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Director of NSC Intelligence from 1984 to 1987, Vincent Cannistraro went on to serve as chief of operations for the CIA's Counterterrorism Center and to lead the CIA's investigation into the bombing of Pan Am 103. In this interview, conducted in late September 2001, he discusses the Reagan administration's response to terrorism in the 1980s and the factors that shaped its policy; the role of U.S. intelligence in combating terrorism, then and now; and what lessons have been learned, both by the U.S. and by terrorists who would target Americans.


vincent cannistraro

In 1981, Ronald Reagan comes into office. When the hostages are released, what's on the horizon? What is the thought about the potential for terrorist activity on [Reagan's] watch?

... It was clear that there was as an immediate focus by the Reagan administration on terrorism. [CIA Director] Bill Casey, in particular, felt very strongly that there was a Soviet bloc sponsorship or encouragement to international terrorism, looking at all the events around the world.

The ... CIA was pretty much convinced that there was no Soviet involvement. Bill Casey, coming in as a real Reaganite, was insistent that there had to be. ...

In any event, Casey was really reflecting a broader viewpoint within the Reagan administration about all of the terrorist phenomenon they were seeing. It couldn't have been as a result of some kind of natural antipathy to American policy, or as a reaction to American policy. It had to have been stimulated. I think that was kind of the mindset.

But pretty clearly, they wanted to formulate a policy and a program that would deal with what they saw as international terrorism, primarily directed against the United States. ... When Hezbollah began taking hostages, American hostages, in particular, or carried out bombing attacks against the American embassy in Beirut in 1983, or the Marine barracks a little bit later in 1983, these were acts of state-supported terrorism. I mean, they had an address. Even though surrogates were carrying it out, it was pretty apparent who the sponsorship was coming from.

That has been changed a great deal in the late 1990s, in the early 2000s. We've seen a major transformation -- very few state-supported terrorist groups anymore. ... And we've seen the emergence of religiously motivated groups. One, Hezbollah, was sponsored by a state, but now Al Qaeda, which doesn't seem to have any real state sponsorship, unless you count the Taliban government in Afghanistan itself.

Does that make it easier or harder to deal with?

It makes it much harder. In the 1980s, most of the terrorism that occurred had an address that you could respond to. If a discothèque in Berlin were bombed and American soldiers were killed, intelligence could pretty quickly ascertain that it was a Libyan-sponsored event. And, therefore, Libya being a state, had an address. The Reagan administration, in effect, did respond to Libya with a bombing attack in the spring of 1986, as you recall.

There are debates about whether that's a useful kind of response to an act of terrorism. Does it in itself deter terrorism? Or does it just basically continue the cycle of violence and invite another retaliation by the country that you've bombed? In the case of Libya, my own feeling is that when we bombed Tripoli in 1986 as a response to the Libyan bombing of the discothèque in Berlin ... that provided the motivation for Qaddafi to authorize the sabotage of Pan Am 103 almost two years later, in 1988, and the deaths of some 270 people.

But that, again, was not a major debate within the Reagan administration itself. All it was looking for was a casus belli -- who is sponsoring it, and let's punish them, and let's retaliate, which we did in the case of Libya, and which we tried to do in other cases with less success.

When does Libya come on to the radar screen to begin with?

Libya comes on the radar screen in prior administrations. It wasn't just Ronald Reagan. During the Carter administration, for example, there is a whole series of challenges between the U.S. Navy and the air force and navy of the Libyan government. Jim Schlesinger, secretary of defense in the Carter administration, for example, several times authorized the challenge of the so-called "line of death" that Muammar Qaddafi had drawn in the Gulf of Sidra. He said, "This is my water. This is my territory. You can't cross it." And deliberately we had naval challenges to that line that showed that we had freedom of navigation, and there were no arbitrary navigation lines or barriers that could be drawn.

But for the Reagan administration ... were there other reasons? We thought that there were Libyan assassination teams going for Reagan? What made the Reagan folk really focus on Libya?

Well, there was certainly a focus on Libya and Qaddafi. When President Reagan first came into office, there was a well-publicized threat to send a car bomb into the White House. It turned out that that threat was basically a hoax. ...

So a lot of the fears that were prevalent at the time were basically founded on false premises. There was, however, an environment. The environment was that Qaddafi was considered a bad actor. He had sent out hit teams, but they were hit teams to kill other Libyans, Libyan dissidents, Libyans who wouldn't listen to his call to come back to Tripoli, Libyans who opposed the government. And there were well-known assassinations in Europe, particularly in Rome on the via Veneto, in which Libyan exiles were assassinated by hit squads. That was the kind of environment. There was a lot of rumor, a lot of reporting indicating that he was planning to kill President Reagan, or assassinate U.S. government officials. But none of that, as far as I can recall, was every substantiated.

In 1982 Israel invades Lebanon. How does that set the ball rolling in the terroristic world?

When Israel invades Lebanon and goes up almost to the limits of Beirut City itself, it causes a huge upheaval. It's changed the balance of power in the Middle East. It's a challenge. It's a challenge to the Arab world. It's a challenge to the United States in the sense that it has to stride between its friendship with Israel and its friendship with the moderate governments in the Arab world, particularly the oil producers.

We had gone through earlier during the Carter administration a process by which Arab countries decided to punish us. Saudi Arabia, for example, cut off the flow of oil to the United States. And it wreaked great havoc in our economy. So when the Israelis, again, brought that whole balance into question by moving into Lebanon -- with some encouragement, I must say -- that provided a lot of concern to natural moderate Arab allies and oil producers. And that was a conundrum that the Reagan administration never successfully handled.

As far as terrorists, what did it create?

The Lebanese occupation by Israel caused the Palestinians to have to leave Lebanon eventually. They were pushed out. They had been the protectors for the American diplomatic community in Beirut. The presence of Palestinian organizations, PLO, and cadres and guards had been necessary for the security of the American embassy. There was liaison with the PLO, and the Americans were depending on them for their security. Once the Palestinian presence was drastically reduced, and once the U.S. started shelling from the battleship New Jersey, we opened up Pandora's box. And Pandora's box happened to be populated by religious zealots, well funded, well armed and ruthless. They were Hezbollah.

How did we trip into this?

I'll tell you, it's a major policy blunder. Prior to that, the U.S. had not taken sides in the civil strife in Lebanon. Our only concern then had been to protect government personnel and our embassy and our consulate, and American citizens there at the American school in Beirut, for example, the American College of Lebanon. We took sides; we chose sides. We began trying to flex our muscles by sending a battleship in there.

Once we did that, we were identified immediately with the Israeli invader in terms ... of Hezbollah, in terms of Iran, which was emerging as a power broker in Lebanon, and Syria, which was emerging as an ally of Iran in Lebanon. ... Once we opened up Pandora's box, we made ourselves an enemy. And after that, the usual way to attack a superpower, especially by a state that doesn't have the same kind of military power, is by using surrogates, by using terrorism, by using violence that's difficult for a superpower to confront ...

Where were you when the [first] embassy bomb went off? What do you remember about that event?

I was in Washington at the time that that happened. What I remember is being at CIA headquarters when the embassy was bombed and losing a lot of friends who were killed in the explosion. I remember the great sadness at CIA headquarters. I remember a memorial service out on the grounds of CIA in Langley, Virginia. And I remember a lot of widows who had been married to people in the embassy who were at home at the time and escaped the horrible disaster of the embassy bombing, but were basically ... I don't know how to describe the tragedy for these people. But it was awful. It was terrible.

How did President Reagan take that event?

He took it with a great deal of grace and style. I remember a speech that Peggy Noonan had written for him. There was another speech later on when the Marine barracks was blown up that Peggy Noonan wrote. It was very articulate. It was very eloquent. That speech ... there was a presage of that speech at the ceremony for the employees of the American embassy who had been killed. It was a very touching scene. He did it with great grace.

But on the other hand, it steeled the administration and its determination to mount some kind of an effective response to terrorism, and there weren't any obvious ways of doing it. U.S. military power was obviously limited in what it could do to deter terrorism. There were things they could do to retaliate, to punish, but that wasn't going to do anything to deter future actions, unless you could so overwhelmingly intimidate a state actor and state sponsor that they would stop doing it. But that clearly was not feasible.

So there was a whole program of discussions within the government itself, within the intelligence community, within the defense community -- what kind of mechanisms do we need? What kind of responses can we develop to have a more effective response to state-sponsored terrorism? Because when the embassy in Beirut was bombed, sure, it was clear that Hezbollah did it. But no one believed that Hezbollah just conceived this operation on their own and carried it out. It was believed by some that the Syrians inspired it. It was believed by others that the Iranians inspired it. But in any event, it was believed that it was really a state-sponsored act of terrorism.

So how did our strategy of dealing with terrorism then change? What was done? What practical things could be done?

I think that what happened eventually was the creation of a mechanism within the government to coordinate all anti-terrorism policy, and that took place at the National Security Council. There was a counterterrorism group that was set up at the White House ... that would coordinate among all of the agencies that had a role -- Defense Department, CIA, Justice, etc.

Then, later on, after Vice President Bush convened a committee, a number of recommendations came out of this committee on terrorism and developed basically into the Counterterrorism Center in CIA. But what happened with the Counterterrorism Center, how it developed, was very different from how it was originally conceived.

Bill Casey saw the Counterterrorism Center as basically an all-capability center to stop terrorists -- that we would go out and snatch terrorists, that we would go out and hit them before they could act. That it ... would pull together all the data, intelligence and other data in the U.S. government and pour it into one center. But this center would also have the capability of actually being an action element to go out there. ... Casey's original conception for a counterterrorism center at the CIA was to give it a paramilitary capability, an intelligence capability, and an analytical capability to put it all together in one package. The paramilitary capability would be used to go after known terrorists, to kidnap them and render them to U.S. justice.

So why didn't that happen?

It didn't happen because there was a lot of opposition within the government in other areas, particularly at the State Department. The Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department was very suspicious of this kind of a capability. They felt that Bill Casey had already been trying to cook the analytical books on terrorism, particularly by the pressure he had placed on the analysts to come up with an analysis that said the Soviet Union was behind these acts of terrorism.

And so State Department and some other places were really very suspicious of giving Bill Casey the kind of authority that he was seeking -- to have paramilitary intelligence and analysis all together in one component that would draw on the anti-terrorism community in Washington itself, from State, from Defense and from Justice.

And give him power.

And give him power over it. There's a lot of suspicion over that. I think George Shultz himself was very suspicious, and over the years had some tension with Bill Casey over various policies that Bill Casey had espoused. In the end, the Counterterrorism Center was created, but without these capabilities that Bill Casey had argued for.

So was that a mistake? Was it a mistake not to use the CIA to go out and kidnap and assassinate and make sure that the enemies that we had focused on stop what they were doing?

No, it wasn't a mistake not to do that. Because first of all, if you give the American government the authority to go out and assassinate enemies, basically you're going to get involved in a dirty business that will invite counter-assassinations against us. And it doesn't work; it has no practical effect, because we've seen that from the Israeli program. They've been assassinating Palestinian leaders from the early 1970s, but to no real end, because there's no end of people to assassinate. And there's no end of the cycle of retaliation against you. It brings you no peace. So a program of giving CIA, Bill Casey, assassination capability against terrorist leaders probably would have had no real effect.

Was it a sign of frustration and inability to deal with the issues with other means?

Well, I think so. I think it was basically looking for a shorthand way of dealing with the problem. Certainly there was frustration. There were these violent events all over the world, many of them directed to the United States, looked on by Casey and President Reagan as a challenge to the United States. People were looking around for ways of confronting this, of dealing with this. But there is no one shorthand way of dealing with the problem. It has different kinds of components to it. ... It's political, diplomatic, as well as military. There's no shorthand way of using covert action, or some assassination capability to stop it from happening in the future.

So what happens next? Because that's not an option ... what takes place next?

I think what takes place next is a reliance on massive military means to punish the sponsor of a terrorist operation. I think we see that in the spring of 1986, where the president authorizes massive retaliation against ... selected targets within the city of Tripoli as a riposte to Qaddafi for what is believed to be Qaddafi sponsorship of a terrorist act against Americans in Berlin.

But as far as covert actions, the setting up of a covert Lebanese unit paid for by Saudi money ... how did that come about as a possibility, at least the starting up of this group?

I think that goes back to the belief that you had to go after the terrorist leaders in Lebanon. There was a Lebanese government that was not part of the problem. It had an antipathy towards Hezbollah as well. And I think what the U.S. did, with some great resistance from people like John McMann, at the time deputy director of CIA, was to provide Lebanese security services with the means to become a professional intelligence unit. I think what you're looking at there is the feeling that you can control a unit like that by giving them intelligence training, and giving them technical assistance in that they will go out and deter the terrorists for you. That was a major error.

Why?

Because the group proved to be totally independent, non-responsive to CIA human rights guidelines. And they went out and killed people.

The assassination attempt on [Hezbollah spiritual leader] Fadlallah -- there were 80 civilians killed. Why did that occur? And what was the result of that?

It didn't occur with U.S. encouragement or U.S. direction. It wasn't something planned by the U.S. But it was something carried out by the Lebanese security service that was trained and provisioned by the CIA and by the U.S. government. ... Because the U.S. had provisioned the Lebanese security service, and because the U.S. was identified with that service, it was the U.S. that got the blame for that. And that, in itself, initiated other acts of terrorism against the U.S.

The explosion, the disaster -- did it, in the end, kill off covert action as a potential tool?

No, it didn't. It may have changed the focus of covert action, but it didn't kill it off. What you got later were basically covert action programs approved by presidential findings to try and condition Qaddafi. It was kind of counterterrorism under another guise, in another form. It was, "Qaddafi is a sponsor of terrorism, Iran might be a sponsor of terrorism, but let's look at it a different way." So there were a whole variety of covert action measures taken against Libya as a way of changing his behavior. It might have been ... misconceived. But nevertheless, it did lead to the arming of a Libyan opposition to Qaddafi -- lethal arming of them -- and a whole variety of psychological programs against Libya.

A basic problem with terrorism has always been state sponsors. A lot of folks have always stated that, until you get rid of the state sponsors, you have some problems. Libya was indeed a case where we went after them. Libya also seems like it was targeted because it was an easy mark. ... But Syria and Iran are also tied in very dramatically, and we knew of their connection. ... [What was the debate on that? Was there a question of doing] something towards Syria and Iran, something similar, to send as powerful a message as we did against Libya?

No, there was no significant debate on that. People understood that Syria and Iran may be behind Hezbollah, and Hezbollah was behind the bombings of the American embassy and the Marine barracks. It killed off covert action in Lebanon, yes. But the result of that was the complete withdrawal of the American government and the American presence from Lebanon. In other words, Hezbollah won a great victory. It drove the Americans out. That was the end result of all of these bombings: we pulled out. There was no battleship New Jersey, there was no American embassy, there was no Marine barracks; we were out of there.

So Hezbollah won a victory. That war was over. We lost that war. I don't know if it was recognized at the time, but the withdrawal of the U.S. represented a victory for Hezbollah. That's what they were looking for; that's what they achieved. In Libya, it was a different situation. Libya was easy to go after. Qaddafi was not a popular figure anyplace, even in Egypt, even in his closest neighbors. They all thought he was crazy, and he did strange things, and he stood up to the Americans sometimes foolishly.

He was easier to go after. He didn't have the kind of power that could easily challenge the American Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. Maybe Iran could do more in the Gulf, and certainly Syria would have been an unpopular target for the Americans to have attacked. So there was no question that Qaddafi, 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.

But if Hezbollah was the victor in that war, so was Iran and so was Syria. ... What was the message sent by our pulling out and allowing Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran to win that battle?

The clear message sent was that terrorism works -- that, when applied in a focused way against symbols of U.S. power, the U.S. will pull out, and therefore it works. It was the earliest form of asymmetrical warfare, which is the current buzz phrase today -- the use of less technologically oriented power by a small country against the U.S. superpower.

And what lesson do we take today from that event?

I think today what we're dealing with is the same fundamental problem -- a different origin in terms of the terrorism, but the same fundamental problem. How do we deal with groups that challenge the United States, that decide to blow up an American warship in Aden, for example? Do we keep going back to Aden with warships? No, we don't. We've pulled out of the Gulf of Aden. We don't make port calls there anymore. So in a sense, if the objective was to drive the U.S. out of Yemen, it was effective.

The lessons draw are that we can be challenged almost any place, and for an Osama bin Laden, who believes that it was God and the mujahedeen who destroyed the Soviet empire in Afghanistan, he believes that the same methodologies will work against the remaining superpower, the United States of America. So he'll challenge us anywhere we are present in the Gulf, in the Middle East, and obviously now here in America.

The Cole proved that we could be driven out of one place. But is the intention to try to drive us out of New York City and Washington, D.C.?

Well, no, I think he was trying to punish us in the United States, but the same objective obtains. He wants us out of the Persian Gulf; he wants us out of Saudi Arabia. Our influence in Saudi Arabia is something that he has protested since 1991. We're still there, despite bombings ... in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, despite the bombing of the Cole. So go after us here.

Let me go back to Lebanon again. The William Buckley kidnapping -- what effect did that have on us?

Oh, I think that the Bill Buckley kidnapping had a much greater effect than we realized. It was something that was very disturbing to Bill Casey, and it drove him almost to the ends of the earth to find ways of getting Buckley back, to deal with anyone in any form, in any shape, in any way, to get Buckley back. He failed at that, but it was a driving motivation in Iran-Contra. We even dealt with the devil, which were the Iranians, who sponsored Hezbollah, who sponsored the kidnapping and eventual murder of Bill Buckley. But we dealt with them; we provided them weapons. That was the unintended consequence of the Bill Buckley affair.

What does it also say about the terrorists that the first American that they take is this very important CIA agent based in Beirut?

... He becomes a target because if he is taken, they have robbed the U.S. of a symbol of power. This is a CIA official, a powerbroker in the Middle East. He's taken. They show that they can do that, that no one is immune from them. They take him. We make extensive and trying efforts over a long period of time to get him back; we fail utterly. It's another victory for the terrorists.

One of the major components that we were missing to fight this battle is intelligence, on-the-ground intelligence. How did Bill Buckley being taken affect us and our ability?

Bill Buckley being taken basically closed down CIA intelligence activities in the country. It was a tremendous blow; there was no question about it. ...

Assassinations were just not able to be used. Did they use that against us -- the realization that we would not go after them one on one?

That's a good question. Certainly, in the early days of the Reagan administration, the executive order ... which prohibits any U.S. government assistance or support to an assassination, is well publicized. But is that an encouragement to some of these groups? I don't think so. I think most of these groups always felt that there can be a use of U.S. military power. And the difference between bombing from the battleship New Jersey and the single assassination of one person was a distinction they didn't really see. For them, military power and the use of it against a whole village or a group was assassination. So I think the fact that we publicly notified the world that we didn't do it and it was against U.S. law to do it -- I don't think that had any effect on deterring them or encouraging them. ...

Are we paying a price now for never taking more forceful action against states that sponsored terrorism?

That's a difficult question to answer, because most of the states that sponsored terrorism don't sponsor it against the United States today. Iran, which has been sponsoring terrorism against the United States, has apparently stopped in the last few years. They're not directing operations against us. The Libyans, since Pan Am 103 and the repercussions from Pan Am 103, have expelled Abu Nidal from Libya; they're not sponsoring operations against the United States. Syria is not sponsoring operations against the United States. You don't have state actors out there, with two exceptions: one is Iraq, which would sponsor terrorism against us if they had the capability to do it, which apparently they don't, and secondly, Osama bin Laden, insofar as he is supported by a kind of state, the Taliban in Afghanistan. So we don't have the traditional state sponsors anymore.

The debate that was going on in Washington ... between Shultz and Weinberger -- what input can you give me on that?

... Certainly Weinberger was more reluctant to use military action, and George Shultz, who was the secretary of state, was more eager to use it. It was kind of a role reversal. There was certainly another component to it, the legal component, the Department of Justice. But it wasn't basically a law enforcement response to the problems of terrorism; it was George Shultz saying, "We ought to get tough, and the covert action is not going to cut it; what we really need is the application of military force," and Weinberger being much more reluctant to do that, much more in favor of covert action and other political means to deal with it.

So can it simply be said that the attack on Libya, after five years of debate, was sort of the culmination of that debate?

Oh, I think so. 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.

How did the hijacking of TWA 847 change things? Was that a turning point, was that an important win, or a new direction in how we deal with terrorism?

It resulted in the murder of American personnel on that aircraft, and there were horrifying visual images of Americans being killed and tossed off the plane. Did it do anything? It just basically coalesced the desire within the Reagan administration to strike back at the sponsors of terrorism. It didn't do anything to weaken the morale. It certainly did a lot to focus our efforts.

McFarlane, soon after that, starts making his connections to Iran for the arms deals. What was the result of that policy?

The results of the policy of dealing with the Iranians secretly, providing them weapons that they would be using against Iraq -- don't forget, these weapons were being given to Iran to confront Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. At the same time we're giving weapons to Iran in order to curry some kind of favor with them, we are at the same time providing intelligence to Iraq against Iran.

So we're seen playing both sides against the middle, and when this is finally revealed, it really exposes American hypocrisy and put us in a very bad light. The Iranians, for example, understand that, yes, we're shipping them arms here at the same time we're giving targeting information to the Iraqis so they can more precisely bomb targets in Iran. And from the Iraqi point of view and Saddam Hussein, he realizes that his erstwhile American friends are also arming his enemies. So that doesn't help us on either side.

They know at that point that our policy, basically, is we'd like to see both of them kill each other.

That is a clear implication that both countries draw out from this, that we want to see them bleed each other. But what it does is basically expose a U.S. policy that's not productive on either end. ...

Some people say that [there] wasn't really a policy, there wasn't even a developing policy -- it was crisis management, event after event. How would you answer that?

I think there was crisis management. These events were coming fast and furious, so there was a lot of this frenetic responding to things. ... But nevertheless, there was a development of a policy that came out of it, because you did have a policy debate. It was a very vigorous policy debate, and it eventually led to a vice presidential commission on terrorism. They came up with recommendations on how to deal with it. You also came out with a presidential finding to confront terrorism. You came out with a national security decision directive unifying the policy, articulating it, and you came up with the creation of certain structures in the U.S. government to deal with it.

So these were the results of policy debates. Sure, there was crisis management, as there always is in Washington, but long term, there was a result from it. Whether it was an effective result or a partial result may be a different question, but certainly there was something at the end of the policy debate.

What was it like to be sitting at a table in the White House when this debate was going on? Were you ever there when Shultz and Weinberger were going at each other?

Yes.

What was that like? Take us into the room and explain what that was like.

Well, it was barely concealed hostility at some of the meetings. There was no question that George Shultz, who was very contained, could let his unhappiness and his anger become very visible at some of these meetings -- not that he ever raised his voice, he didn't do that -- but there was certain body language, the way he glowered. It was very clear when he didn't agree with a policy. I remember a policy debate on polygraphing policy, and George Shultz was extraordinarily opposed to it. And he made it very clear in the room that if this were implemented at the State Department, he would resign. There was kind of a thundering silence as a result of that, but it was very effective.

These were the same kind of debates that you saw between Weinberger and Shultz -- not that there were that many of them. Most of these debates were conducted by their deputies as surrogates, so you didn't often have them in the same room at the same time, basically taking different positions. But it happened, and there was no question that it was not a happy, congenial environment to be present in when it happened.

Do you remember any specific case when the argument or the debate was about an issue dealing with terrorism?

Oh, I think that I can remember one occasion -- not with a great deal of precision -- but one occasion when George Shultz made some comment about why we needed such an expensive military if it was only going to sit on its ass. I think that was one vivid example, but I can't remember the exact context of it.

Do you remember what Weinberger's response was?

I think he was very haughty as a result of it, as he could be.

How did Ronald Reagan take this issue? I would assume the debate was over who would earn the ear and the agreement of Ronald Reagan. How was he tied into this issue?

He almost seemed disengaged from the debate itself. He would sit there and not necessarily participate. ... He was more like the chairman of the board hearing all the arguments, but he never really entered the argument except to try and lighten the atmosphere by making a joke, which he was very good at. He would tell a story, and that would break some of the heaviness in the air. But he didn't participate in most debates.

So how would you win the argument?

You never knew who won the argument until after the meeting was over and the national security adviser, whether it was Bud McFarlane or John Poindexter after, would consult with the president and then the answer would be disseminated to all the policy participants. But during the meeting there was no conclusion. ... You only knew later on when the national security adviser disseminated whatever the president's opinion was.

Did Colin Powell ever come into the debate?

No, Colin becomes deputy national security adviser by the end of 1986, early 1987, after Iran-Contra when John Poindexter is fired and they bring in Frank Carlucci. Frank brings in Colin as his deputy. So most of those major battles are over by that time. And of course, by the time they come in, what has resulted is Iran-Contra and kind of a major disaster, both for the administration, but also policy-wise for the United States. Its credibility in that part of the world is damaged very, very seriously.

You might say that the major policy debate after that is, what we do to repair the damage, and how do we regain credibility with countries in the Gulf that are important to us? One of the results was Kuwait and the flagging with American flags of Kuwaiti vessels that were being challenged by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the Gulf. We protected those with American flags and with U.S. naval power to escort Kuwaiti ships in order to protect them against challenge from the Iranian navy. And that's kind of the fallout, that we get involved in the Gulf on the side of Kuwait against Iran.

And of course, one of the great tragedies that emerges in the summer of 1988 is one of our naval vessels shoots down an Iranian Airbus, by mistake, but nevertheless with a great loss of civilian life on this civilian airliner. That, in itself, generates a sequence of events that comes back to haunt us. So it's interesting to look at these in hindsight. We used to look at them as kind of discrete events, not tied to each other, and seen in a vacuum. But from a distance, I think we can see more of a pattern.

You say we were haunted by the Airbus disaster. What were the practical results of that?

The practical result of that is the Iranians initiate the sponsorship of a number of terrorist plans against the United States. The immediate reaction is to agree with the Ahmed Jibril group to conduct a series of operations against the United States, revenge operations, the settlement of a blood debt. Intelligence is following this very closely. That leads to the establishment of [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] cells in Germany. So that basically initiates a whole series of plans against the United States. ...

Going back to Pan Am 103... We try to fight the terrorism in the courtroom. How successful are we?

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 will not do much good. Covert action is very difficult. What works?

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.

So what should this administration have learned from everything that went before them, especially in the Reagan years?

It should learn that just the application of military means to the problem of bin Laden is not going to solve the problem. First of all, it's very dubious that you can bomb all the Al Qaeda network out of existence; you can't do that. It's very dubious that you could probably bomb bin Laden out of existence. You may be able to use covert action. You may be able to use Special Forces to launch an assault. But you may be able at the same time to use the political, diplomatic coalition to tighten the noose around him, and to use foreign intelligence agencies to collect intelligence, to round up Al Qaeda cells in those countries. You use the financial resources we have to tighten banking laws around the world. Our own are fairly tight, but there are a lot of other places that they're not.

In other words, you have to use a whole toolkit of resources to address the problem, and not depend on any single one of them.

That's what we've 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 in Afghanistan if guerrillas kept fighting them and kept killing them. 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's also a military leader. And he also believes that he gets his instructions from God. He has a very austere version of Islam that's not shared by most [Muslims]. But he believes that he's getting guidance from God. And more important ... is that his followers believe that he's getting guidance from God, which is why they're willing to die in the pursuit of violent action. That's the great difference between bin Laden and secular terrorists. Secular terrorists generally don't commit suicide. ... What we have seen here in the United States on Sept. 11 is that 19 people committed suicide, all within one hour, because they were following instructions, and they believed that they were going on to martyrdom. 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.

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