WASHINGTON — Late last year, President Reagan approved a covert operation directing the Central Intelligence Agency to train and support several counterterrorist units for strikes against suspected terrorists before they could attack U.S. facilities in the Middle East, according to informed sources.
About four months later, members of one of those units, composed of Lebanese intelligence personnel and other foreigners, acted without CIA approval and went out on an unauthorized mission, the sources said.
They purportedly hired others in Lebanon to detonate a massive car bomb outside the Beirut residence of a militant Shia Muslim leader believed to be behind terrorist attacks on U.S. installations. More than 80 people were killed and 200 wounded in the car bombing in a Beirut suburb March 8. The suspected terrorist leader escaped injury.
Faced with an indirect connection to the car bombing, alarmed CIA and Reagan Administration officials quickly canceled the entire covert support operation, the sources said.
CIA personnel had no contact with those who actually carried out the car bombing, and agency officials were upset about the unauthorized operation, they said.
Administration spokesmen had no comment Saturday.
Several intelligence sources said the incident revealed the hazards of trying to fight the "dirty" war of terrorism. Others questioned whether training and support of the covert units might have violated the longstanding prohibition against U.S. involvement in assassinations.
Administration sources said that the congressional oversight committees on intelligence were briefed on the covert support operation in Lebanon after the President approved it late last year, although Reagan specifically directed that only the chairmen and vice chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees be informed.
Several sources said there is some question whether the new chairmen and vice chairmen who took over the committees in both chambers in January received full briefings on the operation. Administration sources last week said that they had.
Within weeks of the March 8 car bombing and the cancellation of the covert operation in Lebanon, both Robert C. McFarlane, the President's national security affairs adviser, and CIA Director William J. Casey gave speeches saying the Administration had the capability to preempt terrorist attacks.
Using the same language, both McFarlane and Casey said: "We cannot and will not abstain from forcible action to prevent, preempt or respond to terrorist acts where conditions merit the use of force. Many countries, including the United States, have the specific forces and capabilities we need to carry out operations against terrorist groups."
McFarlane and Casey have declined to elaborate, and it could not be learned exactly what capabilities they were talking about. The CIA has extensive worldwide counterterrorist training operations designed to help other nations defend against and react to terrorist attacks. McFarlane's speech was given here on March 25 and Casey's in Cambridge, Mass., on April 17.
Dozens of bystanders were killed and wounded in the March 8 car bombing in a Beirut suburb about 50 yards from the residence of Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, leader of the Hezbollah (Party of God), a militant Shia Muslim movement. A number of Fadlallah's bodyguards reportedly were killed in the explosion.
No one has publicly claimed responsibility for the bombing. Some Shias accused the Israelis, who denied any involvement.
Numerous U.S. intelligence reports have tied Fadlallah directly to the series of terrorist attacks on American facilities in Lebanon in 1983 and 1984.
According to one report, Fadlallah participated in an Oct. 20, 1983, planning meeting of terrorists in Damascus, Syria, three days before the suicide bombing of the Marine headquarters compound in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. servicemen.
Intelligence reports also say that on the night of Oct. 22, 1983, just hours before the bombing, Fadlallah received and blessed the man who drove the truck carrying the explosives in the suicide bombing.
Fadlallah's group also was responsible for the more recent Sept. 20, 1984, bombing of the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut, according to intelligence sources. Fadlallah has denied involvement in these terrorist actions.
A Lebanese intelligence source said: "My service did the (March 8) Fadlallah bombing. I believe it was done to show we are strong. . . . You've got to stop terrorism with terrorism."
The Lebanese source said that the CIA would have nothing to do with a car bomb because of the danger to innocent people, but contended that the CIA knew it was being planned.
U.S. sources emphatically denied any advance knowledge of the bombing and said immediate steps were taken after it occurred to cancel the entire covert operation.