WASHINGTON, April 15, 1986 (UPI) - President Reagan, facing the growing problem of terrorism, sat down with his top national security advisers last Wednesday and said: ''Take the military route,'' leading to the bombing of Libya five days later.
In the ensuing days before the attack, the military laid out the plans, recommended targets and apparently had all the authority it needed to go, or not to go, without Reagan's further approval.
As the picture unfolds from White House sources, Secretary of State George Shultz appeared to be the ''hawk,'' urging military retaliation. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger apparently played a more cautious role, warning against precipitous action.
Shultz was supported by Adm. John Poindexter, the new national security adviser, and others in the White House who were beginning to display frustration with Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy.
Deputy White House press secretary Larry Speakes disclosed under persistent questioning some of the details of how and when Reagan arrived at his decision to order the air strikes. But he flatly refused to pinpoint the timing of Reagan's decision beyond telling reporters it was ''midweek.''
Other sources said Reagan made his decision Wednesday before his nationally televised news conference in which he sidestepped questions about retaliation.
Speakes said the United States ''has had a very active policy of pursuing terrorism since 1981. It has been a policy that has evolved into what took place last night and that is direct action.''
Speakes said U.S. intelligence has been trying for some time to determine who was responsible for several terrorist acts, and that ''we were able to come up with irrefutable evidence that Khadafy was involved'' in the West Berlin discotheque attack April 5 in which an American soldier was killed and a Turkish woman and 50 other servicemen were wounded.
Once the source of the Berlin plot was determined, Speaks said, ''We were able to zero in on it and determine what we wanted to do. We had a direct link.''
Simultaneously, he said, there was evidence of a gradual escalation of terrorist activities against Americans.
''So the president felt it was time to take action,'' he said. ''We had taken economic action. We had taken political action. We had put the fleet into the area to indicate that we had sufficient firepower to act if we were pushed to do so. None of that worked on Khadafy.''
He said that after the Berlin bombing, Reagan ''set in motion what we would do. ... Sometime in midweek last week, he indicated 'yes' he would like to exercise the (military) option.''
As Speakes recalled, Reagan said, ''Take the military route.''
In the following days, a series of meetings were held ''with key players,'' from the State Department, the Pentagon and the national security agencies to assess targets, Speakes said. Then Pengaton officials scheduled the airstrikes for Monday night.
He said that in later meetings, the military planners ''showed him (Reagan) targets. ... kept showing him ideas. ... They proceeded.''
''There was no need,'' Speakes said, for Reagan to give a final go-ahead.
Meanwhile, the president dispatched U.N. Ambassador Vernon Walters to London, Bonn, Paris and Rome to inform the allied leaders of Reagan's decision to attack Libya.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gave permission for U.S. F-111 fighter jets to be flown from Britain. But France refused to allow the warplanes to fly over its air space, causing the jets to travel 2,800 nautical miles, instead of 1,200 miles had they used a direct route.
The president and his ranking foreign policy advisers briefed Republican and Democratic congressional leaders and showed them maps in a top secret meeting room three hours before the bombers hit Tripoli and Benghazi.
Reagan ''had the option for a check off until 6:59 p.m. (EST) last night,'' said Speakes. Libyan targets were hit at 7 p.m. EST.