Instruments of Statecraft: U.S. Guerilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990
The organizational response to the administration’s demands for special operations forces and doctrine was in practice rather similar to that made in 1961 to President Kennedy’s demands for a coordinated military response to the threat of insurgency. The manpower of elite special warfare units was rapidly built up to surpass mid-1960s levels. Special Forces personnel had peaked at some 13,000 men in seven SF Groups in 1969 dropping to three active groups in 1974. The 1980 force level of some 3,000 was less than the peak strength of just one Special Forces Group in 1968, the Vietnam-based Fifth, with 3,542 men.1 Active-duty special operations forces in the three services rose from 11,600 in 1981 to 14,900 in 1985, with force levels, including reserves, reaching some 32,000 in 1988.2 Active duty forces were scheduled to reach 20,900 by 1990, with total available forces numbering 38,400.3
Much of the buildup took place in the army’s Special Forces, which the new administration tried to bring up to wartime strength. The army added 1,200 places to Special Forces in 1982, bringing its force level up to 4,000 in four active groups by 1984.4 Each group had a nominal strength of 776 men, divided into three battalions. Although all four groups are stationed within the United States, three battalions and two other Special Forces detachments are permanently based overseas. A fifth group (the Third) was scheduled to be established in 1990-1991 with special responsibilities for Sub-Saharan Africa.5 Army special operations forces in July 1986 were reported to include 4,800 Special Forces, 1,500 Rangers, 800 men in a Psychological Warfare Group, 250 in a civil affairs battalion, and about 800 in the aviation section.6 By 1987, the manpower of the army’s special operations forces was estimated at 9,100 on active service, with 12,400 in the reserves.7 The Reagan administration also rapidly moved to rebuild the CIA’s paramilitary capability, rehiring many of those laid off by Admiral Turner in 1977.
The special warfare revival was spurred on by a coordinated media offensive comparable to that of the first year of the Kennedy administrationthe Green Berets were once again basking in the limelight.
Not surprisingly, they benefited from a dramatic rise in the funds earmarked for special operations forces in the defense budget. From an estimated $500 million for special operations forces in 1981, funding rose to some $1.2 billion in 1987 and $1.5 billion in 1990.8 Construction projects alone for special operations facilities at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Fort Bragg, and Hunter Army Airfield in the mid-1980s were budgeted at $236 million.9 The funding of the army’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which was $250 million in 1982, its first year of operations, was projected to go to $700 million by 1990.10
Although civil affairs units were a part of the new special operations formula, they remained, as always, a minor part of special warfare. The army’s 172-man 96th Civil Affairs Battalion, assigned to SOCOM in l 982, was and still is, in fact, the only active civil affairs unit in the army, and continues to provide support for the entire army. The 96th’s four companies each specialize in a geographical region but work both with conventional and special operations forces. The Army’s small standing force for civil affairs in the 1980s reflects the limited role for such specialists beyond the context of conventional warfare; some 97 percent of the total army civil affairs manpower is to be found in the reserves, available for call up in time of need.’’ In the meantime, the full-timers were subordinated to the more arcane requirements of special warfare.
A strong civil affairs component could reasonably have been encouraged as a means to temper the army’s new involvement in unconventional warfare and low-intensity conflict; the civil affairs experience in postwar Europe might have offered a more promising route to counterinsurgency, for one, than the guerrilla approach associated with special operations forces. But the uneasy accommodation of a policy of galloping interventionism with the political requirement of appearing to work only at the invitation of overseas partners precluded any occupation-style approach. In practice, the chosen arrangement subordinated civil affairs more fully to the merely cosmetic needs of unconventional warfare. In Vietnam, the military’s need for a strong civil a affairs role was resisted by political fiat. In the spring of 1965 the Joins Chiefs of Staff proposed, in return for the commitment of American troops to Vietnam, that the military command deploy U.S. military civil affairs teams, “as in World War II,” to take charge of provincial administrations. The suggestion was shrilly opposed by American civilian agencies and firmly slapped down.12
The air force also took part in the special operations buildup, bringing most of its special operations and search and rescue units together under the 23d Air Force; in 1983, the 23d’s First Special Operations Air Wing was established, and based at Eglin Air Base in Florida.13 By 1987, there were some 4,100 air force special operations forces on active duty and 2,500 reservists. Five other SOF squadrons (and three in the reserve) were based at Eglin, Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, and Ramstein Air Force Base in West Germany. A helicopter detachment was based at Howard Air Force Base in Panama.14
By 1986 the navy’s SEALsSea, Air, Land forceshad reached some 1,700 troops, organized into two special warfare groups based at Little Creek, Virginia, and Coronado, California, respectively. Arguably the best-trained of the elite units, SEALs continue the traditions of the underwater demolition teams (UDTs) created by the navy in 1942 to clear the way for amphibious landings; their role expanded in Korea to include reconnaissance and covert landings for deep-penetration raids.15 The SEALs, which draw recruits from underwater demolition personnel, date to 1962 and first saw action in Vietnam. The characteristic SEAL force of sixteen-man units; navy plans in 1987 reportedly aimed at increasing the number of units from forty-one to seventy over five years.16 Larger units included six SEAL Teams.17 SEAL Team 6, with from 175 to 200 men, is believed to specialize in counterterrorism.18 Secret navy units like Task Force 98 reportedly work out of eight bases, including the British Royal Air Force base at Machrihanish, Scotland.19
Defense Secretary Weinberger observed in 1983 that the military skills required to meet the challenge of low-intensity conflict were found “chiefly . . . in our special operations forces.” Army Special Forces took “a very large share of the burden . . . to instruct others in providing for their own defense” and to help give the people “a stake in the future” (through “civic action”).20 In another statement, Weinberger explained that the special operations forces’ advisory role had both a training objectiveto organize counterparts and impart skillsand an operational role: “to reduce the probability that United States armed forces could be committed in foreign battles, and to demonstrate the resolve of the United States to fulfill its commitments.”21
The special operations concept of the 1980s retained the full range of functions assigned to the Special Forces in Vietnam, the so-called triplex Special Forces Mission of special unit, clandestine, and paramilitary operations.22 In the 1980s,, the three functions would remain fused in the repertoire of special operations forces. The Special Forces had also acquired a major role in the training of foreign conventional forces in the 1960sa role that would be sustained and increased. By the end of the Reagan years, Special Forces personnel had assumed most of the responsibilities for training and advising the regular forces of Third World countries, instilling conventional infantry with the skills and attitudes of the unconventional warrior.
The rapid expansion of special operations forces, their increased role in foreign military training and assistance, and the vigorous promotion of overseas military assistance in potential conflict areas were similar to the ferment of activity at the height of the 1960s counterinsurgency era. Four to twelve-man Military Mobile Training Teams (MTTs), which had provided a principal vehicle of training and assistance in the 1960s, also served as the workhorses of low-intensity conflict. According to former Joint Chiefs special operations chief Colonel Roger Pezzelle, training and advisory MTTs worked with “host country regular units, militia, reserve forces, and security units” (for militia and security units one might read paramilitary forces and intelligence groups). At the same time, Colonel Pezzelle noted, “a major part of all MTT activity” was carried out by special operations units, whose training “encompasses a wide range of activity from ordinary military combat and counterguerrilla operations to building bridges and counterterrorist operations.”23
The number of MTTs abroad proliferated after 1980 just as it had in 1961. Army Special Forces provided most of the trainers. Some 130 Special Forces MTTs were scheduled for deployment in 1982, up from 53 four years before.24 In 1986, 260 Special Forces MTTs provided assistance to 35 countries.25 The expansion of training activities, measured in “man-weeks, “ was estimated to have been fivefold between 1 1980 and 1984, from 1,161 to 5,787.26 By comparison, in duly 1962, just eighteen months into the counterinsurgency era, the Joint Chiefs had announced that counterinsurgency MTTs comprising 1,512 men were operating in nineteen different countries.27
Special Forces’ role as trainers to foreign armies and paramilitary police, whether at home or abroad, was often undertaken in the glare of publicity. The Special Forces were expected to play both the “Rambo” role and that of the consummate professional, the winner of hearts and minds. The public, fed a diet of Green Beret feature films and staged interviews with Fort Bragg’s commanders, were confronted by seemingly contradictory visions of the elite force and its multiple missions: as the merciless purveyors of counterterror and as the wholesome trainers sent to “civilize” their brutal foreign counterparts.
Somehow, Pentagon media managers reconcile these image shifts A Time feature, on “A Warrior Elite for the Dirty Jobs,” stressed that low-intensity conflicts were more commonly known as “dirty little wars.”28 The Special Forces, who are presented as ideal for the job, are characterized as ruthless commandos with no time for winning hearts and minds: “These unorthodox struggles require a special type of soldier: bold and resourceful, often trained in the black arts of stealth and sabotage, suitable for an elite unit that can vanish into alien territory or strike anywhere with speed and surprise.”29 Write-ups on the role of special operations forces in countering terrorism went considerably further in stressing their bloodthirsty nature, as well as that of other elite units. A 1985 NBC television report on the 2,000-strong antiterrorist elite stated that the unit’s core consisted of 160 people (presumably Delta Force) “psychiatrically screened for their willingness to kill.”30“ A Newsweek feature on special operations forces reported an exchange at the Los Angeles Olympics: A National Guardsmen on duty asked a Task Force 160 pilot about his mission; “ ‘If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you,’ [the pilot] replied.”31 The ferocious image was by and large consciously cultivated, and matched by a set of skills and mission orders that indeed required a measure of ferocity. When that image was inconvenient however, Special Forces could be presented in a radically different light.
When presented to the press in their role as trainers of regular armies (or paramilitary police), Special Forces were characterized as cosmopolitan professionals handpicked for their human rights sensitivity. A Newsweek feature on Special Forces trainers in El Salvador presented a picture of a conventional boot camp aiming to produce “tough, flexible counterinsurgency units . . . able to hit and pursue guerrillas into the hills,” while also “offering lessons in humanity: how to treat civilians fairly and how to take prisoners as well as tally body counts.” (The villain of the piece was “history,” the Salvadoran army’s traditional brutishness, which Special Forces were steadfastly fighting.32) The same themes were systematically harped upon in much of the mainstream media’s reporting on American training of Salvadorans.
A New York Times feature on Green Beret training for Salvadorans, “Salvador Gets Rights Lesson From the U.S.,” described the training of cadets in “the rudiments of military operations, with a heavy emphasis on human rights and antiguerrilla techniques. “33 Major Roger Slaughter, a Spanish- speaking officer from the Special Forces detachment in Panama, “tapped his pointer against the chart listing the do’s and don’ts of gaining the support of the people in a fight against guerrillas,” and told his visitors that “an army cannot violate the individual rights of the people they are sworn to protect.” And so,
[w]ith that admonition, drawn from the doctrine of the United States Army, Major Slaughter summed up the message that he and other American instructors have been trying to impress on the army of El Salvador through officer candidates.... Major Slaughter said that winning the allegiance of peasants ... means respecting them.... He said that it meant avoiding what he called “indiscriminate acts of violence.”34
The problem of reconciling real special warfare skills and attitudes, notably those involving illegal tactics, to the planners’ multipurpose expectations is less easily managed than are public relations. Can Special Forces really be expected to switch from selective assassination one day to civic action the next while standing by to serve as light infantry in a conventional rapid deployment scenario? Should they be expected to? The special operations advocates appear to see no contradiction between the Special Forces’ extralegal and unmilitary covert action role, in which military ethics and the rules of war are jettisoned, and their main role in the training of foreign military and paramilitary forces.
Special Forces’ heavy responsibility for advisory and training assistance to foreign forces has had some influence on the manner in which this role is seen by the institutional armed forces. A comment by General Paul F. Gorman at a 1986 symposium suggests that the traditional lack of enthusiasm of the mainstream military for unconventional warfare now also extends to advisory assistance. On the one hand, there was a “significant, largely overlooked congruence between our key cadres for Security Assistance and those for Special Operations Forces.” On the other, special operations personnel and “those on Security Assistance duty abroad [largely the same people] are up against two or three times as hard a problem in obtaining recognition for their contributions.”35
The implication was that this role, too, fell to Special Forces by a process of eliminationand by the trend through which advisory assistance since the 1960s had centered increasingly on counterinsurgency. Once Special Forces came to field the bulk of overseas trainers, the curriculum, perhaps naturally, became increasingly skewed toward the unconventional skills and attitudes for which Special Forces are unique.
The turn to the more glamorous elite special forces for counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare in the 1970s and 1980s responded in large part to the need for the appearance of tough action being taken against an increasingly ubiquitous enemy. Defense analyst Eliot Cohen identifies three motivations for the creation, support, and deployment of elite units: “The first is military utilityrational, non-political reasons for having elite units. The second. . . the irrational and romantic sources of support for elite units. The final type . . . stems from the increased politicization of war and military actions in the past half-century.”36 However complex the blend of motives for their creation (or revival), elite units are powerful symbolsa means through which signals of resolution and intent can be sent both at home and abroad. In particular, governments have traditionally “sought to cultivate the heroic image of elite units to build up domestic morale.”37 But, as the military is aware, this can backfire. Cohen adds two riders on the symbolic role of elite units:
First, a democratic government cannot easily control the publicity that surrounds elite units; a government can initiate such publicity, but finds it hard to limit it.... Secondly, elite units may be misleadillg or ambiguous symbols, distorting serious public and governmental discussion of complex issues, encouraging instead a preoccupation with martial theatre.38
The latter concern is perhaps more important; the psychological impact of elite organizations and operations on policymakers and public alike can radically skew perceptions of a particular conflict, substituting the romance of the image-makers for the reality. Cohen cites the French paratroops (“Paras”) in Algeria as a case in point; from a solution they promptly became the crux of the problem. And the public’s view of the war, too, focused increasingly on whether one was for or against the Paras: “[T]he paratroops were a simpler topic to deal with than the philosophical, political, and strategic complexities of the Algerian problem. The average Frenchman’s feelings toward the whole Algerian problem could be reduced to his feelings toward the paratroops.”39“ The American equivalent was, if ultimately to less effect, to make the Green Berets (via John Wayne) a symbol of American patriotism in Vietnam; the romanticized Green Beret made disengagement just that much harder and contributed to America’s feeling of betrayal by its own leaders.
As a small force with a highly specialized, highly dangerous mission, the army’s special warfare experts naturally developed with the characteristics of an elite, like the commandos or rangers of wartime though with the added elements of shadow and secrecy of the intelligence operative. The characteristics of the army Special Forces were later shared by other American special warfare units, and an affinity with the elite forces of other nations developed. Modern elite military units can be distinguished by their assignment to unusual, extremely hazardous missions, their requirements for forces small in number but highly trained and physically exceptional; and their all-important imageas Cohen notes, “an elite unit becomes elite only when it achieves a reputation, justified or notfor bravura and success.”40
Another traditional feature of elite units which the Special Forces embraced was the cultivation of a “hard-boiled” self-image, both through training and through public relations. Image serves an important psychological warfare function. As well as intimidating adversaries, an elite force’s tough self-image, its familiarity with death and destruction, can build unit morale and remove combat inhibitions. The French Foreign Legion”the brides of death”and the Paras each developed a cult of death as part of their esprit de corps. The Paras’ prayer illustrates their professedly abnormal mindset:
Give me, my God, what you have left
Give me what no one else would ever ask
I don’t want riches
Not success, nor even health . . .
I want insecurity and unquiet
I want torment and chaos.41
American psy-war chief General Robert McClure, an advocate of tactical terror,42 was also aware that a ruthless reputation could backfire on a unit, perhaps inducing an adversary to fight to the death rather than to surrender to a foe not known for taking prisoners. McClure acknowledges the role of self-image as a motivator, but questions the usefulness of its public dissemination:
I fully recognize that our troops must adopt a tough, hard-boiled killer attitude If they arc going to not only survive, but to win these battles I wonder, however, If that indoctrination, which, I repeat, is very necessary, needs to be widely publicized in the press and broadcast to our enemies?43
McClure’s concern was prompted by the small number of prisoners taken in the Korean conflict and widespread publicity on Operation KILLER and the Hunter-killer Teams there. It might well apply to the more common scenarios in which elite units are deployed in counterinsurgency, In close contact with the civilian population.
The issue of terror and elite elan is particularly relevant to counterinsurgency/counterterrorism forces, forces that are in constant contact with the public. Both the training methods of special forces (including public exercises in towns and cities) and their public image (from threatening billboards and gory regimental insignia, to the standard-issue uniforms) may serve to cultivate an aggressively antisocial orientation, such as that of the colonialist Foreign Legion. They may also prepare the ground for atrocity.
Since 1961, U.S. military procedures for the selection of personnel for specialized counterinsurgency and covert action tasks have been the objects of intensive research in army, air force, and navy programs.44 In 361, an air force project was initiated to develop “psychological selection methods for dangerous counterinsurgency missions”; a similar program followed that was conducted by the U. S. Army Personnel Research Office (USAPRO) at Fort Bragg’s Center for Special Warfare. The first testing of active-duty Special Forces personnel who were considered successful candidates was already under way in early 1961 and provided the basis for a profile that would be used to develop tests to determine the probable performance of Special Forces candidates. By 1962, three series of tests were in use: the “special forces suitability inventory” was designed to assess personality characteristics considered appropriate for the discipline; the “critical decisions test” measured risk-taking; and the “locations test” assessed spatial perception.45 By the 1970s, the military could count on sophisticated means to establish personality and skill profiles for the ideal counterinsurgent or covert operator.
Another branch of military psychology applicable to the elite counterterrorist units was “atrocity research,” studies of why atrocities occur and the personality traits associated with killers. A navy research project led by psychologist Sigmund Streufert was the subject of awkward questions in 1971 by Congressman Cornelius Gallagher, who found the research to be “designed to measure how different individuals value human life; in other words to screen for those who, attaching little value to life, might make good killers.”46‘ More disturbing is evidence of research into means of conditioning military personnel into more efficient killers. Peter Watson, in his study of the military use of psychology, refers to a 1975 NATO-sponsored conference on stress and anxiety in which U.S. Navy doctor Thomas Narut lectured on “symbolic modeling,” by which people could be taught to cope with certain stresses, techniques that he said were “being used with ‘combat readiness units’ to train people to cope with the stress of killing.”47 The methods were reportedly used for commando teams and special navy operatives, and they involved the screening of “films specially designed to show people being killed in violent ways. By being acclimatized through these films, the men were supposed eventually to become able to disassociate their emotions from such situations. “48 Other aspects of the program included training aimed at “stress reduction” and “dehumanization of the enemy.” Dr. Narut reportedly also described the screening procedure for men with “passive aggressive personalities” suitable for “commando tasks”:
They are people with a lot of drive, though they are well-disciplined and do not appear nervous, who periodically experience bursts of explosive energy when they can literally kill without remorse. Dr. Narut said that he and colleagues had therefore been looking for men who had shown themselves capable of killing in this premeditated way.49
The regular military was still not prepared to open the Pandora’s box of special warfare tactics to conventional American forces, and it remained largely dependent on the disciplines and elite forces of special warfare. The implication was that the regular services remained unhappy about degrading the services as a whole when the dirty work could just as well be left to the “elite” personnel of Special Forces.
The alienation of the political warriors of the postwar period from the mainstream military had been a consequence of both their elite status and the professional “impropriety” of their role in special, political, or “dirty” warfare. An officer at the Army War College, writing in 1983 recounts the case of a Fifth Special Forces Group commander relieved of his command “largely because of the collision of two competing impulses: that of the Army officer who doesn’t lie, cheat, or steal, and that of the intelligence operative who always has a cover story to disguise his true function or intent. Some problems refuse to go away. “ In short he concludes, the U.S. Army “has demonstrated institutional antipathy to elites and continues to do so.”50
The disquiet over special warfare can be traced back to the confusion of unconventional warfare with psychological warfare in postwar doctrine, and at the inception of Special Forces. Colonel Russell Volckmann in a 1969 letter concerning the Special Forces’ subordination to the Psychological Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, recalled the concern of officers promoting the Special Forces concept: “Behind-the-line operations and the ‘dirty-tricks game’ had enough opposition amongst conventional military minds that had to be overcome without adding the additional problems inherent in Psychological Warfare. However, we lost that
European experience has shown that elites need not be specialists in the clandestine aspects of warfare to engender institutional unease and to assume characteristics deemed threatening to military order and discipline. Institutional resentment and preoccupation can be stimulated by separate formations of a distinctly higher status (and potentially decisive power, on the lines of the French Paras). A second cause for institutional distrust IS quite different, and involves those special units that have been
assigned roles at the boundsor beyond the boundsof the permissible in the laws and usages of war; the snipers, raiders, and irregulars that since the nineteenth century have pushed back the limits in modern warfare. Forces with unique, elite skills may be set apart because they are elite in status or isolated from the regular services on the grounds of military decorum and discipline.
The Fort Bragg-based Delta Force was the primary antiterrorist force for the high-profile actions of hostage rescue and terrorist interdiction. An agreement with West Germany was reported in late 1986 permitting Delta to use facilities there as a forward reconnaissance and intelligence gathering base for a twelve-man unit, and to carry out joint operations with the German GSG9 and British SAS forces.52 Delta was an elite within an elite. The existence of other secret antiterrorist units drawn from the military’s elite forces would gradually be revealed over the years.
The army’s secret counterterror detachments were most often exposed in the 1980s when things went wrong through an excess of zeal, by military disasters that could not be hushed up, or when corruption encouraged by the use of untraceable, unaccountable fundsbecame too serious to be overlooked. Delta’s secret role in the Grenada invasion became known largely because of scathing critiques by military insiders of its poor planning. Intended to secure the main airstrip before the arrival of the army Rangers, Delta arrived precisely two hours late, supposedly because planners misread Grenada’s time zone.
Delta Force received further unwanted exposure in October 1985, in the wake of the Achille Lauro hijack. The diversion by U.S. Navy jets of an Egypt Air airliner to an airfield in Sicily had already incensed the Italian government. Delta threw relations even more out of joint by precipitating an angry, armed face-off with Italian troops on the ground after the diversion. Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi told the press a week later of the tense moment in which Italian troops were ready to fire on Delta Force troops who had rushed out of a C-141 transport that landed right behind the Egyptian aircraft.53 Delta’s involvement had hitherto been a secret.
Delta’s problems were not limited to its military operations. In 1985, an army inquiry found evidence that Delta personnel had embezzled up to $500,000, with one Special Forces colonel and three associates accounting for at least $60,000.54 An internal army inquiry into the matte was put off in the fall of 1985 on the grounds that it could cripple the unit’s planned operations in the Mediterranean.55 The army ultimate!, announced that eighty Delta men received “nonjudicial punishments; and seven were facing courts-martial.56 Lt. Col. Dale Duncan, who headed an army special operations proprietary, Business Security International (BSI), was charged with submitting a series of false invoices. including one bill for $56,230 in electronic equipment that had been paid for by another army intelligence unit.57 These were the first of what Newsweek called “a growing number of investigations, prosecutions and courts- martial focusing on alleged financial impropriety by members of Delta and other super-secret units spawned by the Reagan administration. “58
The prosecutions that ensued brought to light some of the contradictions between covert action accounting, where the rule of thumb was to eliminate the paper trail, and democratic accountability. Colonel James E. Noble, an army judge on the court martial which acquitted Special Forces Master Sergeant Ramon Barron of charges pertaining to his work with BSI, concluded: “The Army chose this extraordinary means to circumvent accountability for money.... By so doing they also chose to risk losing the money.”59 John Prados, in commenting on the Delta Force’s disdain for standard accounting procedures, observes wryly that “items procured for supposedly clandestine missions included a Rolls-Royce and a hot-air balloon.”60
Two years after the Delta corruption inquiry, fresh investigations revealed more information on Business Security International, which suggested that it had operated quite apart from Delta Force. BSI was described as a front for army covert actions, set up in 1983 and code-named “ Yellow Fruit, “ to provide security for joint army-CIA operations in the Middle East and Central America. An April 1987 CBS News report linked “ Yellow Fruit” to the covert operations of the National Security Council that were coordinated by Lt. Col. North and retired General Richard Secord.61 In its reporting on the Iran-contra affair, CBS tied BSI (“ Yellow Fruit”) to a Swiss bank account used by North and Secord to lease a cargo ship for arms movements. The army halfheartedly disputed the bank account charge, but CBS stood by its story (the account number had been provided to CBS by a former member of the unit). “2 BSI / “Yellow Fruit” was most likely an operation run by the newest of the Pentagon’s covert intelligence agencies, Intelligence Support Activity (ISA).
The top-secret ISA was created as the army’s Foreign Operations Group (FOG), in response to the crisis in Iran after the fall of the Shah. It operated over a year unbeknownst to the Secretary of Defense, the CIA, or Congress. The unit, renamed Intelligence Support Activity, was formally established in October 1980 by then-army chief of staff General Edward C. Meyer. Initially established for covert intelligence collection to support operations during the Iran crisis, ISA was subsequently employed for covert operations considered too sensitive for the army’s special operations and intelligence establishment.63 Although ISA was allegedly unknown to congressional intelligence oversight committees until 1982, it had already engaged in major covert operations.
The first hills of ISA’s existence emerged in March 1983, when Lt. Col. James “Bo” Gritz testified to a congressional subcommittee about his abortive raid into Laos early that year. Gritz said that in 1981 he had been approached by “a special intelligence (group) referred to as ‘The Activity’ “ concerning a covert mission into Indochina aimed at freeing any American MIA’s still held there.64 Although neither Congress nor the Pentagon would confirm the accountor the existence of the ISA by May 1983, press inquiries established that Gritz had received some support in the intelligence area from a new army agency, the ISA. The New York Times concluded that the ISA had participated in the January 1982 rescue of General James Dozier from Italian Red Brigade kidnapers and was “operating missions against leftist forces in El Salvador and supporting anti-government forces in Nicaragua.”65 Other sources credited ISA with unspecified operations concerning hostages in Lebanon.66
The current status of the ISAwhich may now exist under another nameis unclear. Like Delta Force, some of its personnel exploited its clandestine operations for personal gain. In 1985, the ISA was reportedly disbanded after FBI investigators “discovered lavish trips being taken by some officers and their wives.”67 But the Washington Post reported that in 1986 the ISA had carried out a number of classified actions in coordination with the intergovernmental “Operations Sub- Group” (OSG) set up to coordinate counterterrorist operations.68 John Prados has suggested that the Counterterrorist Joint Task Force at Fort Bragg, a unit of less than twenty men, may be “an operational component of ISA.””’ Another source has suggested that ISA, rather than just a tight group of operatives, is probably “a computer data base of operatives with special skills who can be assigned for covert operations.”70 In the past, special operations personnel were kept on call after their formal discharge from active duty.
The army’s top-secret special operations air arm, Task Force 160 or the “Night Stalkers”was exposed to the public gradually, mainly In consequence of casualties that could not wholly be concealed. A battalion-strength unit, TF160 supported covert Special Forces and Delta operations on detail from the 101st Air Assault Division. Based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Task Force 160 crews worked in civvies and flew a range of high-tech helicopters for “black operations. “ Its involvement in the Grenada invasionas the helicopter airlift component of Delta Forcewas revealed after one of the helicopters was shot down. Photographs taken of the downed chopper and of others dropping off commandos showed they were Hughes 500 models, which were not officially in use by the army.71‘ Authorities eventually acknowledged the death of one Task Force 160 helicopter pilot in Grenada; subsequent Defense Department budget requests for the replacement of equipment lost in the operation suggested that up to ten other helicopters, some of them Task Force 160, may have been lost.72 Investigators of the web of CIA and Defense proprietaries involved in the “Contra-gate” affair subsequently attributed the covert transport of the helicopters to Barbadosin anticipation of the invasionto a proprietary headed by retired Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Gadd, who would also preside over the airlift of assistance to the contras in partnership with retired Gen. Richard Secord.73
Task Force 160 next appeared in the news in December 1985 after the Detroit Free Press interviewed the friends and families of sixteen army men reportedly killed in helicopter accidents in the unit.74 Although the inquiry did not tie specific deaths to covert operations, it concluded that the unit had “flown missions into Nicaragua and other hostile Central American zones, despite U. S. laws forbidding such military activity. “75 The father of Warrant Officer Donald Alvey, age 26, who was reported killed in a chopper crash off the Virginia coast on 20 March 1983, recounted his son’s stories of his clandestine exploits: “Don flew a bunch of missions into Nicaragua.... He’d go somewhere and pick up a group of people in a clearing in the jungle . . . armed troops, speaking Spanishand take them to another clearing in the jungle.”76 Relatives said the unit members wore civilian clothes, flew by night, and were instructed to destroy their aircraft it they were forced down; they were also told “that the U.S. government would disavow them if captured or killed.”77 A Fort Campbell spokesman responded, stating that “no Fort Campbell units have been involved in any military operations.”78 The stories were consistent with the accounts from relatives of earlier U.S. covert action casualties in Nicaragua during the last years of Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s regime. The secret units involved in the United States’ war on Nicaragua found more comprehensive exposure in the course of the Iran-contra hearings.