Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Calling Captain Crunch" - Beirut, Bombings, and Memory

I just published a column about the 30-year anniversary of the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon.

A decade ago, just after the invasion of Iraq, I published this column about the 20-year anniversary of the blowing up of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. I would like to include a link to the piece in the Newsweek archives, but for the moment they appear to have disappeared in the transition from one owner of the magazine to another.

Shadowland: Calling Captain Crunch

How Aftershocks From The Bombing Of The U.S. Embassy In Lebanon 20 Years Ago Are Being Felt In Iraq Today

By Christopher Dickey | Newsweek Web Exclusive

Apr 17, 2003

I'd like to talk to Captain Crunch, if anybody knows where he is. Last I heard, he was on the graveyard shift, working as a cop in California. But I figure he'd have some things to tell us about Iraq as massive victory gives way to messy occupation.

He was in Nam with the Marines. And Central America for the CIA. And Lebanon in 1983, after that adventure turned so bad. The people who call him Crunch, the very few people, are ones who remember him from there.

It will be 20 years ago tomorrow that the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was blown up, a footnote for the public, but a watershed in the secret history of the Middle East. More than 50 people were killed, including 17 Americans. At the time (what sheltered lives we led back then!) it was the worst terrorist attack ever perpetrated against the United States, and the first suicide bombing. Eight of the dead Americans were with the CIA, and Crunch was sent by the Agency to figure out what the hell happened. By the time the investigation was terminated it had cost him his job, his reputation and put him on the road to the graveyard shift.

Some good books have touched on the embassy bombing. David Ignatius's worldly-wise first novel, "Agents of Innocence," ex-CIA agent Bob Baer's best-selling "See No Evil" and Ted Gup's "The Book of Honor," which describes the way a new kind of terror encroached on old illusions. "After that day in April 1983, the term 'diplomatic immunity' had a different, almost anachronistic ring," Gup writes. "The violence of the world would no longer stop at the embassy door or respect the lives of those engaged in representing nations ... No amount of protection could fend off a terrorist willing to sacrifice his own life to take the lives of others. It was often observed that the United States had to be vigilant all the time, but the terrorist only had to get lucky once." (Six months later, another suicide bomber blew up the U.S. Marines barracks near Beirut airport, killing 241. And four months after that, the Americans pulled out of Lebanon for good.)

Yet none of those books told Crunch's story, and from what I know of it, it's a tale with plenty of relevance today. Because the same players who hated us in Lebanon are at work in Iraq--Syrians, Iranians, Muslim zealots and cynical foreign-intelligence services--and they could target us there, too. That's one reason the Bush administration is sending out so many warnings just now, especially to Damascus. Forget the issues you hear about on the news. Everybody out here--at least every old timer who remembers the disintegration of Lebanon, the invasion by Israel, the introduction of American troops and the way they were slaughtered--understands the implicit message behind all these new threats from Washington: "Don't even think about doing to us in Baghdad what you did to us in Beirut."

But who really was the enemy 20 years ago? And who is the enemy now? That's the hardest thing of all things to know, because the Mideast is not a place where you're "either with us or against us." "Your friends are just as unreliable as your enemies," says Robert Dillon, who was the U.S. ambassador when the embassy was blown. Everything is situational, and Bob Baer got it just about right when he said, "The Middle East is a place wired to obscure the truth."

When I first came to the region in 1985, just two years after the bombing, I had this notion that if you gathered enough string on the Beirut bombing you could actually start to make some sense of the Middle East's many violent mysteries. But the more string I've gathered, the more tangled it's become.

My idea was to eventually write a book modeled loosely on Thornton Wilder's novel "The Bridge of San Luis Rey." It would start with one terrible moment and discover how a small group of people came to be in that place at that time. In this case, spies and soldiers, diplomats and terrorists. So I interviewed old Agency hands, and families, and witnesses and survivors, tracing the lives and the careers of the dead. One of those killed was Bob Ames, a former college basketball star who played for the good fathers at LaSalle, converted to Catholicism, married the daughter of a Navy officer and joined the CIA. He was, quite literally, All-American. And yet he was the secret connection between the CIA and the most bloodstained factions of the PLO at a time when, officially, there was no connection at all.

Another was Jim Lewis, a Green Beret who served in Vietnam and joined the Agency there, then stayed behind when the rest of America's troops were pulled out. When the south fell, he was captured and thrown in the notorious "Hanoi Hilton" at Sontay. Because of his cover as a consular officer, he doesn't figure in most histories of the conflict. But he was the last known American prisoner of war to be released by the Vietnamese. When he married, he chose a Vietnamese woman as his wife. And on that same early afternoon in April 1983, she was working in the Beirut Station with him. They are buried now, head to head, in Arlington Cemetery.

I talked to the family of the Marine who was vaporized at the door of the embassy. And to the woman who was taken for dead when she was first dragged from the rubble. I saw, many times, the political officer who survived, and became an ambassador, but who always kept the same Iwo Jima Memorial calendar on his wall that he had in Beirut on the day of the bombing. You can still make out the faint outlines of his splattered blood on the page. He's now working on the New Iraq. I wonder if he has that calendar with him in Baghdad.

And I talked to many, many Lebanese--soldiers, bagmen, spymasters and informers--from that country's infinitely intricate world of shadows. They are the kind of men who will tell you with complete nonchalance that a car bomb is easy to make, the difficult thing is to prepare the driver. Or that torture is a tricky thing, because "if the subject is telling the truth, how do you know?"

But it wasn't until after I learned some of the details of Crunch's case that the death threats were directed at me.

Here are the broad outlines:

There was a suspect who died in a Lebanese prison, tortured to death. Crunch testified he wasn't there when it happened. Wasn't even in Lebanon. But Director of Central Intelligence Bill Casey tried to blame him, and forced him out. Not, of course, because Casey cared about the dead suspect, or the methods used to make him confess, but because Casey wanted to distance himself and his agency from the whole affair. It had gotten too sordid, too complicated, even for the CIA. The threads leading from the blast site incriminated too many governments. Because Elias Nimr, the man who died, was not just another bomber. He appears to have been a double-, a triple-, a geometric-multiple-agent. He was a Christian Lebanese intelligence chief who was trained by the Israelis but allegedly worked secretly for the Syrians as paymaster for agents from Iran. Where did his loyalties really lie? Who knew about the embassy bombing? And did they know in advance? Every answer was a problem. And still is.

"Nobody wants to know about this," said one of Nimr's buddies in the Lebanese Forces. The speaker was one of the men who took part in the 1982 massacres of Palestinian women and children refugees at Sabra and Shatila, a militiaman who waded through blood for years, and made money at it. He owned a little restaurant in Paris when I met him. "If you ask these questions in Lebanon, you will be killed," he said, looking me in the eye. "And nobody will know who did it. And nobody will care."

Wherever I mentioned the name of the dead suspect, whether interviewing an ex-president of Lebanon or one of the State Department's top men or the agent and analyst who handled the Lebanon file for Israel, the name of Elias Nimr put a sudden chill on the conversation. And they would get up and leave the room, then return. Or make a sudden phone call. Or order coffee. They knew who he was. And the name made them nervous.

In July 1985, a Lebanese investigating magistrate blamed Nimr for the embassy bombing. But some of Nimr's old colleagues say he was just a victim of bloody interservice rivalries among Lebanon's covert warlords and had nothing to do with the case. And Bob Baer dismisses the Lebanese investigation as "a dog's breakfast of unsupported and politically motivated accusations." He says "no one paid any attention to it." Baer himself concluded, in his last months at the Agency, that "Iran ordered it and a Fatah network [part of Yasir Arafat's organization] carried it out," letting the Syrians off the hook.

The most difficult questions, however, are not just about who ordered the operation, but about who knew what, and when. Those have never been answered with any certainty, and now they probably never will be. The lingering mystery around the bombing implicated everyone, so no one really wants to clear it up. Of the six men who were arrested by the Lebanese, Nimr died under interrogation and the five others eventually were released by the Syrians, who've run all of Lebanon since 1990 with tacit U.S. approval.

In a sense, Crunch was lucky he was forced out of the Agency when he was. The CIA station chief who oversaw the investigation when he left was William Buckley, who was kidnapped and tortured to death by some of the same men who may have been linked to the bombing. At least Crunch got out alive.

Maybe it's still true that "nobody wants to know about this." Certainly it's a complicated past. But then, we've just entered a very complicated future. So Crunch, if you're out there, give me a call. I think we've got a lot to talk about.


Post Script: 

I have indeed been in touch with Crunch since this column was written. His name is Keith Hall and he came out of the shadows to participate in various projects, among them a video called "Heroes Under Fire: Captain Crunch," for which this is a trailer.

In the meantime, Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer Kai Bird has written a book about Bob Ames, The Good Spy, to be published next Spring. I am sure it will be worth reading.

No comments: