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Retired Marine Lt. Col. Bill Cowan, who served three tours of duty in Vietnam and was awarded the Silver Star for valor in combat, was sent to Beirut by the Pentagon in 1983. A military intelligence officer at the time, Cowan was charged with finding out who was responsible for bombing the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in April of that year. Cowan says that when the U.S. military didn't respond to the many terrorist attacks against American targets during the 1980s, terrorists came to expect no retaliatory action from the U.S. Interview conducted late September 2001.


bill cowan

Can you summarize U.S. efforts against terrorism during the '80s?

I'll go back to the Middle East in the '80s. We had the American embassy bombed, we had the Marine compound bombed, we had hostages taken, we had a number of aircraft hijackings. And throughout that whole period, we really didn't take a proactive approach in getting back at these people.

When the Marine compound was bombed [and] 241 servicemen were killed, that same day right down the street, French barracks was bombed, [58] Frenchmen killed in that. The French retaliated immediately against targets that they identified as being terrorist targets. ... Meanwhile, here in the United States the president had gone before the nation and said, "We're not going to put up with this. We're going to strike at those who caused this to happen." Secretary of Defense [Caspar Weinberger] within a week said, "We're going to react. We're going to send a team out there, and we're going to get going."

Well, 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. It took five weeks for the coordination process and the Pentagon to finally allow us to get on airplanes to go. Every day I left home with my bags, said goodbye to my family, got ready to get on a plane, every night I was home again. ...

So we have a long-term history. ... We didn't do anything.

What message does that send to the terrorists?

That we're pretty soft on terrorists. ... Now, if you want to make the argument that firing a cruise missile at somebody as a way to respond, I would tell you from their perspective they were laughing when it happened; they're probably still laughing now. Cruise missiles are not the way that you respond to somebody who's out there trying to kill you in large numbers.

How do you respond?

I believe a military option is the only thing. ... [George Schultz], when he was Secretary of State, had a policy saying that we should be proactive. ... We need to get out there and go after people as soon as they have something. We should have the kinds of intelligence on terrorist targets that we had in the past about the Russians when they were our big enemy. We spent billions of dollars identifying Russian targets that we could strike against if the Russians did something to us. I don't know what we've spent on identifying terrorist targets, but I expect it's not very much money. We wait until something happens and then we look.

When Rich Higgins was hung [in July 1989], pictures of him showing hanging in Beirut, we did not have one target pre-selected that we were going to go after. We didn't know what to do. We were in shock. We had a picture of a Marine Lieutenant Colonel hanging with the terrorists there, and we didn't have any plan to do anything. ...

Tell me more specifically about when we got the picture [of Higgins]. Where were you when that was released? And sort of what the debate was at that point.

I was actually out of the military by then. I was working on Capitol Hill, so I had a different set of people I was talking to -- White House, CIA and Pentagon, and there was clear anger. Those of us who'd come out of the operational field who had worked Lebanon and knew Beirut pretty well, knew quite a bit about the terrorists and where they were training. We were all incensed, upset, disappointed, certainly saddened by Rich's death, but pretty upset that the Pentagon had not really done the kind of work they should have done. ...

Let me start back just in general on the early days of Beirut. Why were you sent to Beirut?

We took a team in two times. After the bombing of the U.S. Embassy, of course, Secretary Schultz was on TV expressing a lot of sorrow and sadness. There were a lot of feelings that this was somewhat of an intelligence failure; the United States was unprepared for these kinds of things to happen to an embassy. Secretary Weinberger, of course, at that time had a large military presence in Beirut and I'm sure that he saw the bombing of the embassy [and] probably thought, "I don't want that to happen to my military presence."

So, we sent a small team into Beirut whose primary purpose was to ascertain the intelligence situation. That is, was there sufficient intelligence being acquired? How was it being acquired? Was it moving around? Were the right people seeing it?

We, in the United States, had a lot of intelligence activities in Beirut at that time. They didn't all report to the same person. ... The real issue was, was all this intelligence come in one place where it could be analyzed and put to good and immediate use? The answer was no. ...

When the embassy was bombed, how much of our intelligence capability was taken out?

The CIA station chief and a number of people who worked for him were killed when that happened. So for the most part, the CIA operations in Beirut were essentially terminated at that point. ... When you lose people like that, you lose the connections to their sources, to their agents. ... All these things have to be reconstituted and put back together. ...

You also sent back a report. What did the report say?

... We sent back a report to the secretary of defense that really we needed to have an intelligence operation over there that was more focused, where all the intelligence that was available came to one place. And we needed to be sure that it was analyzed properly, and that that intelligence went directly to the military forces inside Beirut so that they could be aware of threats and prepare to defend themselves if a threat, in fact, came about.

You actually proposed in that report that it was a good possibility of losses.

We said in that report that if there were not something done to improve the intelligence gathering, sharing of information in Beirut, that in fact, a military presence was at risk. ...

So, what was done?

Well, nothing was done. We ran into bureaucratic procedures. ... Generally, we ran into bureaucratic stonewalling about making any changes. No changes whatsoever from our recommendations were implemented until after the bombing of the Marine compound. At that point, every recommendation was implemented, but it cost 241 servicemen to get there.

You go back after the Marine barracks got bombed. Why?

We went back after the bombing because the president had said we were going to retaliate [and] the secretary of defense wanted us to go over and see about retaliating. ...

We had a very small team. ... We were receiving information from Washington, D.C., about who might be the targets and where the targets might be located. We took that information and we got on the ground and tried to verify what we could. ... We had a number of targets that we had no problem identifying. ...

You also had a list of people that were targeted basically. Why, and for what reason?

We had a list of people provided by the CIA, and that's because the CIA had good information on people that were involved in the bombing. We were not looking specifically for those people inasmuch as we were looking for where they were located. What houses were they living in? What buildings were they frequenting? So, we were looking for places more than we were the individuals that were in them. The CIA really had a handle on the folks; we were looking to have a handle on the locations.

Assassination as a tool, tell me the possibility of that, and the pluses and minuses.

At that time assassination was certainly not something that was on the table. ... We had an executive order at that point banning assassination. ... We certainly on our own team were not looking at targets in terms of assassination. Assassination is where you specifically target that one person, and you focus on taking him, and only him, out. And that was never where we were looking.

But, looking at a location where someone is, isn't that in some ways targeting?

I think from a military perspective, you're targeting him, you're targeting the building, you're targeting the command post around him. ... I never looked at any of this as assassination.

So, what was possible? What did you guys find? What did you guys report?

I can't speak about all the things still. Some of it is still clearly classified. I'll start right at the top.

Two Syrian anti-aircraft positions, nowhere close to any civilian people, nowhere close to any place where somebody who was not a party to the military action could not have been hit. ... They were in Lebanese territory, not inside Syria. In terms of the rest of the terrorists, the people we were after, the buildings they ran it out of, were clearly identifiable. A precision bomb in any one of those would have created some collateral damage. ...

And what happened?

Nothing at all was done. We did nothing whatsoever. In fact, when we came back to the Pentagon with a rather substantial report that talked about the options we could do -- not just in terms of striking back, but other rather good intelligence operations that we could have activated -- we were met with anger, we were not welcomed. We had people who absolutely berated us for even suggesting that we retaliate. We were surprised, to say the least. It was a very small report. Not many people saw it, but it clearly was put away in a back drawer very, very quickly. There was absolutely no follow-up to anything we recommended.

Why?

... I think it was turned down because people remembered Desert One, 1979, when we tried to rescue hostages in Iran. It was failed mission and it cost [Jimmy Carter] his presidency, it probably cost general officers and civilian leadership inside the Pentagon careers, maybe, or promotions in one form or another. And I tend to think that people were just afraid to endorse something that may not work, and would put their careers on the line.

We were able to get into the White House and have an audience with Mr. Ed Hickey, a nice one-hour session with him. We talked with him about our report. We talked with him about our recommendations, he listened carefully, he asked very good questions, and when we were all done, he said, "Gentlemen, if the president could hear what you have to say, he would order it done immediately, but they," and he pointed back towards the Pentagon, "will never let him see it." And he was exactly right. He never saw it, and nothing was ever done.

What was the debate at that point between, for instance, the State Department and Defense Department?

As it turns out, Secretary Weinberger had a stated policy of not really getting engaged in military activities that didn't have clearly defined targets, clearly defined goals and objectives. He was reluctant, as perhaps many in the military were, to take military action [when] you didn't see a clear path to something decisive in a positive vein. He was not predisposed to stroking back at terrorists, nor were those around him.

In contrast, Secretary Shultz was on the other side. He was very vocal about the need to strike back at terrorists when we could. Certainly if we knew about an attack before it was going to happen and we had good information, to be proactive, strike at terrorists before they could strike at us. So it was strange to find the State Department proactive about striking at terrorists, and the Department of Defense reluctant and hesitant. ...

State sponsorship of terrorism has always been talked about a lot, but back in the days that you were in Beirut, what was the evidence of who these terrorists were being sponsored by, and how large the involvement was?

In the early days of Lebanon, ... the name Hezbollah did not exist, for starters. We had a lot of Shiite Muslims in Lebanon who were radicals, and who were not quite banded together. They were clearly getting support from Iran, and it evolved into a very dedicated Syria participation in this. The Syrians have a long history of being involved in terrorist acts against us. The White House admitted it when questioned directly back in 1985, and that involvement on the part of the Syrians included the bombing of the Marine embassy, the bombing of the Marine compound, the taking of hostages. Syrians were involved until the very last hostages were released.

So we had Iranian involvement, we had Syrian involvement. Clearly we have those groups operating in Southern Lebanon and in Beirut itself, with the Hezbollah factions of people. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, we've not really taken [Syria] to task. ... Damascus right now still houses a number of terrorist organizations whose headquarters are right there in Damascus.

So this is at a time when Shultz is out there sort of saying, "We're going to hit hard at terrorism, we have the force, we will use it, this is not acceptable." We had the evidence of the involvement, so what did we do in regard to Syria?

We've never done anything with regards to Syria. We haven't even done that well with them diplomatically up until [former President of Syria] Hafez al-Assad died here a couple of years ago, and now his son is in there. ...

Things may have changed, but the reality is the Syrians have been in most of these things up to their elbows. Pan Am 103 they were involved in; we were content to put a couple Libyans on trial for it, but those Libyan's tracks went right back to Damascus, where a lot of the planning was done and where I'm told that some of the bomb fabrication was done, or at least planned.

When the president speaks of striking back at states that harbor terrorists, it's pretty difficult for those who have been in the terrorism, counterterrorism, and intelligence worlds for a long time, not to immediately question what are we going to do about Syria. ...

So we're back in '84 and we find evidence that [Syria is] involved very directly in the bombings of the embassy and then the bombings of the Marine barracks and the loss of marines. ... One would assume that with the rhetoric that was going on at that point, that that would be a sure push of our politicians to take severe action. Why not?

... For some reason our national command authority had just kind of put all this stuff off on the side. I think they wanted to forget that we were pulling the Marines out. It's almost as if we wanted to put that whole Lebanon chapter behind us and close the door. In fact, that's what we did. Maybe there were concerns that if we struck back it would create more enduring, lasting tension; maybe there were concerns that if we did something to Syria it would impact on the relationship between Syria and Israel. ...

Many of us who were involved in the Middle East, particularly Lebanon, in the '80s and into the '90s, who [warned of] Syrian involvement in all of these major incidents, have always asked, "Why were they never taken to task? [Or] at least publicly called to task for it on a major scale?" Let the American public know what Hafez al-Assad and his people were doing to us over that long period of time.

There's no clear answer, and I've asked plenty of people, smart, knowledgeable people, in and out of government. ...

Then, the one action we find that we can do is we get involved in sponsoring Lebanese intelligence. Tell me about that.

There were allegations that we were involved with Lebanese intelligence and the bomb that tried to blow up Sheik Fadlallah's house. In fact, the CIA had been working with a group of Lebanese military people, but the intent was not to take out a target or to go back and blow up Sheik Fadlallah's house or his headquarters. ... The real point of that work at that time was to try to develop an effective counterterrorist unit.

My understanding is that it was a group of rogues within that that thought they would go ahead and blow that up because it would make us happy. But I had good associations with the agency throughout that period. I've been told by numerous people that it was not an operation intended to do that. I believe it, because it was poorly executed. I believe, had the CIA been involved it would have been a better job.

What was the reaction, though? What's the fallout from it?

The reaction, obviously, was that we create more hate and discontent towards us; people clearly rose up against us. Hezbollah then grows by numbers, we create more terrorists than we had before we started, we get a black eye throughout the Middle East, it hits the front page of the newspaper. And it's an enduring problem.

How does it affect our abilities to gather intelligence, to use covert action?

... I believe any time 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. 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. When we, intentionally or otherwise, kill civilians, create collateral damage, we're less likely to find people who will do things for us.

Why did we not have any human [intelligence]?

We've done bad job, unfortunately, over the years. ... Mid-seventies, President Carter, Admiral Turner, who's director of C.I.A., made a rather substantial shift in our intelligence collection. They both made public statements that we really needed to focus more on technical systems to collect intelligence; that satellites, whether they be getting imagery or collecting signals, were really the way that the United States needed to go. So we had a clearing out of a lot of the human intelligence capabilities -- the case officers we had at the CIA.

Over the years, successive attempts to build that capability up again have had difficulty. ...We've had budgets that have maintained a pretty straight line profile. Technical systems take a big chunk of that; personnel costs us more money. So over the 25 years or so we have just not been able to grow. And now, Mr. [George] Tennet, as the director of the C.I.A., has tried to grow that back, and he's done a reasonably good job.

Director [John] Deutsche, when he was the director of the CIA, he put out a policy that we will not deal with unscrupulous people. Well, we're dealing with unscrupulous people when you're trying to deal with terrorists. That policy impacted on our ability to go out there and recruit agents who were terrible people, but they were the kind of people that had access to the information or the information that we needed to have to fight this war on terrorism. ... [Before Director Deutsche], I'm led to believe that we in fact were working on some very good operations that had potential to grow into bigger things, and that many of them were terminated while he was the director.

We have another problem at the agency, and in fact here at the government: If today you wanted to run an audio -- that is, a wire tap -- operation outside the United States, it requires 14 signatures, inside the CIA, to approve it. That just tells you right there that we've got such a bureaucratic problem to run operations that the system will stifle you, long before you can get an operation up and going. ... Unless it's an extraordinary target, it's not worth it to go back here and fight the bureaucracy to get approval.

Bill Buckley. ... What is the significance that they take him, and why was that so important?

Losing Bill Buckley as the CIA station chief was significant, was unfortunate. Many people would say he got lax with his own personal security. Clearly, it was a coup to grab a CIA station chief and be able to keep him. ... When you can take a CIA station chief, you're making a very substantial impact on the ability of our government to operate.

We at one point were very close to running a rescue operation to get Bill Buckley back. I was told by people who would know that we had a very good fix on where he was. We had somebody inside that building who was providing good, credible information. We in fact moved forces into Europe, maybe further, in preparation to rescue Bill Buckley. And the operation was canceled by the White House. Some say by Oliver North. It was canceled shortly before it was going to happen.

Why?

Those who've I've spoken with who were in the know say it was canceled because we had a very active program going on, out of the White House, arms for hostages, and the rescue of Bill Buckley might have impacted negatively on that program. ...

Well, wait a minute. I thought that policy was developed to get the hostages out.

That policy, in turn, was a great deal for the Iranians: We'll give you two hostages and we'll go pick up two more. It's an endless source of money. I'd be happy to run an operation like that. You keep paying me for something, I'll may sure I've got plenty of it.

So how absurd was it that we went in that direction?

Unbelievable. I think people in the state department, clearly people at the CIA, certainly people [at the Department of Defense] who understand terrorism and counterterrorist operations were aghast at the whole thing. It was amateurish at best, absolutely amateurish.

What did it do to our ability to deal with terrorism?

It undermined the whole thing. ... When you are trying to run undercover operations and suddenly you've got some crazy operation, by any standards, being run, you've lost all credibility with those with whom you're dealing.

... When you're fighting a war in the shadows, where deception is used by everybody, from your lessons learned in Beirut, how does one fight this battle?

The way we operated in Beirut was very, very low-key. I mean, the most important thing you can do in doing the kinds of things we were doing is be unobservable. Stop and talk to people of all types. Never act like you're doing something sinister. We would stop and talk to anybody who we could get eye contact with. We always said, "All right, we talk to Muslims, we talk to Christians." We'd stop and have a cup of coffee, we would walk the streets. We'd be laughing all the time, we'd be having a good time. But the bottom line was, in all those things we were doing, we were collecting information. ...

Let's just talk about PanAm 103 for a second, ... the idea that one can deal with terrorism through the legal system. What does that get you and what do you miss?

... When we capture people and we go into a long, drawn-out, legalized process, we're doing what it is we believe in, but we're not sending out the message that we're dealing harshly with people.

How does this tie into, also, the state sponsors? How did we miss the boat, when it came to Pan Am 103?

PanAm 103, there were clear indications that trails went back to Syria. We found two low-level guys, I believe, in the Libyans. We showcased them, we ran them through trials, we did this, we did that, but the whole time that was happening, those who were the masterminds and the money people behind this had to be sitting back and watching this with glee. Because, once again, we were not going after the people who were truly responsible. And I believe our government knows who in fact was truly responsible. It wasn't two guys out of Libya.

These events, how do they relate to the present day? Have we shot ourselves in the foot to some extent?...

... First off, [the terrorists of today are] probably surprised that we are indeed reacting. Now, we've not quite reacted yet, but we're threatening to react, we're making all the moves that we're going to react. I don't believe that they thought we would react other than perhaps firing some more cruise missiles.

... Every time somebody has struck at us, we've threatened, we've stood up, we've pounded our chest, we've blown out 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. ...

We do go after one country, one man, [Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi]. Why is that different? How come, all of a sudden, we bring down the wrath of God on that state?

My honest answer to that is, probably Ollie North deserves the credit. ... I believe that Ollie, because of his position in the White House, and because of intelligence that indicated the Libyans were involved, that Ollie was probably able to convince the president, directly or indirectly, that we could do something, that it was low risk and maybe high impact. ...

So, why though? Why Libya?

The Libyans were involved in the bombing of the La Belle disco and we had clear intelligence on that, and I think we strictly wanted to strike one of these easy targets. Our big bad guys at that time were Iran still [and] ... Hezbollah, mostly in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, controlled by the Syrians. We were really talking about other geopolitical implications to go back into Lebanon.

So here we had Libya, isolated country, isolated target. Qaddafi was running a lot of things on his own, so it wasn't like we were going to strike at him and find that we had upset the entire rest of the Muslim world. So he was a focused target. ...

How successful was that event?

Qaddafi 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. So that was our only real attempt to strike back at people. ...

So you look back at it now, ... Should [military force have] been used way back when, and much harsher? Could that have helped, in fact, change history?

I believe that if 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 to those terrorists back then, people who are terrorists now, and those in the future. And 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, and I believe that we'll start to have a shift in terrorism when we're able to respond. ...

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. ...

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