It's Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, March 8, 1985, an Islamic Sabbath. In Bir
el-Abed, an impoverished, crowded Shi'ite 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 kilometers 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 200 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 US 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 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
director William Casey, president Ronald Reagan sanctioned the Bir attack to
avenge a devastating truck-bombing of the US Marine Corps barracks at Beirut
airport in October 1983 - itself a bloody reprisal for earlier US 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 Shi'ite 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 Beirut
airport," Caspar Weinberger, Reagan's secretary of defense, told the Public
Broadcasting Service in 2001, "and we certainly didn't then."
While a spiritual mentor to many, including militants, in Lebanon's
long-oppressed Shi'ite 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 Shi'ites, American scholars and other informed observers knew
Fadlallah as an insistent voice against Iranian dictates. He had repudiated
Iran's urging of Shi'ite 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 US 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 US - 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 made not in careful deliberation with the
secretaries of state and defense, the national security adviser, 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: hardline 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, Reagan, an ever genial man
whose archetypal simplicity and decency endeared him to voters, but who was
known by his closest advisers 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 - to whatever covert action his former campaign manager was
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
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 1984-85, the Middle East 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 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 [National Security Council] and White House and even to
[the Department of] 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 Shi'ite 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 US 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, US forces were not in, or near, major combat anywhere on the planet.
The concerted right-wing, military-industrial challenge to detente of 1974-76
had been beaten back. Its Republican champion, Reagan, had fallen short in his
presidential race with Gerald Ford. The Democrats' prototype neo-conservative,
Washington senator Henry Jackson, despite a huge corporate and Israeli lobby
war chest, had proved an uninspiring candidate and was eliminated in the
Now gone from the White House as well was Gerald 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.