On April 2, a bomb placed by a terrorist under a seat on TWA Flight 840 en route from Rome to Athens exploded, blowing four Americans, including a nine-month-old baby, out through the fuselage. It was not, we quickly determined, a Qaddafi-directed operation. But CIA director Bill Casey called me on the secure phone to say that our intelligence system was picking up indications of Libyans targeting U.S. diplomatic missions and other facilities used by Americans in Europe and elsewhere. On Saturday, April 5, as I awoke, reports were coming in that a bomb had gone off in a discotheque called La Belle in West Berlin. Two people were killed and 155 were wounded, including 50 to 60 Americans. Intelligence reports made the connection to Libya unmistakable. We were “reading their mail”: we had intercepted a Libyan communication from East Berlin saying that their operation had been carried out successfully “without leaving clues.”
We had two carrier battle groups in the Mediterranean: the America, at Livorno, and the Coral Sea, at Málaga. I called NSC adviser John Poindexter . “The president will want to do something – Tuesday or Wednesday night,” he said.
“The sooner the better. I'm all for it,” I replied. I said it was important not to go into a big, visible meeting this time. We had a “smoking gun.” I wanted to inform European heads of government so that they, too, would know about the clear link to Qaddafi. The intelligence we had on the terrorists was of the sort that usually would not be released, for the very fact that we possessed such knowledge would indicate how we got it and thereby “compromise” and make ineffective the use of that method in the future. But Bill Casey said he thought releasing the intelligence “should be possible given the circumstances.”
On Monday, April 7, I met with the president, Casey , Poindexter , Deputy Secretary of Defense Will Taft (representing Cap Weinberger ), and General John Wickham (representinging the Joint Chiefs) at the White House. We discussed potential targets: air and naval bases; one terrorist training camp, Sidi Bilal; three infrastructure targets; Qaddafi's desert camp, an intelligence center that we knew was a command post, and Qaddafi's residence. I argued against hitting Qaddafi's residence. We wouldn't get him, and, I thought, it would be seen as an attempt by us to kill him that failed. We decided to approach Britain and France to permit F-111 flights from a British base with overflights across France. We also would consult Italy, Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia.
I noted that the Joint Chiefs and Will Taft , Weinberger 's deputy, had now dropped the Pentagon's usual insistence that no American military action could be taken until we had confirmed that public opinion fully supported it before the fact. Cap was on an extended trip in Asia, but I heard that he was on board this time. Mike Armacost remarked that he, too, would be traveling when our proposed attack was to occur. “I'll be in Pakistan this weekend for the riots,” he said with a sardonic smile.
Ambassador Dobrynin was back from Moscow and had had breakfast with me that morning. I told Dobrynin about Qaddafi's direct involvement with the La Belle disco bombing (without disclosing why we were so sure) and about Qaddafi's other terrorist operations against us and others. Dobrynin made no comment. As we came down from breakfast in the elevator, the deputy of our Near East bureau, Arnie Raphel , said, “So we can check off the box marked ‘consult with the Soviets.’” I wasn't just getting my ticket punched. It was important to have informed the Soviets, an uneasy supporter of Libya, of our strong objections to Libya's actions.
That afternoon, President Reagan went to Baltimore to the opening game of the baseball season. The president sat in the Orioles' dugout. The catcher, Rick Dempsey , came over and sat down next to him and started telling him how to take care of Qaddafi. The press was speculating that something was up: they had picked up on the fact that State and Defense were no longer split on retaliation. On Wednesday morning, April 9, I met with the president; he listened to advice from me and others, particularly the military leaders who would carry out the operation. He had chosen the potential targets: (1) Tripoli air base, Tarabulus naval base, Benghazi naval base, Benina air base; (2) a terrorist training camp at Sidi Bilal; (3) Qaddafi's intelligence headquarters, his desert encampment, and his bunker, residence, and guard barracks.
The president also approved additional, subsidiary targets.
We had considered much more devastating attacks, for instance, on Libya's oil installations, but rejected those options as disproportionate.
Bill Crowe said that to prepare these strikes, he would need until Monday or Tuesday. The president sent a “direct” message to Margaret Thatcher requesting permission to stage USAF F-111s out of Britain. He also, on the advice of the intelligence people, decided not to provide our allies with details of how and what we knew about the Libyan terrorists. He decided to move the carrier Enterprise from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. This meant asking Egypt to allow a nuclear-powered warship to transit the Suez Canal, something they had never agreed to before. From American diplomatic posts in every part of the world came reports of ominous surveillance of our people by Libyan agents. We also learned that the French had narrowly prevented a massacre by Libyan operatives of civilians outside our embassy in Paris.
Thursday morning's television news reported that “intense preparation” was under way for retaliation and noted that the president did not deny to the press that he had already ordered military action. “If and when we could specifically identify someone responsible for one of these acts, we would respond,” President Reagan said.
Prime Minister Thatcher said yes to our request for use of U.S. F-111s from U.S. bases in Britain, but she made it clear that we needed to make public our evidence against Qaddafi, that we should limit the targets to those with clear terrorist connections, and that our retaliation should be “proportionate.” She now agreed with us that such attacks justified resort to self-defense. I felt that despite intelligence community concerns, we would have to make public what we knew about the Libyan involvement in the La Belle bombing. I went over our target plans with British Ambassador Oliver Wright .
President Mitterrand of France was equivocating about granting over-flight rights; he wanted us to send our multilingual roving ambassador, Dick Walters , to Paris to talk about the operation. Mitterrand liked him. Walters left for Paris. We were now briefing Congress in general terms. I worried. We had briefed allied heads of government in detail but not Congress; we were afraid of leaks. Many members of Congress seemed constantly to oppose any use of any attribute of American power – and a leak about this operation would have forced us to postpone or cancel it. And there were War Powers Act problems. Dante Fascell , who was tough-minded and action oriented, still seemed to feel that the president should get a resolution of authority from Congress before doing anything.
On Monday morning, April 14, the media had picked up all the indicators that we were about to strike. NBC-TV reported that European leaders felt the president was just bluffing in order to pressure them to adopt stronger economic sanctions against Qaddafi. The president “should put his gun back in his holster” was the sentiment being registered. German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher was on his way to Washington reportedly to tell us that there was insufficient evidence to justify an attack against Libya.
I was in Kansas that day, giving the Alf Landon Lecture in honor of the former Republican candidate for president at the invitation of Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum , Landon 's daughter. I knew that the strike against Libya was set for 7:00 p.m., Washington, D.C., time. Word came from the Pentagon that Cap Weinberger wanted the president to delay action until Tuesday morning. I left immediately after the lecture for Washington and arrived at Andrews Air Force Base at 4:25 p.m. A meeting with congressional leaders had already begun. I went straight to the White House. Strangely enough, the meeting was being held in the Old Executive Office Building, in room 208, a large conference room that had recently been fitted with the communications and display equipment needed to conduct worldwide operations outside the White House Situation Room.
I walked in and was handed a note from Will Ball , assistant to the president for congressional relations, saying that the meeting had been disjointed so far and suggesting that I get people to understand “our broad purpose and how we have carefully weighed our options.” I was hearing the sound of footsteps in retreat. I reminded everyone of Qaddafi's many acts of terror, the incontrovertible evidence in the La Belle case, and our ability to hit military and terrorist-related targets. The group seemed to take on new resolve.
The attack proceeded. Seldom in military history, I thought, had a punch been so clearly telegraphed. At 6:30 p.m., Peter Jennings announced, “An attack is imminent.” At 7:00 p.m., Tom Brokaw said: “American ships and planes are moving.” The U.S. Air Force confirmed that more than forty F-111s had left England on night operations. Qaddafi was no doubt hearing it all, too, in the middle of the night in Libya. Then on television, over a telephone line from Libya, came “Tripoli is under attack!”
President Reagan spoke on national television from the Oval Office at 9:00 p.m. on April 14, 1986. He announced that at seven o'clock that evening, “Air and naval forces of the United States launched a series of strikes against the headquarters, terrorist facilities and military assets that support Muammar Qadhafi 's subversive activities.” He went on,
Colonel Qadhafi is not only an enemy of the United States. His record of subversion and aggression against the neighboring States in Africa is well documented and well known. He has ordered the murder of fellow Libyans in countless countries. He has sanctioned acts of terror in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, as well as the Western Hemisphere. Today we have done what we had to do. If necessary, we shall do it again.
He concluded his address:
We Americans are slow to anger. We always seek peaceful avenues before resorting to the use of force – and we did. We tried quiet diplomacy, public condemnation, economic sanctions, and demonstrations of military force. None succeeded. Despite our repeated warnings, Qadhafi continued his reckless policy of intimidation, his relentless pursuit of terror. He counted on America to be passive. He counted wrong. I warned that there should be no place on Earth where terrorists can rest and train and practice their deadly skills. I meant it. I said that we would act with others, if possible, and alone if necessary to ensure that terrorists have no sanctuary anywhere. Tonight, we have.
The next morning, I went over to see the president. I congratulated him on his tough decision. He felt, and I agreed, that we had emphatically put down a marker that the United States was ready and able to take military action against states that perpetrated terrorism. We had come a long way since the initial reaction to my speech at the Park Avenue Synagogue.
Margaret Thatcher had come through in staunch support of our effort by allowing American planes to take off from British bases. The French, by contrast, refused us even overflight rights. The result was a longer and more difficult mission for our F-111s. And the Egyptians said there was not enough time to change their policy on nuclear-powered warship transits. The head of the European Community, Hans van den Broek of the Netherlands, telephoned me to say that our military action “would do serious damage to the transatlantic relationship.” I went up to Capitol Hill to a Republican Senate Inner Circle dinner. The senators, members of the president's own party, had questions all over the landscape. Not one said “We're with you.” They all seemed to be waiting to see whether the operation was a success and to hear the public reaction.
The public response in the United States and Europe supported the president's actions. His standing in public opinion polls soared. That made an impact on congressional critics. More important, Qaddafi, after twitching feverishly with a flurry of vengeful responses, quieted down and retreated into the desert. The Europeans, more alert now to the dangers posed to them by Libya, alarmed at the use of force by the United States, and anxious to show cooperation with a popular U.S. action, took action of their own. We had finally gotten their attention. They forced drastic personnel reductions in the Libyan people's bureaus, and the activities of those remaining were restricted and watched. This action alone significantly curbed Qaddafi's terrorist capacities.
On May 20, 1986, a few weeks after the air strikes against Libya, Ambassador Wilson resigned his post at the Vatican.