WASHINGTON — Struggling to defuse an inflammatory issue, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States said Sunday that his country only "technically" seemed to reject U.S. requests for greater security at a military compound bombed by terrorists last month and that the furor over precautions is merely "Monday morning quarterbacking."
Prince Bandar ibn Sultan indicated that Saudi authorities always considered the question of more protection for the Dhahran compound open to discussion. The prince added that the status of security at the site, where 19 U.S. airmen died in a massive truck bombing, was not a "black and white" matter.
"Monday morning quarterbacking is easy," said Bandar on ABC-TV's "This Week With David Brinkley." "Oklahoma City was bombed; 200 people died. We heard in the news media here that all the federal government [buildings] should have been protected. How? You want to close every street around all your federal buildings? No, you can't."
The matter of U.S. vulnerability to the terrorist attack in Dhahran has become a hot political issue following reports that Saudi officials apparently rebuffed requests to broaden the buffer zone around the compound and that U.S. commanders delayed protecting the compound windows with plastic film in order to save money.
"If everything you just said was true, I think it's terrible too," Bandar said. "What's accurate is there was great cooperation between our security people and their [U.S.] counterparts."
On Sunday, Republicans and Democrats sought to shield Defense Secretary William J. Perry from demands that he resign in light of any security failures in Dhahran.
"I think calls for his resignation are premature," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, who also appeared on the Brinkley show.
His remark was echoed by committee colleague Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.): "It's just wrong at this point to call for anybody's resignation or even to suggest it."
The Senate committee plans hearings to examine Perry's culpability in the disaster and to explore larger questions about America's ability to protect its military personnel from terrorist attacks in the Middle East.
Reports that Saudi Arabia turned down U.S. requests to interview suspects in a terrorist bombing that killed five Americans and two Indians in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in November have further complicated relations between the two countries and inflamed the political aftermath of last month's attack.
Yet if some Republicans would like to saddle the Clinton administration with blame for any security lapses at the compound, many also are reluctant to undermine U.S.-Saudi ties, which have played an increasingly key role in protecting Persian Gulf oil lanes in the 1990s.
James A. Baker III, the secretary of state under former President Bush who pushed for a lasting American military presence in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said Sunday that Saudi authorities would have cooperated with U.S. requests to heighten security if the requests had been conveyed by top-level U.S. officials.
Pentagon accounts indicate that U.S. military commanders in the region pressed the request for the larger security perimeter with their Saudi counterparts last winter and, intending to pursue the matter further themselves, did not refer the subsequent rejection to top-level military or civilian superiors.
When the Saudis are approached at top government levels, Baker maintained, "You get the kind of cooperation that we need."
Bandar, asked why Saudi authorities refused to allow U.S. investigators to question four defendants in the November terrorist bombing, instead contrasted his nation's harsh brand of justice with the slower U.S. version.
"The families of the 200 Americans who died in Oklahoma still are waiting for justice. The families of the five Americans who died in the Riyadh bombing at least saw . . . swift justice against the perpetrators," he said.
Saudi Arabia beheaded the four defendants in the Riyadh bombing in May, although the FBI had sought to interview them to learn more about terrorist links in the Mideast.
Bandar declined to comment on the Dhahran investigation other than to say that Syrian involvement in the attack has been ruled out.
"I can assure you everything that is needed to make this investigation go smoothly [and] . . . succeed in getting to the bottom of this tragedy . . . will be done by my government," he said.