Release date: Dec. 22, 2003
Issue date: 1/6/04
The spider holes where terrorists and the nation-states who backthem hide from public view lie in the murkiest recesses of the murkyworld of intelligence. Rarely do victims of terrorist attacks get toface their attacker, let alone know his identity, especially when theattacker is a foreign government. Individual terrorists such as Osamabin Laden or Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (aka "Carlos the Jackal") - whoopenly boast of their evil deeds and thus can be tracked, targetedand eventually taken out - are the exception, not the rule.
Or so said the conventional wisdom until a recent groundbreakingpublic trial in a federal courtroom in Washington that blew the lidoff the world's most elusive terrorist sponsor: the Islamic Republicof Iran. That legal action was brought by the families of the 241U.S. Marines who were killed when terrorists crashed anexplosives-filled truck into their barracks near the Beirut airporton Oct. 23, 1983. It raises disturbing questions concerning some ofour most basic assumptions about the war on terror.
New intelligence revealed at the March 2003 trial, andindependently confirmed by Insight with top military commanders andintelligence officials who had access to it at the time, shows thatthe U.S. government knew beyond any reasonable doubt who carried outthe bombing of the Marine barracks 20 years ago and yet did nothingto punish the perpetrators. Even more disturbing is the revelation,which Insight also confirmed independently, that intelligence thenavailable and known within the government gave clear forewarning ofthe attack. But this warning never was transmitted to operationsofficers on the ground who could have done something to prevent orreduce the impact of the devastating assault.
Among the intelligence information initially uncovered by ThomasFortune Fay, an attorney for the families of the victims, was aNational Security Agency (NSA) intercept of a message sent fromIranian intelligence headquarters in Tehran to Hojjat ol-eslam AliAkbar Mohtashemi, the Iranian ambassador in Damascus. As it wasparaphrased by presiding U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth,"The message directed the Iranian ambassador to contact HusseinMusawi, the leader of the terrorist group Islamic Amal, and toinstruct him ... 'to take a spectacular action against the UnitedStates Marines.'"
Rear Adm. James "Ace" Lyons was deputy chief of naval operationsfor plans, policy and operation at the time and remembers well whenhe first learned of the NSA intercept. It was exactly two days afterterrorists had driven a truck laden with military explosives into thefortified Marine barracks complex just outside the Beirut airport anddetonated it, producing the largest, non-nuclear explosion inhistory, the equivalent to 20,000 pounds of TNT. "The director ofnaval intelligence carried the transcript to me in a lockedbriefcase," he tells Insight. "He gave it to me, to the chief ofnaval operations, and to the secretary of the Navy all in the sameday."
At trial, Lyons described the general contents of the message. Ina personal tribute to the slain Marines and their families, he hadobtained a copy of the NSA transcript and presented it in a sealedenvelope to the court. "If ever there was a 24-karat gold document,this was it," Lyons said, "This was not something from the thirdcousin of the fourth wife of Muhammad the taxicab driver." Lamberthaccepted the still-classified NSA intercept into evidence under sealto protect NSA sources and methods. It was the first time in nearly adozen cases brought against the government of Iran by victims ofterrorism that material evidence emanating directly from the U.S.intelligence community was brought forward in such a directmanner.
The existence of this intercept - just one of thousands ofmessages incriminating the governments of Iran, Syria and SaddamHussein's Iraq (among others) in deadly terrorist crimes againstAmericans - long has been rumored. Insight reported in May 2001 onsimilar electronic intelligence that unequivocally revealed howPalestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafatpersonally ordered Palestinian terrorists to murder U.S. diplomatsCleo Noel and George Curtis Moore after a PLO commando took themhostage in Khartoum, Sudan, in March 1973 [see "Arafat MurderedU.S. Diplomats," June 25, 2001].
Then as now, the release of such information shocks many Americanswho find it hard to believe that the U.S. government could have hadsuch clear-cut indications of impending terrorist acts and donenothing to stop them or to punish those responsible. And yet that isprecisely what the intelligence indicates. And the reasons, far fromsome dire government conspiracy, appear to be the laziness andincompetence of intelligence officials and bureaucratic gatekeeperswho failed to pass on information to the political appointees orCabinet officers making the decisions.
The message from Tehran ordering Iranian-backed terrorists toattack the U.S. Marines in Beirut was picked up "on or about Sept.26, 1983," Lamberth said, noting it was nearly four full weeks beforethe actual bombing. With all that lead time, why did no one takesteps to protect the Marines or to head off the attack? "That's aquestion I've been waiting 20 years for someone to ask," Lyons tellsthis magazine.
Insight has learned that the CIA station in Damascus received acopy of the terrorist message almost as soon as it was interceptedand transmitted it back to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. "Theresponse I heard back from headquarters was, 'The Marines? We don'twant to know about the Marines,'" a former CIA officer who saw theintercept and was involved in transmitting it to his superiors tellsInsight.
Marine Col. Tim Geraghty, commander of the 24th Marine AmphibiousUnit then stationed at the Beirut Airport, tells Insight that henever received a warning or even a report based on the message,although he was well aware that his Marines had become "sittingducks" to hostile militias on the ground. "Generally, yes, we knewthe problem," he said, "but we never received anything specific."
This was not because the CIA was stonewalling him, Geraghtybelieves. "I became personal friends with Bill Buckley, who was CIAstation chief in Beirut, and he was giving me everything he had. Butwe never got a warning mentioning a possible attack on the barracksor mentioning Iran." And yet, as Geraghty himself learned at thetrial, such warnings indeed had been picked up and they were veryspecific indeed.
For one thing, there was no other place but the barracks near theairport where a "spectacular operation" could have been carried out.It was the only major Marine bivouac in all of Lebanon. And then,there was the mention in the intercept of Hussein Musawi by name andthe group he then headed, Islamic Amal - a precursor of what laterbecame known as Hezbollah. Both were under direct Iranian-governmentcontrol. But as former CIA officer Robert Baer tells Insight, in thiscase the warning "did not mention a specific time or place and so wasnot considered [by CIA managers] to be actionable." Becauseof this, the warning never was sent on to Beirut, where Buckley couldhave passed it on to Geraghty. Until 9/11 such a lack of specificitywas a standard excuse.
Michael Ledeen, author of The War Against the Terror Masters, wasworking as a consultant to the Department of Defense at the time ofthe bombing. The failure to share intelligence "drove a change in thestructure of the intelligence community," he said at trial, "becausewhat they found was that we should have seen it coming, we had enoughinformation so that we should have seen it coming [but] wedidn't because of the compartmentalization of the various pieces ofthe intelligence community. So the people who listen to thingsweren't talking to the people who looked at things weren't talking topeople who analyzed things and so on." That failure, he said, led CIAdirector William Casey to establish the Counter-Terrorism Center, anew, cross-discipline unit whose sole purpose was to preventterrorism and, when that failed, to fight back againstterrorists.
After the Beirut attack the intelligence on Iran's involvement allof a sudden looked different. And yet, despite evidence that Ledeencategorized as "absolutely convincing," the Reagan administration notonly didn't fight back, but within three months of the attacksecretary of defense Caspar Weinberger ordered the Marines to leaveBeirut altogether, opening the United States to accusations that ithad "cut and run" and inviting terrorists to have at Americans withimpunity.
Exactly why that happened is still a mystery to many of theparticipants, Insight discovered in interviews with Weinberger,former Navy secretary John F. Lehman, former deputy chief of navaloperations Lyons, Geraghty, former CIA officer Robert Baer andothers. To Baer, a self-avowed "foot soldier" in the war on terror,"The information we had on the Iranians in 1983 was infinitely betterthan anything we had on Saddam Hussein." The failure to retaliate forthe attack "was all politics."
For example, the CIA managed to identify the Hezbollah operativewho built the bomb in the truck. "His name was Ibrahim Safa. He wasworking with the Pasdaran - the Iranian Revolutionary Guards - out ofthe southern suburbs of Beirut," Baer tells Insight. "In thehierarchy of things, he was just a thug who'd found God. He'd been abang-bang man in the civil war in the 1970s who knew explosives."
One option available to military planners was to target the actualplanners of the operation, such as Safa, but that was rejectedbecause of the congressional ban on assassination. "Assassination wasforbidden, so we couldn't target individuals, the heads ofHezbollah," Ledeen recalls. "We would have had to go after Hezbollahtraining camps and kill a lot of innocent civilians." That wassomething Weinberger says neither he nor the president wanted todo.
Soon the primary target became the Sheikh Abdallah barracks inBaalbek, the capital of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. A formerLebanese-army barracks, it had been taken over by Iran's Pasdaran andwas being used to train Hezbollah and house Iranian troops stationedin Lebanon. "We had the planes loaded and ready to take out thegroup," says Lyons, referring to Hezbollah and their Iranian mastersin Baalbek, "but we couldn't get the go-ahead from Washington. Wecould have taken out all 250 of them in about one-and-a-halfminutes."
President Ronald Reagan was demanding retaliation, and asked theU.S. Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to draw up target lists,Lehman tells Insight. According to several participants, the Syriangovernment also had played a role in the plot and several namedSyrian officers were suggested as potential targets, as was theSyrian defense ministry.
"It is my recollection that I had been briefed on who had done itand what the evidence was," Lehman says. "I was told the actual namesof the Syrians and where they were. I was told about the evidencethat the Iranian government was directly behind it. I was told thatthe people who had done it were trained in Baalbek and that many ofthem were back in Baalbek. I recall very clearly that there was nocontroversy who did it. I never heard any briefer or person in thecorridor who said, 'Oh maybe we don't know who did it.'"
Insight has learned that, within three weeks of the attack, enoughintelligence had been gathered to determine exactly where and how tohit back, and a counterstrike package was briefed directly to thepresident. Planners say it included eight Tomahawk missiles launchedfrom the battleship New Jersey against the Syrian defense ministryand other command targets in Syria. Carrier-based A6-A Intruders wereassigned to bomb the Sheikh Abdallah barracks in Baalbek in a jointstrike with the French, who had lost 58 marines when their ownbarracks, known as the "Drakkar," was bombed just minutes after theU.S. Marines. It also included selected "snatches" of Syrian officersbased in Lebanon who had helped carry out the operation.
Coordinates already were being programmed into the Tomahawks, andthe A6 pilots and snatch teams were being briefed, say theintelligence and defense officials Insight interviewed, when someonepulled the plug. By all accounts, that someone was Weinberger.
In his memoirs, Weinberger made clear that he had opposeddeployment of the Marines to Beirut in the first place because theywere never given a clear mission. He also expressed regret - which herepeated in an interview with Insight - that he had not been"persuasive" enough at White House meetings to convince the presidentto withdraw the Marines before the October 1983 attack occurred. "Iwas begging the president to take us out of Lebanon," he tellsInsight. "We were sitting right in the middle of the bull's-eye."
Weinberger believed the United States should only deploy U.S.troops in situations where "the objectives were so important toAmerican interests that we had to fight," at which point, the UnitedStates should commit "enough forces to win and win overwhelmingly."Those conditions were not present in Lebanon in 1983, he argued. ButWeinberger was overpowered by secretary of state George Shultz, whoargued at the White House meetings that the United States could notafford to give the impression it would "cut and run" after the attacksince that would only encourage the terrorists. As it soon did.
Speaking with Insight, Weinberger insists today that the onlyreason the United States did not retaliate for the October 1983attack on the U.S. Marines "was the lack of specific knowledge of whothe perpetrators were. We had nothing before the bombing, although Ihad warned repeatedly that the security situation was very bad. Wewere in the middle of the bull's-eye, but we didn't know who wasattacking the bull's-eye."
Weinberger insists that he has "never heard of any specificinformation. If I had known, I wouldn't have hesitated" to approveretaliatory action. "Clearly the attack was planned. But it was hardto locate who had done it out of all the different groups. Thepresident didn't want some kind of carpet bombing that would kill alot of innocent civilians. There were so many groups and not all ofthem were responsible to the government of Iran. All we knew was thatthey were united in their hatred of America."
Weinberger's account surprised several other participants who hadfirsthand knowledge of the intelligence information. "PerhapsWeinberger was never given the intercept by his staff," oneparticipant suggested.
At the time highly classified NSA material such as the Damascusintercept would have been given to the chairman of the Joint Chief ofStaff, Gen. John Vessey, and to the military aide to the secretary ofdefense, who would determine whether the secretary would be apprisedof the information personally. Weinberger's aide at the time was Maj.Gen. Colin Powell.
But Vessey tells Insight he has "no recollection" of seeing theintelligence on Iran's involvement in the attack. "It is unbelievableto me that someone didn't bring it through the director of theDefense Intelligence Agency up to me and the secretary of defense."Somewhere along the line, the system broke down. "I just don't knowwhat happened," Vessey says. Sources close to Powell suggest theintercept never made it into the president's daily briefing.
On Nov. 16, 1983, Weinberger received a telephone call fromCharles Hernu, the French minister of defense, informing him thatFrench Super-Etendard fighter-bombers were getting ready to attackBaalbek. In his memoirs, Weinberger states that he "had received noorders or notifications from the president or anyone prior to thatphone call from Paris," which he said gave him too short a notice toscramble U.S. jets.
This reporter was covering the fighting between Arafat andSyrian-backed PLO rebels in Tripoli, Lebanon, at the time, andvividly recalls watching the French planes roar overhead en route toBaalbek. The raid was a total failure.
Whatever the reasons behind the refusal of the United States tojoin that French retaliatory raid, there can be no doubt that theterrorists and their masters took the U.S. failure to retaliate as asign of weakness. Just five months later, Iran's top agent in Beirut,Imad Mugniyeh, took CIA station chief William Buckley hostage andhideously tortured him to death after extracting whatever informationhe could. Since then, notes former Navy secretary Lehman, Osama binLaden has "directly credited the Marine bombing" and the lack of U.S.retaliation as encouraging his jihadi movement to believe they couldattack the United States with impunity.
"The first shots in the war on terror we are in now were fired inBeirut in October 1983," says Geraghty. "The [Bush]administration is now doing exactly what we need to be doing,attacking the enemies of freedom where they live instead of lettingthem attack us in our home." But the failure to strike back againstIran and Syria in 1983 was a dreadful mistake, he says. "This was anact of war. We knew who the players were. And, because we didn'trespond, we emboldened these people to increase the violence."
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight magazine.
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Steve Edward Russell, an E-5 sergeant with the 2nd Marine Divisionout of Camp Lejeune, N.C., was in the guard post directly in front ofthe lobby when he heard a loud snap, "like a two-by-four breaking"out by the main gate. When he turned to look, he saw a large Mercedeswater truck coming through the open gate, leaning heavily as itswerved around barriers. Russell fiddled briefly with his sidearm,but realized it was not loaded - in keeping with the rules ofengagement for this "peacekeeping" mission. Then he saw that thetruck was coming straight for him.
He made eye contact with the driver - a man in his mid-twentieswith curly hair and an olive complexion, wearing what looked like acamouflage shirt - "and the only thing on my mind was to warn." Hebegan running, screaming to Marines who were milling around to getout, but got one last look at the driver. He had "a sh--ty grin, asmile of success you might say." Russell made it to the other side ofthe building when the truck exploded, wounding him severely.
As he gave his testimony to a courtroom packed with family membersof victims, Russell exploded with 20 years of guilt for not havingbeen able to stop the truck. "I hope I've done some good today," hesaid, "and if I step down right now and drop dead I'd be happybecause I've been a good Marine."