This is the sixth in a series of posts that tell the story of how Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) counterterrorism operations evolved in the Middle East and my role in orchestrating them. This is a story about powerful leadership lessons and experience I gained, experience that toughened me for future command and leadership positions.
It is also a story about developing hands-on operational concepts and techniques in complex international crime operations that prepped me for my next station in life, as Sheriff of El Paso County. Our county has seen a growing problem with foreign criminal elements: gangs like MS-13, drug cartels, and criminal illegal immigrants. I am the only candidate in this race with the background and skill set to tackle these complex and dangerous problems.
In this part, I discuss some of the behind-the-scenes headhunting that was going on following the Khobar Towers terror attack, all the while I was busy trying to prevent more attacks in the future. The political fallout was fast and fierce,and Washington, DC was determined to get its pound of flesh from someone — anyone. The bright spot in it all was that the pioneering work my troops did was nothing short of incredible, and it paved a path for future leaders in OSI to fine tune and adapt this new counterterrorism mission to a variety of locations and situations.
Khobar was a watershed event for the USAF in many respects. There were the inevitable investigations into the attack to determine culpability and lessons learned. This was a brutal process and as I recall, no fewer than 5 oversight investigations and commissions. I testified before them all.
They were all hostile to OSI in general, with the exception of the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation, headed by the late Senator Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania. Sen Specter had been an OSI agent early in his professional career, and he gave the organization a fair shake.
The main headhunting investigation was the Downing Commission. It was clear when I sat down with its investigators that they wanted a scalp. I recall teasing them a bit, telling them I knew who was responsible for the tragic terror attack if they wanted someone to go after.
The excitement they had was palpable. They leaned in and said, “Yes, please tell us.”
I smiled and simply said, “Let’s locate and nab the two men who parked the truck bomb outside Khobar Towers. They are responsible. Stop trying to ruin someone’s career because a terror group got lucky.”
Needless to say, they didn’t find that humorous.
There is a chapter to the Khobar Towers attack that has never been fully written in my book. And that’s the real culpability. The FBI ran the terror investigation, to include processing the crime scene and evidence from the blast site. I have read the intelligence reports about who was behind the attack, but it has never been made public, which I think is a separate tragedy. I know that political sensitivities have been in play about this truth all these years, but it’s time to make this right.
I guess what has made me cynical about the whole affair is how determined our government was to find someone in an official position to hold accountable for the bombing, to the point that five oversight bodies burned up countless man-hours and taxpayer dollars in that quest. But the interest in holding the actual terrorists accountable has been blunted, unenthusiastic. That’s as backwards as it can get.
CT operations matured long after I finished this assignment in 1998, but the template we developed back then serves the Air Force well today. What’s new is that in many places where OSI is conducting CT operations, as they develop high-value target packages, they are often joined by AFSOC in the raids and round ups.
I am incredibly proud of the men and women of OSI who continue this legacy. We’ve lost a few along the way. I lost one in Kuwait; one of my subordinate commanders was killed there. In December 2015, four OSI Special Agents and two USAF Security Forces members were killed in Afghanistan in a terror attack there.
I am proud to say I carried out my mission in full compliance with General Taylor’s intent. We had NO terror attacks on my watch. We stopped one that was close to consummation, and we interrupted dozens of others as they were getting off the ground. The lives my team saved are countless, and few other experiences in my entire USAF career give me as much pride as those two years.
In the next post in this series, I discuss my main takeaways from this period in my life, many of the lessons I learned, the leadership skills it gave me, and how my desert experiences became instrumental in stopping another terrorist attack. This time, it was in a place far and away from the sandbox.