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Jim Hougan is a former Washington editor of Harper's Magazine and the author of two books about the intelligence community -- Spooks, about the use of intelligence agents in private industry, and Secret Agenda, his 1984 book about Watergate. Hougan, who says that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon had disastrous effects on U.S. and its military policies, says the American military should deal with Osama bin Laden with "knives and spies, not with lawyers." Interview conducted late September 2001.

jim hougan

Let's start with Israel invading Lebanon. What is created because of that?

A catastrophe is created, and disaster of enormous proportion. In effect, Israel by its invasion of Lebanon, which was mounted in an effort really to extirpate the PLO, to get rid of the PLO, to drive them out of Lebanon, caused the loss of lives of something like 17,000 civilians. It jump-started all the events that were to follow.

Like what? Give me some specifics.

Specifically, the United States probably would not have been involved directly in Lebanon if it had not been for the Israeli invasion of that country. Insofar as we had a coherent mission over there, it was probably to stabilize that country after the Israelis pulled out, or at least pulled down into the south. So I don't think that the United States would have been over there if it hadn't been for [the Israeli] invasion.

What about Hezbollah? ...

I think by invading Lebanon in the way that they did, the Israelis started a lot of things that they probably had not anticipated. In effect, they were pouring gasoline on the flames of the civil war that was already ongoing over there. Certainly it gave Hezbollah a huge following that it might not otherwise have had, and it intensified the war ... against Israel, and it intensified the war even within Lebanon itself.

Among other things, the Israelis threw their weight behind the Christian Phalangists, and in particular behind Bashir Gemayel, who became the president of Lebanon in the aftermath of this invasion. And clearly, Bashir Gemayel did not speak for all the Lebanese and all the different groups, the Shiites and the Christians as well. As it happens, Gemayel himself was assassinated within five or six weeks of assuming office. That turned the Christians against the Shiites in a way that they had never been before. The war heated up, the war between east and west Beirut. None of this really would have occurred without the Israeli invasion.

How does the United States get pulled into this pipeline?

I think the United States entered this quagmire in the way that it enters all quagmires, with wonderful good intentions and very fuzzy objectives. ... The American intention, insofar as it had a mission that could be articulated -- which is itself questionable -- was to stabilize Lebanon after the Israeli invasion, to retrain and reconstitute the Lebanese army, which was composed of many ethnic groups, most of which were at war with another, and to create a kind of Western democracy out of what was really a confessional nightmare. And it was probably doomed to failure.


I think it was a terribly naive thing to do, to think that we could go over there and straighten out the Middle East, straighten out Lebanon. It was obviously something that [we] were historically very unsuccessful at. ...

In February 1984, the Marines are pulled out. What is the result of this decision?

The long-term result of the pullout of the Marines, which was just the last act of the tragedy of the United States over in Lebanon, was to send a message to people and organizations, such as bin Laden and others, that the United States could not accept casualties -- that if we were hit hard and if enough American boys could be made to bleed, that we would back off, that we would back away. ...

Certainly this caused a change in American military policy. After Lebanon, we tended to avoid military strategies that might result in American casualties, and that sort of gets us into a whole period of Nintendo wars, such as the Gulf War -- wars that are carried out largely by aircraft, by remote control, by people looking through thick field glasses.

Let's do the Kuwait embassy. In December of 1983, Islamic fundamentalists bomb the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, and 17 are arrested. What is the end result of this terrorist situation?

I think it's the case that the bombing of the American embassy in Kuwait and other targets in Kuwait led to the arrest of 17 people from Lebanon and Iran, the so-called Al Dawa 17. This, in turn, led to a series of kidnappings, sort of tit-for-tat kidnappings in Beirut, whereby relatives of some of those people being held in Kuwait began grabbing Americans and offering, in effect, to exchange those American hostages for the prisoners in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti government took a very hard line on this and simply refused to release any of the people, and I think they had supporters in the American government for that. ...

Do we know whether the Kuwaitis were, to some extent, listening to Americans on how to deal with this situation?

We know that Americans were talking with the Kuwaitis about the situation. We know that the Kuwaitis rejected any kind of trading of hostages. ... We know that Imad Mughniyah, who was the brother-in-law of one of the Al Dawa 17 being held in Kuwait, sent back videos of some of the people that he himself had been responsible for kidnapping. ...

Give us the resume of Mughniyah.

Imad Mughniyah is an articulate, English-speaking, not-particularly-devout Muslim. He's more of an ideologue. He's said to be charismatic. He's well educated, and he comes from a middle-class family in southern Lebanon, from the area that Israel was occupying for quite a while. For several years, he was the chief of security for Sheik Fadlallah, who was, of course, the spiritual leader for Hezbollah in their battle with the Israelis. He was running military operations in Beirut and also some operations in the south of Lebanon for Hezbollah. ...

Give me his resume of crimes.

Imad Mughniyah is believed to have been responsible for the bombing of the Marine barracks with the death of more than 240 American soldiers. He's alleged to have been involved directly in the bombing of the American embassy -- the first time, because the American embassy was actually bombed twice. That led to a loss of 60 to 85 people. He was responsible directly for the kidnapping of the CIA station chief in Beirut, William Buckley, who subsequently died in captivity, and for the kidnapping of other Americans there as well.

Was [Mughniyah] one of the chief targets that we eventually had?

He's one of the chief targets that we still have. We've had a multimillion-dollar reward out for his capture over the years. We have yet to have anybody try to claim it. ...

What lesson can be learned from the fact that this guy -- who was involved in very famous air hijackings, an enormous amount of kidnapping in Beirut, was tied into the Beirut bombings of the embassy and the Marine barracks -- is still free, and we have no idea where he is?

I think one of the lessons to be drawn from the fact that Imad Mughniyah is still out there, still operating, is that America has to keep focus in this war, in what it's doing. I don't think we're particularly good about that. We get very excited, very upset, very determined in the wake of atrocities, such as what happened at the World Trade Center, but then over a period of a year or two, our attention shifts to other things. We lose determination, and I think that people like Mughniyah are allowed to sort of slip away and fall through the cracks until they jump out at us again.

What's the importance of the fact that William Buckley was the first American hostage taken?

The importance of William Buckley ... has to do with its symbolism, for one thing, but it also has to do in particular with who Buckley was. ... In effect, he was what's called the national intelligence officer for the Middle East at that time, this because the previous national intelligence officer, Robert Ames, had been killed in the American embassy bombing, as had been then-Chief of Station Ken Haas.

The CIA's intelligence capabilities in the Middle East had been eviscerated by these people. When the American embassy was captured in Iran, all kinds of sensitive documents were also captured, were analyzed, read, put back together. Even though they had been shredded, they were physically put back together, and agents disappeared as a result of that.

When [Robert Ames and the others] were killed in the American embassy bombing in Beirut, I think America's intelligence capability in Lebanon was virtually nil. It was whatever the Lebanese army and the Christian Phalangists chose to tell us. So Buckley was the man. When William Buckley got grabbed, he had whatever secrets the CIA had left over there. There may not have been many, but there were certainly the names of some agents that he had recruited and some operations that he had started. ...

Once William Buckley is kidnapped in Lebanon, we don't have a real way of dealing with terrorists in Lebanon, except perhaps by dropping bombs on them. ... At that point, I think that's when we begin to launch retaliatory [strikes]. ... But retaliation doesn't really get you anywhere, even it succeeds, and, of course, in Beirut our retaliations tended not to succeed.

Did it lead us to trusting the Lebanese intelligence forces and trying to set up a covert unit to do our bidding?

Yes. One of the things that was always the case in Lebanon was that we relied upon the Lebanese Christians for a lot of the intelligence that we got, and entrusted a number of our operations to them. There's good reason to believe that that was not a wise thing to do. In Lebanon, people are changing sides all the time and there's a tremendous duplicity. Before [we had] any other kind of failure in Lebanon, we had a huge counterintelligence failure vis à vis the Phalangists in particular.

We tried to train counterterrorist groups. I think that's what William Buckley was certainly engaged in. If we look at William Buckley's background and ask who was he, what did he do in the past, what did he know about ... William Buckley came out of the Phoenix program in Vietnam. He was not a low-level operative at all; he was one of the two or three people who were running that operation. The Phoenix operation was an operation that was essentially committed to identifying enemy cadres, in many cases, kidnapping those people, interrogating them, often harshly, and quite often assassinating them. So when William Buckley is sent to Beirut, that's really sending a message to people. ...

Tell me about the results of that car bomb going off, the unsuccessful assassination attempt that ended up killing 80 people. What was the result?

The CIA was training counterterrorist people to retaliate against our enemies over there. One of the people that was identified as a desirable target was Sheik [Mohammed Hussein] Fadlallah, who was the spiritual leader of Hezbollah and who had been alleged, rightly or wrongly, to have blessed one of the suicide bombers who operated against us.

The CIA has taken the position that the bombing in west Beirut that was directed against Fadlallah was carried [out] by ... people who weren't actually operating on our orders. However, it's very clear that we made it apparent to the people that we were working with that Fadlallah was a meddlesome priest, that we should get rid of him, that that would be looked up favorably.

The bombing took place in a public square when the mosque let out, and when it was thought that Fadlallah would be coming through. In effect, you had hundreds of people who were leaving the Muslim equivalent of church. More than 80 people were killed. The remark at the time was that everyone was certain it was a CIA operation, because everybody got killed except the target.

Did this kill covert ops as an option?

Yes, I think that the bombing in Bir el-Abed put a halt to covert operations. America doesn't deal very well with failures. It doesn't accept the failure of its operations. I think after Desert One and the failure there, there was a huge pullback. I think after the failure of the attack on Sheik Fadlallah, there was also a pullback. At that point, the American intelligence community was in a kind of despair, the feeling that they couldn't do anything right, and I think that they just backed off. ...

The use of assassinations in this war -- how necessary is it? ...

Historically assassination has always been, and rightly so, considered an un-American activity. There were prohibitions against it that were put into place after the Church committee hearings into the Castro assassination plots. I think there have been people in the intelligence community who have argued that they were, by virtue of those prohibitions, made to fight some of these battles with their hands tied behind their backs.

My own view on this has changed. I used to be militantly opposed to the idea of assassination in this context. But I think that we probably don't have any choice now. We don't have the luxury of playing by the rules. I don't see how you can go after a group, or a network like bin Laden's, without resorting to assassination. But it creates tremendous problems, because bin Laden's network is not just in Kabul and Kandahar. He has people in London and Paris, in New York. Where do you draw the line? Where do you stop there? I don't know, and I think that assassination is a very dangerous road to go down, but it's a road that we may not have any choice about ... if we're going to get rid of this demon that's in front of us. ...

[What was the] message sent to the terrorists?

The message of all this to the terrorists, which bin Laden has been quoted on, is that the Americans can't suffer this kind of attack. They can't withstand this kind of failure, that if the Americans are made to bleed, they'll back off. ...

What was the Saudis' involvement in the assassination attempt against Fadlallah?

The Saudi intelligence service and the Saudi royal family, at the behest of then-CIA Director William Casey, helped the United States with all sorts of covert funding during the wars in Lebanon. They are alleged to have provided some of the funding for the assassination attempt against Sheik Fadlallah.

What happened after the explosion?

After the assassination operation against Fadlallah went wrong -- went horribly wrong -- the Saudis responded by going to Fadlallah, and in a meeting with the sheik and his assistants, promised millions of dollars in "humanitarian" assistance for Fadlallah and his assistants to distribute in west Beirut for a kind of compensation for what had occurred. The Saudis are also said to have betrayed their own agents who were involved in this bombing in an effort, I suppose, to absolve themselves of the responsibility they had.

All of this at the bidding of the United States?

No. The Saudis' decisions to provide Fadlallah and the others with compensation, the Saudis' decision to give up their own operatives in Beirut after the Bir el-Abed bombing was their own decision. I don't think the United States urged them to do that. ...

So 1986, we involve ourselves in Afghanistan, which causes us huge troubles.

As a part of our Cold War strategy, the intention was always to prevent Soviet expansion. It was perhaps predictable then that we would support the Afghan rebels, as they were called at that time, in their efforts to overthrow the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. These people at that time were regarded as freedom fighters. So we began to put a lot of money into the mujahedeen movements in Pakistan going into Afghanistan. We provided them with blowpipe missiles, which will probably now be used against our boys. We provided them with Stinger missiles that may or may not end up being used against our aircraft. We provided them with a lot of arms, materials, and support.

This was all premised on the really discredited notion that the enemy of our enemy is our friend. What we undoubtedly should have learned by now is that the enemy of our enemy may well turn out to be our enemy. That's what happened with Osama bin Laden. He's a Frankenstein. We created him and we lost control of him and now he's out there running amok. ...

What is Bin Laden's role in Afghanistan?

Bin Laden's role in Afghanistan is that of an imam, sort of paramilitary man or guide. ... It's also been that historically of financier ... in helping actually to subsidize the families of war victims, of mujahedeen who had lost their lives in the struggle against the Russians. Their families would be left behind, and bin Laden, because he was very wealthy, was able to set up an Islamic charity where they would be given a monthly subsidy.

Subsequently he began to spend his fortune buying weapons, setting up training camps, and then went on to become a military leader, deciding strategy and defining attacks against the Russians. ... He has military camps over there, where he's been training in what amounts an Islamic struggle against the West, against McCulture, McMerica. ...

How successful was he?

I think one of the things about Osama bin Laden is that he's a Saudi creation as much as he is a CIA creation, [a U.S.] Defense Department creation. He comes from an immensely wealthy background in Saudi Arabia, and his radicalization is really against the Saudi monarchy and against the religious practices of that monarchy.

In a sense, it could be said that the Saudis have exported what is really their problem, and allowed bin Laden to ensconce himself in Afghanistan and set up his little Islamic republic there to trouble whoever he wants to, so long as he doesn't bother Saudi Arabia. And, of course, he doesn't bother Saudi Arabia. ...

[What is] the relevance of Pan Am 103 -- sort of war versus law, the use of a trial of two men to defeat terrorism?

One of the great disappointments of the trial of the two Libyans in the Pan Am 103 case is that the matter seems to have ended there. Clearly, other enterprises were involved. Whether that included Iran, or Muammar Qaddafi himself, we may never know because of the way it's been handled.

So as a tool against terrorism, how effective was the trial?

I think courts of law are probably almost totally ineffective in terms of waging against terrorism, because the world of intelligence [and] the world of terrorism, the places they intersect, [are] resonant with ambiguity. There are very few certainties. It's very difficult to build a case in the courts with a chain of evidence that would be required certainly in an American court to obtain a conviction.

The result of that is that when you can convict someone, it tends to be a lower-level operative whose fingerprints are all over the bomb or the car or whatever. But going up the chain of command to the people who are really responsible for the incident is almost impossible.

I don't think that you can really build a case against someone like bin Laden that will stand up in the courts very easily. I think you have to handle Osama bin Laden and others like him in non-traditional ways, even un-American ways.

Such as?

I think you have to deal with bin Laden and his operatives with knives and spies, not with lawyers. I think you have to go out and find him and basically kill him. I don't think one is going to be successful bringing him to an American court, or even to a world court, and I don't think that should be the goal. ...

What are the lessons to be learned from the Reagan administration's years of dealing with terrorism? What lessons do you think the Powells and the Wolfowitzs, and the Defense Department, the executives, Rumsfeld -- what have they learned from all that has gone before us?

We hoped that they've learned something. We don't know that they have. We're about to find out, I suspect. Certainly they need to have learned that it's incredibly important to keep your focus, that it's going to be a war of attrition, that it's not going to be subject to any kind quick resolution, that it's not a publicity activity. It isn't enough to just go in and bomb the rebel in Afghanistan, if that's the goal. This is something that has to be carried out over a long period of time in very quiet ways. ...

I think that George Bush's administration is going to have to come to terms with the reality that this particular war cannot be fought just with bombs, that there are going to be American casualties, that it's inevitable, and that we're going to have to suffer them if we intend to win.

I think Bush's administration should have learned from what occurred in Lebanon that we need a clear idea of what our mission is, what is really the goal. Why were we over there [in Lebanon]? One soldier was quoted as saying, "My understanding of the mission was we sent a lot of people over here, they all got killed, and then we left." I think not just the American soldier, but the American people need to know what we hope to gain from the war that we're about to undertake. ...

What have the terrorists learned from the Reagan administration?

The terrorists have undoubtedly reached a lot of conclusions about America, but there have also been fundamental changes in the way in which they're operating. If we look back at Lebanon, we see operations mounted with very specific goals. Hostages are taken in order to win the release of other hostages, things like that.

With the World Trade Center bombing, what we see is an atrocity committed against human beings all over, but specifically against the United States, with the idea of killing as many people as possible. There's nothing to be gained from this. There's no claim of responsibility. Historically, terrorist acts have been a kind of public relations exercise almost. It's to publicize a cause. It's to make a demand. We don't see that in what happened on Sept. 11. Nobody's really taking responsibility for that act. Nobody has defined what the purpose of it was, or what the goal was, if anything, other than to kill as many Americans as possible. And that's a fundamental change. ...

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