanders take all reasonable measures to protect their troops" and that even "extraordinary precautions" were necessary when a terrorist strike was plausible.

An attack several months before the blast at the Khobar Towers barracks should have been such a signal for Schwalier, the secretary said.

Asked whether the action against Schwalier would send a message to military commanders that they were being held to an impossibly high standard, Sha-li-kash-vi-li argued that America's troops deserved to know that high standards are demanded of officers given major responsibilities.

"We must avoid the temptation to circle the wagons around one of our senior officers," Shalikashvili said.

"We owe nothing less to those young men and women that we . . . often lead into danger. We must provide them commanders who are held to high standards," the general said.

The defense secretary lauded Schwalier as a "fine officer" who had served admirably for more than 25 years, but one who did not take "elemental" steps to ensure the safety of those on his base.

"He's not being made a scapegoat; he's being held accountable," Cohen said, responding to a query whether it was proper that only one man be punished.