President Reagan ordered strikes against Iran if any of the American hostages held by the terrorist group Hezbollah were killed. The order, made during a January 18th, 1985 meeting of the National Security Planning Group, came on the heels of a threat by the terrorists to "try the American hostages as spies and then give them the punishment they deserve."
The document is posted online for the first time at the newly created website, www.thereaganfiles.com, where many other recently released National Security Council and National Security Planning Group meetings from the Reagan Administration are also posted. Hundreds of other Reagan Administration documents are also posted at www.thereaganfiles.com, including documents that President Obama ordered released on April 13th, 2009 that former President Bush had been withholding since 2001.
Hezbollah, at the time of the January 18th, 1985, NSPG meeting, was believed to be holding at least five American hostages, including Beirut CIA Station Chief William Buckley.
The proposed targets for an Iranian strike are still classified. Security of Defense Weinberger tells President Reagan in the January 18th meeting that the strike is designed to be carried out at night, "but could also be flown as daylight strikes."
The meeting minutes then read:
VP Bush: I think the American people would be very supportive.
Sec. Shultz: We actually need to prepare several strategies: a public strategy, a Hill strategy, and a strategy to use with our friends and allies.
We will draft something on each of these and have it on the shelf in case we need it.
Poindexter: I believe that covers the agenda. I recommend we adjourn. We've now agreed that if the hostages are harmed (one line redacted).
Pres. Reagan: (Snapping fingers) Like that.
Poindexter: Don't you think we should reconvene the NSPG to make the final decision?
Pres. Reagan: Only if it doesn't delay the strikes. In summary then, if any hostage is harmed, we will (three lines redacted).
President Reagan wrote in his diary that night: "Settled an action we'll take immediately against Iran if the Hisballah terrorists carry out their threat to punish as spies the 5 Americans they are holding in Lebanon. It's time to serve notice we won't hold still for their barbarism."
Newly released documents also show that a secret Hostage Locating Task Force was set up in February 1986 and that Oliver North was running the operation. A month later, another recently released document shows that Secretary Weinberger and Secretary Shultz sent President Reagan a joint memo recommending another strong warning to Iran to prevent any harm to the American hostages. Weinberger and Shultz wrote on February 21, 1985:
"The present new threat of execution most likely applies to hostage William Buckley. To take every step possible to avert its being carried out, and in light of our intention to retaliate should any of the hostages be harmed, we believe that a repeated warning of unmistakable clarity to the Iranians is called for."
"Although our message and intent is unequivocal, we do not want to suggest to you that our response would be automatic. As we move to retaliate, we would need to consider carefully the timing, mode and location of our specific retaliatory act to ensure that our interests are best protected, and of course we await your decision."
The letter to Iran is still classified. Buckley is thought to have died from an pneumonia, in June 1985, though Hezbollah would announce in October 1985 that they executed him. Buckley's remains were returned in 1991. President Reagan, of course, didn't bomb Iran even though hostages were killed in April 1986. The killings were apparently in retaliation for American strikes against Libya.
According to another recently released document, the meeting minutes from a March 30th, 1984, meeting of the NSPG, by 1984 President Reagan was already contemplating bombing Iran. "If there are terrorist attacks," Reagan asked during the top-secret meeting, "what will be our targets in Iran?" The response is still classified.
In the same meeting, White House National Security Adviser McFarlane asks if the United States could "live without Kuwait." Secretary of State Shultz argues: "We should almost seek an opportunity to do something against terrorism. We need to send a signal that we can do something about terrorism. We need to look for an opportunity, especially against Libya." The conversation then continues:
Pres. Reagan: We can't afford another Beirut (referring to the1983 bombing of the American barracks killing 241 Americans), but, most likely there will be another terrorist attack. Do we have enough forces in the Gulf to respond even if we don't get access? What if we bombed east of Basrah?
Sec. Shultz: That would be a different matter, to openly go into the war on the side of Iraq.
Gen. Gabriel (JCS): Our forces are ready, CENTCOM has plans but they all need access.
Pres. Reagan: Are we certain that we will have a command structure that can carry out the mission without a lot of red tape?
Ed Meese: We haven't talked to Congress yet.
Sec. Shultz: We are already talking about War Powers.
Rumsfeld: Remember, oil is not the most important thing - the most important thing is to prevent Soviet involvement in the Gulf.
In 1984, Rumsfeld was President Reagan's Special Envoy to the Middle East. He was at today's meeting to brief the President after returning from a tour of the area. During the meeting, according to the recently released meeting minutes, he tells President Reagan:
"The United States is ill equipped to deal with these (terrorist) threats...These (Middle Eastern) countries have an inflated view of American capabilities ... We are not very capable unless we plan, exercise, think about it, and have public support...These countries expect us to be effective, but we can't be effective unless we have planned it with their cooperation ...We must not look ineffective and uncoordinated ...There is a tendency to over estimate our commitment and what we can do. If a balloon goes up, our military will spend 90% of its effort in self-defense."
Rumsfeld ends his briefing: "As President Reagan has said before, if you want to kill a snake you go for the head. We need to change governments in the countries that practice state-sponsored terrorism." It took almost twenty-years, but Rumsfeld finally found a president in George W. Bush willing to go along with his changing governments ideology.
With the increasing likelihood that Iran is now developing nuclear weapons and Hezbollah stronger now than in the 1980's, chances are President Obama, like President Reagan, is going to have make tough choices about Iran.