Temporary facilities abroad are more at risk than permanent ones
It has a quality of deja vu. More than a decade after the bombing in Beirut that killed 241 American servicemen, Congress this week will again ask how safe are military bases overseas.
In the wake of the bombing in Saudi Arabia two weeks ago that claimed the lives of 19 American military personnel and wounded hundreds of others, congressional hearings are being convened to review security at military bases overseas and look at the June 25 bombing, an attack that bears ominous similarities to the Beirut tragedy.
Following the 1983 truck bombing in Beirut, an investigatory commission warned that the Pentagon was "inadequately prepared" for such assaults. "Much needs to be done, on an urgent basis," the panel insisted "to prepare US military forces to defend against and counter terrorist warfare."
Again, Senate Intelligence and Armed Services Committees are likely to hear that security efforts some places are inadequate. The committee members will likely be told by Defense and Intelligence officials that steps taken to protect US bases are determined by local commanders and depend on the political climate of the countries where they are located. Makeshift bases, such as the one in Dharan, are considered more at risk than permanent facilities, such as those in Germany or Japan.
"Where we are permanently located, usually you have good security and pretty good arrangements with the host nation," says former assistant Defense Secretary Lawrence Korb, now director of the Center for Public Policy Education at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"There really aren't any patterns here," says Anthony Cordesman, a former Defense Department official and expert on terrorism, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It works on a country by country basis."
"Where there is an entrenched violent cadre of terrorists and extremists who have strong incentive to drive the US out of an area for ideological reasons and as the best way of attacking a regime, then the US is going to face the threat of terrorism," says Mr. Cordesman.
Accordingly, while the potential for terrorist attacks is high for some US troops, particularly the 20,000 in the Gulf region, the military's overall exposure is lower than in the recent past. The reason is simple: large-scale closures of US facilities overseas as part of post-cold-war military cutbacks.