Friday, April 18, 2008

Remembering the Beirut Embassy Bombing: April 18, 1983

Twenty-five years ago today a late model GMC truck packed with explosives slammed into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and crashing through the lobby door. In his memoir See No Evil former CIA operative Robert Baer, who devoted much of this career to identifying the perpetrators of the bombing, “Even by Beirut standards, it was an enormous blast…”

Often overshadowed by the bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut only six months later (as well as the many suicide vehicle bombs since), the Embassy bombing was the deadliest terrorist attack against the United States up to that point, the first major suicide vehicle bombing, and Hezbollah’s opening move in its long war against the United States.

Beyond the symbolism of leveling a U.S. Embassy, the bombing was in fact a major strategic blow on American power. The Marine Barracks bombing appeared to have the more immediate impact, leading to the withdrawal of U.S. forces – and inspiring Bin Laden and others to believe the United States was a paper tiger. But of the seventeen Americans who died in the Embassy bombing (there were 63 total casualties) six were CIA officers – including the station chief, his deputy, and Robert Ames the national intelligence officer for the Near East (who was on a visit.)

The United States is an enormous country with tremendous resources. But experienced case officers are always in short supply. Losing so many in one blow was a severe loss of institutional memory and capacity. It is a loss that has been sorely felt in the quarter-century since as the U.S. has been blind-sided by one Middle East crisis after another. Baer notes:
Never before had the CIA lost so many officers in a single attack. It was a tragedy from which the agency would never recover.