Authors: Tim Weiner
Qaddafi’s intelligence officers had placed a bomb in a West Berlin disco patronized by United States soldiers on April 5, 1986. It killed two American sergeants and a Turkish woman, and injured at least 230 others, including 79 Americans. President Reagan retaliated by bombing Tripoli and Benghazi; at least 15 people died and some 2,000 were reported wounded. Qaddafi then sent his spies into Beirut, bought Peter Kilburn from his captors, and had him executed on April 17.
The FBI organized its own counterstrike after learning that Qaddafi sought to avenge the bombing of Libya with an attack on the United States. Libyan intelligence agents tried to join forces with a group of gangsters in Chicago called El Rukn, Arabic for “the Foundation.” El Rukn had started out in the 1960s as the Blackstone Rangers, a politically savvy street gang. Its leaders now posed as pious Islamists while dealing drugs and running guns; the religious motif was a cover for their criminal rackets. The FBI learned through wiretaps on El Rukn that the Libyan leader proposed to pay the Chicago gang to attack political targets in the United States. He had chosen the wrong conspirators. El Rukn knew how to sell cocaine, but it had no idea how to carry out a terrorist conspiracy. The FBI swiftly mounted a sting operation, sending an undercover agent to El Rukn’s leaders. Posing as an arms dealer, the agent sold them a missile launcher. Agents quickly rounded up the group’s leaders on terrorism charges.
A few weeks later, the FBI ran a similar undercover sting on a group of right-wing mercenaries who proposed to overthrow the isolated South American nation of Suriname. Three FBI undercover agents had infiltrated the group of thirteen soldiers of fortune—one posing as a crazed Vietnam veteran, another as a religious zealot, the third as an arms dealer. On July 28, 1986, the group gathered at a private airfield outside New Orleans, with weapons, ammunition, and operational plans for a revolution. The FBI arrested them all.
As these cases surfaced in screaming headlines, Revell was drawn deeper into the secret intrigues within the Reagan administration. The White House was running an international undercover operation all its own.
On July 30, 1986, North told Revell that Attorney General Ed Meese had signed off on a plan, approved by the president, to sell American missiles to the government of Iran in exchange for the release of the hostages. The Reagan administration was going to broker lethal weapons for American lives.
Revell kept a poker face. But he was thinking: is this legal? He wondered why North had shared this explosive information. He surmised it was to keep the FBI from stumbling on something even more secret. His instincts were sound. He took his doubts to Webster; the Judge consulted Meese. “
The Attorney General doesn’t seem to have a problem with it—which was amazing,” Revell recounted. Meese had told them—falsely—that all the weapons shipments had been approved in writing by the president.
If the president did it, the FBI director concluded, that meant it was not illegal.
Revell knew that North divided his hundred-hour workweeks between the hostages in Lebanon and the counterrevolutionaries in Central America. The contras were fighting a scattershot war on communism, trying to overthrow the duly elected Marxist government of Nicaragua. North’s devotion to their cause was no secret. The United States Congress had cut off American military and financial support for the contras, whose ranks included soldiers who tortured and executed civilians, including children, captured in combat. The FBI had started an investigation into soldiers of fortune suspected of smuggling weapons into Central America. The Bureau was newly alert to a gun-running operation that involved a Miami company called SAT, short for Southern Air Transport.
“On October 8, I received a call from Oliver North,” Revell recounted. “He was concerned that the FBI might discover … that SAT was, in fact, involved in the Iran hostage situation.” North had hired Southern Air Transport to ship weapons to Iran—and to the contras. Both Webster and Revell got clear signals from Attorney General Meese to back off on the investigation. They complied for a few weeks, until the facts began to leak.
The secrets spilled because the covert operations of the United States were so badly conceived, and so poorly executed, that they began to break down in public. First the crash of a cargo plane maintained by Southern Air Transport exposed the role of the White House in arming the contras in defiance of the law. Then a newspaper in Beirut revealed that the White House was smuggling weapons into Iran.
The president denied it in public. But Revell knew it was true.
On the afternoon of November 13, 1986, the White House asked Revell to review a speech that President Reagan would deliver to the American people that evening. As he pored over the draft of the speech in North’s office, he pointed out five evident falsehoods.
“We did not—repeat, did not—trade weapons or anything else for hostages, nor will we,” the president’s draft said. The United States would never “strengthen those who support terrorism”; it had only sold “defensive armaments and spare parts” to Iran. It had not violated its stance of neutrality in the scorched-earth war between Iran and Iraq; it had never chartered arms shipments out of Miami.
Revell knew none of this was true. He warned Judge Webster, who alerted Attorney General Meese. He was ignored.
I was sort of odd man out,” Revell said.
RESIDENT HAS ASKED US TO SHUT UP
The president delivered the speech almost precisely as drafted, word for dissembling word.
Colonel North and his superior, the president’s national security adviser, Admiral John Poindexter, began shredding their records and deleting their computer files as fast as they could. But within the White House, one crucial fact emerged: they had skimmed millions of dollars in profits from the weapons sales to Iran and siphoned off the money to support the contras.
A real bombshell,” Vice President George H. W. Bush recorded in his new diary on November 22, after talking to Attorney General Meese. “It’s going to be a major flap … The president has asked us to shut up, and that is exactly what’s happening.”
The silence lasted three more days. Meese made a short public statement on November 25, revealing that the missiles had been sold and the money skimmed.
Within hours, FBI agents were searching Oliver North’s office. They retrieved a document from North’s burn bag—an elaborately falsified statement about support for the contras, delivered in secret testimony to Congress. They dusted it and found the fingerprints of the chief of the CIA’s clandestine service, Clair George. It was the beginning of a six-year
investigation that reached the highest levels of the American military and intelligence establishments, the most politically perilous case the Bureau had confronted since Watergate.
FBI agents quickly questioned Vice President Bush, Attorney General Meese, the president’s closest White House aides, and the chieftains of the CIA. A handful of agents, working in extreme secrecy, rapidly uncovered the most important evidence in the case: five thousand computer messages among Admiral Poindexter, Colonel North, and the National Security Council staff. In a remarkable feat of forensics, FBI agents recovered and restored the backup tapes for the internal White House e-mail system that recorded the arms sales and the diversion of funds.
The FBI’s evidence also compelled a remarkable confession from the president of the United States.
“For the past three months, I’ve been silent on the revelations about Iran,” Reagan said in a televised address to the nation on March 4, 1987. “And you must have been thinking: ‘Well, why doesn’t he tell us what’s happening? Why doesn’t he just speak to us as he has in the past when we’ve faced troubles or tragedies?’ Others of you, I guess, were thinking: ‘What’s he doing hiding out in the White House?’
“Well, the reason I haven’t spoken to you before now is this: You deserve the truth,” the president said.
“I’ve paid a price for my silence,” he said. “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true. But the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”
The facts and the evidence showed that the highest-ranking officers of the CIA and the National Security Council had collaborated with a remarkable gang of con men and crooks in carrying out Reagan’s orders. They had committed or condoned spectacular acts of folly in the arms-for-hostages deals. The president had broken his constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws of the United States.
Reagan concluded his speech with an announcement that he hoped would restore a measure of trust in his administration: he had nominated the FBI’s William Webster to be the next director of Central Intelligence. Webster was “a man of sterling reputation,” the president said. “He understands the meaning of ‘rule of law.’ ” The choice seemed to make sense: Congress and an independent counsel were investigating the top officers of the CIA, and three dozen FBI agents armed with subpoenas were thumbing
through thousands of top secret files seeking evidence of perjury and obstruction of justice. The independent counsel would conclude that President Reagan, the secretary of defense, the director of Central Intelligence, and their aides had skirted or broken the law. But President George H. W. Bush eventually granted pardons to all who faced criminal charges—including the CIA’s covert operations chief, Clair George, and its counterterrorism director, Duane Clarridge.
He did as Ronald Reagan had done in absolving Mark Felt and Ed Miller. He let national security trump the rule of law.
The arrival of Judge Webster nonetheless was the end of an era at the CIA. “
We probably could have overcome Webster’s ego, his lack of experience with foreign affairs, his small-town America world perspective,” Clarridge reflected. “What we couldn’t overcome was that he was a lawyer. All of his training as a lawyer and a judge was that you didn’t do illegal things. He could never accept that this is
what the CIA does when it operates abroad. We break the laws of their countries. It’s how we collect information. It’s why we’re in business.”
Clarridge and his confreres at the CIA rebelled against Webster. They felt he did not grasp the essence of secret operations. Webster’s successor at the FBI faced nearly identical problems.
The selection of William Sessions, a federal judge from Texas, was a strange and surprising choice to Buck Revell and the rest of the FBI’s leadership. Judge Sessions seemed willfully ignorant about the FBI’s role in the national security of the United States.
The FBI began to lose its focus after Judge Sessions took office on November 2, 1987. Sessions had no experience in running an organization or overseeing investigations. At his confirmation hearings, he professed to know little about the FBI’s role in national security or intelligence. Once confirmed, he seemed to regard his role as largely ceremonial, and he would lose control of the FBI long before he lost his job. He spent nearly six years as director without ever gaining command of the institution or winning the loyalty of his underlings. Buck Revell thought that the FBI’s counterterrorism capabilities had been “
effectively neutralized” under Sessions. By the end of the 1980s, he believed, the FBI was going “
down to zero in carrying out our counter-terrorism responsibilities.” Sessions went closer to zero after the turn of the decade. He reassigned more than a third of the agents working on counterterrorism to street crime assignments.
The FBI clearly believed that “
terrorism was not a big deal,” said Richard
Marquise, who led the Bureau’s Terrorism Research and Analytical Center, a tiny box near the bottom of the hierarchy at headquarters. Marquise was the son of an FBI agent, and he joined the Bureau in 1971, three years before his father retired. He had worked under every director, including Hoover. He stayed on the counterterrorism beat long after many of his colleagues had left, working against the conventional wisdom that the threat to the United States was subsiding along with the Cold War.
“Terrorists were doing things overseas,” his superiors told him. “They weren’t attacking us here.”
Marquise thought differently: “We were all waiting for that big one to happen.”
HE INVESTIGATION OF
the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, depended on the FBI’s ability to strike alliances with CIA analysts, Scottish constables, German intelligence officers, and Libyan double agents. Those liaisons depended on trust—a confidence hard to find between cops and spies at home and abroad. The Bureau by itself could not solve a case that reached across oceans and borders.
Pan Am 103 took off from London’s Heathrow Airport, bound for New York, at 6:25
on Wednesday, December 21, 1988. Half its passengers had made a tight connection from Frankfurt. Twenty-eight minutes later, an explosion tore the 747 apart. A rain of fire started falling over Lockerbie.