BILOXI, MISSISSIPPI– Few will remember that thirty-one years ago today, the United States received its baptism of fire in the Middle East. On October 23, 1983, at 6:20 on a Sunday morning, a Mercedes truck smashed through the gates of the Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport.
The truck’s reinforced bumper plowed through a machine gun emplacement, dragging it and its occupants into the lobby of the building. Then it detonated. Six tons of gas-enhanced plastic explosive put a thousand-foot mushroom cloud into the sky and collapsed the four-story structure, burying the wounded and the dead under tons of twisted rebar and shattered concrete. Two hundred and forty three marines and sailors were killed in the explosion.
I helped to dig their bodies out of the rubble.
I was then a 26-year-old Navy SEAL, the executive officer of the Special Warfare detachment assigned to the Multinational Force. My SEAL platoon and 1,500 Marines had been sent to Lebanon, along with contingents of British, Italian and French Foreign Legion troops to provide stability to a country ravaged by civil war and invasions by both the Syrian and Israeli armies. The Beirut deployment was America’s first serious intervention in Middle East affairs. We had all come as peacekeepers. The Arab world had a different opinion, and considered the Multinational Force a prop to the continued Israeli occupation of Beirut. This difference of perception proved deadly.
It was a small, ignoble bit of luck that saved me from joining the dead. The airport had come under intermittent rocket attack during the previous night and I had led my SEALs into the hills above the airport to hunt for the shooters. A game of cat and mouse ensued, and by dawn we had returned back to the American lines without having located the rocket launchers, or having fired a shot. By 6:15 AM we had collapsed, exhausted, into our cots at Green Beach, a position four hundred yards away from the headquarters. When the detonation thudded into our bunker I thought we had suffered a direct hit. The explosion was answered 32 seconds later by an identical blast across town. A second truck bomb had been driven into the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion detachment; that bomb destroyed two five story apartment blocks and killed fifty-eight French paratroopers. The explosions could be heard as far as Sidon and Baalbek, thirty miles away.
We worked all that day and the next, digging bodies from the pancaked ruins. Snipers from the surrounding neighborhoods kept up a steady fire on rescuers and victims alike, closing the helicopter Landing Zone closest to the blast site, and making it necessary for survivors to be carried through a gauntlet of fire to an alternate LZ.
Four months after the bombing, the Multinational Force was withdrawn from Beirut, and the Lebanese people were abandoned to their fate. The Lebanese civil war continued for most of another decade, claiming tens of thousands of lives. America’s first military foray into the Middle East had ended in disaster.
A simple bronze statue in Jacksonville, North Carolina was erected to honor those killed in the Beirut bombing. Under the figure of a Marine standing in combat uniform are four words: “They Came in Peace.” The statue, like the incident itself, has mostly been forgotten.
In Washington, DC, the forgetting was much more purposeful. Unknown to the Marines in Lebanon, two weeks before the bombing the National Security Agency intercepted radio traffic between Tehran and the Iranian Embassy in Damascus. Though not decoded until weeks after the attack, these messages proved that two massive, sophisticated truck bombs had been constructed by the Iranian government. With the complicity of the Syrian army, the bomb vehicles were driven through the Bekaa Valley and into Beirut. The date chosen for the attack had great significance for the Iranian revolutionaries. October 23 marked six years to the day the United States granted political asylum to the deposed Shah of Iran.
The failure of the National Security Agency to provide actionable intelligence to the Marines in Beirut was the single most costly and catastrophic failure of US intelligence since Pearl Harbor. Even before the last Marine body had been pulled from the wreckage, the NSA launched one of the most shameful and cynical cover-ups in American history. As the Marine Corps, and then Congress, conducted hearings on the disaster, NSA Director Major General Lincoln Faurer made certain that the NSA intercepts did not find their way into public or secret testimony. This move ensured that blame for the attack would fall on the few marine officers who survived the blast. The NSA, abetted by the CIA, went so far as spin fictitious ‘Battle Damage Assessments’ that credited the state of the art bombs to a Beirut street gang called Amal. Not only did General Faurer live to see the Marine officers sent into early retirement and disgrace, he also managed to hold onto his job and end his own career as a four star general.
Colonel Timothy Gerrity, the Marine Commander in Beirut, had his career ended by a “nonpunitive letter of caution,” blaming him, incredibly, for failing to anticipate the bombing. His executive officer, Lt. Col. Jim Gerlicht, was made a quadriplegic by the blast and had a letter of reprimand handed to him as he struggled for his life at the Bethesda Naval Hospital.
Transcripts of the Tehran-Damascus messages were only released in 2003, after repeated freedom of information act (FOIA) requests filed by Colonel Gerrity. For the next two decades, the National Security Agency continuously failed to issue timely, predictive, or even relevant intelligence to decision-makers and military commanders.
After its failure to predict 9/11, the NSA went on to dangerously expand domestic surveillance on American citizens, and continue to play fast and loose with the facts. General James R. Clapper’s congressional testimony, insisting that the NSA did “not advertently” spy on Americans phone records, is only the most recent example of the agency’s mendacity. Nor is the NSA alone in obscuring the truth. It was revealed by the New York Times last week that the Defense Department and the CIA conspired to conceal the fact that thousands of chemical weapons were recovered in Iraq– a fact that adds grave complexity to Washington’s decision to embark on a third Iraq War.
The lessons of Beirut inform American citizens, and those who serve in her military, that intelligence agencies have agendas beyond the battlefield. The tragedy of America’s misadventure in Lebanon need not be repeated. The Intelligence services of the United States are duty bound to provide the best and most accurate intelligence available to America’s leaders. And what they owe to the people of the United States is the truth–even if it is painful to them. It is impossible to learn from history when it is full of secrets.