Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990
In 1983, a series of events in Lebanon and the Gulf states reoriented American priorities toward the Middle East and, as a result, American counterterror assumed an unprecedented public face. Bombing attacks on American embassies in Lebanon and Kuwait, the annihilation of the U. S. Marines’ Beirut landing force by suicide bombers, and the situation of American hostages redirected the administration’s energies toward aggressive counterterror.
On 18 April 1983, seventeen people, including four top CIA officers, were killed in a bomb attack on the U.S. embassy in Beirut. On 23 October 1983, in simultaneous suicide attacks, the U.S. Marine Headquarters at the Beirut airport was utterly destroyed, killing 243, and the headquarters of the French army’s 2,000 man contingent was badly damaged, killing 58.1 The antecedents to the attacks were largely unknown outside Lebanon and, in the United States, the attack was wholly unexpected and to most, inexplicable. Americans were suddenly faced with the costs of a bloody war without ever having understood that, in the minds of many Lebanese, the United States had already been at war with their country for some time.2
In September 1982, the U.S. Marine contingent landed in Beirut as the Israeli withdrawal from the invasion of Lebanon began. The initial American role was ostensibly neutral. In the course of 1983, however, overt backing for the Maronite Christian government of Amin Gemayal and firm support for Israel significantly changed the way the American presence was seen. The September 1983 battering of Lebanon’s green hills with behemoth shells from the battleship New Jersey (each leaving “a crater as big as a tennis court”) wiped out any appearance of American neutrality which had never been accepted by Iran-based Lebanese groups in the first place.3 But whatever the circumstances, to the American public and to the Reagan administration, a bombing that claimed American lives was a terrorist bombing.
The Reagan administration was appalled and disconcerted by the rage unleashed against the United States in Lebanon. It had come into office hooting derision at Carter’s inability to deal with the Iranian hostages and pledged tough programs and policies to combat terrorism.4 Yet Beirut threatened to become Reagan’s own humiliation on the scale of Carter’s debacle in Iran’s DESERT ONE. A further blow to the tough talking administration’s bruised sensibilities came unexpectedly in September 1983, over the Soviet Union’s Sakhalin Island. Soviet aircraft shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007, killing 269 people, 60 of them American citizens (among them the founder of the John Birch Society). American dismay at the unrepentant ayatollahs of Iran, the battering in Beirut, and the destruction of KAL 007 created the climate for a new style offensive in U. S. foreign policy.
The result was a confused mix of ferocious efforts at counterterror including U. S. complicity in at least one car bomb in Beirut, along with such bizarre undertakings as the arms-for-hostages deals with Iran (complete with gift Bible and key-shaped cake). The public opprobrium attached to the Middle East-style of terrorism hostage taking, bombings, aircraft hijacks, and murder would, however, be exploited rather cynically by the administration to justify its pursuit of political warfare quite above and beyond the real battle against terrorism and outside the Mediterranean theater.
Reciprocal terrorism and retaliation would continue in the Middle East throughout the Reagan administration and, as in the often spurious distinction between terror and “counter/error,” it was not always easy to determine who had struck the first blow. The bombardment by the U.S.S. New Jersey and the demolition of the Marine headquarters were only the highlights from eight years of action and reaction, in which the self-righteous indignation of the various parties to the conflict fueled campaigns of terror and cloaked them in the language of retaliation and reprisal. The emotional charge would attend the nongovernmental hijacks, hostage-taking, and bombings as well as the antipersonnel terror tactics of governments at ground level and from the air.
The overt U.S. response to the 22 October 1983 Beirut bombings came immediately and on several levels. The covert response was to gear up extralegal counterterror capabilities in the overseas hot spots, and to strike back using terrorist methods. The French responded, on 17 November, to the attack on its army headquarters with time-honored reprisals: the aerial bombing of the Baeka Valley region from which their assailants were believed to have found support. The 17 November 1983 raid was planned as a joint air strike with American Sixth Fleet aircraft. On this occasion, the United States pulled out on the grounds that the perpetrators could not be effectively targeted.5 Immediate conventional retaliation by American military action was forestalled at least in the Lebanon.
The outburst of patriotic sentiment inside the United States after the Beirut bombings, and particularly the attack on the Marines, was skillfully channeled to raise support for rapid action to preempt future outrages. A congressional sidelight was the prompt introduction and approval of antiterrorism legislation. The immediate, public manifestation of the new hard-line policy was a full- fledged military invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada.
The invasion of the Caribbean microstate Grenada took advantage of the American public’s outrage at being “pushed around” in the Third World. The events in Lebanon tended to reinforce a feeling of American impotence in world affairs, which lingered long after the release of the U. S. embassy hostages in Tehran in January 1981. The administration’s saber-rattling and seemingly futile efforts to retaliate against terrorism somehow seemed to exacerbate the malaise. Beirut was the clincher: Americans were not accustomed to entire American military commands being wiped out in an instant, without resistance. Whether the victims were civilian airline passengers or U. S. Marines in a fortified headquarters, the psychological impact was the same: The United States was under attack.
While the rubble still smoldered in Beirut, opportunity knocked in the Caribbean. Grenada offered a way to restore American self-confidence and to warn the ideological adversary that the United States was still to be reckoned with. The combined objective of the operation was to restore morale back home while achieving policy objectives overseas. The Grenada invasion provided the United States public catharsis in the classical sense, which “purges viewers of their pity and fear by giving them small doses on stage.”6
Events on Grenada the week before the Beirut bombing set the stage for intervention. On 12 October the left-wing government of Maurice Bishop, in power since 1979, was overthrown by an extreme-left faction of his left-wing New Jewel Movement led by General Hudson Austin and Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard. On 19 October, Bishop and other top government leaders were taken from their cells at the army’s Fort Rupert headquarters and killed. Bishop’s revolutionary regime had been a thorn in Washington’s side since its inception in a 1979 coup. His murder provided an ironic pretext for military action to restore Grenada to its place in the American sphere in the eastern Caribbean. Grenada was already on the White House crisis management agenda on Saturday, 22 October; at 2:30 A.M. on Sunday, 23 October, the president was informed of the Beirut bombing. At about 7 P.M. that Sunday evening Reagan decided that frustration over Beirut did not mean American hands were tied over Grenada. He decided to act.7
On the morning of Tuesday, 25 October, the invasion began. Originally, Operation URGENT FURY was to have involved only the Marine Corps’ 22d Marine Amphibious Unit. (Stationed on the U.S.S. Guam and four support ships, the unit musters its own landing craft, helicopter gunships, armor and artillery.) The flotilla was underway en route to Lebanon before being diverted south to Grenada. At the last moment, it was determined that the Marines could not handle the island’s defense forces (nominally 3,000 Grenadians and as many as 750 Cubans, most of them civilians). The final invasion line-up brought together a naval carrier task force (six ships), the five ships of the Marines’ Amphibious Ready Group, the Air Force Tactical Fighter Wing and First Special Operations Wing from Eglin Air Base, and the Army’s 82d Airborne Division which is now billed as the principal rapid deployment force equipped for low-intensity conflict.8
The invasion was envisioned as an operation that would be over in a matter of hours: The island is only fifteen miles long and ten miles wide, and its population of roughly 110,000 people was badly shocked and disoriented by the murder of Maurice Bishop. But for almost a week Grenadian troops and a group of 100 of the nearly 700 Cuban engineers and advisers on the island put up active resistance. Between 23 October and 21 November, when the operation was formally suspended, an estimated 45 Grenadians were killed and 337 wounded. Cuban casualties were estimated at 25 dead, 57 wounded. As many as 6,000 American
troops were on the ground at any one time, with 10,000 more available for reinforcement The use of overwhelming force was not without cost however. U.S. Army casualties were 18 dead and 57 wounded; the Marines suffered three dead and seven wounded.9
The considerable toll of American casualties claimed by “friendly fire,” by accidents, and by a general lack of coordination between participant forces was the principal object of criticism by military insiders in the postinvasion summing up. Even the achievement of the invasion’s primary objective was ill-planned. In his television address on Thursday 27 October, President Reagan said the Marine task force had been diverted because of concern that the some 1,000 Americans studying there at St. George’s Medical College could be “harmed or taken hostage.” But planners failed to determine just where the students lived and studied. While rescue forces “liberated” the main “True Blue” campus on the very morning of October 23, only 123 students were found there; 426 other students were at a different campus altogether, “Grand Anse,” halfway across the island; they were left to their own devices throughout the first two days of the invasion. Army and Marine forces took the second campus at about 4 P.M. on Wednesday afternoon. In the event, the students were never threatened by their Grenadian hosts or the armed Cubans near the campus; indeed, there were no student casualties in the affair. 10
Over a year after the Grenada invasion, an American cartoonist portrayed an American fighter pilot diving on a tropical scene signposted “Nicaragua” while exclaiming, “Take that, Shiites!” The twofold suggestion, which had considerable currency at the time, was that U. S. impotence in the Middle East had prompted the Grenada adventure and that Nicaragua could be a sequel. That the Grenada initiative was taken at short notice, precipitated by Shiite plastic explosives in Lebanon, was suggested by more than Reagan’s own insistence that the events “though oceans apart, are closely related. “11 On the level of diplomacy, the most striking evidence that Grenada was a reflexive action was the administration’s failure to consult with Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s prime minister, before undertaking an operation in Britain’s Commonwealth sphere. Reagan’s political “soul mate” reportedly learned of the plan at about 10 P.M. on Monday night, as the U.S. ships closed on the island. Thatcher’s “special relationship” with Reagan sufficed to permit a ninth hour (midnight) telephone call to the White House urging postponement of the invasion; but her plea was shrugged off.12 In a BBC World Service broadcast a week later, the prime minister protested against the lack of consultation and rejected the American president’s justification of the invasion.13
The rhetoric of the antiterrorism campaign proved effective in rallying American public support for the tough projection of power overseas. The campaign foundered on the inability to match rhetoric with effective action against the real terrorists of the Middle East. Air strikes, naval shelling, and counterterror car bombs appeared only to sow further dragon’s teeth. The debut of the battleship New Jersey and the destruction of the Marine garrison were followed by further bombings and a spate of kidnappings on a hitherto unprecedented scale. On 16 March 1984, the CIA’s Beirut chief, William Buckley, was kidnaped (he would be tortured to death by his captors in mid-1986). Other kidnappings would follow. On 20 September 1984, the U. S. embassy in Beirut was bombed again; fourteen people died. Forces of Lebanon’s Shiite militia were credited with the assaults and kidnappings. The hidden hand identified in the Shiite fundamentalists’ attacks was not Soviet, though it was Iranian.
The terrorism epithet was applied to the actions of the administration’s designated enemies across the board. Sometimes this assumption represented a serious misanalysis (or deliberate misrepresentation) of the nature of actual or potential conflicts. It also muddied home-front perceptions of overseas power projections in a manner intended to garner support. Presumably the American public wants to see its government’s use of force overseas as moral and good. The government’s approach, therefore, is to assure the public that an overseas military assignment is both overwhelmingly benevolent and ultimately safe. It was anathema to suggest (to the public) that others might consider an American intervention a kind of war.
The antiterrorism campaign at home aimed to promote low-intensity conflict as a way the United States would do what has to be done militarily without having to resort to war. As much of the low- intensity conflict spectrum became subsumed under the antiterrorist rubric, military intervention was characterized as a tough kind of crime control. Attacks on the U.S. military presence in conflict situations overseas, as a consequence, became all the more outrageous because they were unexpected. The killing of U.S. combat troops and advisers overseas from Lebanon to San Salvador would be regarded as terrorist acts somehow even more heinous than terrorists’ casual murders of American civilians.
A Defense Department commission on “The Beirut International Airport Terrorist Act” concluded that the attack on the Marines “met the criteria of a terrorist act.”14 This was not only a political necessity, it was roughly consistent with the then-current definition of terrorism a definition that strained to span the gap between open international warfare and common domestic criminality. Defense Department Directive 2000.12 defined terrorism as “the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a revolutionary organization against individuals or property, with the intention of coercing or intimidating governments or societies, often for political or ideological reasons.”15 (Thus, a domestic organization fighting a foreign expeditionary force can be dubbed “revolutionary” if it does not represent the government that is recognized by the foreign intruders.) The definition was almost as broad, and therefore almost as useful, for the justification of counterterror as the Joint Chief’s 1962 definition of insurgency: “illegal opposition to an existing government.”16
A subset of the insiders’ critiques of “low-intensity conflict” doctrine challenged the rush to classify assorted threats and acts of violence as “terrorism.” Pentagon Middle East specialist Lt. Col. F. Hof has challenged both the official definition of terrorism and the accepted wisdom in Washington that the destruction of the Marines’ Beirut headquarters was an act of terrorism. The September 1983 shelling by the New Jersey was, in Hof’s view, a consequence of “a decision to openly enter the Lebanese conflict... on behalf of Gemayel’s army.... From that moment the Marine BLT Battalion Landing Team] Headquarters. . . assumed the character of a lucrative military target. “17 In making the point, Hof refers to Che Guevara’s distinction between the military tactic of sabotage (which Guevara found a “highly effective method of warfare”) and terrorism (“which is generally ineffective and indiscriminate in its results, since it often makes victims of innocent people.... Sabotage has nothing to do with terrorism”).18 Terrorism, in contrast to other military tactics, is characterized in Hof’s analysis by “indiscriminate results which victimize innocent people” hardly the case in an attack on an expeditionary force’s military headquarters.19
There were other anomalies in the way the Pentagon was obliged to view the incidents in Beirut and terrorism in general. The Defense commission on the Beirut bombing had itself recognized that the official definition of terrorism unreasonably applied to only the actions of “revolutionary organizations.” This neatly ruled out of the terrorist class American or friendly government’s acts like the bombing of the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior. Terrorist violence was also defined solely in terms of its intended effect (not the substantive nature of the act). Hof observes wryly that by classing as terrorism all violence from “revolutionary” quarters “used to ‘coerce’ or ‘intimidate,’ the directive is, in effect, saying that all revolutionary violence is terrorism” including the United States’ own “revolutionary” clients: “Are we to conclude, therefore, that the Nicaraguan Contras are engaged in terrorism, with the United States serving as their state sponsors? That conclusion is inescapable if we rely on the DOD definition.”20
The Defense Department’s findings on the Beirut airport affair neatly fit the Reagan administration’s public relations needs in counterinsurgency and counterrevolutionary warfare in Central America. The lumping of all insurgent (or revolutionary) violence into the broad category of terrorism had long been a staple of administration foreign policy. The heavy toll of Middle East conflicts would allow the United States’ response to revolutionary threats of “low-intensity” around the world to be portrayed as a crusade against terrorism.
The 14 June 1985 hijack of TWA Flight 847 would conflate the United States’ antiterrorism and counterinsurgency programs even further. During a stopover at Beirut Airport, Shiite hijackers beat and shot to death U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem and dumped his body in front of the television cameras.21 Thirty-seven of the passengers were taken from the airport to safehouses in West Beirut the destination of dozens more Americans and Europeans who would be seized in the years to come by a variety of groups.22
The hijacker’s demands referred to the sequelae of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon: the release of 766 prisoners detained in Lebanon who had been taken to Israel (and who were themselves in a sense hostages). On this score, the hijackers were nominally in agreement with the United States, which had protested to Israel that the removal of Lebanese citizens to Israel was a violation of the Geneva Conventions.23 Complications arose insofar as the United States was obliged to back- channel its pressure on the Israelis to give in to the demands while maintaining its public posture of “no negotiations with terrorists.” In the end, the Israelis would release most of the prisoners in question, and the last of the American hostages recovered their freedom on 30 June 1985.24
The of the American public over the TWA hijack was aggravated during the same week by events a world away in San Salvador. A guerrilla attack on a sidevvalk cafe in which four Marines were assassinated led Americans to instinctively link hijacks and hostage-taking with revolutionary insurgency. The introduction of a Newsweek lead story on the hostage crisis observed that, just as navy diver Robert Stethem was buried, “six more Americans four U. S. Marines and two civilians died in a murderously efficient terrorist attack OTI an outdoor cafe in San Salvador.”25
The killings occurred in San Salvador’s entertainment district, the Zona Rosa. A pickup truck carrying some ten men in Salvadoran army uniforms pulled up alongside a swank cafe apparently after spotting the four Marines ten minutes before and sprayed the scene with submachine-gun fire. The Marines were in civilian clothes and, according to embassy sources, unarmed. The evidence that the four Marines had been targeted included reports that some were “finished off” after they were wounded.26 Two American civilians described as businessmen died with them, as did seven Salvadoran civilians (at least fifteen others were severely wounded). Only one American had previously been tracked and murdered by insurgents in El Salvador (although a round dozen had been murdered by government forces): Lt. Cmdr. Albert Schaufelberger, an adviser, who was shot in the head as he waited in his car for a girlfriend in June 1983. Schaufelberger’s murder, indeed, had been the object of disturbing speculation that he had been killed by a government “death squad” in a “black” operation a double-blind to blame the guerrillas and win increased military assistance.27
There were no doubts over the Zona Rosa killings a small oddball faction of the guerrilla coalition promptly claimed responsibility for the attack.28 Before the Zona Rosa (and by and large afterward), Salvadoran insurgents had fairly consistently eschewed terrorism if one applies the term only to indiscriminate violence against innocents in order to make a point. The Zona Rosa attack, with its echoes of attacks on the French cafes of Algiers, was out of the ordinary in that its planners clearly must have envisioned dozens or more civilian casualties (the gunmen, after all, strafed the cafe area). The attack also appeared to break an unstated FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) policy against the assassination of U.S. government operatives in noncombat situations (for public-relations reasons rather than any ethical reservations). The assassination of selected Salvadoran targets, by contrast, had long figured in the range of insurgent tactics (although, unlike their adversaries, Salvadoran insurgents in the 1980s rarely murdered prisoners).
The reporting in the United States of the TWA hijacking and the assault in San Salvador tended to echo and, in turn, to influence the administration’s own statements on the two incidents. The theme of the day was that America was under attack. Ronald Reagan, promising to rush through $128 million in military aid for El Salvador, characterized the Salvadoran insurgents as just another group of terrorists battering at the gates of American freedom: “We have our limits and our limits have been reached.... This cannot continue ... We must act against those who have so little regard for human life and the values we cherish.”29 This was strong stuff, and it showed just how effectively the fear and revulsion over Middle Eastern terrorism had spilled over to color the American reaction to attacks of any kind on Americans overseas. The San Salvador incident would permit the administration to piggy-back, security assistance and covert operations for Central America on the campaign against Middle East terrorism.
About a month after the Zona Rosa killings, the administration went public for the first time on U. S. operational involvement in Salvadoran counterterror. The White House announced that twenty-one guerrillas were tracked down and killed in reprisal for the killing of the six Americans (nine were said to have been captured).30 The operation, carried out by Salvadorans, had been made possible by “U.S.-supplied intelligence.” The White House said the operation had “inflicted a major defeat on the guerrilla organization which planned and carried out” the attack. Defense Secretary Weinberger went slightly further, stating that the government “with our assistance has taken care of in one way or another, taken prisoner or killed a number of the people who participated in that killing.” There was perhaps a psychological need at the time to have a ripping success story with which to back up the rhetoric on terrorism. Unfortunately (at least for those killed not to mention Weinberger’s credibility), the administration would later have to back down on its claim. The reprisal, as it turned out, misfired:: The Salvadorans had hunted down the wrong people. A Pentagon spokesman followed up the Weinberger interview clarifying that “he did not mean to suggest the actual triggermen had been captured or killed” rather, the group targeted was actually just one of several who could have carried out the killings. 31
The Zona Rosa killings would have an immediate return for the administration in the field of police assistance as would the kidnaping of President Duarte’s daughter not long afterward (Ines Duarte would subsequently be released unharmed). In July, a frustrated Congress agreed to “waive” the legal ban on assistance to the police forces of El Salvador and Honduras. In the ensuing months, bids to boost police and military assistance to El Salvador and throughout Central America would be couched in the terms of antiterrorism. William Ball III of the State Department warned the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Dante Fascell:
We face the prospect of more incidents of the type suffered in the June 19 Zona Rosa incident.... The democratic governments of the region face the prospect of more kidnappings such as the recently concluded ordeal of President Duarte’s daughter.... Terrorism is like a spreading plague. To be effective we need to ensure that all of the countries of the region are eligible for this assistance including Guatemala and Panama.32
After 1985 the propaganda side of the antiterrorist crusade in Central America would have little material of the quality of the Zona Rosa attacks: The most grotesque acts of terrorism there were those conducted not by revolutionaries but by American allies in El Salvador and Guatemala, and U.S. employees the Nicaraguan contras.
There would be no such dearth of terrorist grotesquerie in the Mediterranean. Reciprocal violence and retaliation there would continue throughout most of the balance of the Reagan administration. The hijack of the Italian cruise liner Achille Lauro in October 1985, two years after the bombing of the Marines, further fueled American outrage. The murder of an elderly wheelchair- bound American, Leon Klinghoffer, because he was a Jew, smacked of Nazism. There as no ambiguity to the act this was international terrorism at its most heinous. The American response was a test of its readiness to take risks: U.S. Navy fighters intercepted the Egyptian airliner carrying the four-man hijack team from the scene of the crime. At risk was both the American alliance with Egypt which had negotiated the surrender of the four and pledged safe-conduct to Tunisia and relations with Italy. The airliner was escorted by the American jets to the Italian air base at Sigonella, Sicily provoking a confrontation between a team from the American Delta force and Italian troops. The Italians ultimately made the arrests.33 Two months later, the same Egypt Air 737 aircraft was hijacked and forced down in Malta. A hard-nosed approach this time led to disaster. U.S. trained Egyptian commandos stormed the plane in an attempt to free the hostages. Sixty people died.34
The high profile of Middle East terrorism and the American response would periodically be renewed, peaking when U.S. planes bombed Libya in April 1986. The raiders killed two of the chief of state’s children in an undisguised attempt to “take out” Mu’ammar Qaddafi a high tech variation on the ancient option of assassinations.35 The administration justified the bombing of April 1986 by citing “intelligence reports” that, it said, linked Libya to a West Berlin nightclub bombing that had killed two U.S. servicemen.36
Beirut had routed the American intruders and held on to the innocents whom high explosive could not prise free, from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s aide Terry Waite to the newsman Terry Anderson. It would continue to haunt the West long after Reagan retired to his ranch. Iran, on the other hand, was too powerful and too dangerous to engage frontally,. The best target for the United States was Libya an enemy the American public could learn to hate and which American fighterbombers could hardly miss.37 Libya could be “safely” humiliated by American carrier groups and bled from 30,000 feet although it is arguable whether there is any safe distance today even for a superpower. Perhaps more important was its central role in the Reagan administration’s propaganda efforts. Libya’s Qaddafi did indeed become the figure Americans loved to hate and by periodically battering Libya from a distance Reagan could demonstrate his resolve in the war against terrorism in the Mediterranean.
The Reagan administration had picked a fight with Libya at the very beginning, claiming that Qaddafi’s regime, hydralike, provided the evil genius behind a multiplicity of terrorist groups. Libya’s Washington embassy was closed down in May 1981 and, in August 1981, the United States ostentatiously challenged Libya by edging a carrier group into the Libyan-claimed Gulf of Sidra. The Libyans took the bait when fighters from the carrier U. S. S. Nimitz moved into Libyan-claimed airspace over the Gulf of Sidra, the first of the feints and parries that would continue right up to the eve of George Bush’s inauguration.
The United States drew first blood when American Tomcat F-14s shot down two Libyan Sukhoi-22 fighters with air-to-air missiles. These were the first combat “kills” by U.S. fighters since the Vietnam War.38 The jingoistic enthusiasm with which news of the skirmish was greeted back home may have ensured a return engagement: Thrashing Libya was good domestic politics. A replay of the Gulf of Sidra incident of August 1981 was acted out in the final weeks of the Reagan presidency. On this occasion, the United States’ saber-rattling followed American campaign that Libya was preparing to produce chemical weapons which was curious in its timing, because CIA reports had claimed as early as 1983 that Libya load chemical weapons.39 As yet another American task force approached Libyan waters on 4 January 1989, Libyan fighters again rose to the bait: Fighters from the John F. Kennedy downed two as they shadowed the group some seventy miles off the coast. The Reagan administration would claim one last kill in its eight-year war against “terrorism.”
The brief renewal of the propaganda war on Libya in the dog days of the Reagan administration was an exception to the otherwise reduced emphasis On antiterrorism rhetoric in the last of Reagan’s eight years. The everyday reminders of the war against terrorism had subtly yielded to perestroika and the reordering of Eastern Europe. Terrorism, the scourge for which no remedy had been found, was largely removed from the front page by the last year of the Reagan administration. Little would be heard of the hostages still in the darkness of Beirut’s cellars as the 1988 elections approached.
A main theme in the administration’s counterterror rhetoric after 1983 was that going beyond the limits of the law was sometimes a matter of survival. American scruples were regarded as a potentially fatal handicap to the nation in a newly dangerous world. As in the 1960s, the challenges of insurgency and the new bugbear, terrorism were held to have proliferated, in part, because of American success in deterring nuclear and conventional war. Low-intensity conflict, moreover, was deemed a particularly insidious Challenge in that it aimed to take advantage of America’s high moral principles. The question was whether the United States had the backbone it needed to get down off its high horse and fight dirty when faced with the unscrupulous tactics of the adversary.
As before, it was suggested that the United States had accrued sufficient moral capital to set aside its principles when necessary in a 1986 speech, George Shultz maintained that the enemy presumed we would be bound by moral constraints and therein lay the challenge:
They hope that the legal and moral complexities of these kinds of challenges will ensnare us in our own scruples and exploit our human inhibitions against applying force to defend our interests. Ambiguous warfare has exposed a chink in our armor.... The fact is, we will never face a specific threat that does not involve some hard choices that arc difficult for a democracy. The simple, tragic truth about many lowintensity challenges is that the “rules of the game” arc often blurred, at best.40
The threat, however, was not particularly new. The “low-intensity” nomenclature addressed much the same concerns below the threshold of conventional war that had prompted the development of political warfare capabilities in CIA and army Special Forces after 1947. The launching of the counterinsurgency era in 1961 was explained in similar terms, ushering in an exponential growth in America’s political warfare activities. The rhetoric of the 1980s, too, was remarkably similar in tone and content to Kennan’s early discussions of the incipient Cold War and the Kennedy administration’s demand for a new dimension in America’s defense program.
While Shultz’s hard-line rhetoric was part public relations an attempt to blame Congress for foreign policy disasters such as Lebanon and to distract the public with so much martial posturing there had already been since 1981 a very real dimension of “fighting terror with terror” underway in Lebanon, Central America, and elsewhere. The intervention in Nicaragua had already bobbed to the surface in Congress with William Casey’s program to mine the harbors. Still to come, in October 1984, was the public furor over the American government’s “murder manual” for the Contras, and revelations about its help in creating Honduras’ army “death squad” in 1981 and its role in the March 1985 “counterterror” car bomb that killed eighty bystanders in Beirut. A counterpoint to Shultz’s gung ho approach to righteous intervention was provided by the more cautious approach taken at the Pentagon. This was often ascribed to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s personal views on the matter (as well as to a long-standing professional rivalry between the two men) but in fact reflected deeper doubts in the defense establishment than were suggested by the loud voices of the special warfare lobby.41 In a November 1984 speech, Weinberger wanted that the routine projection of military power in foreign affairs “would surely plunge us headlong into the sort of domestic turmoil we exprienced during the Vietnam war, without accomplishing the goal for which we committed our forces.”42
The Secretary of Defense was not speaking out against an expansion of covert action but rather a proliferation of ill-conceived military commitments with fuzzy objectives. The half-cocked commitment of troops in Lebanon, a symbolic power projection gone wrong, was an experience Weinberger (who had opposed the measure) did not want to repeat. The bottom line on committing troops, he argued, should be whether it is “deemed vital to our national interest or that of our allies.” In that case, the military would require “clearly defined political and military objectives”; troops would be sent in with “the clear intention of winning” with requisite logistical and personnel support. The Pentagon was determined to avoid either a repeat performance of Beirut or a Vietnam style quagmire without a clear political consensus at home.
Weinberger’s long list of conditions under which U. S. forces would be employed overseas was frequently cited as the stumbling block to bringing the military into action against terrorism. By contrast, Shultz complained that the United States risked becoming “the Hamlet of nations, worrying endlessly whether or not to respond,” and he pressed for a bold strategy “of active prevention, preemption, and retaliation.”43 Weinberger’s approach was clearly unwelcome to those who proposed that the norms for the use of military force become more akin to those applied to the CIA.
The cautious approach to intervention and a wanting against overestimating what multipurpose special operations forces can do was also put forward by realpolitik strategists who stressed “playing to win,” notably Samuel P. Huntington.44 His strategy for the United States in the Third World established the conditions for military intervention much like those set out by Weinberger: Ideally, the United States would act quickly so that its objective would be achieved before its political will to win diminished. Intervention would be offensive in nature, involve overwhelming force, and use to full advantage the United States’ high-tech arsenal.45 Huntington warned that military force should only be used to achieve military objectives and that the United States should not think it could defeat guerrillas “by sending out small counterinsurgent teams” or winning the hearts and minds of the populace:
Military forces arc not primarily instruments of communication to convey signals to an enemy; they are instead instruments of coercion to compel him to alter his behavior. Nor arc they normally good instruments of political and social appeal, to win the hearts and minds of people. Military forces arc designed to defeat opposing military forces, they arc not very useful in the pursuit of other goals.46
Weinberger’s preconditions for major military engagements overseas and the occasional critique of special operations did not severely restrain overseas adventurism under the Reagan administration. Covert action and “low-intensity” military action as “signals” to threaten adversaries and reassure the American public continued. Counterinsurgency programs would continue to emphasize special warfare even as they depended upon conventional air power and American technology.
The challenge of international terrorism in the 1980s provoked considerable debate within the military establishment and brought counterterror to the fore. One terrorism expert contrasted the “successful” counterterror aspect of counterinsurgency with the dearth of comparable doctrine for the more perilous international stage: “ A military response to terrorism . . . where it does exist is primarily directed at that type of terrorism associated with regional insurgencies.... Military doctrine to combat terrorism does not deal with those who practice non-territorial terrorism, who often seek targets . . . thousands of miles away from a strife zone.”47 Advocates of military involvement in the dirty work of international counterterrorism sought a new, improved doctrine that would address the constraints hitherto limiting such action. Not least of these were the moral constraints at home. These could, by and large, be circumvented in counterinsurgency and limited covert action, but nonetheless threatened to hobble any aggressive campaign against international terrorism.
The reluctance of the conventional armed forces to engage in international counterterrorism should not be exaggerated. The post-Vietnam military establishment’s conviction that it should not be called in unless a clear and obtainable objective was defined and a political mandate assured was, of course, a factor in both the small-war scenarios of “low-intensity conflict” and in the one-off operations of counterterrorism. The ‘‘unmilitary’’ aspects of counterterrorism’s covert action side were not a particular concern, because these tasks would continue to be assigned to forces outside the military mainstream. The matter of the political mandate, however, was a very real and decisive constraint: No one would like to be left swinging in the wind when politicians lose their nerve. The military’s part in offensive counterterrorism beyond the counterinsurgency area would be by and large in a unilateral American initiative. There would be no sharing of responsibility or displacement of opprobrium for failure.
Stephen Sloan, a terrorism expert who advocates greater military Involvement in counterterrorism, suggests a major constraint is lack of confidence in the mandate for military counterterrorism: “Counterterrorism operations are a risky and dirty business, and it is debatable whether government leaders have the political resolve to engage in such actions in the absence of a clear public mandate. “48 Although the military had made progress in developing special operations capabilities for counterinsurgency, “they have been unwilling to refine these assets to engage in offensive counterterrorism operations . . . with the clandestine services of the Central Intelligence Agency. “49
On 3 April 1984, a covert response to terrorism that had been under way in a piecemeal form for some time took official shape in a presidential directive on counterterrorism. NSDD-138, which remains classified, laid down the ground rules for going after terrorists. Although its final form was apparently less forthright than the original draft, it “did not exclude preemptive attacks on persons presumed to be preparing terrorist attacks. “50 Later in 1984, a Presidential Finding was to transform NSDD-138’s policy statement into counterterror action. The finding authorized and instructed the CIA to organize and train overseas counterterrorist units in several countries and to unilaterally preempt and punish terrorist action.51 It purportedly specified that the foreigners trained “were to be used with great care and only in situations where the United States had good intelligence that a [terrorist] group was about to strike.”52 Operatives undertaking “preemptive” actions were given “the authority to kill suspected terrorists if that was the only alternative.”53 Defense Department counterterrorism chief Noel Koch called the new policy “a quantum leap in countering terrorism from the reactive mode to recognition that pro-active steps are needed.”54
The counterterror programs covered by the 1984 finding were reportedly implemented in about a dozen countries ranging from Honduras (where a counterterror infrastructure had been installed since 1981) to Lebanon.55 The Lebanese project, “to form and train three teams of Lebanese capable of neutralizing or disabling terrorists,” eventually blew Up in the face of the Reagan administration. The tough talk would make
it even more difficult than before to explain the distinction between the permissible and the deplorable, or to deny the United States’ hidden hand behind the more heinous actions of its allies. Secretary of State Shultz had, after all, stated for the record that the American response to the Marine headquarters bombing should include “means of active prevention, preemption, and retaliation.”56 Less than a year later, a Lebanese intelligence source working with the CIA was quoted in a classic affirmation of the counterterror ethos: “You’ve got to stop terrorism with terrorism .57
The CIA’s Lebanese terror connection came to the fore on 8 March 1985, when a car bomb exploded below the apartment of Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, leader of the Shiite group Hezbollah, the Party of God. The bombing was the product of CIA work with counterterrorist Units in the intelligence service of Lebanese President Amin Gemayel’s short-lived minority government. The bomb destroyed an apartment block, killing some 80 people and injuring 200 Fadlallah was unharmed. Sheikh Fadlallah later said he had “accurate information about the involvement of American, Israeli and Lebanese intelligence organs” in the attack. The CIA, however, bore the brunt of the responsibility.58
The story reached the American public on 12 May when the Washington Post linked the attack to a secret directive from the president in the fall of 1984, ordering the CIA to train foreign teams to make preemptive strikes against suspected terrorists.59 The story attributed the attack to one of the CIA-trained units, and quoted a Lebanese intelligence source claiming credit for the action. The source maintained that while no American agents participated in the action, “the CIA knew it was being planned.”60 CIA officers, it seems, were more concerned with the disclosures than with the lives lost: they “were upset that one of [the agency’s] most secret and much- debated operations had gone astray.” The entire operation in Lebanon, they said, was immediately canceled.61
That CIA involvement in counterterror in Lebanon was canceled across the board is highly unlikely although some of its assets may well have been cut adrift. Gunning for Hezbollah’s leader was neither the last nor the first occasion for CIA involvement in covert action in Lebanon. According to Jack Anderson, a secret policy memorandum of 6 March 1982 marked a change from previous CIA policy on relations with the Lebanese government, concluding that henceforth “the agency should provide military and financial assistance, as requested, to the Phalangist militias.”62 Anderson certainly got one part of the story straight, but the conclusion of his November 1982 article was, to say the premature: “The CIA strategy has been so successful the Lebanon may now wind up as a U.S. protectorate.”63
The RAND Corporation’s chief terrorism specialist Brian Jenkin added a footnote to the sequence of terrorist actions in Lebanon, under scoring the tendency of creative “counter”-terrorism to sow dragon’ teeth.64 Jenkins dates the beginning of the continuing Lebanon hostage crisis to a kidnaping on 4 July 1982, just one month after Israel invader Lebanon. The victims were Iranians “three diplomats and a journalist” and their captors an Israeli-led Christian militia. The four, traveling in a car with diplomatic plates, included charge d’affaires Mohser Mousavi and political officer Ahmad Motevasselian, whom the State Department claimed was a top Revolutionary Guard official. They were stopped at a checkpoint manned by the Lebanese forces, taken away, and never seen again. Jenkins contrasts the lack of interest of American and Western media in the kidnaping with the fury of the Iranians and he dates the high-stakes era of political kidnaping in Lebanon to this incident. 65
It seems that the United States did little either to placate the Iranians or to distance itself from the perpetrators. Iran apparently sent feelers to the United States in 1985, offering assistance in locating the growing number of American hostages seized since 1982 in return for help in recovering their own. The United States at that time sent word that according to their sources, the four Iranians were dead. The Iranians might reasonably have suspected some degree of complicity, foreknowledge, or complacency in the matter, and the American failure to lean on its Israeli allies was perhaps sufficient motive to unleash their own brand of hostage counter/error. The United States’ indifferent response simply might have been a case of tactlessness, or a tendency to shrug off the violence of others as a matter of “political culture. “ A view of the Middle East as a culturally violent place, of people accustomed to car bombs and kidnappings, also may have helped to remove the constraints against the United States’ participation in the terrorism game. American officialdom sometimes apparently fails to understand that other nations react to having their diplomats held hostage or butchered in the dark in much the same way as we do.
Immediately after the May 1985 disclosures, the CIA issued a statement declaring that it “had no foreknowledge of the bombing incident’’ and “never provided any training of Lebanese security forces related to the events described.” This was particularly careful wording: What sounded like a denial that the CIA had trained the security forces involved was really an avowal that any training provided was unrelated to this particular car bombings Many found it less than convincing; Admiral Stansfield Turner, in a seminar on terrorism a year later, referred to the incident as an illustration of the risks involved in close association with foreign counterterrorists.66 Turner’s concern about the domestic costs of the antiterrorism crusade was already on the record: “I just believe fervently that we’ve got to be careful that in the name of defeating terrorism we don’t become terrorists.”67
The most cynical aspect of the antiterrorism campaign was a COncerted effort by the administration to hitch its ideological agenda from Beirut to Central America and the Caribbean to the antiterrorism bandwagon. Just weeks after the Beirut bombing, but before the American link was revealed, the new get-tough policy was reiterated In speeches by National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane (on 25 March 1985) and CIA chief William Casey (17 April 1985). The speeches appear to have been a public expression of the secret antiterrorism finding of 1984. Casey used virtually the same emphatic yet ambiguous words as had McFarlane:
We cannot and will not abstain from forcible action to prevent, preempt or respond to terrorist acts where conditions merit the use of force. Many countries, including the United States, have the specific forces and capabilities to carry out operations against terrorist groups.68
The attacks on U.S. Marines in San Salvador a few weeks later would be used to boost the administration’s rhetoric. Within a month Congress agreed to waive the ban on assistance to foreign police for El Salvador and Honduras assistance that was largely unrelated to the threat of terrorism but had everything to do with crushing opposition.
Congress was briefed on counterterrorism policy in May 1985 by Fred C. Ikle and the director of the State Department’s Office of Counter-Terrorism and Emergency Planning, Robert B. Oakley.69 Ikle distinguished between “antiterrorism,” which was defensive, and “counterterrorism,” which involves “offensive measures.” Both would be part of the program, and armed counterterrorism initiatives would be considered even with the “risk that innocent lives may be lost and operations fail.”70 Back-channel signals sent out at about the same time included leaks to American television networks suggesting that the executive ban on assassinations was under “serious review.” NBC reported “the USC of military commando teams to carry out executions, instead of the was being discussed.71 While this was officially denied by the White House, the tenor of the message held true: The administration was prepared to go to extremes in its antiterrorist operations and it wanted the world to know it.
President Reagan himself was a spokesman for the new hard-line approach. In a duly 1985 speech that appeared to be aimed at preparing the public for American reprisals overseas, the president identified a group of five countries as “a confederation of terrorist states . . . a new, international version of Murder, Inc.”72 NO one was surprised at the inclusion of Iran and Libya, but paired with them were Cuba, Nicaragua and North Korea. All five were said to be “engaged in acts of war against the government and people of the U.S.”; the United States therefore reserved “the right to defend itself.” That the same terms had been used previously to describe U. S. operations, when Lyndon Johnson protested that “We had been operating a damned Murder, Inc. in the Caribbean,” went unremarked (see p. 205).
Reagan’s speech set the stage for a new effort to boost security assistance in Central America, a region where terrorist methods on the Middle East model were largely the province of the United States’ allies. This time the administration’s appeals to public sentiment failed, the Central American Counter- terrorism Act, presented to Congress in August, was derailed at the committee stage. Administration efforts to tie aid to Guatemala into a regional package, and to sidestep human rights criteria across the board, provoked resistance to what was seen as an attempt to militarize Central America and not to combat terrorism at all.
A “Presidential Finding” was reportedly signed in January 1986 to permit the kidnaping of terrorist suspects in other countries and transport them secretly to the United States. Although it has never been released, press reports said it did not authorize assassinations.73 This finding coincided with another round of high-level rhetoric and strategic press briefings much like those of the spring of 1985. On 19 January, the State Department’s chief legal adviser, Abraham Sofaer, told the New York Times that the department would support “the ‘seizure’ of fugitives In other countries if the chances of success were reasonable.... [S]uch a move would violate international law but ... there were legitimate arguments in favor of ‘bending’ the rules in extraordinary circumstances.”74 Secretary of State Shultz remained, as always, the principal high-level spokesman for lash-back counterterror:
Some have suggested that even to contemplate using force against terrorism is to lower ourselves to the barbaric level of the terrorists. . . It is absurd to argue that international law prohibits us from capturing terrorists in international waters or airspace, from attacking them on the soil of other nations even for the purpose of rescuing hostages, or from using force against states that support, train, and harbor terrorists or guerrillas. 75
The Shultz statement and the finding of January 1986 appear to represent a victory over the more cautious approach taken by Pentagon chief Caspar Weinberger. Just days before Shultz’s comments, Weinberger had warned: “We must not use terrorist means to deal with terrorism.”76 His views were shared by many others in the foreign policy establishment. Among the more eloquent of them was former Undersecretary of State to Kennedy and Johnson, George Ball, who in 1984 warned:
[L]et us take care that we arc not led, in panic and anger, to embrace counter-terror and international lynch law and thus reduce America’s conduct to the squalid level of the terrorists.... Otherwise, we may find our position confused with that of the warrior bishop during the Albigensian crusade, who, when asked by a soldier how they could tell the CathoLics from the heretics, replied that they should kill them all, since “God will know his own.”77
The Albigensian analogy was not that farfetched: A popular (U.S. made) T-shirt among the Salvadoran military expressed the same sentiments. One of the better known officers of the elite Atlacatl battalion, Captain Juan Grande, better known as “Cuchillo Grande“ (Big Knife), was famous both for his unit’s penchant for murder and mutilation and for receiving journalists in a T-shirt adorned with the slogan, in English, “Kill them all, let God sort them out later.”78 The Salvadoran military had long applied such norms when dealing with its own people but what was tacitly accepted by the United States in unconventional warfare was not openly touted as an option in international conflict. The novel element was that the United States threatened to adopt the norms of the counterinsurgency state as the basis for its own behavior in the arena of international affairs.
Well after the Beirut car bomb and the Presidential Finding of January 1986, evidence that the United States continued to dabble in unilateral (and multilateral) terror in the Middle East began to come to the attention of the public through the Iran-contra hearings and the trial of Oliver North. Over a year after the car bomb incident, the press reported evidence that North and McFarlane had directed a top-secret inquiry into the attack on the Marine garrison and organized a response.79 Reportedly, intelligence tying the attack to Hezbollah had been gathered by the NSC through Marine trainers working with the Lebanese Deuxieme Bureau (hardly an unbiased source). North was said to have run operations outside CIA channels “against the Syrians with the help of aides to Samir Geagea, a Maronite Christian militia leader . . . [anal the suspicion was that the attack on Sheikh Fadlallah may have been one of those operations.”80 This, in turn, according to one interpretation, may have doomed the subsequent efforts of the NSC troubleshooters to play covert diplomacy with the Iranians.
The “Contra-gate” hearings lent substance to the reports of direct American involvement in counterterrorism above and beyond the efforts of the CIA. The heavily censored transcript of testimony by Lt. Col. North to a 9 July closed session, released in February 1988, provided some details of the illicit side of U.S. programs although reference was made only to actions which took place considerably after the Beirut car bomb incident. A program of counterterrorism had been developed jointly by North with Israeli counterterror expert Amiram Nir in meetings in November 1985 and January 1986, with a budget of $2.5 million siphoned off from the profits of U. S. arms sales to Iran.81 The “projects” were intended to deal with the holding of American hostages and apparently included proposals for “kidnapping Lebanese or Iranian citizens.”82 North said plans were sent to Rear Admiral John Poindexter for presentation to President Reagan, and discussed with CIA chief William Casey, who “was enthusiastic about it.”83
Although North maintained that “none of these operations ever went to fruition,” there is some reason to believe otherwise. North acknowledged that “two or three of them were approved for pursuing,” and that “seed money” was committed to them “to see if things could get going.”84 Further press reports followed in December 1988 after Amiram Nir’s alleged death in a mysterious plane crash in Mexico, that suggested the joint Israeli- American terror operations had indeed gone forward in Beirut and possibly in Syria. In Beirut a counterterrorist team, using Druze gunmen, was credited with the abduction and murder of a Shiite “gangster” who had organized the kidnaping of journalist Terry Anderson.85 Less plausible was Syria’s charge that a series of bombings in Syria on 16 April 1986, the day after the United States bombed Libya, was the work of an NSC-Israel counterterror partnership. Between 140 and 144 people were killed and 149 injured.86 A covert paramilitary offensive in progress against Syria might, however, explain why Syria was left off President Reagan’s July 1985 list of states sponsoring terrorism: Deciding not to telegraph one’s intention was particularly logical in the Syrian case, where terrorism against Syrian targets might reasonably have been presumed to be of Israeli or Iraqi origin.
The launching of unilateral counterterror on the international stage was among the more dramatic, and costly, of the initiatives of the Reagan administration. It was inevitable that American involvement in Middle East terrorism would lead to terrible mistakes and be found out. U. S. responsibility for the carnage produced by one car bomb lent credence to accusations over countless other horrors. The Reagan administration, concluded the Washington Post, had gone out on a limb with “repeated public warnings of its intent to pre-empt and punish the attackers even if the evidence was not of courtroom quality and even if innocents were endangered.” The rhetoric of counterterror was hardly conducive to restraint:
The administration also responded, it now turns out, with a CIA program to set up several foreign-manned counterterror teams in Lebanon.... What remains so distressing is the utter predictability of the whole sequence.... The United States has lost a major part of the moral advantage it claimed as a victim and enemy of terrorism.... The principal responsibility . . . falls on a president captivated by thoughts of fighting fire with fire.87
Some months before the Beirut incident, terrorism specialist Robert Kupperman expressed concern that simplistic counterterrorism could backfire a wanting that became more compelling in the following years. Sending assassination teams overseas, said Kupperman, would invite retaliation in kind and lead to military confrontation and the prospect of failure (“Suppose the hit team had failed: some of our elite forces would have been caught, publicly humiliated, tried and hanged”). But the main risk of covert counterterrorism, however meticulous the planners, would be loss of the moral high ground:
Their very secrecy can open the door to unacceptable behavior recall the recent Central American “how-to” assassination manual, or the mining of Nicaraguan harbors. We clearly undermine our position against international terrorism which we can be accused correctly of engaging in the tactics of terror ourselves. The notion that their terrorism is automatically immoral and that our counterterrorism is automatically more| will not stand much scrutiny.88
Kupperman cogently observes that counterterrorism often contributes to terrorists’ desired end: a breakdown of the values of the society under attack. “Terrorist acts create public and media demands for government action. That action can sacrifice more than we can afford. We must combat the McCarthy-era tendency to reach for simplistic solutions that turn out to be constitutionally corrosive.”89