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How the Beirut Bombing Spawned the Modern Surveillance State
A 1983 terror attack caught the U.S. with its eyes closed. It swore to keep watching and watching and watching.
Editor’s note: Thirty years ago today, 241 U.S. Marines were killed in a suicide bombing attack on their barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. It was one of the worst losses of life in the Marines’ recent history, and marked the dawn of a new era in suicidal religious terrorism against the United States.
But it also marked the beginning of a new approach to national security — using information technology to gather and analyze clues about attacks before they happened. In this excerpt from his book The Watchers, senior writer Shane Harris recounts the events of that fateful morning in Beirut, and how, in ways that few could have predicted, it paved the way for America’s modern surveillance state.
The sun dawned about a quarter after six on Sunday, October 23, 1983. Most of the Marines were still asleep. A few who were up and moving about the compound noticed a yellow truck outside the concertina wire that guarded the perimeter. It was a Mercedes-Benz stake-bed, a workhorse used to carry heavy cargo. Before anyone could figure out why it was there, the truck picked up speed and crashed through the fence.
A sentry in one of the two guard posts nearby turned in time to see the truck heading straight for the Marines’ barracks. He grabbed his unloaded M16 and reached for a magazine of ammunition. The truck sped through an open gate, swerved around a sewer pipe, and aimed for the small sergeant-of-the-guard post stationed at the entrance to the hulking concrete building.
That guard was facing the lobby and heard the roaring truck behind him. He turned, and he thought for a moment, "What’s that truck doing inside the perimeter?" An instant later he was sprinting through the building to another entrance on the far side.
"Hit the deck!" he yelled. "Hit the deck!" He glanced back over his shoulder and watched the truck flatten his post before crashing into the lobby. It halted there. One or two seconds passed, and then the guard saw a bright orange and yellow flash. Then he realized he was flying through the air.
First Lieutenant Glenn Dolphin awoke to the barks of an early-rising Arkansas captain. He exhorted the roomful of exhausted men to join him at the barracks gym for a workout before reveille. They were splayed out on cots set up in the parking bay of an old fire department building. Dolphin looked over. The guy worked out constantly, and he thought he looked like a million bucks. But it was Sunday, the one day Dolphin could sleep in. The only Marines up now were jogging the perimeter, enjoying the rare morning quiet. The rest would stroll down later to the chow tent, where the cooks set up an omelet station on Sundays. Dolphin had been on duty in the Combat Operations Center until midnight and had been looking forward to the extra rest. Fuck it, he thought, eyeing the energetic captain. Dolphin rolled over in his cot to steal a few more minutes’ sleep.
Dolphin had been encamped with the Twenty-fourth Marine Amphibious Unit at the Beirut International Airport for seven months now, ostensibly as part of an international peacekeeping force deployed into Lebanon’s bloody civil war. But there was little progress to be seen. In April, someone had slammed a bomb-laden truck into the lobby of the U.S. embassy. The suicide attacker killed sixty-three people, including most of the CIA station in Beirut. After that, the notion that the Americans were in Beirut on a peacekeeping mission struck the twelve hundred Marines as absurd.
In order to avoid being perceived as an occupying force, the Marines had been ordered to shelter in place on the south side of the airport. They built makeshift bunkers out of sandbags, which cast long shadows on the vast, open expanse of dirt and asphalt, providing easy marks for gunmen. The Marines’ rules of engagement, handed down from the Pentagon, said they must maintain a noncombat presence-that meant no heavily fortified bunkers, nothing more than concertina wire to mark their compound, and, in what struck so many of the men as sheer madness, no loaded weapons.
Dolphin was twenty-five, but he felt old. The wind and sand had beaten the shine off his skin and dulled his red hair. He’d been wondering if his unit’s reinforcements might arrive by Thanksgiving or Christmas. The sun still low in the sky, he started to fall back to sleep on his cot.
Dolphin felt a wave of pressure before he actually heard the explosion. He and the other Marines were lying next to six huge metal doors. They flew off their frames and away from the building as daylight flooded into the parking bay.
Dolphin saw the doors slow down in midair, and then careen back toward him, sucked in by a vacuum created in the blast. One door clipped him on the back. Then he heard the boom, so loud he couldn’t have imagined it before that moment. Everything in the bay that wasn’t nailed down flew up in a maelstrom of shrapnel. A skylight at the top edge of the building shattered, and glass rained on the Marines.
The open-air lobby of the barracks, known to the Marines as the battalion landing team headquarters, or BLT, was surrounded by food storage areas, weight machines, and an armory cache. The first, second, and third floors held the Marines’ quarters. Its central location on the airport grounds made it the perfect distribution hub for water, rations, and supplies, and its roof offered 360-degree panoramic views and a platform for radio antennae.
When the Marines took over, the BLT was a bombed-out, battle-scarred shell of a building. The second, third, and fourth floors, once encased in plate-glass windows, looked now like rows of broken teeth. The holes were patched with plywood and scrap cloth from sandbags, and makeshift screens of plastic sheets flapped in the wind. The elevator shafts had been burned out. But for all that, the decrepit, Brutalist monstrosity was still standing. The damned thing had not been moved, and so the Marines naturally gravitated to it.
The racket of a Mercedes truck crashing into the building surely woke some of the men. But for a few seconds before the driver detonated his cargo, the truck sat still and quiet in the lobby. The blast severed the base of the building, a set of upright concrete columns measuring fifteen feet in circumference and reinforced with iron rods nearly two inches thick. The BLT’s most prominent design feature, an open courtyard that extended from the lobby up to the roof, captured the blast like gas in a bottle, and intensified its force.
The entire structure rose into the air. The top of the building exploded upward in a V shape, like two great arms stretched up to the sky. The BLT hung for a moment in midair, then fell back in on itself, crushed downward, and poured into a crater nine feet deep.
Blood dripped off Dolphin’s back. He walked over the glass-covered floor and made his way outside. He saw pieces of concrete falling from the sky. At least half a minute had passed since he’d heard the blast.
He ran to the Combat Operations Center located next to his sleeping quarters. This was his default duty station during Condition One, a basewide emergency. Another communications officer was pulling himself up off the floor; the blast had thrown him from his chair and separated his shoulder. Long cracks ran up the wall of the COC. Dolphin could see daylight through them.
The Marines on duty scurried to reassemble the radios littering the floor. Something must have landed on us, Dolphin thought to himself. Something huge. Rumors had circulated that the Soviets were supplying the Syrian military with intercontinental ballistic missiles. Could someone have nuked the base? Was that what this was?
"I can’t raise the BLT," a young corporal called out. "I can’t get them to pick up the phone."
A staff sergeant flew into the room. "The BLT is gone!" he yelled. "It’s gone!"
Dolphin was confused. Did they deploy? Maybe they’re going out after whatever hit us, he thought. Then a third man came in, a major, reporting that the building itself was gone.
Dolphin went outside. First he saw the smoke. And then Marines, walking around in circles, some of them with almost all their clothes blown off. On a few men Dolphin could make out only the standard-issue red exercise shorts the Marines wore during workouts. Everyone was covered from head to toe in a gray powder, as if he’d rolled in it. Facial features, hair color, race-everything was obscured under the ghostly cover of pulverized concrete.
Dolphin spotted a staff sergeant named Lawson speeding in his Jeep toward a medical post across the street. Lawson tried to steady a wounded Marine in the passenger seat with his free hand; the man’s head rolled and bobbed like it might come off. One of his eyes had blown out of its socket and flopped down on his cheek. Dolphin turned and looked down the road. Where the BLT should have stood, he noticed a new view-the ocean.
Shit! Oh, shit! I’ve got to get on task here, he told himself. A catatonic Marine was standing in front of him, wearing nothing but the waistband of his red shorts. His body hair had been burned off. His arm hung limp. Dolphin tried to lift him, but the pain from his back swelled.
"Listen!" he said. "Help isn’t going to come to you. You’ve got to help yourself." The Marine started walking. "I don’t want to lose my arm," he said. "I don’t want to lose my arm." He kept uttering the refrain as Dolphin walked with him up the road. He spotted Lawson driving back to the blast site. Dolphin loaded the man into the Jeep. "Just take him," he said, and then went looking for more.
The whole day went like that.
The ring of the secure phone at his home in suburban Maryland summoned Admiral John Poindexter, President Reagan’s deputy national security adviser, from slumber. He reached over to his bedside table and lifted the receiver. It was nearly 1:00 A.M.
A watch officer in the White House Situation Room relayed what he knew. A bombing at the Marine compound. Minutes later the French regiment also had been hit at their base, not far away. Near simultaneous attacks. Perhaps copycats of the embassy bombing. The final death count would reach 241. The last time the Marines had lost that many men in one day, they were storming the beaches of Iwo Jima.
Poindexter absorbed the information. His immediate reaction to the bombing wasn’t anger. He wasn’t morose. He was actually annoyed.
We should have seen this coming, he told himself.
Since arriving at the White House in 1981, as a military assistant, Poindexter had been trying to fix the shambles that was the early warning and crisis management system of the national security apparatus. Poindexter, an engineer by training, was given intimidating task of upgrading the Situation Room, which was, despite popular notions, a technological backwater that lacked many of the basic necessities for keeping the president in touch with the world. Across the horizon, Poindexter and other officials saw threats for which the President had little advance warning–from the Soviets to socialist forces in Latin America and, now, suicidal terrorists.
Poindexter had made great strides in little time beefing up the government’s intelligence capabilities. The Situation Room was outfitted with modern communications equipment. And now he was putting the finishing touches on the new $14 million Crisis Management Center, a technological outpost in the Old Executive Office Building, the imposing Second Empire-style building next to the White House where the NSC staff kept their offices. Poindexter had installed videoconferencing systems, large screens on the walls, and links to the systems that ran diplomatic, military, and intelligence cable traffic. He had even introduced the first, early versions of "e-mail" to the White House. This new nerve center-combining the Situation Room and the Crisis Management Center-represented a generational leap for the White House.
And yet it hadn’t been enough to predict the bombing in Beirut. Later investigations would show that there were many clues that had gone unnoticed, dots that the intelligence agencies and the White House never connected. Since May, U.S. intelligence agencies had received more than one hundred warnings of car bombs in Lebanon. Each one was regarded as part of the background noise in war-torn Beirut. The military chain of command was regularly briefed about the widening threat to the Marines. But then, in Beirut, people were always making threats. The Pentagon never allowed the Marines to take more defensive positions and had essentially turned them into sitting ducks.
Underneath the constant warnings lay a discernible sequence of events that led to the assault at the airport. After the embassy attack in the spring, FBI forensic investigators discovered that the bombers had laden their explosives with ordinary pressurized gas bottles, which magnified the force of the blast. Oxygen, propane, and similar gas canisters were simple to obtain almost anywhere in the world, the FBI noted in its final report. The fact that terrorists had not only set their sights on U.S. targets but were enhancing conventional explosives with everyday materials was never made known to the military commanders in Beirut. That’s because the FBI never disseminated its report; it stayed locked within the CIA and the State Department.
The most fateful signal came in late September. The National Security Agency, which intercepted radio and satellite communications around the globe, snatched a message from the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security to the Iranian ambassador in Syria. The ministry ordered the ambassador to get in touch with a man named Hussein Musawi, the head of an Islamic terrorist group called Amal. Musawi was to turn his sights on the multinational forces in Lebanon and was ordered to mount a "spectacular action against the United States Marines."
The Beirut airport was the only place to launch such a spectacular attack. The NSA intercept was the clearest indication yet that the Marines sat in the crosshairs. But owing to the cumbersome military chain of command and an inexplicable failure to grasp the "spectacular" urgency, the message wasn’t delivered to senior military officials until two days after the bombing. Only then did the chief of naval intelligence notify his superiors in the Pentagon that the NSA was sitting on what one official later called a "twenty-four-karat gold document." A bona fide warning, unnoticed. The missed signal foreshadowed another overlooked phone call placed on September 10, 2001. It warned, in Arabic, that "tomorrow is zero hour," and it wasn’t translated by the NSA until September 12.
The government had no way of capturing information and making it available to those who could discern its importance. At the White House, the NSC staff was the closest thing to an information traffic cop, and Poindexter and his colleagues struggled to control and understand the data swirling around them. Someone had to wrest control, Poindexter thought.
In reaction to the Beirut attack, and a subsequent bombing of the new U.S. embassy nearly a year later, Poindexter led a massive reorganization of the government’s crisis management teams. He formed an alliance with his friend Bill Casey, the CIA Director. The two had developed an honest rapport, and Casey was one of the few senior officials Poindexter felt he could speak to frankly.
"We have got to do a better job sharing this kind of information," Poindexter said.
Casey agreed. It was inexcusable. The CIA set up a secure hotline connecting the State Department, the NSA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the NSC staff with the CIA’s photographic intelligence center. This was the government’s primary resource for imagery analysis, and yet there had never been any data links into or out of it. That was about to change.
As Poindexter took stock of other imbalances in the system, he found a bureaucracy bowing under its own weight. A slumgullion of nearly three dozen agencies claimed some role in counterterrorism, and collectively they were spending almost $2 billion a year on those activities. From the FBI to the State Department to the IRS, it seemed everyone had a finger in the pot. Each agency possessed an essential skill for preempting terrorism. But not one of them, acting alone, had achieved notable success. The agencies would have to work in concert now, like a well-tuned orchestra.
To lead them, Poindexter took over an existing NSC outfit called the Crisis-Pre Planning Group. He turned it into the engine of the government’s antiterrorism campaign, one that was powered–for the first time–by modern information technologies designed to capture information and get it to the people who needed it. To connect the dots.
By today’s standards, this was primitive stuff. But the foundation and the approach Poindexter laid for a broad, government-wide approach to security threats would eventually be replicated after the 9/11 attacks. The staff on the crisis group consisted of deputies from key national security departments-Defense, State, and Treasury-as well as the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The members had the power to recommend freezing individual and state assets, to develop covert intelligence programs, to communicate with ambassadors at all U.S. embassies, and to send proposals to the military chain of command. They met in the increasingly well-outfitted Situation Room or the Crisis Management Center, tapping into new data sources, holding teleconferences, and crafting a playbook for managing crises-whether caused by bands of terrorists or whole armies.
The crisis planning group had a singular focus: prevent crises before they happened. "Horizon scanning," Poindexter liked to call it. As the months rolled on, Poindexter could sense the system coming into alignment. Order and discipline were taking hold. The once ill-tuned layers of committees understood their roles better now. They had focused. Poindexter and his NSC terror fighters were making sense of information, corralling disparate data sources, and coming up with richer and more informative reports for the president than at any time in recent memory.
Looking back now, it’s clear that Poindexter was planting the seeds of a much broader, pervasive, and ultimately global system of information gathering. The government was getting a handle on what was in its own databases. It would be another two decades, after the 9/11 attacks, that the intelligence agencies turned their gaze toward the worlds of data held in private stores. On private individuals. Then, too, Poindexter would help lead those efforts, as the director of a Defense Department program called Total Information Awareness. It bore a striking resemblance to the global surveillance of the National Security Agency today, and that was no accident.
This audacious notion, that the government could connect the dots of the next attack, before it happened, took root 30 years ago today, when the calm of a Sunday morning in Beirut was shattered. Even Poindexter couldn’t have seen that one coming.