No Way to Defend U.S. Beirut Base, Panel Told
The commander of the Marine unit in Beirut hit by a suicide bombing in 1983 that killed 241 U.S. servicemen told congressional investigators in a closed-door session after the tragedy that his base had been “virtually impossible” to defend against a terrorist attack, newly declassified testimony disclosed Wednesday.
Col. Timothy J. Geraghty, who commanded the 1,800 Marines in the war-torn Lebanese capital, told the House Armed Services Committee that adequate defenses could not be built around the Marine barracks at the Beirut airport because his troops’ peacekeeping mission was more political and diplomatic than military.
Roads to Compound
Indeed, Geraghty said, the Marine compound was so vulnerable that it was nearly impossible to block the roads that approached it--one of them the route driven by a Muslim terrorist in a truck laden with 12,000 pounds of explosives that crashed into the Americans’ barracks on Oct. 23, 1983.
“I could take you by that airport and stand there for an hour, and we could count 300 refuelers or airline catering trucks or dump trucks--any of which could be loaded with the same or bigger bomb--that would be moving 10 feet from (the compound) fence and drive through it and blow it and kill 800 people,” Geraghty said. If the truck “didn’t go through the location that it did, I could give you 10 other locations it could get in the compound,” he added.
He was unable to explain, however, why the gate through which the truck sped was open at the time of the attack or why it was customarily left open.
The Marine commander testified in late 1983 before the committee when it probed the bombing in eight days of closed hearings. Later, the panel issued a report highly critical of military officials for failing to protect the U.S. troops. The newly declassified testimony was contained in a separate 654-page committee report.
Geraghty, now commander of the Marine Corps barracks at the Norfolk, Va., Naval Station, never has discussed the bombing publicly.
Geraghty’s immediate superior, Navy Capt. Morgan France, testified that he, like his Marine subordinate, believed that security at the barracks was adequate in the face of known threats. But he said that although there were hundreds of intelligence reports on potential terrorist threats, no warning had been issued that a truck bomb might be used instead of the less deadly car bombs that are Lebanese terrorists’ usual weapon.
Because the size of the threat was “new and unique,” Geraghty agreed, “trying to provide any kind of protection in that environment is virtually impossible.”
He told committee members that he decided to forbid most of the Marine sentries to carry ammunition in their rifles because of the danger of an accidental shooting amid the heavy civilian traffic at the airport.
For the same reason, he said, anti-tank rockets, which might have prevented the terrorist’s truck from reaching the barracks, were not kept ready at the gates to the compound.
He speculated that the barracks bombing may have been in retaliation for U.S. naval gunfire and air attacks on Shia Muslim areas of Beirut, from which the Marines had been fired upon by small arms, rockets and artillery for months.
Furthermore, he indirectly criticized the September, 1983, decision by higher U.S. commanders to begin the attacks, in support of beleaguered Lebanese army units, saying he had “my reservations” about such actions.
Change in Neutral Role
“I felt that the provision of direct support to the Lebanese, that we ought to be very careful with this, because it clearly changed our neutral role--our peacekeeping role--and that our vulnerabilities were not unknown,” Geraghty said.
During the testimony, Rep. Beverly B. Byron (D-Md.) observed that committee members who had visited Beirut were so worried about “the vulnerability of your position” that they met with Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger only three days before the bombing to register their concern.
“We recognized that you were sitting ducks, that you were being targeted and you had very little to respond,” agreed Rep. Samuel S. Stratton, a committee member.
Geraghty told committee members that none of the top officers who visited the Marines’ installation before the disaster--including Gen. Paul X. Kelley, commandant of the Marine Corps, and Army Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--had criticized security procedures there.
But Vessey, in a separate appearance before the panel, said that during each of his three trips to Beirut before the bombing, he had urged that sandbag bunkers at the airport site be strengthened and that other security improvements be undertaken.
The bombing of the Marine barracks prompted widespread calls for a U.S. withdrawal of troops from Lebanon, and President Reagan ordered the pullout four months later.