NORFOLK, Va. - The Navy gave Cmdr. Kirk Lippold a medal for saving the USS Cole and preventing further loss of life after al-Qaida operatives blew a huge hole into the guided-missile destroyer in the Yemen port of Aden on Oct. 12, 2000. Little did Lippold know then that his fast-track career might be over.
Lippold, a 1977 Carson High School graduate, apparently is the first commissioned military officer or civilian official since George W. Bush became president to be held liable for failing to prevent an act of terrorism against the United States, according to the Sacramento Bee.
Lippold, whose promotion to captain has been held up in the Senate and who now has a Navy desk job, says the system is wrong to blame him for the attack on the Cole.
"If you want accountability, there was one accountable officer on that ship, and that was me," Lippold said during a three-hour interview with the Bee. "But if you want to blame me for allowing that attack on my ship that killed 17 of my sailors - that is essentially putting me as a U.S. military commander in the war on terrorism on the same level as Osama bin Laden, and I believe that's wrong."
Retired Navy Cmdr. Bob Brogan puts it more succinctly.
"Our friend has gotten a royal screwing," said Brogan, who was Lippold's ROTC instructor at Carson City High School in Nevada. "He went into that port completely blind."
Some military officials and family members of Cole victims believe he deserves punishment. So, apparently, does Republican Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But there are questions why Lippold didn't know, before his refueling stop in Yemen, that two separate intelligence programs had found signs of a possible attack on U.S. interests in the Middle East in the days before the Cole bombing.
One of them, a secret Pentagon program now known as Able Danger, had identified Yemen as one of five "hot spots" of al-Qaida activity believed to be targeting U.S. interests. Two days before the Cole attack, Able Danger analysts briefed Gen. Peter Schoomaker, then head of U.S. Special Operations Command, on their findings.
Nothing about the briefing reached Lippold. Nor was he told that U.S. embassies in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East had been closed for fear of violence.
Just hours after the attack on the Cole, Kie Fallis arrived in Washington, where he worked as a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst. The next day, enraged by the Cole bombing, he resigned.
For most of 1999 and 2000, Fallis had worked on a project tracing a terrorist network called al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden.
By autumn 2000, Fallis feared that U.S. interests in the Middle East were threatened. But Fallis said his bosses at the intelligence agency rejected his requests to alert U.S. embassies, military bases, companies and other assets in the region.
After the attack, an internal Navy report raised questions about Lippold's adherence to security procedures and the ship's training regimen.
But Lippold's chain of command, up to the Joint Chiefs chairman and the secretary of defense, overruled the Navy report, finding that he could not have prevented the bombing.
The Pentagon shipped Lippold's recommendation for promotion to the White House in 2002. The president added his concurrence and sent it to the Senate for ratification.
Sen. Warner, secretary of the Navy from 1972 to 1974, denies blocking Lippold's promotion. But the Bee quoted sources as saying Warner excised Lippold's name from the list of Navy promotions that the committee approved for Senate confirmation.
Meanwhile, promotions and honors have flowed to higher-echelon figures such as Gen. Peter Schoomaker, who did not act on the intelligence briefing he received two days before the Cole attack. Schoomaker has been promoted to Army chief of staff.