Worse Than Benghazi: After Reagan Ignored Warnings, 220 Marines Were Killed by a Terrorist in Beirut

But Democrats led By Speaker Tip O'Neill blamed the terrorists, not the president, for the murders
Left: The U.S. peacekeepers' command center and barracks before the explosion; right: Service members pick through the rubble following the Beirut bombing Oct. 23, 1983. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the bombing that resulted in 220 Marine deaths. (U.S. Marine Corps photo courtesy of the United States Marine Corps History Division)
Left: The U.S. peacekeepers’ command center and barracks before the explosion; right: Service members pick through the rubble following the Beirut bombing Oct. 23, 1983. (Photo from the United States Marine Corps History Division)

In 1982, seven years into the Lebanese Civil War, Pres. Ronald Reagan ordered 2,400 Marines into Beirut as part of an international peacekeeping mission. As peacekeepers, the Marines operated under rules of engagement that prohibited them from firing their weapons unless they’d been fired upon first — and even then they could only respond with the same type of weapon that had been fired at them.

There were other restrictions. Violence in the city was so bad that they were confined to their base at the Beirut airport. Eventually, the entire American force, which also included Army and Navy personnel, moved into a large, modern office building that had been repurposed to house their command center as well as living quarters. (The building is referred to in many accounts as the “Marine barracks.”) And yet the gates to the facility were ordered to remain open at all times, and the sentries who manned the gates were to be unarmed.

In Washington, Reagan ignored warnings from his senior advisers that he’d put American troops in harm’s way.

“They had no mission but to sit at the airport,” Reagan Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger recalled years later, according to a Fox News report, “which is just like sitting in a bull’s-eye. I begged the president at least to pull them back and put them back on their transports as a more defensible position.”

A mushroom cloud lingers over the site of the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Marines' base in Beirut in 1983
A mushroom cloud lingers over the site of the terrorist bombing of the U.S. Marines’ base in Beirut in 1983

On Oct. 23, 1983, at 6:20 a.m., the inevitable happened. A suicide bomber drove a truck into the compound through the open gate, plowed through a scrim of concertina wire, pulled up into the building and detonated his bomb. The blast was the equivalent of 12,000 pounds of dynamite. It ignited the largest non-nuclear explosion since World War II, flattening the building and killing 220 Marines, 18 Navy personnel and three Army soldiers.

Jane Mayer, then a reporter for the Wall St. Journal in Beirut, arrived on the scene not long after the bombing. “From beneath the dusty, smoking slabs of collapsed concrete, piteous American voices could be heard, begging for help,” Mayer recalled recently in the New Yorker. It was, she wrote, “the single deadliest attack on American Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima.”

So why was security at the base so dangerously lax? In an interview with Navy Times in 2008, Dakota Woods, then a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a former Marine Corps officer, said it was a case of politics trumping practicality. “There was a strong political imperative to avoid looking too hostile or aggressive,” Woods said, “so Marines on guard duty were prohibited from having their weapons in a ready-to-fire condition.”

Politics

The aftermath of the tragedy demonstrates the stark difference between the political realities of the Obama and Reagan eras. Republicans today blame the terrorist attacks on the American ambassadorial compound in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2011 — and the murders there of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three American security officers — on Pres. Obama and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In 1983, Democrats who controlled Congress — and who loathed Reagan as much or more than Republicans despise Obama now — blamed the terrorists, not Reagan, for the murders in Beirut.

“There were more than enough opportunities to lay blame for the horrific losses at high U.S. officials’ feet,” Jane Mayer recalled. “But unlike today’s Congress, congressmen did not talk of impeaching Ronald Reagan … nor were any subpoenas sent to cabinet members. This was true even though then, as now, the opposition party controlled the majority in the House. Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House, was no pushover. He, like today’s opposition leaders in the House, demanded an investigation —- but a real one, and only one.”

And it was a legitimate investigation. “Instead of playing it for political points,” wrote Mayer, “a House committee undertook a serious investigation into what went wrong at the barracks in Beirut. Two months later, it issued a report finding ‘very serious errors in judgment’ by officers on the ground, as well as responsibility up through the military chain of command, and called for better security measures against terrorism in U.S. government installations throughout the world. In other words, Congress actually undertook a useful investigation and made helpful recommendations. The report’s findings, by the way, were bipartisan. (The Pentagon, too, launched an investigation, issuing a report [PDF] that was widely accepted by both parties.)”

Again, the contrast. Initial investigations into the Benghazi attacks produced a relatively clear picture of how the incidents unfolded. Libya was caught up in the regional unrest that had started as the Arab Spring. There had been a series of random attacks in the country, including the explosion of an IED near the Benghazi embassy in June. Early investigations found that requests for additional security by Ambassador Stevens and another official in Libya were ignored, and as a result four State Department officials were fired.

There are aspects of what happened that night in Benghazi that are unclear. For example, an unknown person inside the compound — perhaps a member of the Libyan militia tasked with protecting the ambassador — unlocked the gate and allowed the terrorists to enter and set the buildings on fire. What is known is that, secured in a “panic room” on site, Ambassador Stevens and Information Officer Sean Smith died of smoke inhalation at around 10 p.m. on Sept. 11. Former U.S. Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed in a mortar attack at around 5 a.m. the next day.

If the Republicans’ objective was to uncover the basic facts in order to avoid future similar attacks on U.S. embassies, they would be done. But that is not their objective. Their investigation into Benghazi is a classic McCarthyite partisan witch hunt.

“Nine different House and Senate committees have already investigated the attacks,” California Sen. Barbara Boxer wrote, last November. “Thirteen hearings have been conducted; 50 briefings have taken place; 25 transcribed interviews have been conducted; eight subpoenas have been issued; more than 25,000 pages of documents have been reviewed; six congressional reports have been released.” In May 2014, Republicans stood up the House Select Committee on Benghazi, yet another full investigation into the attacks. The tab for this wasted exercise is $3 million and counting.

None of these investigations has produced any evidence of criminal malfeasance, of course.

Teflon

Despite the fact that he ignored the warnings, Reagan, “the Teflon president,” was politically unscathed by the scandal. In fact, just five months after the bombing he felt free to use the tragedy as the centerpiece of a campaign speech. Speaking to a conclave of evangelicals in Washington in March 1984, Reagan read in its entirety a 2,300-word letter he’d received from a military chaplain who’d been on duty in Beirut at the time of the attack. Seven months later, Reagan was reelected in a landslide.

Reagan’s experience foreshadowed that of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who at the time of the massive terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, absolved themselves of responsibility for it, even though it came to light later that they ignored a CIA warning that an attack was imminent. In fact, when Bush was briefed about the warning, he famously handed the document — titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US” — back to his CIA briefer and remarked,”Okay, you’ve covered your ass.” A case could be made that thousands of people died because of this cavalier act.

Last week week Bush’s former CIA briefer, Mike Morell, revealed that at the time of the warning Cheney believed bin Ladin was bluffing. It appears then that Bush dismissed the CIA warning because of Cheney’s criminal incompetence.

Similarly, earlier last month, Morell confirmed what has long been known — that Bush, Cheney, Rice and others were lying when they claimed Iraq had a nuclear bomb, when they asserted that if we did not invade Iraq, the smoking gun might be a mushroom cloud. Four-thousand U.S. servicemembers Bush ordered into Iraq based on a lie died because of that lie, tens of thousands more were wounded and two trillion dollars of taxpayer dollars was wasted.

Making matters worse, Cheney advocated and Bush approved the torturing of prisoners held in CIA custody — a violation of an international treaty that Reagan signed in 1984. This was prima facie evidence of war crimes, and yet, other than the indignity of leaving office as the most unpopular president in the history of polling, Bush has escaped accountability, as has Cheney and all their senior advisers.

Given the Republicans’ own record of malfeasance and incompetence, decent people — everyday folks who don’t follow politics day in and day out — might wonder why they continue to press their case against the president and Secretary Clinton when they and everyone involved knew from the outset what happened that night and the next morning in Benghazi. The insinuation is that the tragedy in Benghazi was the result of crimes committed in the highest reaches of the government.

Cynics — those who do follow Beltway machinations closely — understand that Republicans are politicizing the murders of the four Americans in an effort to damage Pres. Obama and his legacy and to undermine Secretary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

“Truth”

Republicans’ latest claim, for example, is that the “truth about Benghazi” is hidden in Hillary Clinton’s purported missing emails. But what is this “truth?” Is it that the secretary of state ordered Ambassador Stevens to go to Benghazi unarmed, as Reagan did the Marines in 1982? Is it Clinton dismissing a warning that the ambassadorial compound was going to be attack by telling her briefer, “Okay, you’ve covered your ass,” as Bush did a month before 9/11? Or is it Clinton lying about the threat level, as Bush, Cheney, Rice and others did as a pretext for taking the country to war?

So is it fair to label these Republican investigations partisan witch hunts? Consider this. The chairman of the House Select Committee, Rep. Trey Goudy of South Carolina, has said he intends to release his report a few weeks prior to the presidential election next year — a clear sign that his and his party’s real agenda here is to disrupt Clinton’s presidential campaign.

How much more nakedly politically partisan could Republicans get than that?

12 Comments

  • Leona
    July 7, 2016 - 4:43 pm | Permalink

    These facts are indisputable. I remember these things well. Especially Beruit where my brothers and sisters in arms died due to stupid and ignorant policies made by the president that republicans seem to love—Ronald Reagan

    • August 3, 2016 - 9:15 pm | Permalink

      What did Reagan do wrong?? What “ignorant policies”???

  • Renee Fry
    July 8, 2016 - 11:41 am | Permalink

    I remember that we’ll also. It just seems so obserd that the mass majority of people my age don’t or refuse to remember these facts. History has a way of staying with us.

  • August 3, 2016 - 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, liberals. it was the terrorists fault. Not Reagans. Tip O’Neill said so. If Reagan sent them in to fight, you’d be ripping on him for that.

    • Keith Clark
      October 15, 2016 - 6:59 am | Permalink

      Reagan did send them in to fight!
      Looks like you missed the whole point of the article dude. 240+ people killed during Reagan and Weinberger’s reign but dem’s “DIDN’T” go on a witch hunt because they had decency to do what’s right…not what’s expedient! A political crusade to make Reagan and Weinberger look weak or destroy them.
      Republicans did just the opposite with Bengazhi and 4 deaths, all to tarnish and stop Hillary Clinton. Wasted my money and other Americans money on B.S. investigations, hearings, committees, all to find “NOTHING!” That’s the Republicans conclusion…no wrong doing found!
      Furthermore, republicans/conservatives like to overlook the fact that they turned down request for funds for security to improve their current surroundings from Ambassador Stevens. There is video verifying that very fact!
      So when republicans/conservatives grow up and stop playing games with peoples lives for political gain maybe they can get back to being about the business of the people….whom they were elected to serve, “NOT THEMSELVES!”

  • Ed Mc
    September 25, 2016 - 3:26 am | Permalink

    OMG
    Did you read the article? She said it WAS the terrorists fault, just like Benghazi. She is identifying a double standard and witch hunt (yes, with a “w”)
    Conservatives are using a huge tragedy to discredit someone who has devoted her life to politics and being in-service to our country… mistakes and all. Find a politician who have made NO mistakes.

  • David
    October 22, 2016 - 12:04 am | Permalink

    I was there when this happened. This Marine can and does blame Reagan. His stupid policies left us no way to defend ourselves. He is to blame just as much as the actual individual that drove the truck that day. I lost 241 of my brothers!!!!! Unless you were there you have have no clue what you are talking about. So do me and my brothers a favor…..STFU

    • MAN
      October 29, 2016 - 6:51 pm | Permalink

      Semper Fi-Marine
      I second that, Reagan us to blame

  • MAN
    October 29, 2016 - 6:45 pm | Permalink

    Semper Fi- Marine, I too am a survivor who still wakes up with night terrors for the last 33 years on October 23 at 6:15 AM each year. We lost 241 brother’s, I lost more than half my team. Yes I blame Reagan and if we were allowed to retaliate the would’ve been a 9/1. I have lived with this internal rage ever since that Sunday morning.

    It was my third tour we were crossed decked.

    I reenlisted to attempt to right some wrongs and try to find some meaning of it all I’m now a pastor yet I can’t forgive Reagan’s inaction and focus on Grenada.

    • Nick Ames
      January 7, 2017 - 12:15 am | Permalink

      Tip O’Neill and Ronnie were good, good Buddies is one reason. And The 2 Party Dictatorship made Deals AND we had People in Government who didnt believe in a Scorch ed Earth Politics

  • Nick Ames
    January 7, 2017 - 12:22 am | Permalink

    Marine Brass was Complacent as well and you must know that!!! They should have taken a lot more simple, common sense measures that Military Men have done since ancient times when encamped!!! ESPECIALLY after the Embassy was truck bombed the same way AND an Israeli facility and 2 or 3 other locations!!! Get Real !!!

    • RKing
      June 15, 2017 - 8:10 am | Permalink

      Nick Ames, the Marines on the ground did everything they were allowed to do in order to protect themselves and fortify their positions; every measure they did NOT take was specifically the result of a political directive issued from thousands of miles away and filtered downwards. I strongly suggest you read more on the subject before you ever again impugn the competence and dedication of the Marines who bore the consequence of the numerous terrible compromises forced upon them by tv cowboys and their sycophants.

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