Release date: Dec. 22, 2003
Issue date: 1/6/04
The spider holes where terrorists and the nation-states who back them hide from public view lie in the murkiest recesses of the murky world of intelligence. Rarely do victims of terrorist attacks get to face their attacker, let alone know his identity, especially when the attacker is a foreign government. Individual terrorists such as Osama bin Laden or Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (aka "Carlos the Jackal") - who openly boast of their evil deeds and thus can be tracked, targeted and eventually taken out - are the exception, not the rule.
Or so said the conventional wisdom until a recent groundbreaking public trial in a federal courtroom in Washington that blew the lid off the world's most elusive terrorist sponsor: the Islamic Republic of Iran. That legal action was brought by the families of the 241 U.S. Marines who were killed when terrorists crashed an explosives-filled truck into their barracks near the Beirut airport on Oct. 23, 1983. It raises disturbing questions concerning some of our most basic assumptions about the war on terror.
New intelligence revealed at the March 2003 trial, and independently confirmed by Insight with top military commanders and intelligence officials who had access to it at the time, shows that the U.S. government knew beyond any reasonable doubt who carried out the bombing of the Marine barracks 20 years ago and yet did nothing to punish the perpetrators. Even more disturbing is the revelation, which Insight also confirmed independently, that intelligence then available and known within the government gave clear forewarning of the attack. But this warning never was transmitted to operations officers on the ground who could have done something to prevent or reduce the impact of the devastating assault.
Among the intelligence information initially uncovered by Thomas Fortune Fay, an attorney for the families of the victims, was a National Security Agency (NSA) intercept of a message sent from Iranian intelligence headquarters in Tehran to Hojjat ol-eslam Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, the Iranian ambassador in Damascus. As it was paraphrased by presiding U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth, "The message directed the Iranian ambassador to contact Hussein Musawi, the leader of the terrorist group Islamic Amal, and to instruct him ... 'to take a spectacular action against the United States Marines.'"
Rear Adm. James "Ace" Lyons was deputy chief of naval operations for plans, policy and operation at the time and remembers well when he first learned of the NSA intercept. It was exactly two days after terrorists had driven a truck laden with military explosives into the fortified Marine barracks complex just outside the Beirut airport and detonated it, producing the largest, non-nuclear explosion in history, the equivalent to 20,000 pounds of TNT. "The director of naval intelligence carried the transcript to me in a locked briefcase," he tells Insight. "He gave it to me, to the chief of naval operations, and to the secretary of the Navy all in the same day."
At trial, Lyons described the general contents of the message. In a personal tribute to the slain Marines and their families, he had obtained a copy of the NSA transcript and presented it in a sealed envelope to the court. "If ever there was a 24-karat gold document, this was it," Lyons said, "This was not something from the third cousin of the fourth wife of Muhammad the taxicab driver." Lamberth accepted the still-classified NSA intercept into evidence under seal to protect NSA sources and methods. It was the first time in nearly a dozen cases brought against the government of Iran by victims of terrorism that material evidence emanating directly from the U.S. intelligence community was brought forward in such a direct manner.
The existence of this intercept - just one of thousands of messages incriminating the governments of Iran, Syria and Saddam Hussein's Iraq (among others) in deadly terrorist crimes against Americans - long has been rumored. Insight reported in May 2001 on similar electronic intelligence that unequivocally revealed how Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat personally ordered Palestinian terrorists to murder U.S. diplomats Cleo Noel and George Curtis Moore after a PLO commando took them hostage in Khartoum, Sudan, in March 1973 [see "Arafat Murdered U.S. Diplomats," June 25, 2001].
Then as now, the release of such information shocks many Americans who find it hard to believe that the U.S. government could have had such clear-cut indications of impending terrorist acts and done nothing to stop them or to punish those responsible. And yet that is precisely what the intelligence indicates. And the reasons, far from some dire government conspiracy, appear to be the laziness and incompetence of intelligence officials and bureaucratic gatekeepers who failed to pass on information to the political appointees or Cabinet officers making the decisions.
The message from Tehran ordering Iranian-backed terrorists to attack the U.S. Marines in Beirut was picked up "on or about Sept. 26, 1983," Lamberth said, noting it was nearly four full weeks before the actual bombing. With all that lead time, why did no one take steps to protect the Marines or to head off the attack? "That's a question I've been waiting 20 years for someone to ask," Lyons tells this magazine.
Insight has learned that the CIA station in Damascus received a copy of the terrorist message almost as soon as it was intercepted and transmitted it back to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. "The response I heard back from headquarters was, 'The Marines? We don't want to know about the Marines,'" a former CIA officer who saw the intercept and was involved in transmitting it to his superiors tells Insight.
Marine Col. Tim Geraghty, commander of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit then stationed at the Beirut Airport, tells Insight that he never received a warning or even a report based on the message, although he was well aware that his Marines had become "sitting ducks" to hostile militias on the ground. "Generally, yes, we knew the problem," he said, "but we never received anything specific."
This was not because the CIA was stonewalling him, Geraghty believes. "I became personal friends with Bill Buckley, who was CIA station chief in Beirut, and he was giving me everything he had. But we never got a warning mentioning a possible attack on the barracks or mentioning Iran." And yet, as Geraghty himself learned at the trial, such warnings indeed had been picked up and they were very specific indeed.
For one thing, there was no other place but the barracks near the airport 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 and the group he then headed, Islamic Amal - a precursor of what later became known as Hezbollah. Both were under direct Iranian-government control. But as former CIA officer Robert Baer tells Insight, in this case the warning "did not mention a specific time or place and so was not considered [by CIA managers] to be actionable." Because of this, the warning never was sent on to Beirut, where Buckley could have passed it on to Geraghty. Until 9/11 such a lack of specificity was a standard excuse.
Michael Ledeen, author of The War Against the Terror Masters, was working as a consultant to the Department of Defense at the time of the bombing. The failure to share intelligence "drove a change in the structure of the intelligence community," he said at trial, "because what they found was that we should have seen it coming, we had enough information so that we should have seen it coming [but] we didn't because of the compartmentalization of the various pieces of the intelligence community. So the people who listen to things weren't talking to the people who looked at things weren't talking to people who analyzed things and so on." That failure, he said, led CIA director William Casey to establish the Counter-Terrorism Center, a new, cross-discipline unit whose sole purpose was to prevent terrorism and, when that failed, to fight back against terrorists.
After the Beirut attack the intelligence on Iran's involvement all of a sudden looked different. And yet, despite evidence that Ledeen categorized as "absolutely convincing," the Reagan administration not only didn't fight back, but within three months of the attack secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger ordered the Marines to leave Beirut altogether, opening the United States to accusations that it had "cut and run" and inviting terrorists to have at Americans with impunity.
Exactly why that happened is still a mystery to many of the participants, Insight discovered in interviews with Weinberger, former Navy secretary John F. Lehman, former deputy chief of naval operations Lyons, Geraghty, former CIA officer Robert Baer and others. To Baer, a self-avowed "foot soldier" in the war on terror, "The information we had on the Iranians in 1983 was infinitely better than anything we had on Saddam Hussein." The failure to retaliate for the attack "was all politics."
For example, the CIA managed to identify the Hezbollah operative who built the bomb in the truck. "His name was Ibrahim Safa. He was working with the Pasdaran - the Iranian Revolutionary Guards - out of the southern suburbs of Beirut," Baer tells Insight. "In the hierarchy of things, he was just a thug who'd found God. He'd been a bang-bang man in the civil war in the 1970s who knew explosives."
One option available to military planners was to target the actual planners of the operation, such as Safa, but that was rejected because of the congressional ban on assassination. "Assassination was forbidden, so we couldn't target individuals, the heads of Hezbollah," Ledeen recalls. "We would have had to go after Hezbollah training camps and kill a lot of innocent civilians." That was something Weinberger says neither he nor the president wanted to do.
Soon the primary target became the Sheikh Abdallah barracks in Baalbek, the capital of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. A former Lebanese-army barracks, it had been taken over by Iran's Pasdaran and was being used to train Hezbollah and house Iranian troops stationed in Lebanon. "We had the planes loaded and ready to take out the group," says Lyons, referring to Hezbollah and their Iranian masters in Baalbek, "but we couldn't get the go-ahead from Washington. We could have taken out all 250 of them in about one-and-a-half minutes."
President Ronald Reagan was demanding retaliation, and asked the U.S. Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to draw up target lists, Lehman tells Insight. According to several participants, the Syrian government also had played a role in the plot and several named Syrian officers were suggested as potential targets, as was the Syrian defense ministry.
"It is my recollection that I had been briefed on who had done it and what the evidence was," Lehman says. "I was told the actual names of the Syrians and where they were. I was told about the evidence that the Iranian government was directly behind it. I was told that the people who had done it were trained in Baalbek and that many of them were back in Baalbek. I recall very clearly that there was no controversy who did it. I never heard any briefer or person in the corridor who said, 'Oh maybe we don't know who did it.'"
Insight has learned that, within three weeks of the attack, enough intelligence had been gathered to determine exactly where and how to hit back, and a counterstrike package was briefed directly to the president. Planners say it included eight Tomahawk missiles launched from the battleship New Jersey against the Syrian defense ministry and other command targets in Syria. Carrier-based A6-A Intruders were assigned to bomb the Sheikh Abdallah barracks in Baalbek in a joint strike with the French, who had lost 58 marines when their own barracks, known as the "Drakkar," was bombed just minutes after the U.S. Marines. It also included selected "snatches" of Syrian officers based in Lebanon who had helped carry out the operation.
Coordinates already were being programmed into the Tomahawks, and the A6 pilots and snatch teams were being briefed, say the intelligence and defense officials Insight interviewed, when someone pulled the plug. By all accounts, that someone was Weinberger.
In his memoirs, Weinberger made clear that he had opposed deployment of the Marines to Beirut in the first place because they were never given a clear mission. He also expressed regret - which he repeated in an interview with Insight - that he had not been "persuasive" enough at White House meetings to convince the president to withdraw the Marines before the October 1983 attack occurred. "I was begging the president to take us out of Lebanon," he tells Insight. "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 to American interests that we had to fight," at which point, the United States should commit "enough forces to win and win overwhelmingly." Those conditions were not present in Lebanon in 1983, he argued. But Weinberger was overpowered by secretary of state George Shultz, who argued at the White House meetings that the United States could not afford to give the impression it would "cut and run" after the attack since that would only encourage the terrorists. As it soon did.
Speaking with Insight, Weinberger insists today that the only reason the United States did not retaliate for the October 1983 attack on the U.S. Marines "was the lack of specific knowledge of who the perpetrators were. We had nothing before the bombing, although I had warned repeatedly that the security situation was very bad. We were in the middle of the bull's-eye, but we didn't know who was attacking the bull's-eye."
Weinberger insists that he has "never heard of any specific information. If I had known, I wouldn't have hesitated" to approve retaliatory action. "Clearly the attack was planned. But it was hard to locate who had done it out of all the different groups. The president didn't want some kind of carpet bombing that would kill a lot of innocent civilians. There were so many groups and not all of them were responsible to the government of Iran. All we knew was that they were united in their hatred of America."
Weinberger's account surprised several other participants who had firsthand knowledge of the intelligence information. "Perhaps Weinberger was never given the intercept by his staff," one participant suggested.
At the time highly classified NSA material such as the Damascus intercept would have been given to the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Gen. John Vessey, and to the military aide to the secretary of defense, who would determine whether the secretary would be apprised of the information personally. Weinberger's aide at the time was Maj. Gen. Colin Powell.
But Vessey tells Insight he has "no recollection" of seeing the intelligence on Iran's involvement in the attack. "It is unbelievable to me that someone didn't bring it through the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency up to me and the secretary of defense." Somewhere along the line, the system broke down. "I just don't know what happened," Vessey says. Sources close to Powell suggest the intercept never made it into the president's daily briefing.
On Nov. 16, 1983, Weinberger received a telephone call from Charles Hernu, the French minister of defense, informing him that French Super-Etendard fighter-bombers were getting ready to attack Baalbek. In his memoirs, Weinberger states that he "had received no orders or notifications from the president or anyone prior to that phone call from Paris," which he said gave him too short a notice to scramble U.S. jets.
This reporter was covering the fighting between Arafat and Syrian-backed PLO rebels in Tripoli, Lebanon, at the time, and vividly recalls watching the French planes roar overhead en route to Baalbek. The raid was a total failure.
Whatever the reasons behind the refusal of the United States to join that French retaliatory raid, there can be no doubt that the terrorists and their masters took the U.S. failure to retaliate as a sign of weakness. Just five months later, Iran's top agent in Beirut, Imad Mugniyeh, took CIA station chief William Buckley hostage and hideously tortured him to death after extracting whatever information he could. Since then, notes former Navy secretary Lehman, Osama bin Laden has "directly credited the Marine bombing" and the lack of U.S. retaliation as encouraging his jihadi movement to believe they could attack the United States with impunity.
"The first shots in the war on terror we are in now were fired in Beirut 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 letting them attack us in our home." But the failure to strike back against Iran and Syria in 1983 was a dreadful mistake, he says. "This was an act of war. We knew who the players were. And, because we didn't respond, 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 Division out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., was in the guard post directly in front of the 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 Mercedes water truck coming through the open gate, leaning heavily as it swerved around barriers. Russell fiddled briefly with his sidearm, but realized it was not loaded - in keeping with the rules of engagement for this "peacekeeping" mission. Then he saw that the truck was coming straight for him.
He made eye contact with the driver - a man in his mid-twenties with curly hair and an olive complexion, wearing what looked like a camouflage shirt - "and the only thing on my mind was to warn." He began running, screaming to Marines who were milling around to get out, but got one last look at the driver. He had "a sh--ty grin, a smile of success you might say." Russell made it to the other side of the building when the truck exploded, wounding him severely.
As he gave his testimony to a courtroom packed with family members of victims, Russell exploded with 20 years of guilt for not having been able to stop the truck. "I hope I've done some good today," he said, "and if I step down right now and drop dead I'd be happy because I've been a good Marine."