Editor's note: Thirty years ago today, 241 U.S. Marines were killed in a suicide bombing attack on their barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. It was one of the worst losses of life in the Marines' recent history, and marked the dawn of a new era in suicidal religious terrorism against the United States.
But it also marked the beginning of a new approach to national security -- using information technology to gather and analyze clues about attacks before they happened. In this excerpt from his book The Watchers, senior writer Shane Harris recounts the events of that fateful morning in Beirut, and how, in ways that few could have predicted, it paved the way for America's modern surveillance state.
The sun dawned about a quarter after six on Sunday, October 23, 1983. Most of the Marines were still asleep. A few who were up and moving about the compound noticed a yellow truck outside the concertina wire that guarded the perimeter. It was a Mercedes-Benz stake-bed, a workhorse used to carry heavy cargo. Before anyone could figure out why it was there, the truck picked up speed and crashed through the fence.
A sentry in one of the two guard posts nearby turned in time to see the truck heading straight for the Marines' barracks. He grabbed his unloaded M16 and reached for a magazine of ammunition. The truck sped through an open gate, swerved around a sewer pipe, and aimed for the small sergeant-of-the-guard post stationed at the entrance to the hulking concrete building.
That guard was facing the lobby and heard the roaring truck behind him. He turned, and he thought for a moment, "What's that truck doing inside the perimeter?" An instant later he was sprinting through the building to another entrance on the far side.
"Hit the deck!" he yelled. "Hit the deck!" He glanced back over his shoulder and watched the truck flatten his post before crashing into the lobby. It halted there. One or two seconds passed, and then the guard saw a bright orange and yellow flash. Then he realized he was flying through the air.
First Lieutenant Glenn Dolphin awoke to the barks of an early-rising Arkansas captain. He exhorted the roomful of exhausted men to join him at the barracks gym for a workout before reveille. They were splayed out on cots set up in the parking bay of an old fire department building. Dolphin looked over. The guy worked out constantly, and he thought he looked like a million bucks. But it was Sunday, the one day Dolphin could sleep in. The only Marines up now were jogging the perimeter, enjoying the rare morning quiet. The rest would stroll down later to the chow tent, where the cooks set up an omelet station on Sundays. Dolphin had been on duty in the Combat Operations Center until midnight and had been looking forward to the extra rest. Fuck it, he thought, eyeing the energetic captain. Dolphin rolled over in his cot to steal a few more minutes' sleep.
Dolphin had been encamped with the Twenty-fourth Marine Amphibious Unit at the Beirut International Airport for seven months now, ostensibly as part of an international peacekeeping force deployed into Lebanon's bloody civil war. But there was little progress to be seen. In April, someone had slammed a bomb-laden truck into the lobby of the U.S. embassy. The suicide attacker killed sixty-three people, including most of the CIA station in Beirut. After that, the notion that the Americans were in Beirut on a peacekeeping mission struck the twelve hundred Marines as absurd.
In order to avoid being perceived as an occupying force, the Marines had been ordered to shelter in place on the south side of the airport. They built makeshift bunkers out of sandbags, which cast long shadows on the vast, open expanse of dirt and asphalt, providing easy marks for gunmen. The Marines' rules of engagement, handed down from the Pentagon, said they must maintain a noncombat presence-that meant no heavily fortified bunkers, nothing more than concertina wire to mark their compound, and, in what struck so many of the men as sheer madness, no loaded weapons.
Dolphin was twenty-five, but he felt old. The wind and sand had beaten the shine off his skin and dulled his red hair. He'd been wondering if his unit's reinforcements might arrive by Thanksgiving or Christmas. The sun still low in the sky, he started to fall back to sleep on his cot.
Dolphin felt a wave of pressure before he actually heard the explosion. He and the other Marines were lying next to six huge metal doors. They flew off their frames and away from the building as daylight flooded into the parking bay.
Dolphin saw the doors slow down in midair, and then careen back toward him, sucked in by a vacuum created in the blast. One door clipped him on the back. Then he heard the boom, so loud he couldn't have imagined it before that moment. Everything in the bay that wasn't nailed down flew up in a maelstrom of shrapnel. A skylight at the top edge of the building shattered, and glass rained on the Marines.