The ring of the secure phone at his home in suburban Maryland summoned Admiral John Poindexter, President Reagan's deputy national security adviser, from slumber. He reached over to his bedside table and lifted the receiver. It was nearly 1:00 A.M.
A watch officer in the White House Situation Room relayed what he knew. A bombing at the Marine compound. Minutes later the French regiment also had been hit at their base, not far away. Near simultaneous attacks. Perhaps copycats of the embassy bombing. The final death count would reach 241. The last time the Marines had lost that many men in one day, they were storming the beaches of Iwo Jima.
Poindexter absorbed the information. His immediate reaction to the bombing wasn't anger. He wasn't morose. He was actually annoyed.
We should have seen this coming, he told himself.
Since arriving at the White House in 1981, as a military assistant, Poindexter had been trying to fix the shambles that was the early warning and crisis management system of the national security apparatus. Poindexter, an engineer by training, was given intimidating task of upgrading the Situation Room, which was, despite popular notions, a technological backwater that lacked many of the basic necessities for keeping the president in touch with the world. Across the horizon, Poindexter and other officials saw threats for which the President had little advance warning--from the Soviets to socialist forces in Latin America and, now, suicidal terrorists.
Poindexter had made great strides in little time beefing up the government's intelligence capabilities. The Situation Room was outfitted with modern communications equipment. And now he was putting the finishing touches on the new $14 million Crisis Management Center, a technological outpost in the Old Executive Office Building, the imposing Second Empire-style building next to the White House where the NSC staff kept their offices. Poindexter had installed videoconferencing systems, large screens on the walls, and links to the systems that ran diplomatic, military, and intelligence cable traffic. He had even introduced the first, early versions of "e-mail" to the White House. This new nerve center-combining the Situation Room and the Crisis Management Center-represented a generational leap for the White House.
And yet it hadn't been enough to predict the bombing in Beirut. Later investigations would show that there were many clues that had gone unnoticed, dots that the intelligence agencies and the White House never connected. Since May, U.S. intelligence agencies had received more than one hundred warnings of car bombs in Lebanon. Each one was regarded as part of the background noise in war-torn Beirut. The military chain of command was regularly briefed about the widening threat to the Marines. But then, in Beirut, people were always making threats. The Pentagon never allowed the Marines to take more defensive positions and had essentially turned them into sitting ducks.
Underneath the constant warnings lay a discernible sequence of events that led to the assault at the airport. After the embassy attack in the spring, FBI forensic investigators discovered that the bombers had laden their explosives with ordinary pressurized gas bottles, which magnified the force of the blast. Oxygen, propane, and similar gas canisters were simple to obtain almost anywhere in the world, the FBI noted in its final report. The fact that terrorists had not only set their sights on U.S. targets but were enhancing conventional explosives with everyday materials was never made known to the military commanders in Beirut. That's because the FBI never disseminated its report; it stayed locked within the CIA and the State Department.
The most fateful signal came in late September. The National Security Agency, which intercepted radio and satellite communications around the globe, snatched a message from the Iranian Ministry of Information and Security to the Iranian ambassador in Syria. The ministry ordered the ambassador to get in touch with a man named Hussein Musawi, the head of an Islamic terrorist group called Amal. Musawi was to turn his sights on the multinational forces in Lebanon and was ordered to mount a "spectacular action against the United States Marines."
The Beirut airport was the only place to launch such a spectacular attack. The NSA intercept was the clearest indication yet that the Marines sat in the crosshairs. But owing to the cumbersome military chain of command and an inexplicable failure to grasp the "spectacular" urgency, the message wasn't delivered to senior military officials until two days after the bombing. Only then did the chief of naval intelligence notify his superiors in the Pentagon that the NSA was sitting on what one official later called a "twenty-four-karat gold document." A bona fide warning, unnoticed. The missed signal foreshadowed another overlooked phone call placed on September 10, 2001. It warned, in Arabic, that "tomorrow is zero hour," and it wasn't translated by the NSA until September 12.
The government had no way of capturing information and making it available to those who could discern its importance. At the White House, the NSC staff was the closest thing to an information traffic cop, and Poindexter and his colleagues struggled to control and understand the data swirling around them. Someone had to wrest control, Poindexter thought.