DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The Marine Corps has forced two of its top officers to retire. It is rare for commanders to be punished for a failure in combat, but that's the case here. The two commanders - both two-star generals - are being forced out because of an attack that happened on their watch in Afghanistan. It took place a year ago at a sprawling base called Camp Bastion. Two Americans died.
And following an investigation, the commandant of the Marine Corps concluded that the two generals did not do enough to protect their force. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman followed the story and knows Camp Bastion well after visiting many times, and he joins us in the studio. Tom, good morning.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So this incident actually took place last September. Take us through what happened.
BOWMAN: Well, a group of 15 Taliban - they heavily armed and wearing U.S. Army uniforms - cut through the chain link fence at Camp Bastion and they ran toward the airfield. Now, at first the Americans I talked with who were there were confused, thinking they were U.S. soldiers. Then they opened fire. And a Marine lieutenant colonel, Chris Raible, who was an aircraft squadron commander, chased after them with only his pistol.
He was killed and so was another Marine, Sergeant Bradley Atwell, who was killed by a rocket propelled grenade fired by the Taliban. Eight other Marines were injured and there was $200 million in damage to aircraft. And finally the Americans responded, killing 14 of the Taliban, taking one into custody. So it was a huge breach of security. This is not supposed to happen at a highly secure base.
GREENE: OK. Breach of security and sounds like an absolutely chaotic situation with the Taliban disguised as U.S. military. So I mean, I wonder, what does the Marine Corps say about these officers and what they did wrong and what they could've done differently?
BOWMAN: Well, the investigation found that they simply failed to provide enough security. They failed to assess the Taliban threat. They said they were too focused on fighting the Taliban outside the wire, not inside their camp. Now, just six months before this happened, there was another serious breach of security.
Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was coming in on his plane, and just before this a man described as a disgruntled Afghan interpreter drove a vehicle onto the airfield, nearly hitting General Gurganus. And this man drove into a ditch and then set himself on fire. So it was a failed suicide attack.
And the Pentagon review found then that were lapses in security, like easy access to the airfield. And this final report, done after the deadly attack, found that some of the guard towers were not manned and that there were not enough patrols along the fence line.
GREENE: But a security breach when top officials from Washington were actually there.
GREENE: Which is not a good thing. Tom, you've been to this base. I mean paint us a picture. Is there a reason to think that security would be a real challenge here?
BOWMAN: No question it's challenging. This is a huge base. It seems to go on forever. And there's a Marine base camp Leatherneck adjoined with the British base, Camp Bastion. It's 40 square miles.
BOWMAN: And there's just 25 miles of fence line.
GREENE: You're like securing a small country in many ways.
BOWMAN: Exactly. There are aircraft everywhere, helicopters, trucks. In the distance you see buildings and huts. Outside it's mostly desert, but where they breached the fence there's kind of rolling terrain where the Taliban could hide. And General Gurganus, by the way, did ask for more Marines to provide security. That request was denied because they were drawing down troops in Afghanistan.
GREENE: How rare is this for officers to be held accountable in a situation like this?
BOWMAN: Well, Marines I spoke with said it's almost unprecedented. You did have a general, Army general, relieved in Vietnam for cause in a combat situation, but you have to go back to World War II to find, you know, two generals relieved for a situation like this. It's highly unusual.
But General Amos, a marine commandant, said, listen, we owe it to people like Colonel Raible and Sergeant Atwell to provide good leadership.
GREENE: All right. We've been talking to NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thanks a lot for coming in.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.