burning flag
target america
hometimelineinterviewsdiscussionislamic terrorism

photo of paul bremer

L. Paul Bremer was the chairman of the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorism. In June 2000, the commission published a report, that predicted a terrorist attack on the United States on the scale of Pearl Harbor. Bremer previously served as ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism in the Reagan administration from 1986 to 1989 and U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands from 1983 to 1986. Bremer tells FRONTLINE that the "progressive degeneration" of American intelligence over the past 25 years is clear and has created a "risk-averse" culture at the CIA in terms of fighting terrorism. Interview conducted late September 2001.

paul bremer

What were your first thoughts on Sept. 11?

I have to say that I was shocked, like any American, about these attacks -- their audacity, really, their technical brilliance. But I was not surprised, because these attacks, in many ways, were the culmination of a very clear trend in terrorism in the last 10 years to try to create mass casualties. So it was not a surprise.

Why did it seem to be a surprise to so many people?

I think that the community of people who follows terrorism closely has usually been pretty small. I think it will be bigger now. That community of people had a pretty much a consensus in the last couple of years that we were going to see mass casualty terrorism attacks inside the United States. There had been three commissions -- two of which I was involved in, one of which I chaired -- which reached this conclusion within the last 15 months. So people who are interested in terrorism and who follow the question certainly were no surprised. We saw this coming, in a general sense; certainly not the actual way it was done.

Drawing from the beginning of our chronology, the Reagan administration comes into power. What were the lessons that were learned from the Carter administration and how the issue of terrorism was dealt with?

When Reagan came into office in 1981, as you will recall, he was sworn in at the very moment the terrorist government of Iran was letting our embassy people go. It was a very dramatic inauguration. I think it made quite a deep impression on the top people in the Reagan administration, from the president on down, that we had to deal forcefully with terrorism wherever we saw it. And that was certainly an early theme in the Reagan administration from, really, January 20 on.

By "forceful," what exactly does that mean? What was the policy?

The policy that was arrived at by the Reagan administration was based first on the concept that there will be no concessions made to terrorists. Secondly, that states which sponsored terrorism -- we had in mind very much Iran -- simply could not be allowed to have normal international relations with the rest of the world.

President Carter had already broken diplomatic relations in 1978 with Libya, and of course with Iran after the takeover of our embassy. So it's not as if this was a brand-new idea from the Reagan administration. But there certainly was a great deal more attention paid to terrorism as a foreign policy issue, and a view that we had not been forceful in responding to the takeover of the American embassy in 1979, and that that might be a bad precedent.

Libya is on the radar screen immediately. Why? What was taking place, and what do we do about it?

The Libyans were sponsoring terrorism, really, from the late 1970s on. And they were sponsoring attacks against friends and allies. There was, as you remember, quite a lot of terrorism in Europe at that time. Not all Libyan -- some from the Middle East.

The U.S. government basically felt very strongly that Qaddafi, with his oil wealth, had something that the other states did not have, which was a capacity to fund a lot of terrorism. And we knew he was, for example, actively funding the Irish Republican Army in Ireland, which was killing Irish and British citizens quite regularly. So there was a fairly clear view that, at that time, Qaddafi was, in effect, terrorist enemy number one. ...

The bombing of the Beirut embassy takes place. You were over in an embassy at that point. What does this do to our thinking? How does this change the way we deal with terrorism?

The bombing of the embassy in Beirut, which was in late 1983, had an immediate effect on any ambassador serving abroad, and certainly on me, in that the president made it very clear through the secretary of state that he held every American ambassador personally responsible for the security of his building. That led to additional measures at the embassy I was in, which was in the Netherlands -- measures that we hadn't taken. We had not been as sensitive to the possibility of a truck driving at a high speed into our embassy. So we took some physical security measures and so forth. I think it had a fairly dramatic effect on, at least, the diplomatic service to start paying attention to this as a threat to their embassy.

Why did we get caught surprised?

The problem with fighting terrorism is that the terrorist has two important asymmetries in his favor, whether it's 1983 in Beirut or 2001 in New York. The first asymmetry is that the defender -- that's us -- has to defend across the entire range of our vulnerabilities. You have to defend all the embassies, all the public buildings, whatever the target set is. And, of course, the terrorist has only to attack one. He doesn't have to attack them all. He can bring all of us force to bear on a single point, and that can be the weakest point.

The second asymmetry is that the cost of defense is dramatically different than the cost of offense. You can shoot up an airport with an AK-47 submachine gun; it costs you a thousand dollars maybe, with ammunition. Defending that airport will cost you millions of dollars.

And so these two asymmetries, in effect, reverse the conventional wisdom of military affairs, which holds that the offense must have a three-to-one advantage over the defense. In fact, it is dramatically different in terrorism. So it's always easy after the fact to say, "Well, why weren't we defending against a truck bomb in Beirut in 1983, or against an aircraft hijacking in 2001?" The fact is you can't defend across the entire range of your vulnerabilities.

George Shultz at the time, or a little after, is talking about covert action, [that] everything will be done against terrorism. To some extent, is that rhetoric? Or is it something that actually could be achieved with the tools that we had at hand?

Just because this is an asymmetrical fight doesn't mean you can't win battles in it. You certainly can win battles. And in order to win battles, you've got to be ready to use the full panoply of American power, whether it's diplomatic power, political, economic sanctions, all the way up through covert action, to psychological warfare, or actual military operations. You have to be prepared to use whatever of those tools, or however many of those tools you can use, either alone or in conjunction with other countries. When Secretary Shultz memorably said to Qaddafi, "You've had it," he meant that he was going to bring the full weight of the American government to bear on Qaddafi.

It's talked about by a lot of other people that we didn't have the human resources on the ground for intelligence. We tried some covert actions. There's the famous help of the Lebanese intelligence group and the blowing up of the car bomb in Beirut with 80 civilians killed, and the pullback. Did we have all the tools at hand, or indeed were we disabled to some extent, and why?

If you look back today over the last 25 years, it is a fact that we have had a progressive degeneration of our intelligence community in general; in particular in the field of human intelligence. It began with highly politicized attacks by Congress on the CIA in the mid-1970s. It was followed by a disastrous pruning of the action operatives in the CIA in the late 1970s. This is a long-term degeneration of our ability to get human intelligence. And in the target of terrorism, human intelligence is really the only good tool you've got in terms of finding out what's going on. ...

Now you're naming a problem that we knew about in the late 1970s. A lot of people say that we still have that problem today.

It's worse.

The question is, why?

The problem of getting human intelligence against terrorism has been exacerbated by the fact that, in 1995, the CIA imposed very restrictive guidelines on the recruitment of terrorist spies. That has not stopped the recruitment of those spies. We have some, but we don't have as many as we need. And you need to have those spies if you're going to prevent terrorist attacks.

Covert actions, the use of suicides squads to hit terrorists -- is that a necessary tool? Is that something that's possible?

What has happened in this, in my view, long-term deterioration of our intelligence abilities is we have created a risk-averse culture at CIA in going after terrorists. Part of it has to do with the progressive guidelines that have been established by successive directors of Central Intelligence from time to time -- particularly guidelines established in 1995, but others as well -- which have made it harder for CIA officers in the field to believe headquarters when it says, "Counterterrorism is our top priority." They simply don't believe it when they look at the administrative and bureaucratic hoops they have to go through in order to recruit a terrorist spy.

The Marine barracks is blown up in Beirut, and the embassy annex; we pull out the Marines. Looking back at that, was that a chapter we lost? What tools did not work, or what did work there?

In retrospect, one can obviously be critical of the way in which the Marines were deployed, the physical way in which they were deployed in a very exposed position. That's a decision that the commander on the ground made. And, unfortunately, it was wrong.

I believe, and believed at the time, it was a mistake to pull the Marines out after the attack on the Marines. My view [was] we should have left a presence. They should have been redeployed in a more secure or defensible position. I think it was a real victory for the terrorists to have attacked and killed [241] Marines and see the United States effectively turn and leave. I think that was a mistake. I think it fed the view among the terrorists that they could, in fact, succeed by using violence. ...

Can you talk about the importance of what took place [at the La Belle disco in Germany] and why the response?

The attack on Libya after they killed American servicemen in La Belle was really, in many ways, the turning point of our counterterrorist policy in the 1980s.

I actually was serving in Europe at the time. And at that particular time, the Netherlands, which was where I was serving, had the presidency of the European community. And so our diplomacy, vis-à-vis the Europeans and the run-up to the attack, was largely dependent on the Netherlands. I was very much involved in it.

Basically, we had seen a number of Libyan attacks. And we had been telling the Europeans for several years to take it more seriously. We sent a very clear message to the Europeans in March 1986 that we had exhausted all "peaceful means" -- the terms we were instructed to use. All peaceful means had been exhausted in our dealing with Libya. ...

I know for a fact that the attack on Libya had two very important consequences. Number one, we had very clear intelligence that the Libyans had been planning 34 or 35 subsequent attacks on American targets in Europe. Those were stopped immediately. The intelligence was clear.

And secondly, the attack on La Belle disco finally persuaded the Europeans we were really serious about terrorism. So when in the fall of 1986 Syria was convicted of being involved in attempting to bomb an airplane, I was sent around by the president to talk to our allies, and to say, "We're serious this time, too." And the allies remarkably essentially broke diplomatic relations with Syria. They didn't actually break; they withdrew their ambassadors. But that would have been unheard of if it hadn't been for the fact that we showed seriousness of purpose six months before in La Belle.

You have talked about your feeling that the terrorist nations, sponsors of terrorists, need to be dealt with very forcefully. Here is one situation where they were. There were other situations, especially hostage taking and bombings in Lebanon beforehand that Iran and Syria were tied to. Why did we never deal forcefully, militarily, with Syria or Iran?

Well, you have to remember that, at least until Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism was not the sole organizing principle of American foreign policy. We had other interests in Syria, and we had actually problems in Iran. In the case of Iran, during the period we're talking about, they had an ongoing war with Iraq. And I think the general attitude in our government was to let the Iraqis kill the Iranians. That seemed like a pretty good way to deal with the problem. So with Iran, it was a different matter.

With Syria, they were making the case -- which some found persuasive and some not so persuasive -- that they had a role to play in an eventual Middle East peace. So there were other elements to our relations. You can't just go to war with everybody over every issue. You have to have some prioritization when you do foreign policy. ...

[In] dealing with Iran, in the end how did that come to bite us in the butt, basically? How did that policy affect the policy in the end?

The decision to essentially buy our hostages' freedom from Iran was a real failure. We had more American hostages being held at the end of the process than at the beginning of the process, because as soon as it became evident that the United States was willing to pay for the release of its citizens, for every American walking around in Beirut, the price on his head went up.

As anybody who's dealt with blackmailers could have foreseen, therefore, the policy failed. And it had a very chilling effect on our overall counterterrorist policy for at least six months, because it removed the heart of our policy, which was not to make concessions to terrorists. It made us look hypocritical to the people around the world, our allies we were trying to deal with, and of course it made us look weak to the terrorists.

I read a quote that was interesting from you a year ago that Afghanistan was basically the Lebanon of the year 2000. Can you tell me what you mean by that?

There's a similarity in the challenge that's facing the [current] administration and the problem of the 1980s, which is the terrorists are able to operate freely in a territory. They were able to operate freely in Lebanon in the 1980s, because there was no functioning government in Beirut. They operate freely in Afghanistan now, because the government of Afghanistan encourages them or lets them, and it has become a cesspool of terrorism.

In my view, in terms of how we respond now, some of the lessons of the wars of 1970s and 1980s against terrorism are still valid. We have to show the world by our actions that we are really serious about this fight. If we can show the world that we are really serious about punishing the terrorists who conducted these attacks, and the government of Afghanistan, we will find that the rest of the world will give us more support, not less. They will respect us for our power. And they will understand that we're serious.

To some extent, this is a very difficult topic to deal with by any power. There wasn't really a policy that was followed, but it was sort of always catching up with what the event was, and coming up with something new each time. Is that off track? Is that true? How did we deal throughout all those years with the threat?

When the new wave of terrorism came on the modern world, which is the late 1960s, early 1970s, I think we spent about a decade, the United States and our allies, trying to figure out how to deal with it. It was very tactical. We didn't really know what we were up against. We underestimated the viciousness of the terrorist groups. They overplayed their hands. And through a number of terrorist attacks in Europe, and particularly the takeover of our embassy in Tehran in 1979, that galvanized the public and political leaders, first here in the United States and then in Europe, to come up with a strategy. I think we had a good strategy in the 1980s to deal with the terrorism we faced. It was based on no concessions, pressures on states, bringing terrorists to jail.

But the problem is that the terrorist threat moved out from under two-thirds of that strategy during the 1990s. The terrorists shifted their motives. People who were willing to die crashing an airplane into the World Trade Center are not going to be particularly deterred by the threat of a five-year prison sentence. So talking about bringing people like this to criminal justice is essentially irrelevant.

Similarly, talking about having a policy of no concessions -- when they're not asking for anything, there's no demand issue that says, "If you don't do X, we'll fly into the World Trade Center." They're not trying to start a negotiation.

These people hate the United States, not for what we do, but for who we are and what we are. It's a different kind of a threat. In the 1990s, the terrorist threat shifted out from under two-thirds of that strategy. The one part that still is valid is putting pressure on states which support terrorism. But we need to come up with a new and more flexible strategy for dealing with these people now.

Pan Am 103 was an interesting event in the way it was dealt with -- the idea that one can prosecute legally a terrorist, and somehow stop the threat. Tell me about that, and why Pan Am 103 was a shift and what we learned from it.

Pan Am 103 is really the bookend to the 1980s fight against terrorism. The handling of Pan Am 103 shows exactly that the strategy we designed in the 1980s did not fit for the new kind of terrorism, because with Pan Am 103, the objective was not to start a negotiation; it was to kill as many people as could be killed, in this case 270 people.

The idea of, therefore, punishing the people who did it by bringing them to a court of justice was wrong. It was ludicrous. It was the wrong answer. The fact that what we eventually got almost 10 years later was a conviction of a couple of minor operatives shows how naked this policy is in face of the new kind of terrorism we have.

What have we learned from all those years?

I think what we've learned is that the terrorist threat is serious, but it shifts. You cannot make a single person the sole focus of your counterterrorism. We had Qaddafi as the number one enemy from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. Then we had Abu Nidal who appeared on the scene, and he was the number one enemy from the mid-1980s until the early 1990s. Now we have bin Laden. And the implication of that is if you can deal with this one guy, the threat will go away. The threat doesn't go away, it evolves.

What you need to do, and certainly is sort of the central lesson, is you need to have a policy and tools which evolve as the threat evolves. And that's the challenge that we're into right now.

What have the terrorists learned about us?

The terrorists have learned that we have a lot of vulnerabilities, particularly inside the United States, which had not been attacked before. The first large-scale attack in the United States was the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, almost 25 years after terrorism really started again. So it took a long time for them to attack us. Now they know we're vulnerable here. And that's certainly one lesson they've learned.

I hope they're going to learn, and as a result of our response, that it isn't going to work. They're not going to change our life, they're not going to have us throw out our Constitution, and they're not going to chase us out of the Middle East.

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