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Mission improbable.

By James Bennet

The Cold War is over and you're ready for bed. So you pat the dog, kiss the wife, and set the alarm for a half hour later than usual. You pull the down comforter up to your chin and wriggle slightly, enjoying the rough feel of your new flannel PJs. Idly, you picture your-self casting, the line arcing through the air-20 yards, no, 50 yards--the lure striking the water ... here he comes, big fellah, big ole bass ... the phone rings. The wife sighs. It's Brent Scowcroft, sounding more tense than usual. You listen. Softly you mutter, "Darn Eye-rainians." You get out of bed and, robed, shuffle off for the Situation Room, trailed by the officer with the launch codes.

Actually, the Iranians evidently have nothing to do with this one. Meeting you at the door, Scowcroft explains that a group of terrorists have hijacked a Lloyd Aero Boliviano 727 bound for Miami from La Paz. On board are at least 40 Americans, including several businessmen and economists who were in Bolivia for a round of debt-reduction talks. The plane is now flying a crazy, zig-zag route up the spine of South America. You ask Scowcroft about the available military options, and he starts to look really nervous. Shouldn't we alert Delta Force? you ask. Can't they handle the job? Scowcroft quickly answers yessir to the first question. Then he clears his throat and gives you the only truthful answer available to the second one, which is that....

There's no way of knowing, because Delta hasn't tried to rescue any hostages since the botched mission to Iran. But if the record of America's counterterrorist commandos through the eighties is any indication, the outlook's pretty grim. The United States has had a decade to apply the brutal lessons of Desert One to building counterterrorist forces that can supply the "swift and effective retribution" promised by Ronald Reagan-that can give the military the capacity for the quick-hit missions, ranging from rescue to retaliation, that it so clearly lacked. More than a billion dollars has gone to develop two commando units-Delta Force, which grew out of the Army, and SEAL Team Six, drawn from the Navy-and the support they require. The need for a better response to terrorism certainly hasn't disappeared: During the 1980s, terrorists killed 571 Americans around the world.

So with all that incentive, all that spending, and all that time, could we get the hostages out of Iran today? "No, no," says a former member of the Special Operations command, who, like most of his comrades, wouldn't allow his name to be printed since he continues to advise the command informally. The troops themselves, by all accounts, are excellent; the problems lie not with the men who pull the triggers but with the command that controls them and, ultimately, with the political leadership. Their Rambo rhetoric notwithstanding, first Ronald Reagan and now George Bush never pushed hard or long enough to bust through the roadblocks that cut off the Iran rescue mission at Desert One. Left to its own devices in the late eighties, the military side of the American counterterrorist effort became "a boondoggle," says a Defense Department source with several years' experience in special operations. "This whole force, the way it's configured, is a disaster." Even the more charitable assessments don't inspire much confidence. "If you put the right leadership in and give them five years, we'll have the forces we need," says Col. Charlie Beckwith, who led the troops on the ground in Iran. "And I think we've got the right leadership now." Five more years?

But you need those commandos in the ail- now. The plane, low on fuel, has requested permission to land in Caracas. Perez probably won't let American troops fight on his soil, but there's a chance he'd at least take some advice, if you could get a team there fast enough. You've gotten a clearer picture of the situation from information that's dribbled in as the pilot communicates with air-traffic controllers in Lima and Quito: There are at least four terrorists, all members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolutionarias de Colombia (FARC). A communist guerrilla movement with close ties to Colombia's drug lords, the FARC has conducted a number of kidnappings and assassinations of Colombians and even some attacks on Americans over the past few years. Unfortunately, you don't know much more about the FARC than that. You do know that the terrorists are armed with handguns and grenades and apparently are carrying some sort of explosive, since they keep threatening to blow up the plane.

On an open line from Simon Bolivar Internationial Airport, Kenneth Skoag, the charge d'affaires, informs you that the Venezuelans have deployed their army to block all runways. The jet comes in anyway in an effort to force a landing-maybe hoping the barricades will be lifted at the last moment, as they were in Beirut during that nightmare TWA hijacking five years ago-but the pilot loses his game of chicken and pulls up at the last moment, banking to the northwest. Given his dwindling fuel supply, he must be planning to land at either Aruba or Curacao-- neither- of which has a standing military capable of dealing with the crisis. The U.S. might have to act, not just advise, after all. Stealth vs. Sikhs

"Oddly enough," says Robert Kupperman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "we may yet yearn for a bipolar, Cold War world." Besides flooding the international arms market with sophisticated weapons, the retreat of the superpowers is creating a vacuum in which ethnic nationalist groups around the world-Tamils, Croatians, Igbos, Azerbaijanis, Sikhs-can press their demands. Many of their grievances are legitimate, but, as the Lithuanians are discovering, their desires for independence may not be fulfilled overnight. It's in that gap between a pressing, legitimate cause and its satisfaction that terrorism flourishes. As terrorist and insurgent groups like the PLO, the Shining Path in Peru, the New People's Army in the Philippines, and the Basque Fatherland and Liberty in northern Spain learned long ago, there's no better way to grab attention in the telecommunications age than with a sudden act of spectacular violence. Today, the means to do so are becoming more accessible and more deadly (see "Beyond Hijacking," p. 24).

In the United States, responsibility for dealing with international terrorism is parceled out, with some duplication, primarily among the CIA, the FBI, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the National Security Council. Of these, the Department of Defense seems least likely to play a continuous, useful role. Military force won't win the war on terrorism, just as hiring more cops alone will never put an end to urban crime. To sleep more peacefully, the world's leaders must recognize the just grievances at the core of many terrorist actions; the best commandos in the world-the British SAS and the Israeli paratroopers-haven't managed to subdue or placate Catholics in Northern Ireland or Palestinians on the West Bank.

But that doesn't mean the president should be deprived of an off-the-shelf military option, and that terrorists should be relieved of worrying about one, when Americans are threatened abroad. When a group of angry Sikhs threatens to blow up the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, you don't want to have to wait for the State Department to negotiate peace in the Punjab; you want to have a good intelligence network in place, solid logistical support, and a counter-terrorist team that's armed and ready to go. The release of American hostages by terrorist groups in Lebanon may prove that the U.S. doesn't always need good counter-terrorist forces; but the fact that the Americans were captive as long as three and a half years-and that others continue to be held hostage-suggests that those forces would be nice to have. Sure, the Czechoslovaks have stopped exporting Semtex; but they had already sent one million pounds of it to Libya, and, as Vaclav Havel pointed out, it takes only about six ounces to blow up an airplane. And while American customs agents may be able to stem the flow of nuclear triggers to Iraq, they can't shut down Iraq's nuclear weapons program or deter Saddam Hussein from using or selling the binary chemical weapons he calls "the fire."

As Sam Nunn commented in a 1986 Senate speech, since "Special Operations Forces"-including counter-terrorist commandos-are more likely to conduct missions than conventional troops, "our entire armed forces-and hence our military capacity-will be judged on whether these forces succeed or fail." After four years, that message seems finally to have made it across the Potomac to the defense department, only to be transformed into a marketing ploy. The Pentagon is still pushing to build Stealth bombers, but now with the added claim that they'd make great counter-terrorist weapons. "Right now, I don't think [Richard Cheney] has a clear idea of what the military needs of the future are, of how important terrorism and low-intensity conflict will be," says Gen. Edward "Shy" Meyer, former Army chief of staff. Indeed, the history of America's efforts to develop commando units should serve as a cautionary tale to anyone who expects the Pentagon to make good on its promises of trimming down to lean, flexible fighting forces.

It sure is sunny in Curacao, where CNN has once again beaten the U.S. military to the scene. Standing beside the plane, one of the terrorists issues the group's demands in excellent English: the release of several members of the FARC being held in Colombia; the withdrawal of all American advisers and drug interdiction officers in Colombia and Peru; the destruction of all military equipment supplied by the United States to Colombia; and the pardoning of Gen. Manuel Noriega. One of the terrorists' demands-a full tank of fuel-has evidently already been met. The young man swears to begin killing one passenger every four hours. To underscore the point, his comrades dump a bloody corpse onto the tarmac behind him. Moments later, you learn that the dead man was a banker from Columbus, Ohio. The ball's in your court, Mr. President.

You glance around the room. Colonel Needels, the gung-ho NSC aide, is yelling into a telephone. It seems that for some reason Delta still is not airborne. Scowcroft grabs your arm, and you look back at the television screen. The 727's wheels are just leaving the tarmac-.

For most of the eighties, America's counter-terrorist forces were on the defensive, waging a covert war for survival. Their battles weren't fought in the streets of Beirut or on the shores of Tripoli, but in the halls of the Pentagon. "The enemies are not overseas grabbing hostages or this and that," explains a retired Green Beret colonel who follows special operations. "The enemies are the other branches of the services." Counter-terrorist forces (and special operations forces generally) are a threat to the conventional military-a budget threat.

To survive the struggle for a slice of the department's funding, any defense project needs friends in high places willing to fight for it. Since special operations don't revolve around large units wielding sophisticated, expensive hardware in conventional conflicts, they forfeit the support of crucial advocates: defense contractors and most congressmen, who want to keep the assembly lines humming, and generals and admirals, who expect to command sizable forces that fight in the fashion in which they themselves trained. Still, thanks to a few powerful believers in counter-terrorist and other special operations forces on the Hill, Congress kept appropriating money for them during the 1980s. But, somehow, the money kept disappearing into the conventional military. Nowhere was this struggle for survival more apparent than in the commandos' efforts to get dependable transportation. Whoosh-whoosh, crash-crash

Although the cause of failure of the rescue attempt in Iran lay deeper, it manifested itself most obviously in the miserable airlift. Of eight helicopters on the mission, one apparently suffered a cracked blade; another lost its navigational system; a crucial hydraulic pump failed on a third. That left only five helicopters to press on from the refueling site, Desert One. Since the mission required at least six, the rescue force tried to abort. A helicopter collided with a C-130 transport, sending up an enormous fireball. The heat was so intense that no one could retrieve the bodies or intelligence material that, discovered later in the wreckage, probably led to the executions of some pro-American Iranians. Never again, right? Well, during the Achille Lauro affair in October 1985, American counter-terrorist forces were held up for 18 hours when their airplane broke down; on reaching Egypt, they had no helicopter with enough range to get them to the scene. One month later, Palestinian terrorists hijacked an Egyptair plane with American passengers aboard to Malta. Three Air Force planes that were supposed to carry American commandos to the scene couldn't fly. Rather than wait any longer for advice, Egyptian commandos blasted the doors off the plane and killed 60 passengers. "The primary culprit in this sad story, unfortunately," said Sam Nunn on the Senate floor in 1986, "is the Air Force." He called the state of special operations airlift-then no better than at Desert One six years before-"a shameful indictment of Air Force priorities." Indeed, as Military Logistics Forum reported that year, the Air Force had ranked airlift for special operations 59th on its list of priorities for funding in fiscal year 1985. Items 53 and 54 paid for ferrying top Air Force officers and officials-and 60 was a modernization program for airplanes used to spray Agent Orange in Vietnam. The Air Force resisted the drudgery of its special ops "trash-hauling" responsibilities just as it has resisted the close-support role it's supposed to play for troops on the front line.

With some exceptions, the Air Force needed to modify or build only a few more planes and helicopters, models of which were already in service, to meet the special operations requirements; nevertheless, because they were few in number, special operations aircraft were expensive, so they would cut into other procurement programs. And those aircraft generally were not the sophisticated planes-the Stealth bombers and Advanced Tactical Fighters-that attract generals. "You're talking about prop planes, basically," says a congressional aide. "The people who make the decisions are mostly Air Force fighter and bomber pilots." Noel Koch, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and counter-terrorist operations, is particularly bitter about Air Force resistance to building the helicopters crucial to counter-terrorist missions. "They want all this fancy aircraft they can imitate with their hands," he says. "You know, whoosh, whoosh."' The "whoosh whoosh" mentality has meant that, despite Sam Nunn's "indictment" and despite an Air Force lieutenant general's confession before Congress in 1988 that less airlift was then available than at Desert One, the commandos still lack the aircraft they need to carry out their missions. They have at their disposal the same 10 AC-130 gunships and 14 MC-130 Combat Talons that they had before the mission to Iran. The newest Combat Talon airframe dates back to the mid-sixties. The Air Force blamed problems with the Combat Talon's high-tech radar for delaying efforts to build new planes during the eighties. But it wasn't exactly pushing to get those bugs ironed out; it assigned eight different managers to oversee the program in one four-year period. Thanks mostly to congressional pressure, the commandos' air support is showing signs of improvement. Most promising, nine new "Pave Low" helicopters, which can carry troops at night into enemy territory, recently rolled off the lines. If all goes according to plan, 12 new gunships will be delivered between January 1992 and May 1993. The first new Combat Talon is scheduled to arrive this October; by August 1993-10 years after the initial contract was signed-the Air Force should have 22 new planes. Of course, that October delivery date is contingent on the Combat Talon passing some further tests. After a decade, the remaining problem sounds depressingly familiar. "There are some functions of the radar that have not yet been tested," says Col. Paul Beggs, the program director.

Just before the main U.S. forces attacked during Operation Just Cause in Panama, Delta Force commandos stormed a prison El Carcel Modelo) to release a CIA operative named Kurt Muse, who had been held there since April. They freed Muse and bundled him onto a helicopter waiting on the roof. The helicopter took

off-and promptly crashed, injuring the man the commandos were trying to save. Why did the chopper go down? "Overloaded-too much weight," says a retired special operations officer familiar with the raid. "If they pay attention to anything after all these years," he adds, shaking his head, "it should be airlift." With rivals like that ...

You decide to grab a couple of hours of sleep while the hijacked jet, after buzzing Howard Air Force Base in Panama, continues north over Costa Rica. As you lie down, you reflect on that hostage crisis last November, when 12 Green Berets were trapped in the Sheraton Hotel in San Salvador- by FMLN guerrillas. On Air Force One you announced to reporters that our commandos had "liberated with finality" the Americans, only to learn that the FMLN had simply melted away, letting the Green Berets (surrounded for protection by the darn press!) slip out of the hotel. You were embarrassed when you learned the truth, but the bottom line was that you were pretty lucky--no one was hurt. You didn't feel nearly as lousy as you do now.

Some aide wakes you with the news that, according to the pilot's radio broadcasts, the terrorists have murdered two more passengers. Delta, he says, has holed up at MacDill in Florida, waiting for their moving target to come to roost. After crossing into Mexican airspace, the hijacked plane suddenly cuts to the east over the Caribbean. Cuba seems to be the probable destination, but the pilot never communicates with Havana; he must be headed for Haiti or the Dominican Republic. You issue institutions to the ambassadors in each country: Make sure that jet isn't allowed to take off again; and get permission for Delta to attack. Supposedly, the relevant area specialists from State are on their way to the White House to help out.

The commandos' constant struggle to get adequate airlift reveals the fundamental liability of American counter-terrorist forces. More than any other type of military operation, counter-terrorist missions demand that a wide variety of tools-men and equipment drawn from several services and agencies-function together seamlessly. That they've never been able to is a telling demonstration of the gaps separating the many institutions, from the DEA to the Navy, responsible for U.S. national security. In a massive operation there's more room to accommodate interservice rivalries: Just about everybody-from special operations to the Marines to two of the Air Force's Stealth fighters (both of which missed their targets)-got a crack at Noriega's troops; and during the air raid on Libya in 1986, the Air Force and the Navy divided the Gulf of Sidra in half, so that each got the chance to strut its stuff. In such large operations, each service may perform well (as most did in Panama) or poorly (as both did over Libya); in general, they are less likely to stumble over each other (although, as in Grenada, they still can).

It's much harder to cram representatives from all the services into a small force moving quickly to counter a terrorist threat. Although the poor airlift and failure to rehearse an abort were the most obvious flaws of the Iranian rescue mission, the operation failed primarily because the planners tried to throw together Marine pilots flying Navy helicopters to rendezvous with Air Force planes carrying Army troops. They couldn't fuse all the elements-even though they had six months to do it.

Compare that operation with the most famous counter-terrorist mission of the past 20 years: the Israeli raid on Entebbe airfield in 1976. In eight days, the Israelis managed to gather intelligence to support the raid; to rehearse the operation with a small band of paratroopers-a unit not specifically trained for counter-terrorism; and to fly the team (with a Mercedes to disguise the first wave of attackers as Ugandan dignitaries) seven hours through a storm to land 30 seconds behind schedule in hostile territory precisely where the planners intended. The terrorists were all dead within three minutes of touch-down. Of course, there was a large element of luck working for the Israelis. And the mission was not nearly as complicated as the one the U.S. attempted in Iran. Still, the comparison seemed to demonstrate that while the Israeli armed services could pull off a seat-of-the-pants, flexible response to terrorism, the American armed services, as then constituted, couldn't.

At least, that's what the handful of special operations advocates in the Pentagon concluded after the Iranian fiasco. The less the counter-terrorist forces had to depend on the rest of the military, the reasoning seems to have been, the more likely they were to succeed. Acting on the recommendations of the Holloway Commission, which investigated the mission to Iran, the Pentagon moved to institutionalize the counter-terrorist forces, stationing Delta at Fort Bragg under the newly created Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC, pronounced "jay-sock") and setting up SEAL Team Six, stationed in Norfolk.

But as Air Force resistance to supplying transport demonstrated, those moves proved insufficient to protect the commandos from Pentagon turf wars. So in 1986, Congress took unprecedented steps to insulate the forces further by making three principal changes: it created a "unified command" (one that cuts across all four services) to coordinate all special operations forces, which include, for example, the Rangers and the Green Berets; it established an assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict to support the unified commander; and it set up a coordinating board at the NSC to be composed of representatives from all the agencies, from the FBI to JSOC, that can help fight terrorism. Congress also recommended, but did not require, that the president appoint a deputy assistant for "low-intensity conflict," who would advise him on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency.

The armed services and the White House didn't exactly trip over each other rushing to comply. Reagan never appointed a deputy assistant. DOD stuck the new command in Tampa, Florida (from where, without a powerful lobby in the capital, it wouldn't be able to bother anyone at the Pentagon) and waited for more than a year to appoint key staff members. Using the time-honored divide-and-conquer strategy, it understaffed the office of the assistant secretary and put half his people in a building far from the Pentagon. Even then, DOD wasn't willing to take any chances; the first appointee to the new office had recommended against its creation. In the first year of its existence, the special advisory group to the assistant secretary committed only one recommendation to writing: that DOD should not implement the new legislation.

But since the unified commander of special operations now controls his budget, the forces are no longer captive to the spending priorities of the other services. The command can commission its own procurement projects, and the troops and their pilots are able to train together regularly. The new, unified command structure apparently is overcoming the interservice rivalries that dogged the Iran rescue attempt. That's the good news. The bad news is that the old interagency roadblocks are as formidable as ever. Divide and lose

The mechanisms that are supposed to guarantee that other agencies, like the CIA and the State Department, are cooperating with Defense have never worked well. Of all the changes mandated by Congress, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict "is the key," says Maj. Gen. Richard Scholtes, former commander of JSOC. The assistant secretary is supposed to fight for support for all special operations forces, including for the assistance of other agencies, and to keep his eye on hot spots worldwide. Unlike his predecessors, James Locher, the new assistant secretary, strongly believes in the office he holds (in fact, as a staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he wrote the legislation that created it). But the Pentagon's longstanding resistance to the office has left him at a serious disadvantage. "There is a mini-groundswell among those of us in the low-intensity-conflict-aware group that Mr. Locher has just disappeared off the radar screen in Washington," says a longtime special operations officer, now retired. "He doesn't have a job, he doesn't have an office." "There's not much expertise in those offices," says a former counter-terrorist officer, "and they're moving too slowly." For his part, Locher maintains that he just needs more personnel and more time. "We're essentially taking the slow and steady approach here. Small staff, big bureaucracy."

If the NSC coordinating board were effective, then Locher's job would be a lot easier. Drawing on deputy secretaries from assorted agencies, the board would have the authority to shove foot-dragging departments into line. Bush has appointed a deputy assistant, but, beyond counter-terrorism, he has also saddled him with some other area responsibilities, including "Africa, the United Nations, refugees, public diplomacy, the international affairs budget." Under Bush, unlike under Reagan, the NSC board has met-but only once.

For some of the agencies fighting the long-range war on terrorism, most notably the FBI, the existing level of coordination seems fine. Legislation in 1984

e mandate of the FBI to investigate terrorist acts against Americans abroad and to bring those responsible to justice. With some 20 warrants against terrorists worldwide, the bureau has made real progress. "If you look at the arrest of Hamadi in Germany, the arrest of Rasheed in Greece, the arrest of Younis off the coast of Cyprus ... we have had a coordinated response to terrorist actions and activities against American citizens," says Oliver "Buck" Revell, associate deputy director of the FBI, naming some successes of his agency in the past few years. In a counter-terrorist operation, the FBI comes in after the fact on its own initiative and, through slow and steady detective work in a stable environment, tracks down the criminals. Although that work is vital, it won't do much good if some nut in Manila suddenly claims to have placed an anthrax-dispersion bomb on the grounds of our naval base at Subic Bay.

As the U.S. government has come to rely more and more on the FBI to grapple with terrorists, it seems to have given up on the idea of a military option. Somehow, in conversations with people like Revell who deal with terrorism policy daily, the idea of using force has become an afterthought, pushed between parentheses. A failure of careful planning and intelligence support-that is, of vigorous leadership to coordinate planning and support-is what put it there. "There is a tremendous gap at the highest level-at the National Security Council level-of an integrated, interdepartmental unit that sets not just policy but planning directed against the terrorist threat," says a defense department official with many years' experience in special operations.

Why did it have to be Haiti? And how the heck did CNN get there so fast? Pascal-Trouillot has not only refused to allow Delta to operate there, she's refused to let the small, advisory Emergency Support Team land. And now the darn plane is being refueled again. The camera abruptly swings around to focus on two trucks and three jeeps that are driving across the tarmac toward the jet. "Oh no, " mutters someone behind you. For the first time, with a profound sinking feeling, you realize how carefully planned this operation is. Sure enough, in plain view, 40 or 50 hostages are marched down one o those mobile staircases into the waiting trucks. As the trucks drive off, turn left at the airport gates, disappear, all you can do is watch. Two bodies are stretched out on the concrete at the bottom Of the steps. Standing beside them, the lead terrorist is signaling for another press conference. Scowcroft is on the phone with Webster, trying to find out how good out- human intelligence in Haiti is.

The military's troubles with getting reliable intelligence predate the formation of elite counter-terrorist units. In 1970, intelligence reports that a large number of American POWs were being held in the Son Tay camp, about 20 miles north of Hanoi, sparked a massive, five-month planning effort, spearheaded by the Army: dozens of briefings, planning sessions, and studies, involving several thousand support staff. Finally, in November, the raid was launched from bases in Thailand. The mission was executed flawlessly. The Americans killed 25 of the enemy and withdrew without losing a man. But they withdrew without gaining any, either. The camp was empty-the POWs had all been moved, and no one in intelligence had noticed. 1 Big Mac, hold the mission

Five years later, when Cambodians captured the Mayaguez (an American container ship) and her crew, the military commanders again couldn't get the information they needed. After four days, Gerald Ford sent in the Marines, though he had no idea where the Americans were being held. While 18 soldiers were dying in an assault on the island near the anchored Mayaguez, the crew, having been released from a makeshift prison on the mainland, were returning unharmed to the ship. In all, 41 American soldiers died as a result of the mission. Sadly enough, one can draw an almost unbroken line from Son Tay to the Mayaguez incident to the Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon to the telephone conversation George Bush recently had with a crank caller claiming to be the president of Iran.

Judging by the major operations of the eighties, the problem is not only that American intelligence-gathering is poor; it's also that the military can't manage to tap into what intelligence exists. While American troops were stationed in Lebanon, the Pentagon ignored warnings from its own agents that, though good information on terrorists existed, no one was making sure it reached the Marines.

Poor intelligence hobbled the Grenada operation, which followed on the heels of the Marine barracks bombing. As Reagan himself said after the invasion, the American troops had "little intelligence information about conditions on the island." The operation's troubles can perhaps be chalked up to the haste with which it was planned. At the last minute the CIA's one source refused to return to the island. And no one, evidently, thought to call any of the numerous rich Americans who keep summer homes down there-or to ask some of the students' parents to call up their kids and ask them where they were staying. As a result, the invading troops didn't even know that the American medical students were scattered across Grenada. It took Delta-and the rest of the invasion force-two days to round them up.

The Panama invasion was planned over several months, so the architects had plenty of time to put the lessons learned on Grenada into play-if they had tried. Unfortunately, the Pentagon has a remarkable resistance to the conditioned response: No matter how many times it gets burned, it keeps making the same mistakes over and over again. Despite the debacle in Grenada, the CIA wasn't involved in planning Operation Just Cause, and the military forces had no way to tap CIA sources once they went in, contributing to their inability to find Noriega. Poor intelligence-gathering had other, more tragic effects as well. One SEAL team was assigned to disable planes at the Paitilla airfield. But as they approached the planes, the SEALs ran into unexpectedly heavy gunfire; four were killed and eight wounded. "Intelligence service to the SEALs was abysmal," says one man familiar with the operation. "They didn't know what the threat was." He pointed out that, given the enormous American presence in Panama, it wouldn't have been difficult to check out the airfield's defenses. "They could have asked a couple of the neighbors." In contrast, the two major American counter-terrorist successes of the 1980s, neither of which directly involved the Pentagon's counter-terrorist forces, went off cleanly thanks to reliable intelligence-gathering. Although they had murdered an American, the hijackers of the Achille Lauro in 1985 were granted safe passage by Egypt, once they agreed to release their hostages. But, as Caspar Weinberger said at the time, "We had very good intelligence"-possibly thanks to Israel. In international airspace, American F-14s intercepted the airplane carrying the terrorists, forcing it to land at the U.S. Navy's Sigonella air base in Sicily. In 1987, in a more significant but less famous operation, three agencies and the Navy cooperated closely to bring Fawaz Younis, a Lebanese terrorist involved in at least two hijackings, to justice. The DEA found an informant who could get close to Younis; the CIA taped Younis bragging about his terrorist past; the FBI, which managed the operation, lured Younis from Cyprus into international waters and literally put the cuffs on him; and a Navy pilot carried him on a record flight through international airspace to the United States. Younis is now serving 30 years in maximum security.

That type of smooth coordination has eluded the special operations forces, largely because they haven't attempted it. "They don't know how to use the systems and the methods available to them," says a DOD source. "The military always wants to build units that are self-contained." JSOC now maintains a large computer database that stockpiles vital information on terrorists, airports, and American embassies around the world. But for intelligence gathering, Delta and SEAL Team Six are supposed to depend principally on the "Intelligence Support Activity," a secret unit within the Army that must seek CIA approval for its operations abroad. As Steven Emerson reported in his book Secret Warriors, the ISA has helped out other agencies and other governments-for example, it helped the Italian government locate U.S. General James Dozier, who was kidnapped by the Red Brigades in 198 1.

The counter-terrorist forces, however, tend not to use the ISA for long-range planning. "In Special Operations, the difficult missions are the ones that take a lot of time, a lot of planning," says a former member of ISA. But the ISA won't do that sort of brain work. "There's a lot more tendency to go with Direct Action-DA missions, the Rambo type missions. It's the McDonald's of Special Operations-instant gratification." It's partly that attitude, he says, which has turned rescuing hostages in Lebanon into a "mission impossible." Lebanon wasn't always that way, however. Directed through the NSC to come up with a rescue plan in the summer of 1986, ISA cultivated sources among the Christian militia, who supplied information that consistently checked out. By the fall, JSOC felt it had good enough intelligence and a sound enough plan to get at least three of the hostages out. But as the first agents were about to be deployed, the White House canceled the operation-apparently because a rescue attempt would have interfered with the arms-for-hostages negotiations being run out of the NSC (which were about to be exposed). Look Ma-no hands ! Since 1986, no such long-range planning has been attempted. "The Pentagon routinely maintains and updates literally tons of plans and target folders against precise targets within the Soviet Union," Lt. Col. William Cowan, a retired ISA officer who still divides his time between Washington and Beirut, observed in a recent talk at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. But, incredibly, no such plans-for retaliation or rescue-are kept to respond to terrorists. For example, when photographs of the hostage William R. Higgins, hanging, were distributed by terrorists to the media last summer, according to Cowan "There were no prepared contingency plans to deal with the instance of a hostage being killed." As a result, the most potent military force in the world could do nothing.

The blame for this failure can't rest just with the counter-terrorist command; JSOC is able to focus on "McDonald's" operations because no one up the chain is leaning on them to conduct more involved planning (and leaning on agencies like the CIA to help out). Based on that planning, a high-level NSC "interdepartmental unit," says one DOD source, could "set out the intelligence gaps and then continue to monitor and coordinate the closing of those gaps." Instead, the CIA is making "a separate, general effort, not focused on a mission, to penetrate the infrastructure of the terrorist groups." In other words, they're doing their own thing, just as the unified command in Tampa is. That missing "interdepartmental unit" is, of course, supposed to exist-the NSC board Congress created four years ago that can't seem to find the time to meet.

Rather than insisting on better cooperation from the existing mechanisms, the unified commander is now lobbying to have responsibility for approving some counter-terrorist intelligence operations moved to the Department of Defense. (Under existing rules, the director of the CIA has to sign off on every intelligence gathering mission abroad.) Anyone with drive who's worked in the Washington bureaucracy understands the temptation to reinvent the wheel rather than rely on the old agencies that seem long ago to have rusted over (even the Department of Energy has its own agents, gathering intelligence on terrorist threats to U.S. nuclear facilities). But the Pentagon, in creating the ISA, has already reinvented the wheel. The argument of the unified commander is now that by detaching that wheel from the car, we'll reach our goal more quickly. Even Cowan, who reportedly infuriated Dick Cheney by going to Beirut last winter as a private citizen, but with the knowledge of the unified commander and without Cheney's or the CIA's approval, doesn't support eliminating the coordinating mechanism. "I take no exception to that process.... Special operations can't be off doing whatever they want to do." The trick, he says, is to make the mechanism work faster. To get the car to its destination, the thing we really need is a driver. Of butts and Buds

In 1985 terrorists hijacked TWA Flight 847 on its way to Rome from Athens. It was a sophisticated operation: To forestall an attack, the terrorists kept the plane shuttling between Beirut and Algiers and split off some of the hostages to be held inside Beirut proper. They killed one American, a Navy diver named Robert Stetham. The next year, Hollywood came along and offered its own revision of the tragedy, in a movie called The Delta Force, staffing Lee Marvin (as the hard-boiled colonel) and Chuck Norris (as the laconic, butt-kicking major). It's a movie that can't help but pump up the Ronald Reagan in all of us: Delta's planes all work, their plans are foolproof, their dune buggies never break down, their rockets, launched from motorcycles, all blast their targets. The right piece of equipment, from collapsible ladders to wire cutters, is always at hand. (The one poignant bit of cinema verite: Israel's Mossad supplies the intelligence.) The hostages are divided in three groups in Beirut, but Delta gets 'em all. "They're our guys-they're Americans-they're Delta Force!" exults a hostage, on the cusp of rescue. Chuck, wordless, kicks the lead terrorist's butt, then blows him up with a motorcycle-launched rocket. "Here guys!" calls out a commando as he makes his way down the aisle of the liberated plane with a laden tray: "Budweisers!"

Ronald Reagan himself, ironically, had the unpleasant task of facing reality during the actual hijacking. The U.S. quietly gave in, asking the Israelis to release a large number of Shiite prisoners. When the hostages were freed, the president announced on television that "the United States gives terrorists no reward and no guarantees. We make no concessions. We make no deals." Tastes great-but, somehow, compared to the movie version, it's a lot less filling.

Today, something approximating the Hollywood ending to a counter-terrorist mission, such as the Haiti scenario, seems a long way off. (Meanwhile, Hollywood has had a taste of reality. During the filming of Delta Force II last year, a helicopter crashed, killing five.) The Panama raid provides few good clues to Delta's capabilities, since it wasn't an operation that required the instant response and hair-trigger expertise of America's precision commandos. The planners had months to prepare the operation. Kurt Muse regularly had American visitors who could describe his surroundings, and his captors weren't standing over him waiting to shoot or to detonate a bomb. Fear of trying

Obviously, the persistent lack of good interagency support doesn't bode well for a more off-the-shelf operation. But even the apparent success the command has had in overcoming interservice divisions by collecting all the military components of the counter-terrorist forces under one roof has had its costs. In Israel, the vast majority of the top military officers (and many of the political leaders) have served with special operations. This high-level awareness of the needs and potential of the commandos has meant that the units most likely to be used to fight terrorists have never had to be insulated from the rest of the services to survive. As a result, when a unit is needed it can be called up, combined with support aircraft, intelligence), and sent into action. In the U.S., Congress set the commandos apart and pumped money into them to protect them from the Pentagon, while the executive branch left them alone. This odd mix of attention and inattention has meant that as the unified command has settled into its new, more independent role, some of the bad bureaucratic habits of the conventional military have begun to creep into the unconventional forces.

Now that, in the words of one former member of the special operations command, special operations has become a "growth industry," it has attracted a cluster of one-, two-, and three-star generals. Under the supervision of the Unified Command (which boasts three generals), JSOC alone has two generals, controlling a relatively tiny force. More generals mean more money and more attention from the Pentagon. But most of the high-ranking officers in special operations are trained in conventional tactics, and aren't used to trying to think like terrorists.

There's a more subtle influence working against unconventional missions as well. "JSOC has become another one of those good places to go to get promoted out of," says the former officer. The promotions are important, because they serve to attract capable, ambitious young officers to the command. The problem, however, is that these officers are being moved up without having conducted or planned difficult missions. In a democracy, a great burden of counter-terrorist operations is that, though they may yield a political windfall, they are extremely risky-a lesson that Jimmy Carter's experience carved into every politician's mind. A promotion process with no regard for missions attempted-or, more important, even planned-transfers that risk-aversion to the military leadership, leaving a system that's all checks and no balance. The one clear American retaliatory attack against a terrorist power in the past decade-the bombing raid on Libya in 1986-was a case study in risk-aversion. Commandos sent in on the ground could have, like terrorists themselves, placed bombs beside precise targets. Instead, as David Martin and John Walcott reported in their book Best Laid Plans, a Pentagon "no-loss policy" dictated the entire mission, from the size of the force to the timing of the assault. The result was a virtual no-hit air attack: Many of the planes never dropped their bombs, and of those that did most missed their targets. Almost five tons of explosives landed in residential neighborhoods. And in the end, two American airmen were lost, anyway.

The combination of a growing bureaucracy and the tremendous fear of screwing up has encouraged JSOC to become, in the words of one expert, "so monstrous that from a security standpoint and an effectiveness standpoint it can't rise above its own weight." The Pentagon has concluded that the best time to strike terrorists is within 24 hours of the start of a hostage-taking; in a preemptive mission, the commandos would probably have to move even faster than that. But it usually takes Delta at least that long just to cross the Atlantic, if not to get off the ground. The United States seems incapable of quickly dispatching the small, flexible teams that could approach terrorists quietly in a "nonpermissive environment" (on hostile territory, as at Entebbe).

For example, consider the case of the hijacking of TWA Flight 847. JSOC took 24 hours to assemble the right equipment and get its commandos airborne. The force landed at Sigonella to wait for a chance to strike. Eventually, JSOC sent in six planeloads of equipment and about 400 people, including 50 support staff, to Sigonella and then to a British base on Cyprus. The press-and consequently the terrorists-Midn't have much trouble catching on. During the Achille Lauro affair, JSOC once again sent a massive force to Sigonella, including a dozen transport planes and 500 men. "When we go to some place like Sigonella," said a retired officer, "we leave footprints that are so huge that it wouldn't take a genius in some control tower to figure out something was up." You might think that, given the number of times they've had to descend on that base and leave such footprints," JSOC would just pitch camp there. In fact, the idea of "forward-deploying" commandos, so that they would be closer to their probable targets, has been discussed for years. After the hijacking of TWA 847, George Bush wisely recommended placing commandos overseas in his much-vaunted counter-terrorism report for the president. But the U.S. government has never pushed friendly governments for the permission to do so. Just say no to counter-terrorism

As the bipolar world breaks up, probably the worst news about America's ability to deal with terrorism abroad is that the unified command and JSOC may be giving up on fighting terrorists altogether. Instead, like practically every other agency in the government, they want to start fighting drugs. Last fall, the command gained greater freedom when the 14-year-old ban on assassinations was narrowed, so that commandos who kill a drug trafficker in the process of trying to take him alive would now not be breaking the law. Drug missions are attractive, says a former counter-terrorist officer, because they're faster and easier, and require less complicated planning; there's also a higher probability of action. But if the forces begin to focus on this role they "will wind up leaving the counter-terrorism mission behind." Capturing drug lords is a very different operation than taking out terrorists. In fact, it's a mission that the commandos are poorly equipped to handle, since it requires more diplomatic finesse than lethal, irresistible force. Many of the drug lords live in friendly countries, surrounded by innocent people. The commandos train by pumping an average of 20,000 rounds of ammunition into rubber dummies each month. Dispatching them to grab a drug lord is a lot like . . . sending bombers after Qadaffi. The odds are pretty high for causing a lot of what is euphemistically called "collateral damage": killing the wrong folks.

The drug war, involving as it does many more agencies, is more poorly coordinated even than the war on terrorism. Already, Delta deployed once to a staging area in Puerto Rico in hopes of nabbing a narcotraficante-and blundered into an FBI-DEA operation to grab the same man, reportedly almost starting a firefight. Says the retired officer of the growing emphasis on chasing drug lords, "In the long run, somewhere, we're going to do something very stupid." And in the meantime, as terrorists strike against Americans-in South and Central America, in the Philippines, in India, in a thousand potential hot spots around the world-we're likely to keep doing nothing at all.
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Title Annotation:war against terrorism, includes related article on hijacking
Author:Bennet, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1990
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