Let's start with 1981. Reagan comes into office. The U.S. hostages are
released by Iran. What is the Reagan Administration's attitude toward the
threat of terrorism?
Well, they felt initially you have to be tough. Carter was not tough
enough. So toughness is the theme. The catalytic advance for the entire
Reagan administration was the attempted assassination of Reagan, and then a
couple of months later, the attempted assassination of the Pope.... [Reagan's
was] March 30, 1981, and then the Pope was early May....As people
in the White House saw it, Reagan and the Pope under attack changed the whole
dynamic, made everyone more vigilant, concerned about terrorism. And they
directed a great deal of attention toward it.
How did it change their view of the terrorist threat?
...You have to be tough. You can't negotiate with terrorists, was the
theme, at least in words. Of course, later they didn't practice that.
Who was the spokesperson for that view? Was there
Essentially what happened in the Reagan administration, the Secretary of
Defense Weinberger, wanted to solve the problems of terrorism or diplomacy with
negotiation, not with military force. Frequently, George Schultz, the
Secretary of State, when you would think he would want to negotiate, wanted to
be tough and wanted to use the military. These [two men] were such powerful
forces in the Reagan administration, that at times they nullified themselves.
And it's Casey at the CIA who filled the vacuum and said, "We will solve our
problems with covert action."
...And in '85, they propose training foreign intelligence agents to go out
kind of as hit teams and destroy the terrorists. This did not work. And finally
Casey in 1985 worked out with the Saudis a plan to use a car bomb to kill Sheik
[Mohammed Hussein] Fadlallah who they determined was one of the people behind,
not only the Marine barracks [bombing], but was involved in the taking of
American hostages in Beirut.
Why did they come down to covert action?
Because diplomacy and military action didn't work. We took the Marines out
of Lebanon after the bombing. Diplomacy was not functioning. And Reagan
wanted action. And Casey went off the books on his own, and worked it out with
the Saudis to pay two million dollars to get...people to build this car bomb
that killed eighty innocent people in Beirut [in 1985] and not Sheik Fadlallah.
What was the final outcome of all of that?
... Well here's the frustration of dealing with terrorists. [It] reaches
the point where Casey had lunch with Prince Bandar. the Saudi Ambassador to the
United States, one of the most powerful figures even today in Washington. And
they went for a stroll in the garden and they said, "We have to go off the
books." And they agreed that the Saudis would put up the money to hire some
professionals to try to car bomb Sheik Fadlallah. And it was so off the books,
there's no evidence that Reagan knew about it or Weinberger or Schultz. It was
Casey on his own, saying, "I'm going to solve the big problem by essentially
getting tougher or as tough as the terrorists in using their weapon"--the car
Let's go back in time a little bit. The Reagan Administration comes in
and almost immediately Qaddafi is sort of a target. Back in '81, who did they
see as being a threat, and why?
I don't think they knew enough about it. I think the allegations of
[Muammar el-]Qaddafi hit teams that were going to go after Reagan--that scared
them, so they started looking at Qaddafi. Iran and Iranian supported terrorism
was a concern. Syrian supported terrorism was a concern. But, you see the
administration during the Reagan presidency very much responding to events and
incidents, not having a coherent philosophy or plan.
But, that's not how they came in. They came in saying that we're going
to control this.
Well, that was the expectation because the moment Reagan is inaugurated,
the hostages are released. And there was a feeling in the White House that the
Iranians released the hostages because they feared Reagan would carpet bomb
them if they didn't. Reagan was, in a sense, the mad bomber, the guy who was
going to make sure that the terrorist threat was met with very dramatic
military response, if necessary.
We don't go after Syria, but we know they're involved in Beirut. And we
don't go after Iran, in fact, we end up with deals with Iran. We go after
Libya and Qaddafi.Why?
Well, about the Beirut bombing, I went with some colleagues at The
Post after the bombing to the Middle East, and spent weeks tracking down
who might have done this. And the Iranian and the Syrians were clearly behind
it. There was names, evidence that was quite compelling of meetings, bank
transfers, how the explosives were assembled and so forth. And even Cap
Weinberger said publicly, "Yes, Iran and Syria is behind this. But, the tough
guys in the White House would not retaliate, because the evidence was not such
that you could go on television and prove it. Or, go to a courtroom and prove
it. And the hope was it would go away, there would be no more incidents like
this. Because essentially we turned tail and ran and left Lebanon.
Bringing the Marines out of Lebanon--what overall effect did it have on
the terrorists and on our policy?
...The key figure in this is Cap Weinberger, Defense Secretary building up
the military into this powerful force. Containing the Soviet Union. And he
did not want to use the military to solve these problems unless there was
absolutely compelling evidence. And there were a lot of cautious and reluctant
warriors in the Pentagon. The professional military still feeling the
over-hang of Vietnam and saying, "What's the mission? How are we going to
accomplish this? Do we have a clear objective?" Just going and bombing was
not the sort of mission that they wanted.
So, he repeatedly resisted. And the targets were squishy. These are
shadowy people. And it's very difficult to throw punches at shadows.
Overall, the shadow of Vietnam, how did it affect the
Weinberger gave a famous speech about, "We don't want to commit the
military unless there is public support, unless there is congressional support,
unless the military has a clearly defined objective, and we commit enough force
to ensure, almost guarantee, victory." They didn't want a Vietnam with a vague
mission, a mission that was not all out war for unconditional surrender and
So, the military sitting in this very debilitated posture of, "Who are we?
What do we do? We want to win something." And Weinberger was, I think,
prudently protecting them from missions that might backfire.
Colin Powell, what is he doing at this point, and what does he think of
...He's watching Weinberger resist kind of schemes coming out of the White
House. Or, somebody saying, "Oh, go bomb," or, "Go do this." And Powell is a
soldier and says, "What's the objective? And how can I protect my men? How can
I minimize casualties?" He's looking for a way to make sure that we don't have
Today [two weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.],
there's an article that talks about the debate going on now in the White House.
And it sort of defines Colin Powell as the one sitting back and trying to
restrain everybody else. Is that probably the case? And how does that relate
back to his education?
I did a book, The Commanders, after the Gulf War, which is about
Cheney and Powell. And Newsweek did a cover story on the book, and it's
a picture of Colin Powell. And it says, "the reluctant warrior." And you see in
the Gulf War when Powell was the top military man, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, saying to then President Bush and the inner city, "Maybe we can solve
the problem with economic sanctions."
Now, they didn't want to really hear of that, and there was no
confrontation. But, then when President Bush said we're going to go to war,
Powell said, "We have to double the force." This was totally unexpected,
surprising commitment. In the fall of 1991, we had two hundred thousand troops
over in the Middle East, and doubling it meant four hundred, five hundred
thousand troops. And President Bush, the elder, said, "Okay, we'll do it."
Bush himself had instilled-- it had been instilled in him the lesson of
Vietnam. No more vague missions.
One last thing on the early days of the Reagan Administration. The Gulf
of Sidra exercise is set up. We close the Libyan mission. Is the Gulf of Sidra
a sign that Weinberger is losing out to Schultz and the debate?
You mean, "This is the line of death."
Yes, August of '81. May of '81 was the closing of the Libyan mission.
This is early on in the Reagan administration. And then there were a couple of
Libyan planes knocked out. This doesn't seem to be the strategy of a
Weinberger. What's going on?
This kind of a testing, half measures strategy, and in fact, it's not
really a strategy at all.... Just an exercise. You need to say, "Well, what
are our objectives here? What do we want to do with Libya? Do we want a
regime change, as they eventually launch a covert operation to do this, to
support anti-Qaddafi groups? Do we want to bring Qaddafi to the negotiating
table? Do we want him to stop supporting terrorists? What are our goals?"
And an exercise that goes out to see whether Qaddafi will send some of his
planes there achieves nothing.
So, we're just feeling around.
Exactly. In fact, when you look at the history of it, they're always
feeling around. There's no clear war on terrorism. There is a talk about
stopping it, about preempting it, about being tough about it. But, there is
not the kind of national commitment that probably would have been necessary to
really curtail it.
At the same time, they had some successes.
What was the debate on sending the Marines to Beirut?
Well, you know, it's important to understand how the Marines got to Beirut.
And it began with the assassination of the Lebanese President in '82, which was
done by the Syrians, we now know. And they didn't want a charismatic leader in
Lebanon. They wanted somebody, and they wound up getting his brother. Then the
Phalangist units of the Lebanese army went into the refugee camps of Sabrah and
Shatila  and massacred hundreds of Palestinians. That then brought the
United States in to try to stabilize Lebanon.
If you recall at the time, it had some similarities to the Holocaust, and
it scared people that Palestinians were being slaughtered in refugee camps.
So, it was pretty clear the United States wants to stabilize, so all these
Marines were in Lebanon. Again, it's not clear what the mission is. It's
another form of half measures, of "let's fix this problem, let's put a band aid
over it. If it's shooting down some planes, if it's sending some Marines, if
it's"-- As you may recall, they sent the New Jersey, and they were lobbing
shells into Lebanon.
... Is Beirut seen as a total failure of diplomacy? What are they
thinking when they pull the Marines out?
I think one of the things they're worried about is how much is Beirut and
Lebanon worth? And two hundred and forty-one American lives lost was a shock.
It was a frightening moment for the American public and for the people in the
White House. And only somebody like Reagan, who was thought to be the tough
president, could have done that. If some president like Jimmy Carter had
turned tail and run, he would have been criticized. But, Reagan was able to
get away with it and kind of say, "Well, we're not going to play this way." And
interestingly enough,it didn't become a big deal.
What lessons were learned by the terrorist organizations of this
event--Beirut--of the way we dealt with the hostages? Of the way we took the
Well, somewhat of a victory. No question. The terrorists achieved some of
their objectives, it seems. But, not all of these groups have the same
objectives. And it, on the other side, was not a unified coalition of
terrorists with very clear objectives. So, in a sense, we benefited from their
disarray, as they did from ours.
Shultz comes out pretty strong around this time. October of '84, he's
out in the public a lot talking about a strenuous sort of military options,
covert or overt. What's going on?
Diplomacy, his portfolio, it failed. And he was the tough guy. He's a
former Marine. And Weinberger is sitting over there saying again, "What's the
objectives? Who do we hit? Give us a very clear mission."
And so they have an ability to neutralize each other. And that's where the
CIA fills the vacuum, and comes up with some of the covert plans. And
eventually tries to train foreign intelligence agency-- agents to go out and
take out the terrorists.
So covert action--where did that policy ever go?
Well, it was not particularly successful. We wrote about it in The
Post, they got very upset. And eventually, Casey turned to his
off-the-books method. But, then hostages were taken in Beirut. And as is well
documented, Reagan went nuts about this, and wanted to do something. So, we
eventually launched the operation to secretly trade our weapons and arms for
the hostages with Iran.
Why did we come to that point? A policy which seems to be opposed to
everything that until that point they stood for--"you don't deal with
Desperation. It looked like it was a secret operation, they could work a
deal. We were playing both sides on the Iran/Iraq war. Selling arms to Iran.
Secretly giving Iraq top secret satellite intelligence about the placement of
troops. Kind of delighted to see Iran and Iraq have at each other and destroy
as much of their military and their armed forces. They did, in what was a
And the objective the President sent out is "get those hostages back." He
got daily briefings. He met with families. It was an obsession with
How does McFarlane [Reagan's National Security Adviser] change the
equation when he comes in?
Well, McFarlane's role, interestingly enough, was most significant after he
left the White House and he made that trip to Iran with Oliver North and the
cake and the key and tried to work out arrangements with the Iranians to get
the hostages back.
Looking back on this covert operation, the whole premise of it was that
there were moderates in the Iranian government who we were dealing with, and
somehow this would moderate the Iranians--that it would give this group of
people more influence. And we now know there were about four moderates in the
Iranian government. And it was a very hair brain scheme.
As you look at the Reagan administration's dealing with terrorist, there's
one theme that jumps right out. And that is the president's concern and
obsession and focus guides everyone. And the Secretary of State, and the CIA
Director, and Defense Secretary and the political people in the White House are
sitting around the table, and you have a president like Reagan--he obsesses
with hostages.... And what happened here, it is so driven by the president's
concerns and agendas, if you had had another president who had said, "This is
too bad we've got these hostages. Let's try to get them back. But, we've got
two hundred and fifty million other millions to be concerned about," it would
have been completely different.
Iran-Contra. When it came out, how did it affect the way the policy was
viewed by the outside world, including the terrorists?
When it was exposed, the Iran arms sales, first they denied it in the White
House. I know I was disbelieving at the time when the first report came out
that McFarlane had gone to Iran and tried to get a hostage back for some arm
shipments and so forth. It just seemed so unlikely, but it was true. And it
got caught up in the funding for the secret Contra war also.
And what happened in the Reagan White House is George Shultz--who had
always raised great concern about the secret arm sales to Iran,
privately--Reagan eventually looked to him to kind of guide them out of the
woods that they had gotten themselves into. It was not only a serious foreign
policy screw up, and a serious anti-terrorist screw up, because their...policy
was "we're not going to negotiate with them." Not only were they negotiating
with them, they were making trades with them.
But, there was a criminal investigation by the Independent Counsel Lawrence
Walsh. So, this was a real earthquake to the Reagan administration, and Reagan
had to turn to new people. He brought in Howard Baker as his Chief of Staff.
And let Schultz gain control of the anti-terrorist policy.
So, in the end, how dramatically does the war on terrorism
Well, interestingly enough, it looked like terrorism went away for a long
time. There weren't any more incidents. I think what happened is the Saudis
and some other countries actually bought off the terrorists. They found with a
few million dollars here, and a few million dollars there, you could stop a
So the U.S. felt terrorist threats dissipated in the end because of some
small payoffs made by the Saudis?
Yes, exactly. It's amazing how small things can solve big problems. And
it ceased to become an obsession with Reagan. And there was a sense, at the
end of the Reagan Administration, that one of their victories had been a war on
terrorism with a series of clumsy moves, many of them embarrassing and
unsuccessful. But, in that period terrorism seemed to go away.
...Therefore, in the end, they feel they have a success, even though in
December of '88-- close to the end of the Reagan Administration--there's Pan Am
103. But overall, what is the administration's feeling?
The feeling is that they had won. They bombed Qaddafi in '86, and that
seemed to chase Qaddafi back into his tent. We didn't see much more from
Qaddafi, we thought. The Pan Am 103 downing was a big event, but it took, as
we know, more than a decade to bring that case to trial. And it was unclear,
and even today is somewhat unclear how much Qaddafi and the Libyan government
was behind this.
The choice of weaponry here [Pan Am 103]--instead of war--is the law.
Was the decision made that one way to fight this thing might be in the
courtrooms instead of covert actions, instead of using terrorist bombs against
terrorists, instead of military actions of sending in Marines or
whatever--maybe we could do it in the courts?
Well, there's a shift in administration. And ten years passes, and you
can't prove that Qaddafi or the Qaddafi government was behind this.
Supposedly, some individuals in the Libyan intelligence agencies--I don't know
how believable that is.
But, one of the things that happens is the public rage at what happened
subsides. When Pan Am 103 went down, there were all kinds of theories--was it a
bomb, was it not a bomb, was it a missile, who did it? And as this got sorted
out over the period of years in new administrations--to sit and look at the
evidence they eventually accumulated, and say, "Okay, now we're going to go
bomb Libya," would not have made sense.
But, this is not a policy that you're defining. This is decisions made
depending upon events.
Sure. From the perspective of today, given what happened Sept. 11, you
look back at what happened in the 80's and the 90's, and it's a series of ad
hoc decisions based on how big is the problem, how can we paper it over, how
can we seem to be tough, how can we get it off the table so that we don't have
to deal with it? Dealing with terrorists is the biggest problem because they
don't have embassies, they don't have governments, though they may be supported
by governments. You don't know who to phone. You don't know who to
deal with right away. And it's the thorniest of problems.
The Achille Lauro--the cruise ship hijacking. Once it took place, an
F-14 brings down the terrorists afterwards. Is this a turning point for the
administration? How is that viewed?
Well, the Achille Lauro was looked at as a big victory, because they got
the people who supposedly were behind it. It was based on good tactical
intelligence at the moment. But, it was one incident, and as I recall one
person died in that hijacking of the cruise ship. So, it was again quick
action. There was a lot of celebration. But, again, it's no overall
If you look at the war on terrorism and search for an index that's going to
tell you, "Will we be successful with our policy or unsuccessful?"--the index
is going to be, "Are decisions made on good information and good
intelligence?" If you have good intelligence, then you know where to send the
CIA, or the military. But if you are just talking about a country or a desert,
it's almost impossible.
Every time there is a successful effort, or something that is deemed to be
successful like the Libyan bombing in '86, they had very good communications
intercepts showing that the Libyan Intelligence Agency kind of gave the
go-ahead on this, and then received a report back.I actually had in one of my
books the language of the intercepts. And when you lay it out, it's clear that
they promoted this bombing, knew it was going to occur, and then got a thumbs
up report back right after the discothèque had been bombed. So, it was
real easy to look at that and say, "We know the Libyans are behind it. We're
going to bomb their Intelligence Agency. And we're going to bomb Qaddafi." And
A lot of people look at it as basically they reached a point after five
years of an aggressive, internal debate and they came down to a conclusion that
"now we're going to do it. And this is what we sort of promised in the
beginning. And we know it's true, we've got the military might to deal with
this and we're going to deal with it." Is that what they believed?
It proves the point--it's because they had good intelligence. If I know you
tried to kidnap my brother, or you bomb my house, and I have pictures and phone
intercepts and cash transfers, and lay it out on the table, everyone's going to
agree you did it, and we're going to have to take some action.
The problem is the intelligence is murky. It's somebody in a café
overheard somebody talk about doing something aggressive. It is coded language
on a telephone wire tap, or some sort of intercept from the air by the National
Security Agency. And it's not the kind of absolute clarity that will
tell you what to do, and who to do it against.
So, what does this accomplish? How much of a success is this in their
eyes, the final results of the bombing raid on Qaddafi?
Well, we didn't hear much from Qaddafi afterwards. And he actually had his
tent bombed, as I recall. And they were trying to kill him. And, I think,
that made him pause. Now, it looks then--two years later--that the Pan Am 103
bombing is a retaliation for what occurred in 1986. That was not proven.
But, does it say something about the threat of terrorism that perhaps
was not totally understood?
The biggest threat of terrorism is you don't know when, and you don't know
where, and you don't know what technique or method. And clearly, the people
who engage in these activities have a kind of patience and discipline that they
will wait months or years before they settle scores, or try to get
Did the Reagan administration get that? Did they undertand the
complexity of what terrorism is?
I think the Reagan administration understood that if you have good
intelligence, it's easy to act. If you don't, what have you got? You've got
people arguing theories and philosophies of anti-terrorist policy. If you look
at it historically, probably the most important lesson is--put all your money
in the intelligence agencies. Find a way to really monitor these groups and
individuals. Know what they're up to. Watch their money. Watch the meetings.
Make sure you are on top of it in a way that is complete. But, in an open
society, that's almost impossible. In societies where you can't run out of the
CIA station, in the Middle East a group of white men and women or Afro-Pan
American men and women who are going to go into Arabic or other terrorist cells
and penetrate them.
Without a Weinberger being cautious, would Schultz and the CIA have gone
about it more strenuously--was there a debate?
There was always a debate, but it was always crisis management, because
these things came at a place and a time that you didn't expect. And at a
magnitude--it might be one person dead or one person kidnapped, or two hundred
and forty-one dead. So, you get a government by crisis management.
And no one really has the portfolio, or the assignment, to go and say,
"Okay, let's think a year ahead of time. Where do we want to be? What do we
want our intelligence and military and covert action capabilities? What do we
want those to be? What should be available?" And then make a very concerted
day-by-day, week-by-week effort to get there.
Was that a mistake by basically the Reagan administration that they
didn't understand that this is not something that could be solved on a
case-by-case way. That you had to operate in a completely different way, and
that perhaps they, as they blamed the Carter administration, hadn't set up the
structure upon which to make sure that it doesn't happen in the future to catch
the bin Ladens--
All of the incidents in the Reagan years were abroad, weren't they?
Yes, I believe so.
So, during the Reagan years, the terrorism was a tool of groups or states
trying to affect our foreign policy, to drive us out of Lebanon, to keep us
from military exercises near Libya. So, it was a foreign policy problem; it
was not a homeland defense problem.
If anybody could have foreseen what might happen a dozen years after the
end of the Reagan administration, that it would become a homeland defense
issue, that the people who use these tools abroad would bring them to the
United States, there would have been, hopefully, a sustained effort to get out
of this crisis management mode and say, "What's the policy? How much money are
we willing to spend? Are we going to make sure that we can preempt serious
terrorist attacks?" That, in a practical sense, would involve changing our
society and our laws, and involve tens of billions of dollars more to the
...What lessons can this Bush administration learn from the way that the
Reagan administration reacted to the terrorist threat?
What's interesting when you lay out the history of the Reagan
administration, each time there was a terrorist incident, they had a different
response. It was never the same response.
In Beirut, we just essentially left when, in fact, we knew that Syria and
Iran were behind it. In the Achille Lauro we captured the people who did it.
In Libya, eventually we bombed their intelligence agency and their leader Omar
Qaddafi. In the case of the hostages being taken, we went and traded arms
secretly to get the hostages back. It was very piecemeal, it was incoherent. It
was born of a failure to understand the other side and the enemy. And we just
hopped from one problem to the next to the next. And never sat down.
There were Commissions--Vice President Bush, when he was Reagan's Vice
President, headed a Commission studying terrorism and came to the conclusion we
should never negotiate with terrorists. And it turned out, with top secret
orders, President Reagan had ordered the negotiation and trading of arms with
terrorists and those who took our hostages.
So, there was never an overlap between the public rhetoric and the action.
And, I think, it was looked at almost like perhaps the weather. That it might
be good or it might be bad. And when it's bad you deal with it. And there was
no effort to really control it, or understand it. And, in a sense, because no
one ever fully got their hands around it, there was never a person really in
charge with kind of absolute control in any administration over
counter-terrorist activities spread between the FBI, the CIA, military, the
various services, Department of Transportation. I mean, everyone has their hand
in it. And it wasn't treated seriously. And when something is not treated
seriously, and then it really comes home to roost, you have a big problem. And
that's why we've got the problem, in part, today....
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