Original Airdate: October 4, 2001
Martin Smith (U.K.)
Michael Kirk and
NARRATOR: Once, not so long ago, America faced a war against terrorists.
Pres. JIMMY CARTER: No one should underestimate the resolve of the American government and the American people in this matter.
IRANIAN MAN: The hostages are here because this is the only thing that we can have here against America!
NARRATOR: This incident, the taking of hostages at the American embassy in Iran, consumed a presidency, humiliated the U.S. military and kept the nation hostage for 444 days.
NARRATOR: A new president vowed to change all that.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: And I think the fact that they've been there that long is a humiliation and a disgrace to this country.
NARRATOR: And for eight years he tried to win a new kind of war.
This is the story of those first engagements, the battles on the ground and inside the halls of power, where the secretary of state waged bureaucratic war with the secretary of defense, while their deputies, who would one day ascend to power themselves, learned vivid lessons about what it would take to win a new kind of war.
BILL MOYERS, Frontline: Good evening. I'm Bill Moyers.
Tonight we continue our series of special FRONTLINE broadcasts conceived and produced since the tragic events of September 11th. We're trying to think hard about the issues and about the questions you have: Who and what were the forces that led to this attack? How did we Americans fail to understand the nature of the threat? And how should we, as a country, respond to terrorism?
In this report, we begin our exploration of today's events by searching for clues inside yesterday's headlines.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: Let terrorists be aware that when the rules of international behavior are violated, our policy will be one of swift and effective retribution.
NARRATOR: Once, when Americans were first targeted, the most powerful man in the world reacted with resolve.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: We must not yield to the terrorists' demands and invite more terrorism. We cannot reward their grisly deeds. We will not cave in.
NARRATOR: In time, he would be sorely tested.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: The United States gives terrorists no rewards and no guarantees. We make no concessions. We make no deals. Nations that harbor terrorists undermine their own stability and endanger their own people. Terrorists be on notice. We will fight back against you in Lebanon and elsewhere.
NARRATOR: For the Reagan White House, the war on terrorism began almost right away. The first enemy was Libya.
ROBERT OAKLEY, Dir. Counterterrorism, St. Dept. '84-'86: We were very, very worried about Libyan terrorism. We had reports that there were Libyan hit squads loose in the United States. There were dump trucks parked head-to-toe around the entire State Department and Capitol Hill and elsewhere to protect against these Libyan terrorist groups that were thought to be operating in the United States.
NARRATOR: Ronald Reagan had won election at least partly because Jimmy Carter had looked weak in face of terrorism.
BOB WOODWARD, "The Washington Post": They felt initially you have to be tough, that Carter was not tough enough. So toughness is the theme. Reagan was, in a sense, the mad bomber, the guy who was going to make sure that the terrorist threat was met with a very dramatic military response, if necessary.
NARRATOR: So in response to the perception that Libya was a terrorist threat, the president kicked their diplomats out the country, closed their embassy.
NEWSCASTER: Libya's top diplomat in Washington, Ali Houderi, was summoned to the State Department late this afternoon. He was told that all the Libyan diplomats here would have to leave- expelled.
NARRATOR: And Navy jets shot down two Libyan warplanes inside what was known as the "line of death" over the Gulf of Sidra in the Mediterranean.
L. PAUL BREMER, Dir. Counterterrorism, St. Dept. '86-'89: I think it made quite a deep impression on the top people in the Reagan administration, from the president on down, that we had to deal forcefully with terrorism wherever we saw it. And that was certainly an early theme in the Reagan administration from, really, January 20th on.
NARRATOR: But it wouldn't be long before the president would be challenged somewhere else. It all started after Israel invaded Lebanon. Dozens of villages housing Shi'ite Muslims were destroyed as the Israeli army advanced to Beirut as part of their war against Yasir Arafat's PLO guerrillas. The United States intervened to avoid a bloodbath.
Pres. RONALD Reagan: The Marines are going there into a situation that- with a definite understanding as to what we're supposed to do. I believe that we are going to be successful in seeing the other foreign forces leave Lebanon. And then, at such time that Lebanon says that they have the situation well in hand, why, we'll depart.
NARRATOR: The Marines went ashore to oversee an orderly withdrawal of the PLO. There was no intention to stay. The Palestinians turned evacuation into celebration. Mission accomplished, the Marines left. America had promised the PLO that their families left behind in Beirut would be safe. But they weren't.
With the Marines gone, Israel's allies, the Christian Falangist forces, entered the camps at Sabra and Shatila, where the families of the PLO fighters remained. The Christian militia massacred almost 800 unarmed civilians. For Ronald Reagan, these pictures were enough to cause him immediately to send the Marines back into Beirut.
Pres. RONALD Reagan: My fellow Americans, the scenes that the whole world witnessed this past weekend were among the most heart-rending in the long nightmare of Lebanon's agony. Millions of us have seen pictures of the Palestinian victims of this tragedy. There's little that words can add, but there are actions we can and must take to bring that nightmare to an end.
NARRATOR: But within his cabinet, the president's men were at odds about the costs of going back in.
BOB WOODWARD: The secretary of defense, Weinberger, wanted to solve the problems of terrorism or diplomacy with negotiation, not with military force. George Schultz, the secretary of state, wanted to be tough and wanted to use the military. These were such powerful forces in the Reagan White House and the administration that at times they nullified themselves.
ROBERT C. McFARLANE, National Security Adviser '83-'85: It was a very complicating element in trying to forge sensible policy because to tackle terrorism, you have to have an integrated approach involving diplomacy to build coalitions, but underwritten by the ability and the means and the will to use force when necessary.
NARRATOR: The president took a middle course. A small contingent of Marines would show the flag and separate the warring parties. The secretary of defense had lost the argument in Washington.
CASPAR WEINBERGER, Secretary of Defense '81-'87: It's always been a source of unhappiness to me that I wasn't persuasive enough not to put in American forces, particularly not to put them into the Beirut Airport. So you have a force that was almost a sitting duck in one of the most dangerous spots in the Mideast, and therefore one of the most dangerous spots in the world, unable to protect itself, and it was a disaster waiting to happen.
NARRATOR: Now the United States was thrust into a bloody mosaic of religious factions and feuds. Fired by the revolution in Iran, Hezbollah - "The Party of God" - rapidly emerged as an increasingly formidable force for no less reason than that their warriors believed suicide was a glorious end.
SHEIKH FADLALLAH, Hezbollah Spiritual Leader: [through interpreter]
[1993 interview] Martyrdom in Islamic and Christian history, and the history of all nations, stems from the fact that man is prepared to sacrifice his own life for important causes. When someone is a believer, he believes that he sacrifices his own life for the cause of God and that he will be rewarded and granted a distinguished status by Allah.
NARRATOR: Hezbollah first struck when a pick-up truck loaded with explosives was driven into the United States embassy in west Beruit. Sixty-three died in the blast. Seventeen of the dead were Americans. Eight of them were agents of the CIA.
Pres. RONALD Reagan: As you know, our embassy in Beruit was the target this morning of a vicious terrorist bombing. This cowardly act has claimed a number of dead and wounded. This criminal attack on a diplomatic establishment will not deter us from our goals of peace in the region. We will do what we know to be right.
ROBERT DILLON, Ambassador to Lebanon '81-'83: [1993 interview] The last person taken out alive was taken out five hours after the explosion, I remember very well now the name, Mr. Coffey. He looked like a piece of hamburger. I never thought he would live. He did, was killed later in another terrorist attack. After five hours, it was bodies. At the end of five days, when we stopped- we stopped searching. It was scraps of flesh. We were identifying people occasionally through- I remember we got some fused toes, and we knew who that belonged to, and found a boot, and knew who the boot belonged to.
NARRATOR: The president and the country were devastated. Ronald Reagan visibly bore the families' grief. Bewilderment and frustration were mixed with the pain. The nation had suffered at the hands of an enemy it did not know and could not see. A deeply emotional and religious man, the president was profoundly affected. His sorrow and anger would influence his political judgment as the tragedy unfolded. The man who challenged the Soviet Union in the cold war would be humiliated in Lebanon by a handful of fanatics driving trucks.
Now the president would listen to those inside his government who wanted to strike back.
GEORGE SHULTZ, Secretary of State, '82-'89: [1993 interview] I tried to carry the banner of a much more forceful policy against terrorists. And I said we have to learn how to defend ourselves better. We have to improve our intelligence capability dramatically. We have to be willing to take offensive action against a threat, when we find out about it, so we preempt it. And we have to be willing to retaliate not simply as an act of vengeance, but as an act of raising the cost of doing these things.
NARRATOR: But the president was told by others he could do nothing.
BOB WOODWARD: The tough guys in the White House would not retaliate because the evidence was not such that you could go on television and prove it or go to a courtroom and prove it.
NARRATOR: The White House needed better intelligence from Lebanon, but after the embassy bombing, there wasn't any.
Lt. Col. BILL COWAN, Pentagon Intelligence Support '83-'94: The CIA station chief and a number of people that worked for him were killed when that happened. And so for the most part, the CIA operations in Beirut were essentially terminated, at that point, when that station went down.
NARRATOR: A secret team entered Beirut to find out what was happening on the ground.
Lt. Col. BILL COWAN: I was a member of this team, whose purpose was to go out and prepare for retaliation against those who had done this to us.
NARRATOR: But the first thing the defense intelligence team saw was how completely exposed the U.S. Marines were at the Beirut airport. They immediately sent a report to Washington.
Lt. Col. BILL COWAN: We said in that report that it could be assumed that there would be some kind of incident against the Marines because we had just had one against the embassy, so it kind of makes sense that the military was at risk.
NARRATOR: And indeed they were. As a symbol of America's resolve, but not a properly equipped or fortified force, the Marines themselves began to take casualties as the fighting intensified and they became targets.
1st MARINE: We're definitely taking casualties. We are caught up in this. You know, we're not separate. We're engaged, and we are engaging other targets. That's a war, in my opinion. That's definitely- that's combat.
2nd MARINE: [singing] It's a zippity-doo-da day. I'm the happiest Marine in the whole U.S.A. Bullshit!
NARRATOR: And then, on October 23rd, 1983, the Americans were again the target of a suicide bomber.
Cmdr. GEORGE PUCCIARELLI, U.S. Navy Chaplain: [1993 interview] Nothing was moving, just absolute silence, no gunfire, no yelling, nothing. That whole four-story structure had blown up and collapsed into one mass of rubble. It's beyond words. Beyond words. It was seeing something move that took me out of my trance, and then I recognized, oh, yes, Marines were in that building, a lot of Marines were in that building. And that's when I ran down. And there was a black Marine. He looked white. The dust had just covered him.
NARRATOR: On this quiet Sunday morning, one man had driven a truck full of explosives into the Marines' headquarters. It was the Marines' biggest loss of life in a single day since Iwo Jima in World War II, 241 Marines.
Cmdr. GEORGE PUCCIARELLI: I knew their wives and their children and their dreams and their visions and their youthfulness- people getting married, people with new babies, never to see their young children again or their newborn babe. It was a traumatic event. And for about five days and five nights after that, we just continued to jackhammer, continued to break away the pieces of the floor, the floors of those buildings, extracting our people. And every time a body would come out, the Marines would yell for their chaplain to bless the body before they put it in a green bag.
Pres. RONALD Reagan: There are no words that can express our sorrow and grief over the loss of those splendid young men and the injury to so many others. These deeds make so evident the bestial nature of those who would assume power, if they could have their way, and drive us out of that area.
NARRATOR: The Hezbollah leadership denied the label of terrorist.
HUSSEIN MUSAWI, Islamic Amal Leader: [1993 interview] [through interpreter] We defend righteousness. We defend our freedoms. Don't you see that our land is occupied in the south and the western Bekaa and Palestine? Can't you see that the Jews are committing acts of aggression against our people and killing them? Our holy places, especially Jerusalem, are occupied by the Israelis, who are supported by the Americans and Europeans. We are oppressed people. We are not terrorists.
Vice Pres. GEORGE H.W. BUSH: We're not going to let a bunch of insidious terrorists, cowards, shake the foreign policy of the United States. And it damn sure hasn't shaken the courage of these men, and that comes through loud and clear.
ROBERT C. McFARLANE: The president assembled his NSC. He got the best information we could, tasked the Pentagon to plan an attack on the terrorists in the Bekaa Valley. And with high confidence in their location and so forth, and the ability to avoid civilian causalities, he directed an attack.
NARRATOR: The principal target was in the Bekaa Valley, 50 miles from Beirut. Here, in the town of Baalbek, stands the Sheik Abdullah barracks. Within its walls was stationed a contingent of Iranian Revolutionary Guards. They trained and guided Hezbollah and its allies.
HUSSAIN MUSAWE: [1993 interview] [through translator] Of course, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards help us and train us, but they are not involved in the fighting. There's no need for the Iranians to get personally involved. It is enough for them to help with training, as the Lebanese fighters can fulfill their mission. Iran also provides us with the financial assistance which enables us to buy weapons to fight the enemies occupying our land.
NARRATOR: A U.S. naval aircraft carrier was offshore, waiting to launch its planes against the barracks.
ROBERT C. McFARLANE: The attack was to occur the following morning. And unfortunately, Secretary Weinberger aborted it.
BOB WOODWARD: There were a lot of cautious and reluctant warriors in the Pentagon, the professional military still feeling the over-hang of Vietnam and saying, "What's the mission? How are we going to accomplish this? Do we have a clear objective?" Just going and bombing was not the sort of mission that they wanted.
NARRATOR: Lieutenant General Colin Powell was Secretary Weinberger's chief military aide.
BOB WOODWARD: He's watching Weinberger resist schemes coming out of the White House or somebody saying, "Oh, go bomb," or "Go do this." And Powell is a soldier and says, "Well, what's the objective? And how can I protect my men? How can I minimize casualties?" He's looking for a way to make sure that we don't have more Vietnams.
ROBERT C. McFARLANE: If you have the means and the good intelligence and an accurate location, to go back and destroy a center of terrorism, which we knew this to be, was the right thing to do, and we should have done it. Not to do it showed a division in our government, a lack of resolve and a paralysis.
NARRATOR: The president ordered the battleship New Jersey to shell the hills above Beirut from the safety of the sea.
HISHAM MELHAM, Lebanese Journalist: Ironically, it was perceived as an impotent gesture. It's an act of absolute impotence. The New Jersey did not scare anybody. It did not scare those people in the mountains. And that is ironic. And that's why it didn't work out.
NARRATOR: And then the president ordered the Marines to withdraw. Just four months after the barracks bombing, the last of the Marines left.
Pres. RONALD Reagan: We are redeploying because once the terrorist attack started, there was no way that we could really contribute to the original mission by staying there as a target, just hunkering down and waiting for further attacks.
ROBERT C. McFARLANE: It was seen to be a defeat. There's no other way to read it. We had been bombed, and five months later we pulled out.
ROBERT OAKLEY, Dir. Counterterrorism, St. Dept. '84-'86: The terrorists learned 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.
Lt. Col. BILL COWAN, Pentagon Intelligence Support '83-'94: I believe, had we used military force at that point, 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 - you would think, the American public should think, that we're going to do something about it. To not do anything at all I believe sent a clear message.
NARRATOR: At home, the lessons of Lebanon were painful. The nation's reputation had been tarnished. The cost in lives had been steep. The men in power had hardened their positions and paralyzed the military. They all hoped America wouldn't be a target of terror again. And then it was.
Suicide bombers struck the U.S. embassy in east Beirut, 24 more victims. And this time, even though satellite photos showed who did the bombings, the United States did nothing.
GEORGE SHULTZ, Secretary of State, '82-'89: [1993 interview] We were too paralyzed somehow by self-doubt and by questions about who all was there, were our hostages there, were we sure, and so on. I was- it was very frustrating for me.
BOB WOODWARD: Diplomacy, his portfolio- it failed. And he was the tough guy. He's a former Marine. Weinberger's sitting over there saying again, "What's the objectives? Who do we hit? Give us a very clear mission." And so there's this kind of- they have an ability to neutralize each other. And that's where the CIA fills the vacuum and comes up with some of the covert plans.
NARRATOR: So now, to try to solve the terror problem, it was the Central Intelligence Agency's turn.
L. PAUL BREMER, Dir. Counterterrorism, St. Dept. '86-'89: If you look back today over the last 25 years, it is a fact that we have had a progressive degeneration of our intelligence community, in general, and in particular, in the field of human intelligence. It began with highly politicized attacks by Congress on the CIA in the mid-1970s. It was followed by a disastrous pruning of the operatives, action operatives, in the CIA in the late 1970s. But this is a long-term degeneration of our ability to get human intelligence. And in the target of terrorism, human intelligence is really the only good tool you've got, in terms of finding out what's going on.
NARRATOR: So William Casey, the director of the CIA, improvised.
BOB WOODWARD: Casey had lunch with Prince Bandar, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, one of the most powerful figures even today in Washington. And they went for a stroll in the garden and they said, "We have to go off the books." And they agreed that the Saudis would put up the money to hire some professionals to go and try to car-bomb Sheik Fadlallah.
And it was so off the books, there's no evidence that Reagan knew about it or Weinberger or Schultz. It was Casey on his own, saying, "I'm going to solve the big problem by essentially getting tougher or as tough as the terrorists in using their weapon, the car bomb."
[www.pbs.org: Read the full interview]
NARRATOR: The new U.S.-and-Saudi-backed Lebanese counterterrorist group set up a car bombing near a Beirut mosque.
JIM HOUGAN, Author/Journalist: The bombing took place in a public square, when the mosque let out and when it was thought that Fahdlallah would be coming through. In effect, you had hundreds of people who were leaving the Muslim equivalent of church. More than 80 people were killed. The remark at the time was that we- everyone was certain it was a CIA operation because everybody got killed except the target.
NARRATOR: Eighty killed, more than two hundred wounded. Sheik Fadlallah survived. He'd left the mosque late.
SHEIKH FADLALLAH, Hezbollah Spiritual Leader: [1993 interview] [through interpreter] I was able, as a result of the bomb, to distinguish the ugliness of American terrorism. I realized that America, which boasts about combating terrorism in the world, is in fact carrying out terrorist acts through its intelligence services in the ugliest of ways.
JIM HOUGAN: I think that the bombing in Beralabid put a halt to covert operations. America doesn't deal very well with failures. I think that, at that point, the American intelligence community really was in a kind of despair, the feeling that they couldn't do anything right. And I think that they just backed off.
[Cockpit communication with airport control tower Beirut]
Capt. JOHN TESTRAKE, TWA 847 Captain: He has pulled a hand
grenade pin, and he is ready to blow up the aircraft, if he has to. We must - I repeat, we must! - land at Beirut. We must-
NARRATOR: But now the pace of terror against Americans was quickening.
[www.pbs.org: Study a timeline of terrorist attacks]
GROUND: I can't give you permission because my responsible didn't give me permission for you to land. They said the airport is closed.
NARRATOR: TWA flight 847 was hijacked.
Capt. JOHN TESTRAKE: We understand. But we must land at Beirut. The hijacker is insisting. Thank you.
[1993 interview] -with that gunman standing directly behind me in the cockpit, holding that cocked pistol to the back of my head, while in his other hand he had a live grenade. And he pulled the pin on it, and he was just holding it from exploding with his fingers. And he held that right there, directly in front of my face. I mean, it was touching my face with it.
ROBERT OAKLEY: The hijacking, which was televised live, had a very profound effect upon the United States because it was in our homes, much as the bin Laden attack on the Trade Towers and the Pentagon.
NARRATOR: There were over 150 passengers on board, most of them Americans, 6 from the U.S. Navy.
Capt. JOHN TESTRAKE: [1993 interview] The thought came to me that the way things were going, within the next five minutes we'd probably all be dead. And I think it was an accurate assessment of the thing. It was just a violent thing that was escalating out of everybody's control.
[Cockpit communication with airport control tower Beirut]
They are beating the passengers. They are beating the passengers. They are threatening to kill them now. They are threatening to kill them now. We want the fuel now! Immediately!
GROUND: Please, sir. Please. We're doing our best.
Capt. JOHN TESTRAKE: Now, he's going to to kill passengers! They will open the door and throw the killed passengers out onto the ramp. Immediately!
NARRATOR: For 17 days, it was primetime terror on international television.
NEWSCASTER: As the aircraft was refueled with its maximum load to give it four-and-a-half hours flying time, the hijackers were announcing their demands- mainly, the release of Arab prisoners held in Israel and the release of 17 fellow Shi'ite Muslims held in Kuwait after an attack on the U.S. embassy there. Then they released 17 American women and 2 children, apparently chosen at random. They were bundled off the aircraft, down the emergency chutes, most of them leaving relatives behind on board.
NARRATOR: As the drama was played out in the shimmering heat, the White House was paralyzed.
1st REPORTER: Are you doing anything to recover the hijacked TWA airplane?
Pres. RONALD Reagan: Everything that can be done.
1st REPORTER: Is there anything that you can do?
2nd REPORTER: How can you let them get away with that?
1st REPORTER: Is there anything? Is there anything you can do, sir?
NARRATOR: Again extremists had cornered the president of the United States. Meanwhile, on the plane, the hijackers mercilessly assaulted a young Navy diver, Robert Stethem.
Capt. JOHN TESTRAKE: [1993 interview] By this time, they had tied young Stethem back up en route, had beat him some more. He was unconscious. We were on the ground now. They opened the door, pulled him to his feet, shot him and dumped his body out onto the taxiway below. It was just such a tragic, tragic waste. And yet it was done.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: We consider these murders, hijackings and abductions an attack on all Western civilization by uncivilized barbarians. We will continue to act with appropriate restraint. But let no one doubt our resolve.
NARRATOR: But the hijackers were winning and invited the world's networks to witness their triumph.
NEWSCASTER: A small group of journalists were sent for. They were covered by two gunmen from the aircraft. Another gunman in the cockpit made his presence felt and, throughout the brief chat that followed, kept the gun to Captain Testrake's head.
REPORTER: Captain, many people in America are calling for some kind of rescue operation or some kind of retaliation. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Capt. JOHN TESTRAKE: I think we'd all be dead men if they did because we're continually surrounded by many, many guards.
REPORTER: Do you have any thoughts on whether or not the United States should ask Israel to release the people it's holding in Israel?
Capt. JOHN TESTRAKE: No I - I don't have a comment.
NARRATOR: The hijackers demanded the release of the 700 Shi'ite prisoners held in Israel.
Pres. RONALD Reagan: At what point can you pay off the terrorists without endangering people from here on out, once they find out that their tactics succeed?
NARRATOR: But it seems now the hijackers knew the president was about to give in, and their supporters gathered in the thousands at Beirut airport to bask in the glory of victory over the United States.
ROBERT OAKLEY: The resolution of the TWA 847 hijacking is interesting because there was an implicit but never explicit quid pro quo. So we can say there wasn't really a deal.
NARRATOR: Days after the hostages were freed from TWA flight 847, Israel began releasing prisoners.
ROBERT OAKLEY: And it's fair enough. It depends which way you want to look at it. But it was an implicit arrangement between the United States and Israel, with the hijackers and those who were behind them, that Israel would resume the release of the prisoners they had been releasing in South Lebanon.
NARRATOR: The deal opened a new phase in the war, negotiating with the enemy. A year earlier, Muslim extremists had begun a campaign of kidnapping Americans. One of them was the new chief of the Beirut CIA station, William Buckley.
WILLIAM BUCKLEY: [hostage video] I am well, and my friends, Benjamin Weir and Jeremy Levine, are also well.
Lt. Col. BILL COWAN: Clearly, it was a coup to grab a CIA station chief and be able to keep him. He died under horrible, horrible conditions, which he certainly didn't deserve. But when you can take a CIA station chief, you're making a very substantial impact on the ability of our government to operate.
NARRATOR: Eventually, 30 Westerners would be taken hostage.
ROBERT OAKLEY: And the people they kidnapped and held hostage were those best guaranteed to touch the nerve of the American public, who demanded that they be released: priests, Catholic priest, a Protestant pastor, a journalist, a professor.
BOB WOODWARD: As you look at the Reagan administration's dealing with terrorism, there's one theme that jumps right out, and that is the President's concern and obsession and focus guides everyone. And the secretary of state and the CIA director and the defense secretary and the political people in the White House are sitting around the table, and you have a president like Reagan obsessed with hostages, people will come up with schemes and ideas that in more rational moments they would never even consider.
NARRATOR: This was the idea. The most important player in the terrorist world, Iran, was desperately running out of military supplies in its war with Iraq. The president was told a bargain could be struck: Arms to Iran, hostages back to America. Reagan's men cut a deal. The secretary of defense says he was appalled.
CASPAR WEINBERGER: Here we were, begging the world to stop sending any arms to Iran, and there was this horrible proposal that we try to buy the friendship of these fanatics by giving them arms and violating all of the things we were doing in trying to persuade the rest of the world that they shouldn't sell them arms.
ROBERT OAKLEY: It completely undercut our policy. Our policy was make no deals with terrorists, provide no arms to Iran, which is a country seen as sponsoring terrorists. And after a while, it became visible to the entire world that we were doing both, making deals with the Iranians by providing them with arms in exchange for the release of hostages. So it badly damaged our policy.
NARRATOR: At first the president denied it, then he had to admit it. An independent counsel began an investigation. And then the president faced the American people.
Pres. RONALD REAGAN: For 18 months now, we have had underway a secret diplomatic initiative to Iran. That initiative was undertaken for the simplest and best of reasons: to renew a relationship with the nation of Iran, to bring an honorable end to the bloody six-year war between Iran and Iraq, to eliminate state-sponsored terrorism and subversion and to effect the safe return of all hostages.
BOB WOODWARD: This was a real earthquake to the Reagan administration, and Reagan had to turn to new people. He brought in Howard Baker as his chief of staff and let Shultz gain control of the anti-terrorist policy.
VINCENT CANNISTRARO, Dir. NSC Intelligence '84-'87: I think at that point, the hard-liners won out in the debate, that we are to use strong, maybe overwhelming U.S. military force against a state sponsor of terrorism, and one who is not very popular in the world.
NARRATOR: The White House settled on Muammar Qaddafi, the president of Libya, whose terrorist activities, they believed, including the hijacking of an Italian luxury liner, the Achille Lauro.
VINCENT CANNISTRARO: Quaddafi was not a popular figure anyplace, and he did strange things, and he stood up to the Americans sometimes foolishly. So there was no question that Quaddafi in some ways was a symbol of the frustration of the United States, but he was an easier symbol to deal with then, say, Hezbollah and Iran.
ROBERT OAKLEY: And so we sailed a carrier task force into the Bay of Sidra to put the pressure on the Libyans. The Libyans responded by conducting some attempted attacks by aircraft and by small boats, which were destroyed quickly. At that point, Quaddafi lost his cool and decided to escalate, and we intercepted communications between Tripoli and 12 Libyan People's Bureaus - what they call their embassies abroad - to "Go get the Americans."
NARRATOR: They "got the Americans" at the La Belle disco in West Berlin. An American soldier died in the explosion.
BOB WOODWARD: I actually had in one of my books the language of the intercepts. And when you lay it out, it's clear that they promoted this bombing, knew it was going to occur, and then got a thumbs-up report back right after the discotheque had been bombed. So it was real easy to look at that and say, "We know the Libyans are behind it. We're going to bomb their intelligence agency, and we're going to bomb Qaddafi."
NARRATOR: Finally, the hardliners in the administration would get to do what they wanted, send fighter planes into enemy territory.
Capt. ROBERT STUMPF, U.S. Navy Fighter Pilot: So we were really pumped, and we started getting everything ready, putting the plans together. The Air Force took Tripoli, and we took Bengazi. The captain just lit the burners and we- the ship just took off down through the Straits of Messina. We had the entire battle group going through there at flank speed at sunset. Oh, it was really cool.
And then we launched everybody on the flight deck. And I was actually the last guy off, and I was- and I was just screaming in the cockpit, just out of frustration. I was afraid I was going to miss it.
CASPAR WEINBERGER: We put a 200-plane raid in the air and destroyed many Libyan targets connected with this terrorist act and drove Quaddafi underground, so that nothing was heard from him effectively for two or three years.
Pres. RONALD Reagan: The United States won but a single engagement in the long battle against terrorism. We will not end that struggle until the free and decent people of this planet unite to eradicate the scourge of terror from the modern world.
NEWSCASTER: If the Americans were directly trying to wipe out Colonel Quaddafi's home, they couldn't have got much closer. The area is badly damaged by blast, but the house itself was not destroyed, the bombs missing by a whisker.
Lt. Col. BILL COWAN, Pentagon Intelligence Support '83-'94: Quaddafi really didn't do anything against us after that. I think he was kind of surprised that we had done it. He probably had a close call with death. Whether the bomb came within 500 meters or 50 miles, he realized that we were serious about maybe doing something to him.
NEWSCASTER: Perhaps the most dramatic scene was Colonel Qaddafi's sagging Bedouin tent less from 40 yards from where other bombs had fallen.
Lt. Col. BILL COWAN: So that was our only real attempt to strike back at people. Qaddafi's a little bit different situation than when you're dealing with Hezbollah or you're dealing with the Iranians. But nonetheless, it had- it obviously had an impact. It had an effect.
NARRATOR: In the next two years, there would be fewer terrorist incidents. Then four days before Christmas, 1988, Pan American flight 103 from London to New York explodes over Lockerbie, Scotland. All 259 passengers and 11 people on the ground are killed.
There were many theories about who was responsible. Was it payback from Libya? Was it the Hezbollah? Was this a group with connections to Syria or agents from Iran? No one took credit for planting the bomb.
Pres. RONALD Reagan: Now that we know definitely that it was a bomb, we're going to make every effort we can to find out who was guilty of this savage and tragic thing and bring them to justice.
NARRATOR: In the very last days of his presidency, Ronald Reagan seemed to make a policy shift in the war against terrorism. Through the next two administrations, the emphasis would be to bring terrorists to justice.
Pres. GEORGE H. W. BUSH: [December 29, 1988] We've got to seek hard and punish firmly, decisively, those who did this- if you can ever find them.
NARRATOR: It would take them 10 years to bring two Libyan intelligence operatives to trial.
VINCENT CANNISTRARO: Over the last three administrations, they've 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. 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.
NARRATOR: Everything would change after September 11th, 2001. At the White House, as they struggled to figure out their response, some of the men must have thought about lessons from that earlier war on terror. Vice President Cheney; at Defense, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz, whose former boss, George Shultz, had argued for military force; Colin Powell, the aide to Secretary Weinberger, who always advocated caution. This time seems different.
CASPAR WEINBERGER: Of course, there's the horror of it. The magnitude of that was such that there's really nothing to compare it to. People keep talking about having a measured response, which I think is one of the stupidest comments I've ever heard because this was an immeasurable act. You can't- there's no measured response except complete destruction of the people who did it.
NARRATOR: Lieutenant Colonel Cowan, a former intelligence officer, has his own cautions.
Lt. Col. BILL COWAN: I believe any time that you conduct an operation that causes civilian casualties, you lessen your ability to effectively work in and among those people you're trying to target. You know, our only success in dealing with terrorists - whether they be in Lebanon or wherever throughout the world - is our ability to find Muslims who will support us, who will do things for us, who are willing to go into some of these areas and acquire intelligence for us. And when we, intentionally or otherwise, kill civilians, create collateral damage, we're less likely to find people who will do things for us.
NARRATOR: Former national security adviser McFarlane reflects on what the enemy learned about us.
ROBERT C. McFARLANE: Well, they learned that the American people can be traumatized by terrorism, that it can create pressure on the government, that we were not in the 1980s well-equipped, in terms of power or political understanding, to deal with it. And so they'll continue to use it, and they've expanded their networks and their capabilities.
NARRATOR: Ambassador Bremer, the former State Department terrorism expert.
L. PAUL BREMER: We had Quaddafi as the number-one enemy from the late '70s to the mid-'80s. Then we had Abu Nidal, who appeared on the scene, and he was the number-one enemy from the mid-'80s till the early '90s. 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.
NARRATOR: And another of George Shultz's deputies, Robert Oakley.
ROBERT OAKLEY: 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 out.
[www.pbs.org: More on the lessons of the '80s]
NARRATOR: And the reporter who talked to them about what happened once, not long ago.
BOB WOODWARD: These terrorist incidents- they used the tools that were available, but it was never in a coherent way. I know from talking to those people at the time, it was always, "Oh, we've got this crisis. We're dealing with the Achille Lauro now," or "We're dealing with Quaddafi," or "We're dealing with Libyan hit squads," or "We're dealing with Beirut." And it never- they never got in a position where they said, "You know, this is a real serious threat," not just episodically, but it's going to be a threat to this country throughout the administration, future administrations.
We need to organize to fight it. It can't be a back-bench operation for the FBI and the CIA. It's got to be somebody's issue, so it's on their desk every day. What do we know? What's being planned? What are the threats out there?
MOYERS: If tonights broadcast reminds us how soon we can forget the events and the lessons of the recent past, in the coming weeks, well be asking questions about what were learning from the present crisis. I hope youll join us.
For Frontline, Im Bill Moyers. Goodnight.
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ANNOUNCER: Next time on FRONTLINE: There are so many questions. Why did the CIA and FBI fail to find the hijackers and stop this attack? Did America's role in the world fuel this hatred and cause this terror?
MAN: America, it is an empire that will do anything to oppress people outside the United States borders.
ANNOUNCER: Looking for Answers next time on FRONTLINE.
There's more of this FRONTLINE report at our companion Web site: an overview of the rise of militant Islamic movements around the world from the 1960s to now; a chronology of terrorist attacks against Americans in the past two decades and how the U.S. responded; FRONTLINE's extended interviews with White House advisers, policy-makers and national security experts; readings and links on Islamic militancy and the terrorism threat in the post-cold war era and more. Then join the discussion at pbs.org or write us an email at email@example.com or write to this address. [DEAR FRONTLINE, 125 Western Ave., Boston, MA 02134]
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