burning flag
target america
hometimelineinterviewsdiscussionislamic terrorism

photo of caspar weinberger

Caspar Weinberger was Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration from 1981 to 1987, during the U.S. military intervention in Beirut. He tells FRONTLINE that the lesson he took from the bombing of the Marine barracks was that the U.S. must only use combat forces in a clearly defined mission and only as a last resort. In a famous 1984 speech given to the National Press Club, Weinberger advocated restraint in what became known as the Weinberger Doctrine, which argued for limiting the use of combat forces to U.S. national interests. Much has been made over the years about the debate between Weinberger and Reagan's former Secretary of State George Shultz over the use of military force versus diplomacy when dealing with terrorism. In his interview, he calls the perceived conflict between himself and Shultz "largely mythological" and says he was arguing against the "blind use" of military force. Interview conducted late September 2001.


caspar weinberger

With the experience that you have of dealing with terrorists over the many years, what were your first thoughts Tuesday, Sept. 11, after the bombing?

Well, inevitably you think back upon incidents that remind you of it. Of course, the horror of it, the magnitude of that was such that there's really nothing to compare it to. People keep talking about having a measured response, which I think is one of the stupidest comments I've ever heard, because this was an immeasurable act. There's no measured response except complete destruction of the people that did it. But you think back about incidents that have some similarities to it, and inevitably I did that.

Did you ever think that something like this was a possibility?

Not on this scale. No. I don't think anyone ever did. The incident that I was reminded of was on a tiny scale compared to this, and that was when the Libyans sponsored the bombing of the Berlin discotheque and killed American servicemen, injuring many others in Berlin. There was immediate demand for retribution, for revenge, and we said that we would want to make sure as to who did it. When we had the proof, we would take care of the revenge. It took some time, but we finally established without any doubt that the Libyans had trained and paid for and sponsored and helped a group of terrorists who were, frankly, employed to do that kind of an act in Berlin.

When we found that out, then we put a 200-plane raid in the air and destroyed many Libyan targets connected with this terrorist act, and drove Qaddafi underground, so that nothing was heard from him effectively for two or three years. That's the kind of response that I think is essential -- a focused response, a response that hits the actual people who are connected with it and doesn't do just blind bombing out of anger, but goes directly to the targets that were associated with the terrorist act. That's essentially what I hope we can do this time.

I want to go back chronologically and start at the beginning: 1981, President Reagan is elected. You all come into office. Give me an understanding of what the thought of the terrorist threat was at that point. The hostages are just released [from the embassy in Tehran].

That was an act of extreme brutality and an act which, in effect, was an attempt to kind of spit in the eye of the United States and show that we couldn't do anything; they could do what they wanted. When those hostages, after some 400 days, were finally recovered the day President Reagan took office, it was a feeling of great relief and great delight that they were home.

I think there were obviously some people giving very careful thought to what we could do to prevent that happening again. There were all kinds of suggestions of strengthening security in the embassy, because these people had been seized at the embassy, as you know. ... We wanted to go right to the people who had caused it, and we felt that that was very clearly the Iranian fanatics who were running the government. ...

What was the opinion of President Reagan and yourself and others about what was learned from the mistakes of the Carter years?

One was that there was no use whatever in trusting any of the people on the terrorist side or on the side of the government that harbored terrorism. [They] would make certain promises; [we learned] that you shouldn't pay any attention to those promises.

Secondly, that you shouldn't give in to their demands. Later on, that was one of the more unhappy portions of the Iran-contra business, that there had been a willingness on the part of some in the administration to say you can trust some of these people and we could get a good bargain and everything could be all right in the future. ...

As far as the use of military force in dealing with the terrorist threat, what were your thoughts at that time?

Well, again, [it was] perfectly appropriate, but you had to be sure of your targets. That has always been the difficulty, because if you use military force blindly, if the response to the seizure of 400 people in Iran had been "All right. We're just going to bomb Tehran till we get them back or until we feel better," that isn't going to do any good. It does much more harm than good. Your collateral damage is very heavy. We were particularly careful, incidentally, on the air raid against Qaddafi when we knew that the Libyans had been responsible, had done it; we were very careful not to get any collateral damage if we could possibly avoid it. ...

Give me a feel for what was going on in meetings with Shultz and yourself and others with the president. There's a lot said about the debate that took place, that Secretary Shultz was very much for use of force, whether covert or overt. You were sort of the steadying hand, in some ways.

As true with most myths, that is largely mythical. The difference only was as to whether or not you're going to do blind attacks just in general because of some outrages that had been committed against the United States or some of our people; or whether you were going to have an attack that was focused on the people whom you could prove were responsible. And obviously, it's hard to prove responsibility in many of these cases. They hide their tracks pretty well.

We had a lack of proper intelligence. We did not have -- and do not have -- an adequate human intelligence capability to get inside these terrorist organizations and find out what they're doing. So the task of finding out who was responsible and where they were located is a difficult one. ...

Lack of [intelligence] on the ground ... that was a topic or a problem?

It was. We dismantled a lot of our human intelligence capability after the so-called Church commission hearings years before. Spying was considered to be a dirty business, and all of the hearings emphasized all of the things that they felt the CIA had done wrong, and this was not democracy and not American, and so forth and so on. The result was to cripple, in many ways, a very important part of our intelligence capability. We're very good on the technical data. We're very good on overhead surveillance and things of that kind. But a lot of that can't tell you what's happening inside a terrorist organization.

What we really need -- and it takes time and it's a difficult job, takes a lot of training and patience -- is to get people inserted into these organizations who can be accepted by them, obviously have the language and everything else that very few of us had, and are able to report what the organization's thinking, what they're planning. If you know ahead of time what kind of an attack is being planned, then you have a vastly easier time of stopping it. But it's very difficult to find and insert people into these organizations and enable them to report out to you. Yet it's a vital part of intelligence, and it's the part we most need, and we most need it today.

In 1982, Israel invades Lebanon. How did that change what we were to do?

When it changed from protecting the Israeli border to a full-scale invasion and an attempt to penetrate many, many miles beyond the borders, beyond the point where it could be called a border protection act, obviously many of us were not very pleased with that. Because again, it gave ammunition to Palestinian and other groups to the effect that now they were justified in retaliating against Israel, and that we were just supporting one side and not helping them, and all the rest.

It took quite a long time. In fact, it took the Gulf War to demonstrate that America did want more than one friend in the Mideast, and also was willing to take and make major risks to prevent a small Muslim country, Kuwait, from being overrun and in effect stolen by Iraq.

Can you take us into the debate before the Marines are sent over to Beirut?

The debate on that was fairly clear-cut. We had been part of the original force that had lifted the Palestinian group out of the area so as to prevent a very bloody and very fierce house-to-house struggle for Beirut itself. And with several other nations, we formed a multinational force and lifted them out and eliminated them. The struggle and the debate was whether we should go back in again and do something more in support of some sort of an agreement that was supposed to have been reached May 17. The problem with that was that there hadn't been an agreement of that kind. ...

To send our forces back in as a buffer in that kind of a situation, where you had not had an agreement to pull back, seemed to me and to many of us to be wrong, and that we shouldn't do it.

A buffer force is fine if you insert it between two warring factions that have agreed there should be a buffer force in there. If you have it between two warring factions that have not agreed, and there had not been an agreement, no matter how much people talked about it, for the forces to pull back so that the buffer force would be in very grave peril. It's worse because the buffer force is always lightly armed, has very vague rules of engagement, and it is not able, really, to defend itself. And so unless you have full agreement of all sides, you shouldn't do it.

We did not have full agreement of all sides. There was something like 27 or 28 separate armed groups, all of which had only one thing in common: they opposed us and they opposed a multinational force coming in. So many of us opposed going back in after the first multinational force had lifted the Palestinians out and prevented a house-to-house conflict.

Why did your argument not win out?

Well, I don't know. I guess I wasn't persuasive enough. It's always been a source of unhappiness to me that I wasn't persuasive enough to persuade the president not to put in more American forces, particularly not to put them into the Beirut Airport. ... So you have a force that was almost a sitting duck in one of the most dangerous spots in the Mideast, and therefore one of the most dangerous spots in the world, unable to protect itself. It was a disaster waiting to happen. It didn't require any degree of prophecy on my part or others, but I felt very strongly that they should not be there and I felt even more strongly in blaming myself that I wasn't persuasive enough to persuade the president not to go.

Many arguments were raised by people who said, "Oh, Marines don't cut and run. Marines are always able to stay put." But Marines that are properly armed and have rules of engagement that allow them to defend themselves are quite a different thing than Marines who are forced to sit on a Beirut Airport and not do anything effectively. And that was proven, to the extreme unhappiness of everybody, to result in the kind of tragedy that did happen.

Can you tell me what your first thoughts were and the debate that ensued after the bombing of the Beirut embassy in 1983?

Well, again, find the people who did it and go after them with everything you've got. That's the basic lesson that I think and the basic tactic that is right. But it's that first part that slows things down -- finding who did it and where they were.

What were your thoughts when you heard that a terrorist act had hit the embassy and a lot of people were lost?

Same reaction as before -- that this is bound to happen if you put people in harm's way without adequate arms or rules of engagement to permit them to defend themselves. And secondly, that of course you must retaliate, but you have to retaliate against the people who did it. And that is the lesson that basically is applicable to all of these very unhappy, tragic actions.

When the Marine barracks was bombed, do you remember that event?

Very, very vividly. ... The loss of life [of] Marines was horrible to contemplate. The fact that I had been warning against this very thing didn't give me any slight satisfaction, I can assure of that. It was terrible to be proven right under such horrible circumstances. They should have been pulled out earlier. They were pulled out later.

I suggested many times that, to answer these people that were worried about Marines cutting and running and all that nonsense, to put them on ships, their normal environment. These Marine amphibious brigades were on their own ship, to bring them back and pull them out of this dangerous bulls-eye and put them on our ships where they could be protected until they were really needed for something useful, rather than just sitting on an airport.

What were the possibilities on how to react, and was it a successful response?

Oh, I think to some extent, it certainly showed there was going to be a response. There were the usual howls of outrage that we'd hit people who were not participating and all of that. But it was an immediate response, and it was at least in the general direction of the areas where these attacks have occurred. But we still do not have the actual knowledge of who did the bombing of the Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport, and we certainly didn't then.

Again, they have this ability to move around and shift around, day to day, and we have no actual knowledge of where they're going to be, because we don't know what their plans are. It's the importance of finding out what they're planning ahead of time that is the task of intelligence, and you have to have a very special kind of intelligence to do that; and you have to understand that this is going to involve spying. And it's going to be attacked by some people as a dirty business. What it is actually [doing] is giving a democracy eyes. And without eyes, the democracy's not going to remain a democracy very long. ...

Did taking U.S. forces out of Beirut seem, at that point, like Beirut as a whole was a failure of diplomacy?

No. Beirut was an absolutely inevitable outcome of doing what we did, of putting troops in with no mission that could be carried out. There was no agreement on either side of the pullback. You didn't need a buffer force. There's nothing more dangerous than in the middle of a furious prize fight, inserting a referee in range of both the fighters, both the contestants. That's what we did. ...

Lessons learned?

Lessons learned is that if you're gong to do this, you're going to insert your troops, they have to have a mission. They have to have the arms and the equipment, and they have to have a goal that can be fulfilled. It led later to all the so-called Weinberger Doctrine, or whatever you want to call it, to the effect that: you have to have a mission; you have to know what you want to do; you have to use force as a last resort after everything else has failed; that when you use it, you have to use it at overwhelming strength, and win your objective and get out. ...

When you simply think the presence of American troops, no matter how wild the environment is or what's happening all around is going to have any effect, the only effect it's going to have is to risk the lives of the American troops. So I hope that was the lesson that was learned at Beirut. It was learned at terrible cost.

So, in other words, in some ways your policy, which eventually did become the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force -- it's all the same thing -- basically was the genesis of all that the offense in Beirut?

Well, no. My part in making that speech and imposing that as a proposed doctrine emerged out of Vietnam, where we went in with some 500,000-600,000 troops, not intending to win, never intending to win. The only war we'd ever gone into we did not intend to win, because we didn't have any particular mission.

I said in that talk that enunciated this Weinberger Doctrine that we must never again go commit and ask American forces to commit their lives to a cause that isn't important enough to us to have to win. That is what I think should be the rule, and I think to a considerable extent, now it is, because as I say, I think Colin believes that completely.

How did the shadow of Vietnam affect all these decisions?

I think people who participated in that war are people who had fought very bravely and very hard for a cause that was not being supported by the American government to the extent that we felt we had to win. We had all this nonsense about containment and all of these smaller, lesser goals. And you should not ask a man to commit his life to a cause that's not important enough so that you have to win it.

I hope that has been the lesson of Vietnam, and I hope that that is what we have learned since. Some people say, "Oh, it means that America never wants to take any risks. America's never going to get into a war that they can't finish in half an hour," and other absurdities like that. Of course you have to be mindful of the casualties at all times. And of course Americans are willing to risk their lives and their leaders are willing to enter wars. It's the cause and the outcome that is so important to us that we have to win it.

So did Vietnam tie the administration's hands in any way?

No, I don't think so at all. It made the administration, I hope, more careful, to make sure that before committing American forces, we had a mission. We knew what we wanted to accomplish and we gave the troops the means to accomplish it, and did not tie their hands by saying, "You can't do this and you can't use this as a target," and so on.

Later on, after I thought we'd learned that lesson, we found ourselves in the same situation in the former Yugoslavia, where we would go in and commit our forces, but say that they were under the direction of a committee -- 30 members or something -- and we couldn't attack any target unless the committee agreed to it in advance. There's nothing more absurd than trying to fight a war that way.

I want to talk a little bit more about Iran-contra, the Iran arms sales, which we've already talked about a little bit. I guess as of June 17, 1985, a directive came out that started us down that trail. What was your opinion from the very first?

Well, from the very first, it was that any attempt to work out a negotiation or an agreement with the people who were running Iran was doomed to failure. You simply have to understand that there's some people you cannot trust. Getting them to sign an agreement may provide a splendid photo opportunity and all kinds of jubilation that you've got a great negotiation now that has secured this agreement, but a complete ignoring of the fact that the other side isn't going to pay the slightest attention to it.

We had that time and again, most recently perhaps with Saddam Hussein, who made all kinds of promises to end the Gulf War, and systematically violated every single one of them. And so the idea that you could make an agreement that will have any effect or be of any use with people who aren't going to keep it is a useless exercise and a dangerous exercise.

[What were] your thoughts, at the time, of how [Iran-contra] would affect others' views, if it came out? Which, of course, it did.

Here we were, begging the world to stop sending any arms to Iran, and there was this horrible proposal that we try to buy the friendship of these fanatics by giving them arms and violating all of the things we were doing in trying to persuade the rest of the world that they shouldn't sell them arms.

Not a good idea.

Not a good idea. (Laughs.) Yes, that's a very nice, gentlemanly, understated way of phrasing it. I think I used an even stronger equation. I said it was like trying to invite Qaddafi over for a cozy lunch.

Operation El Dorado Canyon [was] the bombing of Libya after the Berlin discotheque. Some people point to this as a turning point after five years of internal debate. How important was the decision to go in this direction?

Well, the decision to do it had been made months ago. The question was when it was to be executed. And it was to be executed after we had identified with considerable certainty the targets and the country and the people who were responsible for the terrorist acts. People who had harbored them, people who had trained them, people who had paid for them, people who had supported them -- and that was all Libya. When that was established beyond any question, then we unleashed the attack.

There was no debate as to whether or not we should attack. It was a question of when and how, and what should be the target, and there wasn't any debate about that. The target should be the training camps, the leadership, and the other targets associated with the Libyan support of terrorists.

How successful?

Very successful. Two hundred planes. All of the targets that we went after were effectively destroyed, and Qaddafi was, in effect, driven underground. We never heard from him again. ...

A lot has been said -- and it is still being dealt with today -- that the states that sponsor terrorists ... this has always been a huge problem, very difficult to deal with. The Libyan situation we did deal militarily with.

Absolutely, yes. There's no problem about it whatever, because we had established without any doubt that they were responsible, that they had done it. ...

Looking back at it now, though, is it possible that we erred by not taking out Syria or Iran to send a message?

I don't think we erred, unless you wanted to do attack areas that you're not certain were involved. If you want to do blind bombing, yes, then you hit anybody you want; you don't have to do any investigation, and you get revenge and you feel a little better. But that doesn't accomplish anything, and does a lot of potential harm.

Bin Laden ... when did he come onto our radar screen?

I think his anti-Americanism has been known for some time. His strong hatred of America, his idea that his own country, Saudi Arabia, made mistakes by being too closely linked to us, was widely known. I don't know that his sponsorship of networks that were involved in terrorist acts was as well known. But his connection with this whole idea was certainly understood.

You have eight years [of experience]. Looking at those years, what was learned about the terrorists?

I think there was one serious mistake made by the Reagan administration, and that was the idea that you could deal and temporize with and negotiate successfully with terrorists who were running Iran. And that was a mistake, as President Reagan was courageous enough to admit and agree to later on. He was misled by some very wrong advice and it had very terrible consequences in the [Beirut] Airport.

But otherwise, I think the lessons learned was we need more human intelligence, and that we need a response capability, and that we should make sure that that response capability is used effectively. Some people are asking why deterrence failed. Why did these people feel that they could launch an attack on our Trade Center and on the Pentagon and all of that? Why did they feel they could get away with it? And I'm afraid it's because our responses in the past, during the Clinton administration, had been too weak, too feeble, too unconcentrated.

When Saddam Hussein kept violating his promises and all that, we would unleash a few ineffective small airstrikes. In Yugoslavia, we only went along as part of a group that was under the direction of the U.N. committee, or something of that kind, without a clear intention of carrying out an objective, which was to win. And I think they underestimated the American strength and the American willingness to respond strongly, just as had been done before World War II.

So I think the lessons learned is we should be strong enough and have a visible enough and effective enough response, and that we should be able to do the kind of response that would convince the people who did the World Trade Center and the Pentagon bombing that they could never again make such an attempt; that the consequences for them, the cost that they would have to pay, was far higher than they were willing to risk.

The Pan Am 103 situation, where the strategy seemed to be that, instead of war, you could use the law to deal with the issues ... is that foolish?

Sanctions and negotiations? It can be very ineffective, and indeed foolish, unless the people you are talking with and negotiating with and trying to reach agreements with are people who can be trusted to keep their word. ...

It doesn't say you shouldn't try. But negotiations have to be for more than a cease-fire, which can be broken within 15 minutes, or something more than sanctions, which other countries won't adhere to. And if the people who are capable of these outrages think that that's all you're going to do, they will continue to commit these outrages. But when they get a response such as we were able to give to Libya, they do go underground. They do stop their activity for quite a long time.

If you were going to advise, which you might be doing, to any of the members of the administration now, and you look at the mix of ways to deal with the threat -- diplomacy, military, legal -- what mix do you [recommend]?

I would give them the advice that they're doing exactly the right thing. They're doing exactly what should be done. They're trying to build coalitions, and are having some considerable success in building coalitions. We can't do all of this alone. We need help; we need friends. And the administration is doing that. They're pursuing the attempts to dry up their funds by freezing bank accounts here, which is a very effective thing. And we're preparing to use the military capability when the targets have been clearly identified and when we know what to attack.

It's not going to be a conventional war, but it is a war against individual targets that are responsible for portions of this outrage.

In the Washington Post today, there's a piece about the White House and how it's dealing with fighting terrorism, and there's one piece of the article which says, "Powell often finds himself fighting uphill with his calls for restraint." And I was wondering if that rings any bells.

Yes, it rings quite a few bells. Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, his statement of so-called support for attempts to deal with this was to be restrained, to have a measured response. I can't imagine anything more useless or anything more dangerous, because that sort of thing would encourage more and more of these activities. ...

home +  introduction +  interviews +  timeline +  islamic terrorism
lessons from the 1980s +  links & readings +  video +  discussion +  tapes & transcripts
press +  credits
frontline privacy policy +  FRONTLINE +  pbs online +  wgbh

photo copyright © reuters newmedia inc./corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS