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News | Oct. 22, 2013

They Came in Peace

By DIA Public Affairs

Thirty years ago, in 1983, DIA responded to the devastating Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon—marking a turning point in the agency’s counterterrorism mission.

In large part, the roots of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s current counterterrorism mission, operations and organization can be found in the early 1980s. The effectiveness of the agency’s response to the terrorist threat organizationally and operationally since that time has been in no small measure due to the vision and commitment of a handful of DIA leaders and terrorism analysts who recognized the its seriousness in the early 1980s and responded creatively to the challenge. The organizational structure that DIA put in place roughly thirty years ago to execute its terrorism mission and respond to terrorist threats has evolved from fewer than a half dozen analysts in what was then the directorate of research to the hundreds of terrorism analysts in its counterterrorism apparatus today.

By the end of the 1970s, the scope and nature of terrorism was changing. There emerged the phenomenon of states employing and sponsoring terrorism tactics in order to obtain concessions that they could not win through diplomacy or military means. As tensions continued to mount in the Middle East in the early 1980s, the intelligence community (IC) focused more attention on Lebanon. In 1981, Israel pushed into southern Lebanon to drive the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) out of their strongholds and laid siege on Beirut. Hundreds of U.S. Marines went ashore in August 1982 as part of a multinational force to guarantee the safe retreat of the PLO and to stabilize Lebanon after years of conflict among Israelis, Palestinians, and Christian and Muslim Lebanese. DIA officials warned that the peacekeeping force might encounter “intractable political and military problems on the ground.” The tensions erupted in April 1983 when a bomb in a van exploded at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut killing dozens, including eight CIA employees.

An even more devastating attack soon followed. Shortly after 6 a.m. on Oct. 23, 1983, a yellow Mercedes-Benz truck loaded with the equivalent of over 12,000 pounds of TNT smashed through the perimeter of the compound of the U.S. contingent of the Multinational Force (USMNF) at the Beirut International Airport. The truck bomb penetrated the four-story cinder block Marine Battalion Landing Team headquarters building and detonated. The attack killed 241 and injured 60 military personnel, mostly U.S. Marines. The Marine barracks bombing called into question both the U.S. military’s preparedness to deal with terrorism and The Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) understanding of the threat. A few weeks after the bombing, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger convened a commission headed by Admiral R.L.J. Long to examine the circumstances of the attack and determine if it could have been prevented. The Long Commission highlighted the lack of focused intelligence to support the Marine ground commander, noting that the USMNF had been “virtually flooded” with terrorist attack warnings. From May to October 1983, DIA and other DOD and IC elements had provided the USMNF with more than 100 intelligence reports warning of terrorist attacks but few specifics on how and when a threat might be executed. The IC failed to give the USMNF commander the timely intelligence that he needed to avert the attack.

Attacks on U.S. personnel and facilities in Beirut continued. On Sept. 20, 1984, a van approached the U.S. Embassy Annex in Christian East Beirut and exploded, killing three military personnel and twelve Lebanese. DIA analysts had previously warned of incomplete security arrangements at the Embassy Annex. After conducting a field survey of the new embassy headquarters in July, a DIA security team concluded that the annex was highly vulnerable to vehicular bombing. Despite threat reports from DIA and elsewhere the IC failed to provide specific information about the time and place of the attack. The challenge for intelligence was much as it is today a tactical one, predicting the exact time, nature, and place of an attack. Officials concluded that the failure was not in collection but in analysis, policy and command judgment. The intelligence system was better equipped to produce large volumes of raw information than to refine and interpret the data.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan’s own growing frustration with the U.S. response to terrorism led him to sign National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 138, “Combating Terrorism.” This directive marked a significant shift in policy from a reactive approach with a focus on defensive antiterrorism tactics toward an approach of offensive counterterrorism, anticipating terrorist actions. It defined terrorism as a national security issue and reiterated the right of the U.S. to defend itself, authorizing preemptive and retaliatory strikes. For the intelligence community it brought a heightened awareness of the seriousness of the terrorism threat and the freedom to act more aggressively in identifying terrorists and collaborating with host nations to apprehend them. NSDD 138 gave DOD the mission to plan and conduct military counterterrorism operations, which in turn gave DIA the mission of providing targeting options.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact that the Long Commission report and President Reagan’s policy directives had on the way DIA organized for, planned, and executed its counterterrorism mission. The lessons from the Marine barracks attack and the recommendations of the Long Commission served as guideposts for DIA leaders and analysts as they shaped the agency’s first counterterrorism organization. The Long Commission report provided the rationale for setting up an all-source fusion center within DIA while NSDD 138 and other policy directives resulted in a more prominent, proactive role for DIA analysts in counterterrorism. NSDD 138 and the Long Commission report together laid the foundation for DIA’s first counterterrorism organization.

Before this time, DIA had no focal point for counterterrorism or systematic process for collaboration. It was not well positioned to handle the increasing number of requirements for terrorism-related operational support from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and combatant commands. The Long Commission had recommended that DOD establish a fusion center that would tailor and focus all-source intelligence support to U.S. military commanders involved in military operations and develop a broad range of appropriate military responses to terrorism taskings from the secretary of defense. Meanwhile, then DIA Director LTG James Williams concluded that the agency needed an organization capable of dealing with a range of terrorist incidents and directed three of his most experienced terrorism analysts to design a small organization specifically to address terrorism. In 1985, Williams went further by approving the concept of a fusion center and his senior terrorism analysts began consolidating. In a 1986 memo, his successor Lt Gen Leonard Perroots formally announced the agency’s first all-source fusion cell responsible for all aspects of terrorism analysis. The basic structure of the DIA counterterrorism element would remain unchanged from 1986 to 1993. Many of the same fundamental organizational principles established at this time would be reflected years later in the Joint Intelligence Task Force – Combating Terrorism (JITF-CT) and continue to be reflected in the Defense Counterterrorism Center (DCTC).