Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, March 8, 1985, an Islamic Sabbath — In Bir El-Abed, an impoverished, crowded Shiite quarter in the southern reaches of the Lebanese capital, Muhammad Husain Fadlallah stops on the street to speak to an elderly woman; and so, the revered 51 year-old cleric, delayed momentarily, will not be home at the usual time when a car bomb explodes at his apartment doorstep with a force felt miles away in the Chouf Mountains and well out in the Mediterranean.
“Even by local standards,” reported the New York Times from car-bomb and shell-shocked Beirut, the explosion “was massive.” Eighty-one people were killed — men, women, and children — and more than two hundred wounded. Fadlallah, the target of the attack, was unhurt. The next day, a notice hung over the devastated area where grief-stricken families were still digging the bodies of loved ones out of the rubble. It read: “Made in the USA.”
The sign was more apt than even its furious makers knew. The terrorist strike on Bir El-Abed was a classic product of American covert policy. Behind the bombing lay a convoluted secret history and, beyond that, a longer legacy of power wantonly uninformed by “intelligence.”
Agreeing, as usual, with the proposals of CIA Director William Casey, President Ronald Reagan sanctioned the Bir attack to avenge a devastating truck-bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport in October 1983 — itself a bloody reprisal for earlier American acts of intervention and diplomatic betrayal in Lebanon’s civil war that had cost hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian lives. The barracks attack slaughtered 241 Marines, part of an international peacekeeping force sent to Lebanon in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of the country.
After its own operatives had repeatedly failed to arrange Casey’s car-bombing, the CIA “farmed out” the operation to agents of its longtime Lebanese client, the Phalange, a Maronite Christian, anti-Islamic party, avowedly built on the Italian fascist model. The CIA targeted Fadlallah, in particular, because of his reputation for fiery sermons in favor of social justice and national independence — and because allied spy agencies — Israel’s Mossad, Saudi Arabia’s GID, and Phalangist informers — claimed he led a militant Shiite group that bore responsibility for the attack on the Marines.
In fact, Washington was unsure who had killed them. “We still do not have the actual knowledge of who did the bombing of the Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport,” Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, told PBS in 2001, “and we certainly didn’t then.”
While a spiritual mentor to many, including militants, in Lebanon’s long-oppressed Shiite community, Fadlallah was known to shun any office in a political party or secular organization. Ironically, while the Reagan administration and the CIA feared the influence of theocratic Iran among Lebanese Shiites, American scholars and other informed observers knew Fadlallah as an insistent voice against Iranian dictates. He had repudiated Iran’s urging of Shiite rule over multi-faith Lebanon — so much so that some in Tehran even suspected him of pro-American sympathies.
CIA officials also knew that all three “friendlies” — the Israelis, Saudis, and Phalangists — frequently tried to manipulate U.S. policy to their own advantage. This was regularly done with “cooked” (or withheld) intelligence or by joint-actions meant to enhance the standing of senior CIA officials. An ex-Mossad officer would later reveal, for example, that Israeli intelligence had learned in advance of the Marine barracks plot, yet raised no alarms, calculating that such an attack might spur anti-Arab sentiment in the U.S — or even drive the Marines out of Lebanon, giving Israel a freer hand. Only too glad to have the Americans, or their clients, do the dirty work of killing Fadlallah, a Saudi billionaire proposed to pay for the Bir bombing himself; and the CIA accepted.
In fact, the Bir bombing rested on information known in the CIA to be false, or, at best, highly suspect. As a result, it was one of the most heedless and consequential atrocities in the history of CIA covert actions — no small distinction. The pivotal figures in that decision, the men who made all the difference, included the then-still-obscure CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence and self-styled Middle East expert, Robert Gates.
As documents, testimony, and other revelations would later make clear, the Bir plot was typical of Reagan era covert actions, which would include: Illegal aid to drug-running Contras (at war with the left-leaning Sandinista government of Nicaragua); contraband arms sent to both Iraq and Iran (at war with each other); tens of millions of dollars to the anti-Soviet Catholic Church in Poland, but also to nun- and priest-murdering death squads in El Salvador; and, most fateful of all, hundreds of millions to Islamic fanatics in Afghanistan. In the Reagan administration’s secret wars — from Managua to Tripoli, Beirut to Kabul — crucial decisions were often taken not in careful deliberation with the secretaries of state and defense, the national security advisor, or other top officials, to say nothing of the requisite Congressional committees, but when the CIA director and the president were alone.
There they would be, usually in the Oval Office: Hard-line zealot and Catholic dogmatist Bill Casey, mumbling his plan (as he typically did), notoriously careless with facts, ever ready for the bloodiest of covert actions, and by far the most powerful CIA chief in history. With him, Ronald Reagan, an ever genial man whose archetypal simplicity and decency endeared him to voters, but who was known by his closest advisors to be nearly oblivious to the details of policy, and even hard of hearing in one ear. “Didn’t understand a word he said,” Reagan remarked with a shrug after a typical briefing with the mumbling Casey. Yet, in almost every instance, the President characteristically agreed — or seemed to hear and agree — on whatever covert action his former campaign manager was hatching.
For the Agency’s director, it meant awesome, unprecedented, power. The only check on him lay with his three deputies, among the precious few who learned of his schemes before Reagan would nod approval. In the Bir plot, two of those men were hardly prone to oppose the director. Principal Deputy John McMahon and Deputy for Operations Clair George were careerists from the CIA’s covert side. Along with most of their underlings, they knew little of the increasingly complex religio-political currents and countercurrents roiling the Middle East. To some extent, they also depended on, and so were enmeshed with, the same foreign spy services targeting Fadlallah.
In general, they tended to welcome covert action paid for and carried out by allies. Such operations appeared to involve little risk to the CIA, or their reputations, but offered the possibility for easy credit. Not least, they owed their powerful jobs to the Director, whose right-wing zeal and extraordinary sway they relished. “Inspired by Casey’s enthusiasm for high-rolling covert action,” Washington Post reporter Steve Coll wrote, “they loved his energy and clout.”
Typically, there was, then, but one chance to head off the coming Bir atrocity. The Agency’s Directorate of Intelligence, under Bob Gates’ direction since 1982, was the repository for the sort of analysis that was supposed to inform any covert-action or foreign-policy decision. If Operations was the CIA’s muscle and guile, Intelligence was meant to be its eyesight, hearing, nerves, brain, its sense and sensibility. Casey did not often formally consult the analysts in his operational machinations, but Gates was his closest deputy, privy to every covert action, and commonly went beyond his nominal role as head of “analysis” in directly recommending policies and actions or ordering and shaping intelligence studies to support whatever policy Casey wanted.
In the winter of 1984-1985, the Middle Eastern specialists of Gates’ directorate were never officially informed of the Bir bombing plan. They could, however, make out its silhouette from cable traffic, requested briefings, and other bureaucratic jungle drums that beat in even the most closely-held operations. They saw the assassination of Fadlallah taking shape, if not the use of a massive car bomb guaranteed to kill scores in the vicinity.
“In our shop, we knew what Casey would be looking for in revenge for the barracks bombing and what the Israelis and Saudis were pushing,” related one analyst who would later become a senior Agency official. “We laid out all the unknowables and caveats and how we were being whipsawed [by allied spy agencies], and we sent it upstairs for Gates to give to Casey, and we recommended it be bootlegged to the NSC and White House and even to Defense if it came to that.”
When there was no sign that Gates had done anything with their warning, two of the analysts confronted the deputy director. “This is terrible,” one of them told him.
“We are not here to pick a fight with the boss,” Gates answered dismissively. “I’m not particularly concerned about some set-to in Lebanon.”
Risking their careers, the analysts tried to warn officials they knew in the Pentagon, but they got no response. A few weeks later, like any other outsiders, they would read the New York Times account of the Bir explosion. “I was literally sick,” one of them remembered, “the rest of the day.”
Outside of Lebanon, the CIA’s Bir operation would be a passing, little-noticed tragedy, the sort that sometimes marks an epoch. Among those of Fadlallah’s bodyguards not killed in the explosion, 22 year-old Imad Mugniyah would join the emerging Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and, over the next decade, as a shadowy chief of security, direct a series of reprisal attacks against Americans in a bloody chain reaction of terror and counter-terror. Among Fadlallah’s admirers, outraged by the bombing and ever after distrustful of the Americans he had once admired, was a round-faced, 25 year-old theology student of already recognized charisma and organizational skills. He would rise to become Hezbollah’s leader — and, after his forces fought the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to a standstill in the summer of 2006, one of the most popular figures in the Arab world: Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
In a sense, the bomb that shattered Bir El-Abed began to be assembled eight years earlier with the arrival in the White House of a grinning, God-fearing Georgian who pledged memorably in his inaugural address: “To be true to ourselves, we must be true to others. We will not behave in foreign places so as to violate our rules and standards here at home, for we know that the trust which our nation earns is essential to our strength.”
On election night 1976, the three American television networks closed coverage with the old Democratic victory song, “Happy Days Are Here Again.” The words sounded right to many who were banking on a post-Vietnam turn to wisdom in foreign policy from the newly elected Jimmy Carter. For the first time in more than a decade, American forces were not in, or near, major combat anywhere on the planet.
The concerted right-wing, military-industrial challenge to dÃ©tente of 1974-1976 had been beaten back. Its Republican champion, Ronald Reagan, had fallen short in his GOP presidential race with Gerald Ford. The Democrat’s prototype neoconservative, Washington Senator Henry Jackson, despite a huge corporate and Israeli lobby war chest, had proved an uninspiring candidate and was eliminated in the primaries. Now, gone from the White House as well was Ford, who in the final year of his presidency had fallen into traditional Cold War mode, and with him two key officials who had eagerly joined the drive to push policy ever-rightward, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and White House Chief of Staff Dick Cheney.
In their place were new men, apparently chastened by Vietnam. The national security advisor was Zbigniew Brzezinski. As an academic he had been the epitome of a Baltic Syndrome Russophobe, but in presidential politics, as an advisor to Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Jimmy Carter in 1976, he had been circumspect while angling for high office.
Brzezinski in any case looked to be outnumbered by the new administration’s declared “moderates” — Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, an establishment elder who had emerged from the Kennedy-Johnson era quagmire-averse, committed to dÃ©tente, and to a further strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT II); at the Pentagon, a defense establishment scientist, Harold Brown, who abhorred the thought of foreign military entanglements while he rebuilt Vietnam-shattered department morale; and, at the CIA, a Navy prodigy who had been first in his (and the new president’s) class at Annapolis, “Admirable Admiral Stansfield Turner,” as the New Republic called him, a thoughtful, even reforming exception to the increasingly well-known horrors of the Agency’s history.
At the outset, the New York Times editorially praised this regime as “rightly unruffled by the old politics of cold war confrontation.” The right-wing National Review was likewise sure that Washington “will now shrink from battle with the enduring enemy.” Both were wrong. No one reckoned with the 52 year-old Georgia governor and former peanut farmer, whose provincial political freshness and moral uprightness was welcomed by a Watergate- and Vietnam-weary public. Nor did they reckon with Brzezinski and an energetic assistant named Robert Gates.
As with so much else, our barely surface-scraped history has yet to show the tragic complexity that was Jimmy Carter, whose presidency one scholar would sum up as “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” There were omens of what was to come even before he took office — his long-held support for the Vietnam War, his campaign-trail vagueness (like Brzezinski’s), his administrative equivocations as governor, his steely religiosity born of a conversion following an electoral defeat. Whatever the causes, the effects would be all too plain.
Brzezinski and aide Bob Gates knew their man. With earnest conviction, habitual vacillation, and chaotic management of his soon splintering regime, Jimmy Carter — behind what the doomed Shah of Iran once described as his “frozen blue eyes” — would prove among the coldest of cold warriors. Four years later, when the incessant bureaucratic infighting for the President’s favor was over, Vance (no pussycat) was a broken man; Brown and Turner had been sidelined; and even a victorious Brzezinski was uneasy with the wreckage they had wrought.
By then, the precedents had been set for the imperial excesses that would make the 1980s the preamble to our own post-9/11 era. Though glad to see them go, at least one beneficiary of their rule was happy with the result. “Great continuity between Carter’s approach…. and that of his successor, Ronald Reagan,” was how Bob Gates would proudly describe it.
“Competition” Trumps “Cooperation”
When it came to the Soviet Union, Carter was typically inconsistent in his first months in office, veering between one tactic and another in arms control while a bureaucratic war over SALT II erupted around him. On Gates’ recommendation, the new president met with perennial hawk Paul Nitze, now representing the Committee on the Present Danger, the latest right-wing, military-industrial front fielded to attack dÃ©tente. Soon, Brzezinski and Gates had won a defining victory. They had persuaded Carter to bring in the national security advisor’s old friend and onetime co-author, Samuel Huntington, as a special consultant on strategic policy. The Harvard reactionary would later become one of the gurus of the neoconservative movement (and author of the ubÃ«r-Orientalist book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order).
In the summer of 1977, his cohorts would leak to the Washington Post that Huntington’s job was “to scare the Carter Administration into greater respect for the Soviet Union.” Working in liaison, Huntington, Gates, and hard-liners in and out of government promptly did just that — a process which culminated in Presidential Review Memorandum #10, (in which both Brzezinski and Gates were instrumental). A time-honored “study,” using flawed or confected intelligence and meant to channel presidential policy, the infamously shallow PRM-10 nodded to dÃ©tente, while legitimizing the fraudulent premise of the old Team B, that 1976 group of right-wing outsiders a Reagan-nervous Ford had commissioned to counter the CIA’s non-existent underestimation of Soviet strength.
The conveniently have-it-both-ways Huntington-Brzezinski-Gates document combined “cooperation and competition” into a single U.S. policy toward Russia — the first half to be honored with pledges of faithfulness by diplomatic day; the second indulged with a serial philanderer’s abandon by covert-action night. Among other historic effects, PRM-10 would be the basis for what would develop into Carter’s “rapid deployment force” in the Persian Gulf, meant to protect American “access” to Middle Eastern oil, and eventually into a full-fledged Gulf military command, CENTCOM.
It would signal the beginning of what historian Andrew Bacevich has labeled our “oil wars” in the region. More generally, the “report” sanctioned, for a new era, the use of trumped-up “special” panels or consultants to incite political alarm in the body politic whenever militarism — and especially military spending — was thought to be in danger of waning.
Against the continuing obstruction of Brzezinski and Gates, Vance would coax SALT II, which had seemed imminent at Carter’s inauguration, to a cheerless Vienna signing at a summit meeting in July 1979. By then, however, the negotiations had been eviscerated by Congressional opposition that emerged ineluctably out of the growing mood of confrontation with the USSR; and the agreement would die just six months later without Senate ratification when Carter withdrew the treaty as part of his outraged reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, just as all the hawks prodded him to do from the first weeks of his presidency, Carter went on to approve major new weapons programs — what the Soviets, in mounting alarm, saw as “an endless build-up of power” — that made the shell game of “cooperation” a travesty.
A shallow Congress, aided by a diffident media — along with an ever uninformed, distracted public — would never deal with the realities of the Carter-launched arms build-up that would become epochal in the Reagan years. No matter that it involved hundreds of billions of precious taxpayer dollars, venal interests holding hostage crucial public needs for generations to come, and, in the process, the ever-increasing danger of national extinction in nuclear war by accident or provocation. “Don’t worry, boys,” Mississippi Senator John Stennis once told the staff of the Armed Services Committee which he chaired, “nobody ever takes a hard look at the real numbers here.”