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Robert "Bud" McFarlane served as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan from 1983 to 1985. During that time the administration faced the deadly attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut; the abduction of the CIA's Beirut station chief, William Buckley; the bombing of the U.S. embassy annex in Beirut; the hijacking of TWA 847; and the commandeering of the Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean Sea. Here, McFarlane offers his personal perspective on how the debates within the Reagan administration shaped the U.S. response to these events and others, and led to the U.S. policy of arms sales to Iran in exchange for hostages -- a policy McFarlane was largely responsible for carrying out.

robert c. mcfarlane

Was [Sept. 11] shocking to you? How did it affect you? What were your first thoughts when you started hearing what was going on?

I had two thoughts in the first moments after these attacks. One was the audacity of it, to have carried out a coordinated effort that was fairly complicated. But secondly, that it was bound to happen. Our FBI has been awfully good at trying to track and follow potential attackers, and they've defeated dozens of attacks or efforts. But the nature of our system -- the principle of defense of freedom, movement, and so on that we have to preserve -- makes us a very vulnerable target. It just was inevitable.

Bring us back: it's 1983, you are appointed national security adviser, and less than a week after, the Marine barracks in Beirut is blown up. Do you remember that event as it happened? How did you hear about it, and what took place immediately afterwards?

The bombing of Marines in Beirut in October of 1983 occurred a little less than a week after I'd been appointed. I had come to the job from Beirut, and there the presence of the Marines at the airports was a concern of mine -- that they were vulnerable. Separately, but related, the presence -- known presence -- of training centers for terrorists in the Bekaa Valley was something we should have been going after all along.

But we had, at the time, a disagreement at the cabinet level between the secretaries of state and defense over how involved we should become, and a resistance on the part of Secretary [of Defense] Weinberger on having the Marines take a more proactive role in seeking to push all foreign forces out of Lebanon, notably Syria, but also to negotiate the withdrawal of Israel so that Lebanon could once more become a buffer state. But the impasse -- that is, the Pentagon wanting not to have military involvement, the State Department wanting a more integrated diplomacy and military movement -- led to paralysis and to the vulnerability of the Marines at the airport.

Can you expand on that debate? I mean, not only on this event ... How did it affect policy overall against terrorism?

Well, 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. And we simply were inhibited there, because Secretary Weinberger felt strongly that if you used force and began to kill, in this case, Muslims, that it would have a very harmful effect on our relations with even moderate Arab states. And that was the problem.

Did Vietnam still cast a large shadow over all our attempts to deal with terrorism?

The conclusion that many uniformed military came away from Vietnam with was that political interference, dominance of strategy and even tactics were a very bad way to conduct a war, and that indeed, if that was going to be our practice, that we shouldn't wage conflict again. We should never use the military force unless there would be no disagreement between the political and the military elements of our government on the mission -- that it was something clearly in the national interest, and that the people were behind it; in short, that you had the will, nationally, politically, and the overwhelming means to get the job done. Unless you've fulfilled all those criteria, that you shouldn't be involved at all.

In this case, in the Reagan years, we often faced something that threatened that important interest -- a terrorist event, for example -- however, without consensus within the government or in the body politic on how to deal with it. So the result was paralysis.

How did the Marine barracks bombing affect the president?

President Reagan was concerned -- deeply concerned, emotionally concerned -- with the loss of life of any American, but especially with the lives of military soldiers, Marines, navy. And this event, which I woke him up to explain at about two in the morning on a Sunday in Augusta, Georgia -- he was shaken by it and deeply saddened. And his next feeling soon after was determination to go and deal with the perpetrators.

How did it affect you personally and your attitude toward the direction that should be taken?

I felt a deep sense of personal loss. I knew these men. I'd come to the job from Beirut ... and in a policy context, I had advocated that the Marines not sit at the airport, but be used proactively to advance American policy in getting the foreign forces out. So I felt saddened at first, but then wanted to get on with going after those who did it, who we knew, and to come back to Washington and to get the means organized to go and deal with the terrorists.

What was our reaction at that point? Soon after the event, how did we respond?

The president assembled his [National Security Council]. We got the best information we could, tasked the Pentagon to plan an attack on the terrorists in the Bekaa Valley, and with high confidence [of] their location and so forth and the ability to avoid civilian causalities, he directed an attack by aircraft from the Sixth Fleet ... about ten days later. The meeting was held, the approval was given, and the attack was to occur the following morning. And, unfortunately, Secretary Weinberger aborted it out of a sense that it could have a harmful effect on our relations with other Arab states.

... [A] mistake?

I think a big mistake. 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, [it] 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 paralysis.

Eventually, the Marines were pulled out -- in February of 1984. What was the debate about that decision at that point? How did it come finally to deciding to take the Marines out?

The position of the State Department, [of Secretary of State] George Shultz, and my own position, was that either the Marines should be employed in tactical movement to liberate the country from foreign occupation -- Syrian, primarily -- or they shouldn't be there. Actually, George wanted them to stay regardless.

[Terrorists] learned that the American people can be traumatized by terrorism, that it can create pressure on the government.And so they have continued to use it, and they've expanded their networks and their capabilities.

However, I thought that their vulnerability dictated that they begin to move out. ... Cap [Weinberger], on the other hand, was strongly in favor of pulling them out, that they had no business in a normal tactical deployment because that would damage our relations with Arab states. So this confrontation between Shultz, for more activity, and Weinberger, for a pullout, kept the Marines in an airport-fixed position as a sitting duck. And though I had sided with George throughout for this more proactive policy, given the paralysis for now four or five months' time, to me the vulnerability of the Marines dictated that they be pulled out; I sided with Cap, and the president approved that.

Was it seen as a defeat of our forces, or of a part of the policy?

I think 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.

The next stage, it seems, of the terrorist acts [was the abduction of the CIA's William Buckley in Beirut]. When Buckley was taken [in March 1984], soon followed by others, what was the thought on how we deal with this? What was the debate? How did we work at a solution?

We could see that the ability of the terrorists to kidnap Americans would persist for as long as there were any Americans there, and that you couldn't really defend, physically, the people at Beirut University or other installations there, and so we were going to face this. And we needed to go to the source to try to influence the root cause, to deal with the terrorism where it was being sponsored.

What was Syria's and Iran's position, and what did we know about their involvement?

Iran was providing primarily financial support to Hezbollah terrorists that were being trained by Syrian elements and with Iranian support in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. The cooperative arrangement -- with Iranian finances and some guidance, and Syrian logistic support -- was leading to the growth of these Hezbollah elements in Lebanon. But the issue was getting at sponsorship in Iran, primarily.

Simple question: Why did we decide not to hit them militarily at that point?

The question that always confronts you when you wanted to deal with a state-sponsored terrorist problem is, "Can you really find and hit the boss?" as with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War, and secondly, "What if you do? Who governs after that?" And so you first ask yourself, "Do we have good enough intelligence to find the target we want to hit?" And secondly, "If we do, are we confident the future is going to be better politically with a new government?"

In the case of Iran in the mid-1980s, our conclusion was that you couldn't expect militarily to be able to dislodge the Khomeini regime -- that to do so would take an invasion and a major [sustained] military effort ... which would not be supportable, either by the American people or our allies. So the alternative was, "Can you change that government?" And to explore that question was approved by the president in the summer of 1985.

And what was the result?

The result was that after four months of engaging with people who alleged that they would have the means and incentive to change the government of Iran, that it became evident to me, just before I resigned from government, that these people didn't have the means, and that indeed they were no more than self-interested arms merchants. So I left government, recommending to the president that he terminate this exploratory idea and bring it to a halt. He didn't, however, and after I left, he continued to try to encourage these people we had been dealing with through the use of arms, which he hoped would strengthen their side and perhaps give them the means to overturn the government. But it was a misguided policy, because they didn't have the means nor the intention of being more than arms merchants.

When that was disclosed, eventually, what was the result? How did it affect our policy towards trying to deal with terrorism?

It had been an unsuccessful effort, obviously, and it was misguided and based on a false premise. Unfortunately, the focus within our government turned to other accounts, however. We allowed ourselves to be seduced into thinking that this was not as important or as large as the Cold War issues, as the collapse of Marxism, the reunification of Germany. And separately, we were very weak in our ability to gather intelligence on the nature of this problem and on its centers of sponsorship, because we had terminated our relationships with our spies in the Middle East and the Gulf area in the late 1970s. And so if you don't have the means to gather information and learn more about a given problem, ignoring it is one alternative, and that's what happened in the late 1980s.

The [Beirut embassy] annex is hit in September of 1984. This is the third big hit. Why no response at that point? We have an interview [with George Shultz] where he talks about this, and he basically says that the government, our government, was paralyzed at that point. We didn't quite know in what direction to go, and thus there was no action taken. From your point of view, after this third large hit, the terrorists were known, the connections to other countries, terrorist states, were known. Why no hit? Why no response at that point?

[In September 1984], it was essentially the same disagreement ... over the use of force, and its impact on alienating moderate Muslim states. That led to paralysis in response to the attack on the embassy annex. Secretary Shultz favored a very strong response with the Sixth Fleet, and Secretary Weinberger simply opposed it.

And that was it?


This problem of dealing with force -- did it push us in the direction of covert action?

This paralysis in terms of using conventional force leads to the question, "Can we do it clandestinely?" But as a practical matter, we didn't even do that. This was, as you recall, an election year. And there were those outside of the national security community that didn't want there to be a use of force or violence, which tends to alarm people -- Americans. That was a factor at the time in our doing nothing to respond to this attack.

The one thing that did come up in reports afterwards was our help to the Lebanese intelligence [service], who then got themselves involved in the bombing situation that killed 80 civilians. Can you remember that event and how we dealt with that issue? Why were we pushing in that direction? What was the reaction after the failed [bombing attempt to kill Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah]?

Part of our strategy in restoring a sovereign Lebanon was to rebuild a true Lebanese army with representatives of all of the leading factions -- Christian, Jews, Sunni, Shiite. And we were reasonably well along in doing that, and the Pentagon was doing a very good job of training a new Lebanese army with genuine representation. One of your vulnerabilities when you do that is that in building an intelligence service using people that do have a legacy of bitterness with other factions with whom they've been operating -- that is, a Christian intelligence service may have a vendetta against a given Sunni or Shiite or Jews.

If you don't watch out, someone in that intelligence community to whom you are giving money and resources is going to go out and use them in some fashion that's self-serving and not in Lebanon's interest or ours, some essentially rogue operative that you're always vulnerable to when you're supporting a foreign intelligence service. And that's what happened there. The intelligence that we were getting was often flawed, and the portrayal by the Lebanese of a target which they alleged they could destroy ... they simply didn't have the means to do. Their intelligence was quite bad.

The attempt on [Fadlallah's] life, was that event itself sanctioned by our government?

There's debate about that. [CIA Director] Bill Casey is no longer alive. It was never framed that way for the president, and there was no presidential authority towards assassination. There was an approval of support of Lebanese operations against a known terrorist cell, and that was its portrayal.

Did that event and the disaster that occurred and the loss of many lives -- did that take away a tool for us? Did that prevent us from going through with other covert actions that perhaps would have been very valuable?

I think that the failure of the Lebanese to be able to act for us to deal with terrorists there weakened our confidence, certainly, in Lebanese skills and capabilities, and essentially did take out that possibility as an option for dealing with terrorists in Lebanon at the time.

How did [the hijacking of TWA 847] change policy? How did that unfold, and what was the importance of it?

The seizure of TWA 847 in June 1985 presented a challenge of, first, how do you recover the hostages with least harm, and then can you, in the follow-up, deal with those who are responsible? It was resolved with the loss of one American, [Navy diver Robert Stethem]. Through essentially a coordinated diplomatic strategy, we were able to secure the release of all the other hostages with no further loss of life.

Was it a turning point in the way you all viewed how to deal with terrorists?

I think the successful release of the TWA hostages in June 1985 gave us some renewed confidence that this was not an insuperable problem. However, the root causes, the sources of terrorism, the training and the resources behind the movement clearly had not been overcome, and we knew that we were going to have to face this problem again and again.

There was a release of prisoners by the Israelis after TWA 847. Was there a deal? Was this a negotiation, in effect, with the terrorists?

There wasn't a deal. As a practical matter, before the hostages were ever taken, Israel had planned to make a release of hostages, captives, prisoners that they held. In fact, we asked them to delay, because it wasn't a quid pro quo and it would have seemed so, however, had they done it in the context of the TWA capture. Afterward, some two weeks or more, they did release them. It looks, on the surface, implausible. As a practical matter, the truth is Israel intended for its own interest, in the interest at getting back an Israeli pilot that had been captured sometime before in Lebanon, to try that stratagem, but it had nothing to do with TWA 847.

You launch a nine-month program at the time, leading to the attack on Libya. Can you tell us about that? Why did that occur right then? Why the thinking that this was the direction to take with Libya?

In dealing throughout the Reagan years with state-sponsored terrorism, notably by Libya -- there were two attacks, one in 1981 and one in 1986 -- it is a useful point to note that there are different kinds of state sponsorship. There are different kinds of terrorist movements, and specifically you occasionally face a bully, a Qaddafi. But a bully is different from a zealot. A bully you can deal with, with force, and persuade that bully, through force alone, to stop what he was doing.

In 1986, actually, after I had left the administration, in response to a Libyan-sponsored blowup in a Berlin discothèque, President Reagan, to his credit, decided to go after Qaddafi in a very, very firm bombing attack with aircraft from Great Britain. And he did so, and it had a very salient effect in ceasing Libyan-sponsored terrorism for a long time. ...

How relevant is [this history of the 1980s] to the present day and decisions that need to be made?

I think the history of the 1980s is not terribly relevant to how we will or we should deal with the threat we face today in the wake of Sept. 11. And I say that because we were dealing in the 1980s with state sponsorship, and today we're dealing with a movement that ... derives help from states here and there, but it is a more, well, it isn't even ideological. It is a fanatic group of people who resent our Western way of life, and its potential influence on the Middle East. It exists, physically, in its headquarters in Afghanistan, with the tolerance of a fanatic Taliban government. This is something, however, that's spread beyond Afghanistan to affiliates in cities, 50 or more, throughout the world. In some cases, it derives significant support from the host government where the cell resides. We face a much broader network of terrorism right now, but we have the means to begin to destroy it. And, I think, fortunately this time we have the cooperation of people in Afghanistan who are willing to go after it themselves.

From all the events that did take place, what lessons have been learned by the folks currently in the administration that they can use in trying to develop a policy to uproot and defeat terrorism?

From the 1980s, we did learn the important lesson that you must avoid paralysis; you must have an integrated diplomacy with military force underwriting it; that these must work together; and that you must have the will and fortitude and means to use force, but to do it in conjunction with a diplomatic effort to hold together the support of regional states and others that can be helpful.

What did the terrorists learn? In general, those who used terrorist activities against us -- what did they learn from all those years and how we responded to terrorism?

They learned that the American people can be traumatized by terrorism, that it can create pressure on the government, and that our government response in the 1980s tended to be rather conventional and heavy-handed. They learned that by presenting elusive targets, hiding, that terrorism is extremely appealing strategy for engaging the West -- that we were not in the 1980s well equipped in terms of power or political understanding to deal with it. And so they have continued to use it, and they've expanded their networks and their capabilities.

During those years, did we have a policy that evolved? Or was it more of a crisis-management situation, where each new terrorist act was treated in a different way depending upon what we had in hand?

During the 1980s, the terrorism we faced was state sponsored. And so we did have a policy for trying to focus on the states who sponsored it, and to bring to bear influence, pressure, both political and economic sanctions as well as military power when we had a good target. But all of those things were integrated. Today, however, it's a very different issue. We're not facing a state sponsorship. It's a different kind of problem.

The Achille Lauro incident, the taking down of the terrorists ... You were really in charge of that. How was that a turning point in what we thought we could or could not do with terrorists, and the use of force?

The Achille Lauro, captured in October 1985, underscored the importance of good intelligence and how large a difference it could make. In that case, when the terrorists moved from the ship to shore in Egypt, our intelligence capabilities there were quite good at the time, so we were able to determine what their intentions were, where they intended to move. And by isolating them on that movement, we were able to bring our own force to bear with very high confidence that we would get them. In this case, they flew out of Cairo toward Tunisia. We knew where the aircraft was, and we were able to plan in advance to bring the Sixth Fleet to bear against them, and brought it down in, I think, Sicily.

Did that change your thoughts, the president's thoughts, in how to deal with the threat?

Well ... it simply said, "Let's make sure in the future our intelligence is as good or better." Unfortunately, we didn't follow up with the means and the resources and the appropriations and the recruitment that we needed to be able to be more effective.

I guess the question is, why wasn't that undertaken?

It is somewhat inappropriate to be discussing publicly what was or was not done to improve human collection. As a practical matter, much was done to begin... Bear in mind what you need to achieve is to identify someone who, early on, is born, raised, lives in a given country and penetrates a given organization. You simply can't recruit people like that overnight. There have been some. We are making progress. But it's going to take more time before we have, in all of the places we need to have them, enough people to do the job well.

Looking back now at the policies and decisions that were made, would you have changed anything that might have rooted out or prevented a bin Laden from being able to achieve what he has achieved against us?

I think the problems of the 1980s in dealing with this were largely problems of fundamental disagreement within our decision-making apparatus -- fundamentally different judgments about whether one could undertake operations against Muslim terrorists without alienating the broader Muslim world. And, I think, we have learned since then, that yes, moderate Muslim states acknowledge that this is a menace, a threat. Saudi Arabia [took away] the passport of bin Laden years ago, and is in a more cooperative mood. And, I think, our own government understands that, and has become more adept at being able to rally moderate Muslim states to cooperate in dealing with the problem.

Dealing with Iran back then, with the arm sales -- was that an attempt at diplomacy? ... What was the hope at the beginning, and why were we going in that direction? Was it because military options seemed to be limited?

In 1985, the Iranian sponsorship of terrorism was clear, solid evidence. We could not, however, go at them militarily. It was too large a task. And politically to engage in diplomacy seemed pointless because of the profound fundamental differences in philosophy and ideology. And so the only course was to ask the question, "Is there potentially a viable alternative government that might succeed Khomeini, either by force or evolution?"

To explore that question four months time roughly were devoted to determining whether the group that Israel had recommended to us was capable of doing that. And it became clear to me, after four and a half months that they were not, and I recommended it be terminated.


Were there any other turning points that are relevant to decision making being made by individuals in power today -- anything that they might look back at and sort of learn from in dealing with the horrendous situation we have today?

I believe that Secretary Powell has come through a 30-year history with some important lessons that make relevant that experience to dealing with bin Laden, from Vietnam and from the Gulf War. I think he understands that you don't want to use force unless it's going to be effective, but if you do use it, use it overwhelmingly.

In this case right now, I think he understands that we don't have good targets. And, therefore, if we used it today, we would risk disrupting the coalition that he's tried so well to build. But I think he is beginning to explore that Afghans on the ground, who have been so oppressed by this Taliban cabal, have the means, have the numbers, the incentive, and the call from their own king to rise up and throw this Taliban crowd out, and that they ought to be given a chance to do so.

I think it's to Secretary Powell's credit that he has encouraged us to hold back the use of military force, because we don't have good intelligence. Let the Afghans have a go at it. And the worse-case outcome is that if they don't succeed, they may then invite our use of force and we have them on the ground providing intelligence. It's bound to be better than ours, and will not risk a disruption of our Muslim coalition partners.

Do you think the debate going on today in the Bush administration is similar to the debate that went on for many years in the Reagan administration?

It has some analogies. I think there was always in the Reagan years a question of, "Do we know who did it, and can we, with high confidence, hit them effectively?" That same debate is going on today. And I think Secretary Powell understands that today, in mid-September, we cannot, but we may be able to, relying on Afghan help. I think that's likely to be a successful policy.

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