|There were hard truths learned from the Reagan administration's
battles against terrorism in the 1980s. Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with policymakers, White House officials, national security analysts, and journalists of the period, including Caspar Weinberger, Robert C. McFarlane, L. Paul Bremer, Bob Woodward, and others.|
He was the chairman of the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorism, which in
June 2000 published a report predicting a terrorist attack on the U.S. on the
scale of Pearl Harbor. Bremer previously served as ambassador-at-large for
counterterrorism in the Reagan administration from 1986 to 1989|
There's a similarity in the challenge that's facing the [current]
administration and the problem of the 1980s, which is the terrorists are able
to operate freely in a territory. They were able to operate freely in Lebanon
in the 1980s, because there was no functioning government in Beirut. They
operate freely in Afghanistan now, because the government of Afghanistan
encourages them or lets them, and it has become a cesspool of terrorism.
In my view, in terms of how we respond now, some of the lessons of the wars of
1970s and 1980s against terrorism are still valid. If we can show the world
that we are really serious about punishing the terrorists who conducted these
attacks, and the government of Afghanistan, we will find that the rest of the
world will give us more support, not less. They will respect us for our power.
And they will understand that we're serious. ...
Pan Am 103 is really the bookend to the 1980s fight against terrorism. The
handling of Pan Am 103 shows exactly that the strategy we designed in the 1980s
did not fit for the new kind of terrorism, because with Pan Am 103, the
objective was not to start a negotiation; it was to kill as many people as
could be killed, in this case 270 people.
The idea of, therefore, punishing the people who did it by bringing them to a
court of justice was wrong. It was ludicrous; it was the wrong answer. And the
fact that what we eventually got almost 10 years later was a conviction of a
couple of minor operatives shows how naked this policy is in face of the new
kind of terrorism we have.
What have we learned from all those years?
I think what we've learned is that the terrorist threat is serious, but it
shifts. You cannot make a single person the sole focus of your
counterterrorism. We had Qaddafi as the number one enemy from the late 1970s to
the mid-1980s. Then we had Abu Nidal who appeared on the scene, and he was the
number one enemy from the mid-1980s until the early 1990s. Now we have bin
Laden. And the implication of that is if you can deal with this one guy, the
threat will go away. The threat doesn't go away; it evolves.
What you need to do, and certainly is sort of the central lesson, is you need
to have a policy and tools which evolve as the threat evolves. And that's the
challenge that we're into right now.
What have the terrorists learned about us?
The terrorists have learned that we have a lot of vulnerabilities, particularly
inside the United States, which had not been attacked before. The first
large-scale attack in the United States was the first World Trade Center attack
in 1993, almost 25 years after terrorism really started again. So it took a
long time for them to attack us. Now they know we're vulnerable here. And
that's certainly one lesson they've learned.
He was Director of NSC Intelligence from 1984 to 1987, and went on to serve as
chief of operations for the CIA's Counterterrorism Center and to lead the CIA's
investigation into the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103.|
Basically, over the last three administrations, we have had a law enforcement
response to the problems of terrorism -- we're going to catch the perpetrators
and arrest them -- which doesn't do very much to deter future acts of
terrorism. The premise is that it's like a criminal organization. You start
peeling back the onion, you start arresting these people, and pretty soon there
isn't anything left in the organization. That's the criminal organization
premise. It doesn't work with terrorism.
With terrorism, we have basically arrested all the perpetrators in the bombings
of our embassies in East Africa in 1998. But these are secondary parts. They're
replaceable tools. The leadership, the sponsorship, is beyond law enforcement.
That's the problem with the law enforcement response. It isn't sufficient. It
doesn't mean that you shouldn't prosecute people who commit crimes. Killing
people and bombing is a crime. Sure. But it's not an effective total response
to terrorism itself.
And bombing the hills of Lebanon [following the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks
bombing in Beirut] will not do much good. Covert action is very difficult. What
Only a coalition of countries who share the hope and the objective of
destroying terrorism. Only the application of all of the resources that we
have. There is the legal resource. There is the international sanctions
resource. There is a military resource. There is a covert action resource.
There is also intelligence -- intelligence collection that gets advanced
knowledge of the plans and intentions of a terrorist group, or terrorist
sponsor to act. And once you know that, you can act ahead of time.
In other words, there is no single way of approaching it. There are many ways,
and all of them have to be used, sometimes simultaneously. ...
That's what the U.S. learned, hopefully. What have the terrorists learned
from dealing with us over the past 20 years?
The terrorists have learned that ... if they hurt us badly enough, we'll turn
tail and run. Now, where they may have made their mistake is in bombing New
York City and the Pentagon in Washington, because we have no place to run. This
is our home. They have attacked the homeland. They have tried to punish us in
hope that we will draw our lesson from that and withdraw from Saudi Arabia,
withdraw from the Persian Gulf. That is an overreaching by bin Laden. It may
have been the critical mistake he's made.
How is bin Laden, the enemy of the moment, similar to all of the other names
that we've heard over the years? And how does he differ?
... Lebanon was a very large example to him, the fact that the United States
pulled out of Lebanon after acts of terrorism. He learned there that that kind
of thing can work against the United States. He learned in Afghanistan that
there was a limit to Soviet patience for staying the course. ... He learned
that a superpower could be destroyed, in effect -- pushed away by very
religious, very zealous people.
But how he differs from all the terrorists that went before him is this: He's
not strictly a political person. ... He's also a spiritual person, ... he
believes that he's getting guidance from God. And more important ... is that
his followers believe that he's getting guidance from God. ... That's the great
difference between bin Laden and secular terrorists. Secular terrorists
generally don't commit suicide. ... That's a completely different kind of
terrorist phenomenon than we are used to, and we don't understand it. We don't
really know how to deal with it very effectively. So the lessons of the past
sometimes help us a little bit, but not very much in this case.
A retired Marine Lt. Col., Cowan served three tours of duty in Vietnam and was
awarded the Silver Star for valor in combat. In 1983, as a military
intelligence officer, he was sent to Beirut by the Pentagon charged with
finding out who was responsible for bombing the U.S. Embassy in April of that
I believe that if we used military force at that point [the bombing of the U.S.
Marine barracks in Beirut, 1983], that we would have sent a message that would
still be out there today: that when somebody strikes at all -- particularly
when you kill 241 servicemen -- ... we're going to do something about it. To
not do anything at all, I believe, sent a clear message to those terrorists
back then, [and to] people who are terrorists now, and those in the future. The
only way we're going to change that image is to do something, to do it right,
to make sure that the targets we hit are the targets we want to hit. I believe
that we'll start to have a shift in terrorism when we're able to respond.
... Every time somebody has struck at us, we've threatened, we've stood up,
we've pounded our chest, we've blown fire out of our mouths, smoke out of our
ears, and then within a couple of weeks we've sat back down and gone back to
business as usual. So we've sent a message over the years that we weren't quite
serious. We would take legal action. We would trace you down, track you down,
that we'd take you to court. But we wouldn't do to you what you're willing to
do to us, and that is, go right into the face of danger and strike at you and
fight you and kill you and root you out, and do the kinds of things that
they're more likely to understand.
How does that affect a bin Laden?
Bin Laden, a year or two ago, did an interview with somebody and in that
interview he reminded the person he was being questioned by that we have never
done anything. Bin Laden is acutely aware of the fact that, as a nation,
historically, we don't have a record of striking back at those who have stuck
at us. ...
A former Washington editor of Harper's Magazine, he is the author of two
books about the intelligence community -- Spooks, about the use of
intelligence agents in private industry, and Secret Agenda, his 1984
book about Watergate.|
After Lebanon, we tended to avoid military strategies that might result in
American casualties, and that sort of gets us into a whole period of Nintendo
wars, such as the Gulf War -- wars that are carried out largely by aircraft, by
remote control, by people looking through thick field glasses.
...I think Bush's administration should have learned from what occurred in
Lebanon that we need a clear idea of what our mission is, what is really the
goal. Why were we over there? One soldier was quoted as saying, "My
understanding of the mission was we sent a lot of people over here, they all
got killed, and then we left." I think not just the American soldier, but the
American people need to know what we hope to gain from the war that we're about
to undertake. ...
What lesson can be learned from the fact that this guy [Imad Mughniyah,
Hezbollah's security chief indicted in the 1985 hijacking of TWA 847] ... is
still free today. And we have no idea where he is?
... Imad Mughniyah is believed to have been responsible for the bombing of the
Marine barracks with the death of more than 240 American soldiers. He's alleged
to have been involved directly in the bombing of the American embassy -- the
first time, because the American embassy was actually bombed twice. That led to
a loss of 60 to 85 people. He was responsible directly for the kidnapping of
the CIA station chief in Beirut, William Buckley, who subsequently died in
captivity, and for the kidnapping of other Americans there as well.
I think one of the lessons to be drawn from the fact that Imad Mughniyah is
still out there, still operating, is that America has to keep focus in this
war, in what it's doing. I don't think we're particularly good about that. We
get very excited, very upset, very determined in the wake of atrocities, such
as what happened at the World Trade Center, but then over a period of a year or
two, our attention shifts to other things. We lose determination, and I think
that people like Mughniyah are allowed to sort of slip away and fall through
the cracks until they jump out at us again.
He is a Lebanese journalist who works as Washington bureau chief for the
Lebanese daily newspaper As-Safir. He also reports for Al-Qabas,
a newspaper based in Kuwait, and for Radio Montecarlo.|
If the United States was waging a campaign against terrorism in the 1980s in
the Middle East, one could argue that they failed miserably. They did all the
wrong things in the case of Hezbollah and the hostages in Lebanon. They ended
up bombing civilians in Lebanon. They ended up [arming the] Iranians. They
ended up looking like fools. Many people resigned because of the Iran-contra
[scandal]. The attacks on Libya really did not change considerably the Libyan
behavior until after Pan Am and after the other measures that were imposed on
Libya. So one could argue that the Reagan administration entered into a
conflict, or waged a campaign against terrorism, without really thinking
through the means, the methods, the goals and the alliances. ...
If you're going to wage a comprehensive campaign, it has to be
really comprehensive, and not solely rely on military means. And you have to
tell the people in the region who is the enemy and you have to tell the people
in the region what would you like to achieve concretely. You have to tell the
people in the region, "Stand with us, but we will provide you with certain
forms of support. We will try to resolve certain political problems. We will
try to resolve certain underlining causes for the emergence of this phenomena."
That's why just focusing on military means at a moment of anger is not going to
resolve anything. ...
Other lessons learned from the Reagan years, specifically?
Don't act as American power. Don't act as an empire that thinks that it can
impose its own will any time it wants, anywhere it wants. Avoid acting as an
arrogant power. Consult. Talk to the people who are involved. Act not in a
unilateral fashion. If you can achieve certain things by going through
international organizations, legal means, political means, economic means,
pursue it. I agree that this is a major threat. This is a faceless enemy. This
is a fight that may require certain unconventional means and ways. But don't
act unilaterally. And again, understand the environment that you're stepping
How different is this quagmire [following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks
in the U.S.] from the quagmire we stepped into in 1982 in Lebanon?
It's bigger, because the people in Lebanon had certain interests that they were
defending. Many people in Lebanon were making rational calculations. This
[Sept. 11, 2001] is a situation where you're dealing with people who have
absolutely nothing to lose, who are not ready necessarily to make rational
calculations all the time. People are willing to die just for the cause,
whatever that cause is. People in Lebanon or in Iran or in the region in the
early 1980s, when they were dealing with the Reagan administration, were not as
atavistic or as bent on exacting retribution of events from the United States,
as Osama bin Laden and his soulmates. ...
A former U.S. State Department coordinator for counterterrorism during the
1980s, Oakley also has served as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Zaire, and
I think the lessons that we learned then are applicable now: building
coalitions, picking your target carefully, being able to justify your target,
making sure that you have a successful operation when you undertake it,
calculating the political downside as well as the military effects. All those
things were thought about at the time. In some cases we had the right results,
in some cases we failed, and we're going through the same process again. And I
think that we have to continue to do it, but we have to understand that we're
not going to stop all terrorism for all time. That's the one thing that stands
What did the terrorists learn about us during those years of the Reagan
Well, the terrorists learned, and others who oppose us have learned that in
some circumstances a few casualties can cause us to retreat into our own shell,
to give up whatever objective we were seeking, to abandon those with whom we've
been working. And that's what we have to protect against. I think we're doing
a pretty good job of protecting against it, but where they've seen that in the
past, that encourages them. ...
Is the threat that we have dealt with before in the 1980s similar
to the threat that we face in a bin Laden?
I think that the methods of trying to deal with it are quite similar, but the
threat itself is qualitatively and now quantitatively different. This bin
Laden group, as Colin Powell says, it's rather like a huge corporation, like
General Motors, which has a number of different companies under it, therefore a
great deal of autonomy, a great deal of freedom, if you will, of action, not
something which a central organization like Abu Nidal, which is tightly
controlled from the top. And state-supported terrorism is in some ways easier
to control because if you could put the pressure on the states then they could
stop the organization.
Here we're talking about who knows how many hundreds of terrorists, or maybe
thousands -- probably I would say hundreds in terms of the hard core, who are
scattered around a number of different countries. They're in Canada, they're
in Egypt, they're in Saudi Arabia, they're in the Sudan, Germany, United States
itself, who knows? They might come together, or they might be
assisted with other terrorist groups -- we don't know -- to conduct a particular
operation. It makes it much more difficult.
He served as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan from
1983 to 1985. During that time, the administration faced the deadly bombing of the
U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut; the abduction of the CIA's Beirut station
chief, William Buckley; the bombing of the U.S. embassy annex in East Beirut; the
hijacking of TWA 847; and the commandeering of the Achille Lauro in the
[During the 1980s] the terrorists learned that the American people can be
traumatized by terrorism, that it can create pressure on the government, and
that our government response in the 1980s tended to be rather conventional and
heavy-handed. They learned that by presenting elusive targets, hiding, that
terrorism is an extremely appealing strategy for engaging the West -- that we were
not in the 1980s well equipped in terms of power or political understanding to
deal with it. And so they have continued to use it, and they've expanded their
networks and their capabilities. ...
I think the problems of the 1980s in dealing with this were largely problems of
fundamental disagreement within our decision-making apparatus -- fundamentally
different judgments about whether one could undertake operations against Muslim
terrorists without alienating the broader Muslim world. And, I think, we have
learned since then, that yes, moderate Muslim states acknowledge that this is a
menace, a threat. ... And, I think, our own government understands that, and has
become more adept at being able to rally moderate Muslim states to cooperate in
dealing with the problem.
An assistant managing editor of investigative news for The Washington
Post, Woodward is the author of several books on U.S. politics, leaders
and government, including Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA
What's interesting when you lay out the history of the Reagan
administration, each time there was a terrorist incident, they had a different
response. It was never the same response.
In Beirut, we just essentially left when, in fact, we knew that Syria and
Iran were behind it. In the Achille Lauro we captured the people who did it.
In Libya, eventually we bombed their intelligence agency and their leader Muammar
Qaddafi. In the case of the hostages being taken, we went and traded arms
secretly to get the hostages back. It was very piecemeal, it was incoherent. It
was born of a failure to understand the other side and the enemy. And we just
hopped from one problem to the next to the next. And never sat down.
There were commissions -- Vice President Bush, when he was Reagan's vice
president, headed a commission studying terrorism and came to the conclusion we
should never negotiate with terrorists. And it turned out, with top secret
orders, President Reagan had ordered the negotiation and trading of arms with
terrorists and those who took our hostages.
So, there was never an overlap between the public rhetoric and the action.
And, I think, it was looked at almost like perhaps the weather. That it might
be good or it might be bad. And when it's bad you deal with it. And there was
no effort to really control it, or understand it. And, in a sense, because no
one ever fully got their hands around it, there was never a person really in
charge with kind of absolute control in any administration over
counterterrorist activities spread between the FBI, the CIA, military, the
various services, Department of Transportation. I mean, everyone has their hand
in it. And it wasn't treated seriously. And when something is not treated
seriously, and then it really comes home to roost, you have a big problem. And
that's why we've got the problem, in part, today. ...
He was Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration from 1981 to 1987,
during the U.S. military intervention in Beirut. In a 1984 speech given to the
National Press Club, Weinberger advocated restraint in what became known as the
Weinberger Doctrine, which argued for strict limits on the use of U.S. combat forces.|
You have eight years experience [dealing with terrorists]. Looking at those
years, what was learned about the terrorists?
I think there was one serious mistake made by the Reagan administration, and
that was the idea that you could deal and temporize with and negotiate
successfully with terrorists who were running Iran. And that was a mistake, as
President Reagan was courageous enough to admit and agree to later on. He was
misled by some very wrong advice and it had very terrible consequences in the [Beirut]
But otherwise, I think the lessons learned were we need more human intelligence,
we need greater intelligence capability in that different area, and that we
need a response capability, and that we should make sure that that response
capability is used effectively. Some people are asking why deterrence failed.
Why did these people feel that they could launch an attack on our Trade Center
and on the Pentagon and all of that? Why did they feel they could get away with
it? And I'm afraid it's because our responses in the past, during the Clinton
administration, had been too weak, too feeble, too unconcentrated.
When Saddam Hussein kept violating his promises, we would unleash
a few ineffective small airstrikes. In Yugoslavia, we only went along as part
of a group that was under the direction of the U.N. committee, or something of
that kind, without a clear intention of carrying out an objective, which was to
win. And I think they underestimated the American strength and the American
willingness to respond strongly, just as had been done before World War II.
So I think the lesson learned is we should be strong enough and have a visible
enough and effective enough response, and that we should be able to do the kind
of response that would convince the people who did the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon bombing that they could never again make such an attempt; that the
consequences for them, the cost that they would have to pay, was far higher
than they were willing to risk.
The Pan Am 103 situation, where the strategy seemed to be that, instead of
war, you could use the law to deal with the issues ... is that
Sanctions and negotiations? It can be very ineffective, and indeed foolish,
unless the people you are talking with and negotiating with and trying to reach
agreements with are people who can be trusted to keep their word. ...
It doesn't say you shouldn't try. But negotiations have to be for more than a
cease-fire, which can be broken within 15 minutes, or something more than
sanctions, which other countries won't adhere to. And if the people who are
capable of these outrages think that that's all you're going to do, they will
continue to commit these outrages. But when they get a response such as we were
able to give to Libya, they do go underground. They do stop their activity for
quite a long time.
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