DOD Commission reports on Beirut terrorist attack

Originally Published February 1984

On 31 October 1983, little more than a week after the terrorist bombing of BLT 1/8 Headquarters in Lebanon, the Commandant, Gen P.X. Kelley, opened his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee with this statement:

On 23 October 1983, two suicidal drivers, representing interests which are totally hostile to the United States of America and the Republic of France, conducted unprecedented and massive terrorist attacks-not against American Marines, sailors, and soldiers and French airborne troops-but against the free world.

While all Americans and Frenchmen are feeling the strong emotions resulting from this act, and while I am deeply saddened by the reason for my presence before this Committee, I am relieved and heartened to know that today we start the process I have sworn to defend for all of my adult life. For the past week we have been groping at straws-asking ourselves the agonizing questions as to how this could happen. For all of us, it has been a week full of haunting speculation.

Today, we start the process which was envisioned by our founding fathers-today we start an orderly due process designed to provide the citizens of this great land with accountability.

To ensure that this process remains fully intact, upon my return from Beirut I urgently requested that the secretary of Defense conduct an inquiry into events leading up to the terrorist act which took the precious lives of young Americans at 0622 on 23 October. We owe this to the loved ones of those who have been killed, to the American people, to the Congress of the United States-and, of tremendous importance to me-to our Marines-past, present, and future.

On 28 December a 160-page unclassified version of the report from the DOD Commission requested by Gen Kelley was made public. What follows is the "Executive Summary" from that report:

A key recommendation by the Commission asks that the Secretary of Defense direct the development of doctrine, planning, organization, force structure, education, and training necessary to defend against and counter terrorism.

INTRODUCTION

The DOD Commission on Beirut International Airport (BLA) Terrorist Act of 23 October 1983 was convened by the Secretary of Defense on 7 November 1983 to conduct an independent inquiry into the 23 October 1983 terrorist attack on the Marine Battalion Landing Team (BLT) Headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon. The Commission examined the mission of the U.S. Marines assigned to the Multinational Force, the rules of engagement governing their conduct, the responsiveness of the chain of command, the intelligence support, the security measures in place before and after the attack, the attack itself, and the adequacy of casualty handling procedures.

The Commission traveled to Lebanon, Israel, Spain, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, interviewed over 125 witnesses ranging from national policy makers to Lebanese Armed Forces privates, and reviewed extensive documentation from Washington agencies, including the Department of State, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Council and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as all echelons of the operational chain of command and certain elements of the Department of the Navy administrative chain of command.

The Commission focused on the security of the U.S. contingent of the Multinational Force through 30 November 1983. Although briefed on some security aspects of other U.S. military elements in Lebanon, the Commission came to no definitive conclusions or recommendations as to those elements.

The Commission was composed of Admiral Robert L.J. Long, USN(Ret), Chairman; the Honorable Robert J. Murray; Lieutenant General Lawrence F. Snowden, USMC(Ret), Lieutenant General Eugene F. Tighe, Jr., USAF(Ret), and Lieutenant General Joseph T. Palastra, Jr., USA.

BACKGROUND

U.S. military forces were inserted into Lebanon on 29 September 1982 as part of a Multinational Force composed of U.S., French, Italian, and somewhat later, British Forces. The mission of the U.S. contingent of the Multinational Force (USMNF) was to establish an environment that would facilitate the withdrawal of foreign military forces from Lebanon and to assist the Lebanese Government and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in establishing sovereignty and authority over the Beirut area. Initially, the USMNF was warmly welcomed by the local populace. The environment was essentially benign and continued that way into the spring of 1983. The operation was intended to be of short duration.

The destruction of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut on 18 April 1983 was indicative of the extent of the deterioration of the political/military situation in Lebanon that had occurred since the arrival of the USMNF. By August 1983, the LAF were engaged in direct conflict with factional militias and USMNFpositions at Beirut International Airport began receiving hostile fire. Attacks against the Multinational Force in the form of car bombs and sniper fire increased in frequency. By September, the LAF were locked in combat for control of the high ground overlooking Beirut International Airport and U.S. naval gunfire was used in support of the LAE at Suq-Al-Gharb after determination by the National Security Council that LAF retention of Suq-Al-Gharb was essential to the security of USMNF positions at Beirut International Airport.

Intelligence support for the USMNF provided a broad spectrum of coverage of possible threats. Between May and November 1983, over 100 intelligence report warming of terrorist car bomb attack were received by the USMNF. Those warnings provided little specific information on how and when a threat might be carried out. From August 1983 to the 23 October attack, the USMNF was virtually flooded with terrorist attack warnings.

On 23 October 1983, a large truck laden with the explosive equivalent of over 12,000 pounds of TNT crashed through the perimeter of the USMNF compound at Beirut International Airport, penetrated the Battalion Landing Team Headquarters building and detonated. The force of the explosion destroyed the building, resulting in the deaths of 241 U.S. military personnel.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Forensic Laboratory described the terrorist bomb as the largest conventional blast ever seen by the FBI's forensic explosive experts. Based upon the FBI analysis of the bomb that destroyed the U.S. Embassy on 18 April 1983, and the FBI preliminary findings on the bomb used on 23 October 1983, the Commission believes that the explosive equivalent of the latter device was of such magnitude that major damage to the Battalion Landing Team Headquarters building and significant casualties would probably have resulted even if the terrorist truck had not penetrated the USMNF defensive perimeter but had detonated in the roadway some 330 feet from the building.

SUMMARY OF GENERAL
OBSERVATIONS

1. Terrorism.

The Commission believes that the most important message it can bring to the secretary of Defense is that the 23 October 1983 attack on the Marine Battalion Landing Team Headquarters in Beirut was tantamount to an act of war using the medium of terrorism. Terrorist warfare, sponsored by sovereign states or organized political entities to achieve political objectives, is a threat to the United States that is increasing at an alarming rate. The 23 October catastrophe underscores the fact that terrorist warfare can have significant political impact and demonstrates that the United States, and specifically the Department of Defense, is inadequately prepared to deal with this threat. Much needs to be done, on an urgent basis, to prepare U.S. military forces to defend against and counter terrorist warfare.

2. Performance of the USMNF.

The USMNF was assigned the unique and difficult task of maintaining a peaceful presence in an increasingly hostile environment. United States military personnel assigned or attached to the USMNF performed superbly, incurring great personal risk to accomplish their assigned tasks. In the aftermath of the attack of 23 October 1983, U.S. military personnel performed selfless and often heroic acts to assist in the extraction of their wounded and dead comrades from the rubble and to evacuate the injured. The Commission has the highest admiration for the manner in which U.S. military personnel responded to this catastrophe.

3. Security following the 23 October 1983 Attack.

The security posture of the USMNF subsequent to the 23 October 1983 attack was examined closely by the Commission. A series of actions was initiated by the chain of command to enhance the security of the USMNF, and reduce the vulnerability of the USMNF to further catastrophic losses. However, the security measures implemented or planned for implementation as of 30 November 1983 were not adequate to prevent continuing significant attrition of USMNF personnel.

4. Intelligence Support.

Even the best of intelligence will not guarantee the security of any military position. However, specific data on the terrorist threats to the USMNF, data which could best be provided by carefully trained intelligence agents, could have enabled the USMNF Commander to better prepare his force and facilities to blunt the effectiveness of a suicidal vehicle attack of great explosive force.

The USMNF Commander did not have effective U.S. Human Intelligence (HUMINT) support. The paucity of U.S. controlled HUMINT is partly due to U.S. policy decisions to reduce HUMINT collection worldwide. The U.S. has a HUMINT capability commensurate with the resources and time that has been spent to acquire it. The lesson of Beirut is that we must have better HUMINT to support military planning and operations. We see here a critical repetition of a long fine of similar lessons learned during crisis situations in many other parts of the world.

5. Casualty Handling Procedures.

The Commission examined the adequacy of casualty handling procedures, with the advice and support of professional medical staff.

The Commission found that, following the initial, understandable confusion, the response of the U.S., Lebanese and Italian personnel in providing immediate on-scene medical care was professional and, indeed, heroic. The CTF 61/62 Mass Casualty Plan was quickly implemented: triage and treatment sites were established ashore, and medical support from afloat units was transported to the scene. Evacuation aircraft were requested.

Within thirty minutes of the explosion the British offered the use of their hospital at the Royal Air Force Base in Akrotiri, Cyprus, and this offer was accepted by CTF 61. The additional British offer of medical evacuation aircraft was also accepted. Both offers proved invaluable.

Offers of medical assistance from France and Israel were subsequently received but were deemed unnecessary because the medical capabilities organic to CTF 61 were already operational and functioning adequately, the hospital at Akrotiri was by then mobilized and ready, and sufficient U.S. and Royal Air Force medical evacuation aircraft were en route. The Commission found no evidence to indicate any considerations but the desire to provide immediate, professional treatment for the wounded influenced decisions regarding these offers of outside assistance.

The Commission found no evidence to indicate that deaths among the wounded in action resulted from inadequate or inappropriate care during evacuation to hospitals.

The Commission did find several serious problem areas in the evacuation of casualties to U.S. military hospitals in Germany. Actions were taken that resulted in some seriously wounded patients being delayed about four hours in arriving at hospital facilities. The Commission believes that these actions warrant further investigation. The Commission found no evidence, however, that any patient was adversely affected by these delays.

6. Accountability.

The Commission holds the view that military commanders are responsible for the performance of their subordinates. The commander can delegate some or all of his authority to his subordinates, but he cannot delegate his responsibility for the performance of the forces he commands. In that sense, the responsibility of military command is absolute. This view of command authority and responsibility guided the Commission in its analysis of the effectiveness of the exercise of command authority and responsibility of the chain of command charged with the security and performance of the USMNF.

The Commission found that the combination of a large volume of unfulfilled threat warnings and perceived and real pressure to accomplish a unique and difficult mission contributed significantly to the decisions of the Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) and Battalion Landing Team (BLT) Commanders regarding the security of their force. Nevertheless, the Commission found that the security measures in effect in the MAU compound were neither commensurate with the increasing level of threat confronting the USMNF nor sufficient to preclude catastrophic losses such as those that were suffered on the morning of 23 October 1983. The Commission further found that while it may have appeared to be an appropriate response to the indirect fire being received, the decision to billet approximately one-quarter of the BLT in a single structure contributed to the catastrophic loss of life.

The Commission found that the BLT Commander must take responsibility for the concentration of approximately 350 members of his command in the BLT Headquarters building thereby providing a lucrative target for attack. Further, the BLT Commander modified prescribed alert procedures, thereby degrading security of the compound.

The Commission also found that the MAU Commander shares the responsibility for the catastrophic losses in that he condoned the concentration of personnel in the BLT Headquarters building, concurred in the relaxation of prescribed alert procedures, and emphasized safety over security in directing that sentries on Posts 4, 5, 6, and 7 would not load their weapons.

The Commission found further that the USCinCEur operational chain of command snares in the responsibility for the events of 23 October 1983.

Having reached the foregoing conclusions, the Commission further notes that although it found the entire USCinCEur chain of command, down to and including the BLT Commander, to be at fault, it also found that there was a series of circumstances beyond the control of these commanders that influenced their judgment and their actions relating to the security of the USMNF.

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

All conclusions and recommendations of the Commission from each substantive part of this report are presented below.

1. Part One-The Military Mission

A. Mission Development and Execution

(1) Conclusion:

(a) The Commission condudes that the "presence" mission was not interpreted the same by all levels of the chain of command and that perceptual differences regarding that mission, including the responsibility of the USMNF for the security of Beirut International Airport, should have been recognized and corrected by the chain of command.

B. The Expanding Military Role

(1) Conclusion:

(a) The Commission concludes that U.S. decisions as regards Lebanon taken over the past fifteen months have been, to a large degree, characterized by an emphasis on military options and the expansion of the U.S. military role, notwithstanding the fact that the conditions upon which the security of the USMNF were based continued to deteriorate as progress toward a diplomatic solution slowed. The Commission further concludes that these decisions may have been taken without clear recognition that these initial conditions had dramatically changed and that the expansion of our military involvement in Lebanon greatly increased the risk to, and adversely impacted upon the security of, the USMNF. The Commission therefore concludes that there is an urgent need for reassessment of alternative means to achieve U.S. objectives in Lebanon and at the same time reduce the risk to the USMNF.

(2) Recommendation:

(a) The Commission recommends that the secretary of Defense continue to urge that the National Security Council undertake a reexamination of alternative means of achieving U.S. objectives in Lebanon, to include a comprehensive assessment of the military security options being developed by the chain of command and a more vigorous and demanding approach to pursuing diplomatic alternatives.

2. Part Two-Rules of Engagement (ROE)

A. ROE Implementation

Conclusions:

(a) The Commission concludes that a single set of ROE providing specific guidance for countering the type of vehicular terrorist attacks that destroyed the U.S. Embassy on 18 April 1983 and the BLT Headquarters building on 23 October 1983 had not been provided to, nor implemented by, the Marine Amphibious Unit Commander.

(b) The Commission condudes that the mission statement, the original ROE, and the implementation in May 1983 of dual "Blue Card-White Card" ROE contributed to a mind-set that detracted from the readiness of the USMNF to respond to the terrorist threat which materialized on 23 October 1983.

3. Part Three-The Chain of Command

A. Exercise of Command Responsibility by the Chain of Command Prior to 23 October 1983

(1) Conclusions:

(a) The Commission is fully aware that the entire chain of command was heavily involved in the planning for, and support of, the USMNF. The Commission concludes, however, that USCinCEur, CinCUSNavEur, ComSixthFlt and CTF 61 did not initiate actions to ensure the security of the USMNF in light of the deteriorating political/military situation in Lebanon. The Commission found a lack of effective command supervision of the USMNF security posture prior to 23 October 1983.

(b) The Commission concludes that the failure of the operational chain of command to correct or amend the defensive posture of the USMNF constituted tacit approval of the security measures and procedures in force at the BLT Headquarters building on 23 October 1983.

(c) The Commission further concludes that although it finds the USCinCEur operational chain of command at fault, it also finds that there was a series of circumstances beyond the control of these commands that influenced their judgment and their actions relating to the security of the USMNF.

(2) Recommendation:

(a) The Commission recommends that the Secretary of Defense take whatever administrative or disciplinary action he deems appropriate, citing the failure of the USCinCEur operational chain of command to monitor and supervise effectively the security measures and procedures employed by the USMNF on 23 October 1983.

4. Part Four-Intelligence

A. Intelligence Support

(1) Conclusion:

(a) The Commission concludes that although the USMNF Commander received a large volume of intelligence warnings concerning potential terrorist threats prior to 23 October 1983, he was not provided with the timely intelligence, tailored to his specific operational needs, that was necessary to defend against the broad spectrum of threats he faced.

(b) The Commission further concludes that the HUMINT support to the USMNF Commander was ineffective, being neither precise nor tailored to his needs. The Commission believes that the paucity of U.S. controlled HUMINT provided to the USMNF Commander is in large part due to policy decisions which have resulted in a U.S. HUMINT capability commensurate with the resources and time that have been spent to acquire it.

(2) Recommendation:

(a) The Commission recommends that the Secretary of Defense establish an all-source fusion center, which would tailor and focus all-source intelligence support to U.S. military commanders involved in military operations in areas of high threat, conflict or crisis.

(b) The Commission further recommends that the Secretary of Defense take steps to establish a joint CIA/DOD examination of policy and resource alternatives to immediately improve HUMINT support to the USMNF contingent in Lebanon and other areas of potential conflict which would involve U.S. military operating forces.

5. Part Five-Pre-Attack Security

A. Command Responsibility for the security of the 24th MAU and BLT 1/8 Prior to 23 October 1983

(1) Conclusion:

(a) The combination of a large volume of specific threat warnings that never materialized and the perceived and real pressure to accomplish a unique and difficult mission contributed significantly to the decisions of the MAU and BLT Commanders regarding the security of their force. Nevertheless, the Commission concludes that the security measures in effect in the MAU compound were neither commensurate with the increasing level of threat confronting the USMNF nor sufficient to preclude catastrophic losses such as those that were suffered on the morning of 23 October 1983. The Commission further condudes that while it may have appeared to be an appropriate response to the indirect fire being received, the decision to billet approximately one quarter of the BLT in a single structure contributed to the catastrophic loss of life.

(b) The Commission concludes that the BLT Commander must take responsibility for the concentration of approximately 350 members of his command in the BLT Headquarters building, thereby providing a lucrative target for attack. Further, the BLT Commander modified prescribed alert procedures, thereby degrading security of the compound.

(c) The Commission also concludes that the MAU Commander shares the responsibility for the catastrophic losses in that he condoned the concentration of personnel in the BLT Headquarters building, concurred in the modification of prescribed alert procedures, and emphasized safety over security in directing that sentries on Posts 4, 5, 6, and 7 would not load their weapons.

(d) The Commission further concludes that although it finds the BLT and MAU Commanders to be at fault, it also finds that there was a series of circumstances beyond their control that influenced their judgment and their actions relating to the security of the USMNF.

(2) Recommendation:

(a) The Commission recommends that the Secretary of Defense take whatever administrative or disciplinary actions he deems appropriate, citing the failure of the BLT and MAU Commanders to take the security measures necessary to preclude the catastrophic loss of life in the attack on 23 October 1983.

6. Part Seven-Post-Attack Security

A. Redeployment, Dispersal and Physical Barriers

(1) Conclusions:

(a) The Commission concludes that the security measures taken since 23 October 1983 have reduced the vulnerability of the USMNF to catastrophic losses. The Commission also concludes, however, that the security measures implemented or planned for implementation for the USMNF as of 30 November 1983 were not adequate to prevent continuing significant attrition of the force.

(b) The Commission recognizes that the current disposition of USMNF forces may, after careful examination, prove to be the best available option. The Commission concludes, however, that a comprehensive set of alternatives should be immediately prepared and presented to the National Security Council.

(2) Recommendation:

(a) Recognizing that the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been actively reassessing the increased vulnerability of the USMNF as the political/military environment in Lebanon has changed, the Commission recommends that the Secretary of Defense direct the operational chain of command to continue to develop alternative military options for accomplishing the mission of the USMNF while reducing the risk to the force.

7. Part Eight-Casualty Handling

A. On-Scene Medical Care

(1) Conclusion:

(a) The Commission condudes that the speed with which the on-scene U.S. military personnel reacted to rescue their comrades trapped in the devastated building and to render medical care was nothing short of heroic. The rapid response by Italian and Lebanese medical personnel was invaluable.

B. Aeromedical Evacuation/ Casualty Distribution

(1) Conclusions:

(a) The Commission found no evidence that any of the wounded died or received improper medical care as a result of the evacuation or casualty distribution procedures. Nevertheless, the Commission concludes that overall medical support planning in the European theater was deficient and that there was an insufficient number of experienced medical planning staff officers in the USCinCEur chain of command.

(b) The Commission found that the evacuation of the seriously wounded to U.S. hospitals in Germany, a transit of more than four hours, rather than to the British hospital in Akrotiri, Cyprus, a transit of one hour, appears to have increased the risk to those patients. Similarly, the Commission found that the subsequent decision to land the aircraft at Rhein Main rather than Ramstein, Germany, may have increased the risk to the most seriously wounded. In both instances, however, the Commission has no evidence that there was an adverse medical impact on the patients.

(2) Recommendations:

(a) The Commission recommends that the Secretary of Defense direct the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in coordination with the Services, to review medical plans and staffing of each echelon of the operational and administrative chains of command to ensure appropriate and adquate medical support for the USMNF.

(b) The Commission further recommends that the Secretary of Defense direct USCinCEur to conduct an investigation of the decisions made regarding the destination of aeromedical evacuation aircraft and the distribution of casualties on 23 October 1983.

C. Definitive Medical Care

(1) Conclusion:

(a) The Commission concludes that the definitive medical care provided the wounded at the various treatment facilities was excellent, and that as of 30 November 1983, there is no evidence of any mortality or morbidity resulting from inappropriate or insufficient medical care.

D. Israeli Offer of Medical Assistance

(1) Conclusion:

(a) The Commission found no evidence that any factor other than the desire to provide immediate, professional treatment for the wounded influenced decisions regarding the Israeli offer; all offers of assistance by Israel were promptly and properly referred to the theater and onscene commanders. At the time the initial Israeli offer was reviewed by CTF 61, it was deemed not necessary because the medical capabilities organic to CTF 61 were operational and functioning adequately, the RAF hospital at Akrotiri was mobilized and ready, and sufficient U.S. and RAF medical evacuation aircraft were en route.

E. Identification of the Dead

(1) Conclusion:

(a) The Commission concludes that the process for identification of the dead following the 23 October 1983 catastrophe was conducted very efficiently and professionally, despite the complications caused by the destruction and/or absence of identification data.

(2) Recommendation:

(a) The Commission recommends that the Secretary of Defense direct the creation of duplicate medical/dental records, and assure the availability of fingerprint files, for all military personnel. The Commission further recommends that the Secretary of Defense direct the Service Secretaries to develop jointly improved, stateof-the-art identification tags for all military personnel.

8. Part Nine-Military Response to Terrorism

A. A Terrorist Act

(1) Conclusion:

(a) The Commission concludes that the 23 October 1983 bombing of the BLT Headquarters building was a terrorist act sponsored by sovereign states or organized political entities for the purpose of defeating U.S. objectives in Lebanon.

B. International Terrorism

(1) Conclusion:

(a) The Commission concludes that international terrorist acts endemic to the Middle East are indicative of an alarming world-wide phenomenon that poses an increasing threat to U.S. personnel and facilities.

C. Terrorism as a Mode of Warfare

(1) Conclusion:

(a) The Commission concludes that state sponsored terrorism is an important part of the spectrum of warfare and that adequate response to this increasing threat requires an active national policy which seeks to deter attack or reduce its effectiveness. The Commission further concludes that this policy needs to be supported by political and diplomatic actions and by a wide range of timely military response capabilities.

(2) Recommendation:

(a) The Commission recommends that the Secretary of Defense direct the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop a broad range of appropriate military responses to terrorism for review, along with political and diplomatic actions, by the National Security Council.

D. Military Preparedness

(1) Conclusion:

(a) The Commission concludes that the USMNF was not trained, organized, staffed, or supported to deal effectively with the terrorist threat in Lebanon. The Commission further concludes that much needs to be done to prepare U.S. military forces to defend against and counter terrorism.

(2) Recommendation:

(a) The Commission recommends that the Secretary of Defense direct the development of doctrine, planning, organization, force structure, education and training necessary to defend against and counter terrorism.