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A former U.S. State Department coordinator for counterterrorism during the 1980s, Oakley also has served as U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Zaire and Somalia. The situation with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan today, Oakley says, is similar in many ways to Beirut's landscape in the '80s. Interview conducted late Septemer 2001.

robert oakley

The 1983 embassy bombing in Beirut, how did that affect our policy on how we were going to deal with the terrorist threat? Was that as surprising, in some ways, as the events of the recent past?

It hit us very, very hard. The difference between that and bin Laden's [attack] was that there was a specific objective at that stage, which was to get us out of Lebanon. And the bombing of the Marine barracks and the bombing of the embassy combined did exactly that; we pulled the United States Marines out of Lebanon. So that was a devastating attack, but there was a political target involved in that operation. It was a huge shock-- not the same order of magnitude , because it was abroad, not felt as much as the one here, but still a tremendous shock, and it caused us to revaluate a lot of things. ...

How did these events affect the way we thought about what we had to do?

It did two things. It pushed terrorism much higher up on the scale of priorities for policy, and it placed a great deal of emphasis upon the possible use of military force to retaliate.

The pulling out of the troops from Lebanon was considered to be a pretty big defeat. How in the Arab world and the world of the terrorists did that register?

I suspect it did have an effect, because we had a great deal more state-sponsored terrorism in the years following, in '84, '85, '86, than we had had before. It certainly encouraged the enemies of the United States to believe that we could be defeated by what they now called "asymmetrical means," that is, using their strengths to find weaknesses on our side. We had battleships with sixteen inch guns, and we had a carrier there off Lebanon at that time, and it didn't prevent the embassy from being blown up or the Marine barracks from being blown up, so we understood a little bit more carefully then that we were vulnerable now. ...

Now, we know of the involvement of Iran, we know of involvement to some extent of Syria. What was the reasoning that Syria and Iran gave us at the time?

It was primarily Iranians, the Syrians were sort of a secondary player, if you will, a facilitator more than a principal. The Iranians wanted to drive us out of Lebanon. The Iranians also wanted to create a Hezbollah party, that is, a party based on the Shiite Islamic movement in Lebanon, which would be their tool for Islamizing Lebanon, hopefully turning it into an Islamic state similar to Iran.

But to do that there were two obstacles that had to be gotten out of the way: the United States and the French--and not merely our military presence, because the French military barracks was also blown up at that time--but our cultural presence, the American University of Beirut and things of that sort. ... A number of American University of Beirut professors were taken hostage to put the pressure on us to get out of there.

And so it was a concerted effort, a well-planned effort, which succeeded in pushing the United States essentially out of Lebanon, and it also produced a big change in our policy towards the Middle East. We'd been pursing a very positive, active policy towards the Middle East as a whole, encouraging further agreements between the Arab governments and Israel. This put a stop to it. We really went into a period of paralysis so far as Middle East diplomatic policy was concerned. We were very much on the defensive.

There were state sponsors of terrorism like Iran and Syria in this situation, so to ask the simplistic question, why did we not hit Iran or Syria, why did we not take military action in this situation?

Well, at that time we were not as convinced, not as certain of the military links to Iran as we became a little bit later on. As it turns out, they were not only trying to drive us out of Lebanon, but they also wanted to punish us for what they saw as us taking sides in the war that they were waging against Iraq. And so they had a double reason for trying to punish us. But we were unable to find the direct link.

There was a lot of consideration given to bombing the ... headquarters of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. That indeed was where these things were being planned operationally, and from where the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was working with the Hezbollah organization to provide them with the advice and the military equipment and the training to conduct the bombings and the hostage-takings. But the decision was made that there wasn't a clear target, there wasn't a clear explanation, and so we shouldn't go ahead. ...

The considerations were whether or not without clear evidence attacking a target in Iran would be a plus or a minus; would it produce more Iranian terrorism or less? What would be the reaction of other countries in the region? Very much like the debate that's going on now with respect to how we respond to the bombing of the World Trade towers. A lot of it turned on how clear we were in the linkage, and how well we thought we could explain it. And again, I come back to where we are today with Osama bin Laden ... .

Then the U.S. embassy annex in Beirut is bombed in September of 1984. Who did we assume were the terrorists?

We didn't know for sure who it was, but we assumed that there were Iranians and Syrians at that stage who were planning another terrorist attack against the United States, following upon the earlier ones. We had worked to set up a sort of protective unit-actually, a presidential finding mandate for covert action to establish a Lebanese counter-terrorist strike force.

The Deputy Director of Operations for the CIA Clare George and I both had experience, we'd both been in the embassy in Beirut. And we said, "You better go very, very carefully here because these people are liable to do something crazy. So, before we arm them or provide them with any sort of assistance, we should see that the Lebanese military who are going to train them have actually succeeded in doing so. This is a disciplined unit and we should give them an examination." And we did, and they never passed the exam, therefore we never gave them any assistance.

So when they put a carbomb under one of the Shiite leaders working with the Iranians in Lebanon and blew it up, we were blamed for it, but in fact we weren't guilty because we'd never begun to aid this unit in the first place.

That's the sort of problems you get into in that part of the world; we didn't feel that we ourselves could locate the terrorists, much less deliver an attack upon them in that part of Beirut, West Beirut. We hoped that the Lebanese group would be able to, and it turned out that they were not able to do that.

There's been argument over the years over the connection of CIA to that group. Was that bombing attempt sponsored by the US?

No. As I said, we'd agreed to help create such a unit, and the Lebanese army had agreed to train it, but because Clare George and I had experience out there, we warned that there might actually be a carbombing against someone who was innocent, so we insisted that before the United States actually assisted this unit physically, by providing money or providing weapons or explosives, that our Special Forces give them a little in-the-field examination to make sure that they were disciplined enough to warrant our support. And we never actually provided any support to the group. They got frustrated and went off on their own ... .

In Lebanon, the option of assassination squads, of hitting the terrorists specifically ourselves, did we ever look at that option? Is that something that was considered to be one viable possibility?

No. There was a great debate about whether or not one could do this, and a lot of the laws and regulations and executive orders were studied very, very carefully. There were differences of opinion within the executive branch, but in the final analysis the president decided, "No, we're not going to go that route." So we did try to organize the Lebanese hit squad that might have been able to do this for us, but they failed to do the job.

What was the effect of that carbombing with the eighty civilians killed? How did that affect our policy?

Everyone assumed the United States government was responsible for it. It didn't affect our policy, except to show us the dangers of this, which some of us had recognized in the first place. But it certainly increased the rage against the United States, and the result was more terrorist activity. ...

We began to apply a series of pressures to states supporting terrorism. One was Iraq, and they stopped. The second was Syria, where there was applied a combination of economic pressures from the Europeans as well as the United States, and diplomatic pressures, and threats, if you will. And eventually, bin Laden's look-alike in that earlier period, Abu Nidal, shifted sponsorship from Syria to Libya. It resulted in a war with Libya. ...

How did we come to the decision to use military force against Libya?

In 1984 and 1985, we were very, very worried about Libyan terrorism. We had reports that there were Libyan hit squads loose in the United States. There were dump trucks parked head-to-toe around the entire State Department and the Capitol Hill and elsewhere to protect against these Libyan terrorist groups that were thought to be operating in the United States. We never found one. My guess is they weren't here. ...

Later on, we did come to the military option because we had very clear proof that Libya was involved in offensive terrorist operations against the U.S., tantamount to war. It really began with the bombings of the airports in Rome and Vienna by Abu Nidal in December, 1985. And we were able to demonstrate to our own satisfaction--and we put out a white paper demonstrating it to the general satisfaction of the world--that the Libyans, working with Abu Nidal, had conducted these terrorist activities, killing large numbers of people in those two airports, including a number of Americans.

And so we sailed a carrier task force into the Bay of Sidra to put the pressure upon the Libyans. The Libyans responded by conducting some attempted attacks by aircraft and by small boats, which were destroyed quickly. At that point Qaddafi lost his cool and decided to escalate, and we intercepted communications between Tripoli and twelve Libyan People's Bureaus--what they call their embassies abroad--to "Go get the Americans." One of them, of course, was in East Berlin, which resulted in the bombing of the discothèque in West Berlin. We weren't quite sure which the target was, and we couldn't find the attackers.

But in Istanbul, Paris, and Ankara--something that is not much known and certainly not remembered--working with the French and the Turkish intelligence services, we were able to detect three teams of terrorists who came in from Libya, went to Libyan People's Bureaus, picked up weapons, picked up explosives, and headed for the nearest American consulate or embassy, and they were arrested on the spot, before they could conduct an attack.

So with that in hand, plus the discothèque attack, we said, "This is war," and so we conducted bombing raids upon Tripoli and [other Libyan targets] to sort of punish the Libyans, to let it be known that terrorist attacks upon the United States were not acceptable. And for several years the Libyans laid low, but then ultimately we got the bombing of Pan Am flight 103.

The Libyans were very clearly behind the bombing of Pan Am 103. We not only found that through by intelligence, we also used forensic evidence and traditional law enforcement to prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt, I would say, that the Libyans were behind the killing of a lot of Americans in that plane over Lockerbie in retaliation for our military attacks upon Libya several years earlier. ...

One might ask why Libya was the exception. Libya seemed to be in some ways an easy target, that they didn't have a lot of friends in the area, we could get information on them because they were pretty dumb in the way they went about it.

That's right, precisely.

But perhaps there were other terrorist-sponsoring nations that we didn't go after, and one might wonder was the only reason we went after Libya because they were an easy mark?

In part because they were an easy mark, but more importantly, I think, was because of the conclusive nature of the evidence, which we didn't disclose publicly, but we did go privately to a number of different governments and explain what was going on there. ...

There are victories scattered across the terrain of our dealing with terrorism, but one looks, especially now, today, after the horrors of two weeks ago, and one wonders whether these were very small victories in a very large war; why weren't we more successful?

Well, it depends upon which terrorist group you're talking about. Ultimately I guess we struck a bargain with the Iranians. They decided they wanted to improve their position in the world, so they stopped conducting terrorist attacks against the United States. They'd also gotten some arms from us. The Syrians stopped supporting state terrorism. The Libyans stopped as state sponsors of terrorism. So in that sense, there was success. But then other terrorist groups spring up which we have to deal with, and now we see that with the Al Qaeda and the bin Laden organization.

What is the nature of this threat, though, that allows it to take new shape, move off, but always come back, seemingly at double the strength as the time before?

There are a lot of grievances out there; sometimes they're rather inchoate like Al Qaeda, which is aimed at us as sort of a model of evil civilization. Sometimes they're very precise, like wanting to get the United States out of Lebanon. But they are oppressed, or people who feel they're oppressed, want to find some way to get revenge. It's now called "asymmetric warfare." I always think the first recorded act of asymmetric warfare was David against Goliath, but the weak find a way sometimes to get to weakness of the strong. ...

Inside the conventional war in Vietnam, there were terrorist acts, there were bombings at the U.S. officers' club. The French had a lot of trouble with terrorism when they were fighting the war in Algeria, which eventually caused them to withdraw. So, terrorism can be a valuable addition to a conventional war if you're a weaker party conducting that fight. ...

How did the TWA 847 hijacking change the debate? How did that affect the way that we looked at dealing with the terrorist threat?

The hijacking, which was televised live had a very profound effect upon the United States, because it was in our homes, much as the bin Laden attack on the Trade Towers and the Pentagon. It produced some drastic changes, some big improvements in airline security, a separate task force--which eventually became part of the Bush task force-- to step up airline security. It increased our awareness of the fact that the Iranians were directly involved in terrorist activity against the United States, because one of the groups on the plane that was conducting the terrorist activity turned out to be related to Iran, not related to Syria as we'd earlier thought. So it exposed the Iranians in a way that we'd not understood before.

This, plus the earlier bombings, produced not only the vice president's report, but also a report on beefing up embassy security. Admiral Inman chaired that panel just as Admiral Crowe chaired a similar panel after the bombings in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam. It had a profound effect upon the way we did our business, the fact that we attached a much higher priority to terrorism, and the fact that we got new legislation, as well as more money and administrative actions to conduct a more vigorous counter-terrorism policy.

The response to that terrorist act produced a keener awareness of the need to use all the tools, just as we are doing now with respect to bin Laden, to use passive security, if you will, protecting our embassies abroad better than we had in the past, more airline security to protect ourselves, at the same time, how could we find a way to go after them. The FBI was empowered by law to join the CIA in conducting investigations and to seek cooperation of other law enforcement agencies abroad to go after terrorists using the tools of law enforcement. ...

The frustrations of Beirut, of inability to deal with it militarily, did that push us towards covert operations?

Yes, it did, and as it turned out, we were not very successful about covert operations either. And so that eventually led us to make a deal with the Iranians, because this particular series of events, including the kidnappings, were very cleverly conceived by the Iranians. And the people they kidnapped and held hostage were those best-guaranteed to touch the nerve of the American public who demanded that they be released: priests, Catholic priests, a Protestant pastor, a journalist, professor. And this had a tremendous effect, as we know later, upon the Reagan White House, who eventually was pushed into providing arms to the Iranians in exchange for release of the hostages.

President Reagan was so moved by the plight of the hostages in Lebanon that he was disposed, as we know now, to go to great lengths to get them released. The State Department was locked in a debate with the White House over exposure to the hostage families. We said, "The less the better. We'll keep them over here in the State Department. We don't believe they should come to White House. We don't believe the president should meet them, we don't believe the vice president should meet them, because this generates too much pressure upon the president."

But the president was a man of a great good heart, so he was reaching out to the hostage families. Wherever he went he would receive the hostage families, and this just played into the hands of the terrorists because they knew they were getting a lot of sympathy in the United States, so they just ratcheted up the pressure. And as we know, it eventually led to us sending arms to Iran in return for hostages from Lebanon being released.

This certainly was a very, very black spot, I think, on our counter-terrorism policy and on our foreign policy in general, because we were caught out lying to our friends in Europe and to countries like Saudi Arabia and to the American people. And that didn't help us, not only with counter-terrorism, it didn't help us with our foreign policy in general. The incident was a huge mistake, but one caused by a sort of human concern ... .

How did it affect both our view of the policy and others' views of our policy towards dealing with terrorists?

It completely undercut our policy. Our policy was, "Make no deals with terrorists, provide no arms to Iran, which is a country seen as sponsoring terrorists," and after awhile it became visible to the entire world that we were doing both, making deals with the Iranians by providing them with arms in exchange for the release of hostages. So it badly damaged our policy. ...

When the Israelis released the 700 prisoners coincident with the release of the hostages from flight 847, was there a quid pro quo going on?

The resolution of the TWA 847 hijacking is interesting because there was an implicit but never explicit quid pro quo. The Israelis were under a lot of pressure to release the prisoners that they held in South Lebanon, just like Kuwait was under a lot of pressure to release the so called "Dawa prisoners," people who had been arrested in Kuwait for trying to bomb the French and American embassies. That was the object of the TWA hijacking, hijackings later on of a Kuwait airliner and a French airliner to Iran, and a number of other actions conducted against the United States. That was a constant theme with the hostages and with other terrorist activities conducted by the Iranians, "We'd like to get these prisoners in Kuwait loose," but also in this particular case there were a large number of Shiite prisoners who had been held by the Israelis in South Lebanon. And the Israelis, seeing everybody was in a bind, came up with a very clever formula. They said, "Once the TWA hostages are released, we will resume the release of prisoners which has been temporarily interrupted-- we're not producing a quid pro quo, we're just doing something that we intended to do anyway, but we're not going to do it until the hostages are released," therefore they were turning it the other way around and making it appear that they were using the release of prisoners as pressure upon the hijackers to release the hostages, rather than the other way around.

Why is Schultz, Weinberger, McFarlane to this day still so queasy about admitting that there was some sort of a deal when it came to this?

One can always understand personal embarrassment, and certainly Schultz was terribly embarrassed by this policy of arms for hostages, and he made that very clear at the time. I think he was also embarrassed, a bit understandably, by the fact that there had to be an implicit deal with the Israelis. It was never explicit. So we could say there wasn't really a deal. And it's fair enough; it depends which way you want to look at it. But it was an implicit arrangement between the United States and Israel with the hijackers and those who were behind them, that Israel would resume the release of the prisoners they had been releasing in South Lebanon. ...

Looking back at the Reagan years, what lessons did we learn, what lessons should we have learned and that we need to understand so that we can deal effectively now with this new threat of bin Laden and his organization?

I think the lessons that we learned then are applicable now: building coalitions, picking your target carefully, being able to justify your target, making sure that you have a successful operation when you undertake it, calculating the political downside as well as the military effects. All those things were thought about at the time. In some cases we had the right results, in some cases we failed, and we're going through the same process again. And I think that we have to continue to do it, but we have to understand that we're not going to stop all terrorism for all time. That's the one thing that stands out.

That's a pretty dangerous thing, since the terrorist acts are getting more and more difficult to deal with. What you just said is a pretty scary thing if one thinks about that they could also possibly get biological weaponry.

It is scary, but terrorism can be indigenous, such as the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It can hit us abroad, it can hit us at home, it can hit at anybody. That's been brought home to us. But I think that one can probably, in a reasonable period of time, dismantle the Al Qaeda organization, which is the first time we've seen something that is this well-organized, this totally committed, this lethal, this much dedicated to attacking our form of civilization and the rest of the world, at least the rest of the so-called globalized world.

I think that can be dismantled if we play our cards correctly. We're generating a lot of support, and I think that we'll soon be in a position where we can take some military action as well as squeezing the finances, bringing arrests in different countries, disrupting their networks. We'll be able to do some things in terms of getting other countries to clamp down on them, something they haven't done in the past. All those things together I think will severely damage and probably eventually remove the Al Qaeda network.

But then there are other terrorists out there, and whose terrorists are they, and are they attacking us, are they attacking friends? How do we deal with them in such a way that we're going to continue to be successful? And that's the big question that we have to answer. ...

We talked about what we probably have learned from those years, the Reagan administration. What did the terrorists learn about us and about how to further their goals?

Well, the terrorists learned, and others who oppose us have learned that in some circumstances a few casualties can cause us to retreat into our own shell, to give up whatever objective we were seeking, to abandon those with whom we've been working. And that's what we have to protect against. I think we're doing a pretty good job of protecting against it, but where they've seen that in the past, that encourages them. ...

Well lastly, then, what we've seen before-- is the threat that we have dealt with before in those eight years, or the years that you were involved with it, how similar or dissimilar to the threat that we face in a bin Laden?

I think that the methods of trying to deal with it are quite similar, but the threat itself is qualitatively and now quantitatively different. This bin Laden group, as Colin Powell says, it's rather like a huge corporation, like General Motors, which has a number of different companies under it, therefore a great deal of autonomy, a great deal of freedom, if you will, of action, not something which a central organization like Abu Nidal, which is tightly controlled from the top. And state-supported terrorism is in some ways easier to control because if you could put the pressure on the states then they could stop the organization.

Here we're talking about who knows how many hundreds of terrorists, or maybe thousands--probably I would say hundreds in terms of the hard core, who are scattered around a number of different countries. They're in Canada, they're in Egypt, they're in Saudi Arabia, they're in the Sudan, Germany, United States itself, who knows? Who knows when they might come together, or they might be assisted with other terrorist groups--we don't know--to conduct a particular operation. It makes it much more difficult.

The fact they're willing to die and to kill any number of other people in the process is another matter that we haven't dealt with before, and that they don't have a precise cause, instead it's this sort of vague, burning rage against the United States. All those things are new. But the basic threat of terrorism and the way in which you can paint it in the need to be cautiously aware and not let down your guard, is, I think, the same.

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