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Combining Forces to Counter Terrorism — The Birth of S/CT

U.S. inter-agency coordination on countering terrorism was limited, for bureaucratic and technical reasons, prior to the mid-1980s. As hijackings and terrorist assaults against U.S. military personnel became more frequent after the Vietnam War, Washington responded in part by creating the position of Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the State Department (S/CT). However, the position was not given funding priority until the Reagan administration.

Ambassador-at-Large for Counterterrorism L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer discusses how S/CT was created and the bureaucratic wrangling and inter-agency cooperation which followed. He also describes a hijacking that went sadly wrong and his experiences in dealing with his counterparts in Europe and elsewhere. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Bremer in June of 2008.

You can read more about Bremer’s successes and failures while in S/CT and his decision to disband the Iraqi army shortly after the U.S. invasion. Go here for other Moments on terrorism.


A deputy assistant secretary showed up, wondering why he shouldn’t be chairing the task force

BREMER:  The background of this new position was the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 which killed 143 Americans. The attack led President Reagan to ask Vice President Bush to head an interagency task force to make recommendations to the President on how we should better organize American policy to fight terrorism.

This was the biggest terrorist attack to that time and until the World Trade Center attack. Vice President Bush issued a report in late ’85 that said America’s counterterrorism policy was too fragmented across various parts of the bureaucracy. It needed to be centralized and the report recommended that the central point for coordinating our policy overseas should be the State Department.

Recognizing the difficulties of State coordinating a major issue, it recommended the establishment of an Executive Level 2 position, which is the equivalent of the Deputy Secretary of State, an ambassador-at-large for counterterrorism. Until then the role of fighting terrorism had been pushed around the Department to the third or fourth level. A position was first set up in 1972 as a position tucked away in the Office of the Under Secretary for Management. Since then the job had been sort of pushed around in the bureaucracy.

Bush’s recommendation was approved by the President. Legislation was necessary to create an Executive Level position at State and this was quickly passed by Congress. Soon after the legislation was passed I began to get queries from friends in the State Department about whether I would come back and become the ambassador-at-large of counterterrorism. As I looked into the history of how counterterrorism had been effected in the State Department I found that the counterterrorism job as previously handled at State suggested it was a career dead end. I was not anxious to accept.

These feelers kept coming and I could tell they were coming indirectly from Secretary Shultz. He was asking people to feel me out and I kept saying no. I thought I had ducked this particular bullet until late November or early December of 1985.

But then in mid-December I got a request from the Secretary’s office to meet him for breakfast in Brussels when he came over for the regular NATO ministerial meeting. Although no reason was given for the breakfast, I knew the game was up. I remember saying to [wife] Francie, “That’s it.” You can say no through intermediaries but you can’t say no to the Secretary of State. (Bremer is seen at right.)

So I went down for the breakfast and George Shultz asked me to take the job. I said, “OK”. He agreed with my analysis that I should stay until the vote in the Dutch parliament was taken. Then I should come back to Washington to take on this new job. I began the process of leaving and I left in August.

Shultz was very strongly in favor of the legislation. He felt strongly about the fight against terrorism, as did President Reagan. That made it much easier than if the Secretary been against it. He was very much in favor of it.

In the spring of 1986 was the bombing of the Berlin disco by Libyan operatives. This was yet another case where Gadhafi had been sponsoring terrorism. Remember Shultz made the public statement at one point, I think about that time, “You’ve had it, pal.” He was very strongly committed to the fight against terrorism which was a great advantage when I took the job.

I came back in late August of 1986 and reported for duty the first week of September. Since my return, but before my confirmation hearings, I had met Shultz several times. He was very clear about what the legislation said and how he viewed my position. I was now going to report directly to the Secretary of State.

The new designation was SC/T, “S” standing for the Secretary’s office. I was replacing Bob Oakley, who was called “coordinator” for counterterrorism. To me the term “coordinator” is meaningless in an executive position. I started getting briefed in the first week of September.

On Thursday of that first week a Pan Am plane was a hijacked on the ground in Karachi, Pakistan. I got a call from the Operations Center in the middle of the night, rushed into the State Department, went up to the Operations Center task force area and immediately began setting up a task force.

The bureaucratics were interesting because, historically, task forces dealing with terrorist incidents had been chaired by the regional bureaus — which in most cases had been the Near East Bureau in State.

This time a deputy assistant secretary from the Near East Bureau showed up about an hour after I had been there getting the task force organized, wondering why he shouldn’t be chairing the task force. I told him that the legislation and the Secretary’s intentions were clear: as Ambassador-at-large for Counterterrorism, I would chair the task force. The Executive Secretary at that time, Mel Levitsky, agreed. So that was an important bureaucratic confirmation of Shultz’s view about the role of this new position.

“The hijackers started shooting wildly inside the plane”

This hijacking did not end well. It was a Hezbollah operation and they were demanding that the plane be flown across the Middle East to land in Algeria. For the first time we deployed what was still then the secret Delta force from Fort Bragg to help take down the plane should that be necessary.

The embassy got an officer from our consulate in Karachi out to the airport on an open line back to the embassy in Islamabad, which in turn had an open line back to us at the Operations Center. Communications were rather difficult in those days.

CNN got a camera out to the airport and was broadcasting live pictures of the event which potentially could have been a major problem. The year before, Hezbollah had hijacked a TWA plane in Beirut. During that event, the 120 terrorists had started singling out the American passengers, killing them and pushing them out the door. We were concerned that managing this incident was going to be complicated if they started doing things like that and it was shown live on TV.

We knew from the passenger manifest that there were Americans on board the plane in Karachi. I sent word to the American officer at the airport to find a way to get CNN cameras out of there. We were watching CNN and suddenly, sometime later, the screen went dark and CNN announced they were having “technical difficulties.” Early on during the incident the Pan Am crew cleverly escaped from the plane. It was a 747 and that aircraft’s cockpits have an escape hatch. The crew got out.

By this point we had established communications with the hijackers through an Arabic-speaking Pakistani on the tarmac below the aircraft — a very brave man. Once the crew was off, we told the hijackers that there was no crew and that Pan Am had no back-up crew in Pakistan.

So a replacement crew would have to come from Europe. This would take time; we had to mobilize them, they had to be brought in from their homes whether it was Frankfurt or elsewhere and flown to Pakistan. This was all going to take hours. We were stalling for time to get the Delta force there. The Pakistanis had their special forces in place out of sight in the darkness outside a perimeter fence around the airplane. (Photo: Getty Images)

Suddenly, the mobile power generator that powers a plane when its engines are not on their own power ran out of kerosene and conked out. None of us had considered this problem. But by now the incident had been going on for something like 12 hours and the ATC, or whatever it’s called, simple went dead.

So suddenly, without warning, all the lights in the airplane went off. The hijackers assumed, not unreasonably, that they were about to be attacked. Our Delta force was still not in place. The hijackers started shooting wildly inside the plane. Some crew member was able to get the emergency exits open with the slides and people started coming off while the hijackers were still shooting — absolute chaos.

Twenty-two people were killed in the shooting. Several of the hijackers, when they realized that the game was up, tried to mingle in with the hostages fleeing the plane, pretending that they were also hostages. The hostages pointed these guys out and they got singled out and arrested by the Pakistanis. So it was not a very happy experience.

We learned something important about the terrorists’ real intentions after the incident. As I mentioned, the Pakistanis were able to capture several of the hijackers. We learned that, had they been able to take the plane off, rather than flying to Algeria they intended to crash the 747 into the heart of Tel Aviv.

Basically, it was a precursor for the World Trade Center attack 14 years later. Of course, we didn’t realize it at the time. But it was the first time that somebody had thought to use an airplane as a terrorist weapon….

“The problem of coordination among the agencies on just this one issue continued to plague the US government right through 9/11”

Terrorism was an international problem that needed to be addressed as an international problem and as a matter of national security. This incident certainly didn’t resolve the bureaucratic issue. There’s always tension between the “specialized bureaus”, whether it is International Organizations, Political Military, Human Rights, or OES [Office of Environment and Science] or in this case, S/CT and the regional bureaus. It is a tension that is automatically there and it didn’t go away. But it was an important signal.

One question we were looking at, that still haunts us, was how do we ensure that terrorists don’t get visas to the United States, which, after all, starts with the State Department responsibility of the consular officer. Our S/CT team looked into the question of how does this work. Those were pre-Internet days and in many embassies in the world, the “lookout list” was a microfiche shipped out to the posts once a month or once a quarter.

If you were a hypothetical consular officer at a post somewhere in the world and “Abdul Aziz” comes in for a visa, you crank up the little microfiche and see if his name is there, which requires you to send a cable saying that you need an advisory opinion from Washington. So that raised a couple of questions: where does the lookout list come from and how can it be made more current for consular officers at post?

It turned out there were lots of lists floating around; there was a DEA list, there was a FBI list, there was a CIA list – at least one CIA list – there was a DIA list, there was a State Department list. There were lists all over the place. This problem still hasn’t been solved 25 years later, and at that time there was no master list to the check the name against, since many of our agencies did not cooperate.

So there was no way to ensure that when our hypothetical consular officer sat down to face Mr. Abdul Aziz, he had actually read the views of all of the relevant agencies. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, INS, would face the same problem when Mr. Aziz came to apply at the port of entry. Those people had their own set of lists. Customs too.

I remember explaining these problems to the attorney general, Ed Meese, and saying we should not welcome the day that it turns out that the State Department has issued a visa and INS has allowed the entry of somebody who was a terrorist and was known by one of these lists as a terrorist but was not on the list that State and INS referred to when making the decision on his travel. Even such sharing as there was, was very inefficient.

For example, the CIA did share a list with the State Department on a regular basis. But the list was brought physically on a tape from Langley down to Consular Affairs at the State Department once a month. Then the names were hand-checked against the existing names and any additional ones were typed in manually to the microfiche.

It was extremely inefficient and there was a huge time delay in producing the list and actually putting it into the hands of the visa-issuing officer. And the Agency had another back-up list which often included the most threatening people, but it was not shared with State because they didn’t want to reveal sources and methods, and I assume some of those people were also possible recruits or controlled agents.

But there was a way to deal with this, I argued. Set up the architecture of the system so the consular officer doesn’t have to know why Abdul Aziz is on the list. All he needs to have is a red flag that says “don’t give him a visa” without first referring the case to Washington.

Back home, State knows this guy is on the second Agency list for some reason and refers it to the Agency and the Agency says, “It’s OK, let him in” or they say, “Don’t let him in.”

Eventually this “flagging system” was adopted. The problem of coordination among the agencies on just this one issue plagued us then and … continued to plague the US government right through 9/11. My understanding is it continues to plague us….

For many years, counterterrorism certainly had not been treated seriously at State. There were very good people, particularity in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. In INR we had an extremely able group, but there were very few of them….

The problem was that in the State Department counterterrorism had been an issue that nobody at the highest level took very seriously until Shultz came. Therefore, it had little bureaucratic influence, which meant that Personnel people [Human Resources] had tended not to assign the best people.

Eventually we got a good strong team there mainly because Shultz really believed strongly. I knew that I could go to Shultz directly if I had to and everybody in the building knew that. So it gave us some bureaucratic leverage. But you don’t go to your boss everyday complaining. You have to pick your fights.

I have said often that our office’s relations with other departments were better than our relations with other bureaus in the State Department. At the [CIA] Agency there was a strong team of people who believed in dealing with terrorism. The Agency set up the Counterterrorism Center, a center that brought together people from the both the Operational and Intelligence sides of the agency — the first time they had ever done that. It was the first integrated center in CIA history. So we had good support there.

We had good support at the Pentagon on both the OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense) and military sides. We had very good support from the FBI with whom we ran some counterterrorist operations.

The problem often was getting cooperation from the bureaus in the State Department. If I am the Assistant Secretary for the Near East, I don’t want to have terrorist problems. It is a problem; that I understood. It is a problem for me with relations with Malaysia or with Iran or relations with whomever. It’s a problem that many diplomats, in America and in other foreign offices, considered peripheral to “core” political and economic relations.

“One of the things we had to do was to persuade the Europeans to pay more attention to what was sometimes called ‘spill-over Middle East terrorism’”

About two months after the U.S. ambassador to Syria was withdrawn, predictably, the Near East Bureau said that now it is time to send the ambassador back. He is desperately needed there because he is the only one that President [Hafez al-] Asad will talk to; he’s our channel of communication to the President, who is the guy who makes all the decisions. So I had my guys look into it. (Hafez al-Asad is seen at left.)

How many times in the year and a half that the ambassador had been there, before he was withdrawn, had our ambassador met with Asad? Once, when he had presented credentials just after he arrived at post.

So the argument that we had to send him back because he was the channel to Asad was nonsense. I wasn’t against sending him back but I wanted to get something for it, especially since sending him back meant nothing in terms of our ability to communicate with the Syrians.

At the time Syria was host to a half dozen terrorist groups. One was Abu Nidal, a vicious Palestinian terrorist who had moved his headquarters from Beirut to Damascus. I argued to the Secretary that we should not send the ambassador back until they expelled Abu Nidal.

Shultz agreed to this condition and we hung tough until they expelled Abu Nidal in the spring of 1986. That was the end of his organization as an effective terrorist group; it actually worked getting him out of there. Then we could send our ambassador back….

The intelligence against the old terrorists that we talked about, the homegrown, Marxist Leninist groups, Action Directe, had gotten to be pretty good by the mid-‘80s because of the outrage over those attacks in the late ‘70s. The intelligence directed against the Middle East terrorists, Hezbollah in particular and Palestinian terrorists, was not as highly developed by the Europeans. Ours was better.

One of the things we had to do in these bilateral commissions and in our bilateral discussions was to try to persuade the Europeans to pay more attention to what was sometimes called “spill over Middle East terrorism.”

Consider for example, the French. They had long, historic relations with in the Middle East. They had the same kind of pressures in their government as we did in ours, particularly within their foreign ministry, which tended to be of the view that we shouldn’t upset the apple cart in the Middle East.

But we could track Palestinian terrorists coming and going in Europe. Indeed, we found that some of the governments in Europe – the Greeks, for example – had cut deals where they had said to some Palestinian terrorist groups, “Look, if you don’t do attacks on our territory, we will look the other way when you guys transit through here.” We considered this completely unacceptable and where we had evidence we could share with the Europeans, we did.

By the mid-‘80s the French were beginning to take it more seriously because Hezbollah started operating inside France and killing Frenchmen. They conducted bomb attacks against targets like a Left Bank café that was known to be frequented by French Jews. It was attacked and a number of people killed. The French don’t take lightly when you start killing French people on French soil.

The French had a very tough Minister of Interior, Charles Pasqua… One Tuesday afternoon, probably in early 1988, I had a call from Pasqua asking me to fly over the Paris that night for some “important information.” Neither I nor our intelligence agencies knew what was up.

When I got to the Minister’s fancy office the next morning, he told me that some weeks earlier they had discovered a cache of arms and explosives buried in the Bois de Boulogne [a large park in central Paris]. They had staked out the site and on Monday they had arrested a group of Hezbollah terrorists trying to recover the materials.

What was important — and new — Pasqua said, was that the declared objective of the terrorists was to establish the “Islamic Republic of France.” In the late 1980s, this struck me as a fantasy. We had to wait another decade to take such threats seriously.

During that time and for some time afterwards, the Greeks had shown themselves incapable of dealing with their homegrown terrorist group November 17th. That group had killed our station chief in ’75 and continued to conduct bombings and assassinations in Greece. We had intelligence that suggested the possibility that November 17th had connections with the then-socialist government.

So the Greeks were a problem. They either would not or could not take effective steps against their homegrown terrorists, unlike the French, the Germans, and Italians. A lot of Palestinian terrorists seemed to be moving rather freely through Greece, which led to an interesting operation.

I should mention the Spanish. Like the British they faced a different kind of terrorism. In the British case it was the Irish terrorists, religious-based. In Spain it was ethnic-based Basque terrorists. Eventually the Spanish government started to take seriously the Basque problem.

One of the difficulties the Spanish had was that the Basques then and even today use France as their R&R area. That’s where they did and still do a lot of the planning — in the Basque region on the southwest side of France.

For a long time the French had effectively turned a blind eye to this, saying in effect, “Well, it’s not really our problem. They’re not doing attacks on French soil; they’re just attacking in Spain.” We persuaded the French intelligence people who had actionable intelligence about where these guys were that they really ought to try to be more cooperative with the Spanish… We tried to encourage the Europeans to work together more, to be at least as coordinated as the terrorists seemed to be, and to start taking seriously the Middle East terrorism problem….

In the end the international community was what I was most responsible for. Before we could do much there, we had to establish some system within the U.S. government and some mechanism for exercising a degree of influence over what the U.S. government did. Then we had to find a way to be credible overseas in the wake of Iran Contra.