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Clinton Honors Airmen Killed in Saudi Blast

Terrorism: Rites held in Florida for bombing victims. Sen. Specter may call for ouster of defense secretary.

July 01, 1996|JONATHAN PETERSON and NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. — As President Clinton paid tribute Sunday to the "quiet American heroes" killed last week in a terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia, the Republican chairman of a key Senate committee said Defense Secretary William J. Perry should resign if lax security contributed to the tragedy.

Participating in emotional memorial services at two Florida bases for the 19 airmen killed by a massive truck bomb in Dhahran, Clinton told grieving families, "We stand with you in sorrow and in outrage." He vowed to redouble his administration's efforts to thwart terrorism.

But Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that if the Pentagon allowed objections from the Saudi authorities to stand in the way of needed security measures, it raises "a real question as to whether William J. Perry is the right man to be secretary of defense."

Perry, who spoke by telephone on two news interview programs, acknowledged that Saudi authorities had rejected U.S. requests to increase the security perimeter near high-rise barracks at the Dhahran military compound.

Specter said his committee will hold hearings soon to explore the Saudis' refusal to keep traffic at least 300 feet farther away from the housing area and to probe the implications of a Saudi refusal to allow U.S. investigators to question four suspects arrested in an earlier terrorist attack.

Asked on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press" if he was calling for Perry's ouster, Specter said, "If the situation looks after we have Intelligence Committee hearings as it does today, then I will call for his resignation."

Later on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley," Perry said he was "deeply offended" by Specter's suggestion.

"There is nothing that is more important to me than the safety and the welfare of our troops," he said. "This is what I have put a major emphasis on. If I am deficient in that, then his call [for resignation] was correct. [But] I challenge his assumption."

White House spokesman David Johnson said, "The president has full and complete confidence in his secretary of defense."

The heated remarks show the increasing attention focused on whether the Clinton administration's deference to Saudi sensitivities about the kingdom's sovereignty exposed U.S. troops there to unnecessary risks.

Clinton flew directly to Florida on his return from a summit in France of the seven leading industrial democracies to attend memorial services at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola, where 12 of the dead were stationed, and at Patrick Air Force Base near Cocoa Beach, home of five more.

At Eglin, friends and relatives listened somberly as bagpipers performed a mournful version of "Amazing Grace," a song requested by the base chaplain. Also in attendance were 11 people wounded in the attack, three of them on stretchers.

"Our Nomads have ceased their wandering," Clinton, using a nickname for Eglin's 33rd Fighter Wing, declared after he read the list of fatalities. "May their names live on forever."

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Clinton's primary objectives in attending the memorial services were to console the bereaved and to assure them that the airmen did not die in vain. But he also clearly hoped to stanch criticism about the safety of American troops in a time of such bombing attacks and to forestall calls for an end to the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia.

"These men represented the best of America, and they gave America their best," Clinton said of the dead. "They stepped forward to lead our mission for peace and freedom. They did so with courage, strength and skill."

He said the U.S. deployment in Saudi Arabia, which is intended to protect oil supplies in the region, is too important to allow terrorists to force a retreat.

But Specter raised just that question: "I believe that the American people, as much as we love oil, are not willing to sacrifice American soldiers at that kind of a risk factor."

Asked if he was suggesting that U.S. troops be brought home if the Saudis fail to allow better security, Specter said, "Well, yes, if we're going to have them subjected to unwonted terrorism."

Specter said the refusal of Saudi authorities to allow Americans to question four men later executed for a bombing attack that killed seven people in November left troubling questions both about the guilt of the suspects and about their motivation.

"Their confessions all sounded alike, were all suspect as to whether they were coerced, and people say, 'We got the right men,' but we're really not sure about that," he said.

Perry--who visited U.S. troops in Dhahran on Saturday and conferred later in the day in Jidda, Saudi Arabia's diplomatic and financial center, with King Fahd and his senior princes--was interviewed from the aircraft carrier George Washington cruising in the Mediterranean. The defense secretary said that Fahd, the victim of a stroke that incapacitated him in November, appears to be fully in control of the situation.

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