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Bob Woodward is assistant managing editor of investigative news for The Washington Post, and the author of several books on U.S. politics, leaders and government including, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987. Here, Woodward discusses the "key theme" that informed how the Reagan White House dealt with terrorism, the deep policy divisions within the administration, and its overall inconsistency and half-measures in pursuing a tough counterrorism policy. Interview conducted in late September 2001.

bob woodward

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 disagreement?

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 bomb.

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 policy?

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 total victory.

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 all this?

...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 more Vietnams.

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 [1982] 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 Marines out?

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 hostages."

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 terrible war.

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 him.

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 change?

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 lot.

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 solution.


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 they did.

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 even.

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 intelligence agencies.

...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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