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Killer Elite: The Inside Story of America's Most Secret Special Operations Teamby Michael Smith
Sitting in the forward operations center in a filthy Egyptian Air Force hangar at the Wadi Qina air base, 300 miles south of Cairo, Colonel Jerry King was powerless to prevent the debacle at Desert One. As chief of staff to Major General James “Hammer” Vaught, the man in charge of the Delta Force attempt to rescue 53 American hostages held captive in Tehran, King could only listen with mounting anger to the frantic satellite radio messages coming out of Iran in the early hours of 25 April 1980. Not that anyone out there at the Desert One staging post, 250 miles southeast of the Iranian capital in the Dasht-e-Kavir desert, could do any better. Even Chargin Charlie Beckwith, the former Green Beret colonel who set up Delta and was leading Operation Eagle Claw on the ground, couldnt prevent what was by any measure “a total goat-fuck” that left eight US servicemen dead.
The operation had been called off after three of the eight US Navy helicopters taking part in the mission developed technical problems that left the joint task force with too few to get both the hostages and the rescue team out. One was abandoned in the desert after an indicator light warned a rotor blade might snap, a second had to pull out of the mission when its gyroscope malfunctioned and the third was declared unserviceable after landing at Desert One. After some argument among the task force commanders over whether or not to go ahead, the mission was called off. It was then that a helicopter and one of the C130s collided, killing the eight US servicemen.
There was a whole bunch of reasons why they died and why the task force failed in its mission—the interservice rivalry that meant every one of the four armed services wanted some involvement in the mission regardless of the fact that they had never worked together before, and all used different operating procedures; the decision to fly the helicopters off an aircraft carrier rather than in from a neighboring country; the navys poor maintenance of its helicopters; and the strange decision not to have air force pilots with experience of special ops fly all the aircraft, a move that would have at least ensured the mission got beyond Desert One.
But even if it had, there was another major problem that could have led to the mission failing at its most dangerous point, inside Tehran itself, and afterward Jerry King, a straight-talking veteran of Army Special Forces operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, was not slow to make his views known. The CIA had fucked up big time. It had claimed, falsely as it later turned out, to have no one in Tehran who could help Delta prepare for what was always going to be a tricky task. Kings disparaging view of the Agencys contribution was shared by virtually everyone else involved in Eagle Claw, not least the task force commander General Vaught. “Intelligence from all sources was inadequate from the start and never became responsive,” he said. “The CIA did not, would not or could not provide sufficient agents to go in country and get the information we needed.”1
whatever the reasons for the failure of Eagle Claw, it certainly wasnt a lack of detailed planning. Preparations for the raid had begun six months earlier on 4 November 1979, the very day a mob of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and militant students, supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini, forced their way into the US embassy in Tehran and seized the hostages. Jerry King, who was then chief of unconventional warfare for special operations in the Joint Chiefs of Staff operations directorate, was called in by Air Force General David C Jones, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, together with the chief of current operations, Brigadier General Johnson. “We were told about the embassy seizure and I was ordered to develop some military options by the following morning,” King recalled. “I was forbidden to inform or involve anyone else, including my immediate superior.”
Jones eventually backed down slightly to allow King to bring in two of his special operations colleagues so there were at least navy and air force representatives involved in his special planning cell, which was set up in the Pentagons Eighth Corridor close to the River entrance. Those three men were to become the nucleus of the task force commanded by Jim Vaught, who was described by John T Carney, one of the US Air Force special operations officers brought in to set up the Desert One forward operating base, as “a tall, lean, scraggly, quiet, gravely voiced but soft-spoken infantryman.”2 The unit Vaught and King picked to execute the actual rescue mission was the newly formed Special Forces Operational Detachment—Delta, the counterterrorist force that Beckwith had just recently set up, modeling it on the British Special Air Service (SAS), to provide the US with a counterterrorist team. Delta was based in the Stockade, an old military prison at the Army Special Forces headquarters at Fort Bragg, Fayetteville, North Carolina. Beckwith and King were both veterans of special ops in Vietnam and had learned a lot about their trade serving alongside members of the SAS. “I had an SAS sergeant assigned to me at Fort Bragg in the early sixties,” King recalled. It was part of the exchange mission that provided the inspiration for Delta. The sergeant and an SAS officer were sent to Fort Bragg while Charlie Beckwith and a Green Beret sergeant went to the SAS base at Bradbury Lines, Hereford, in England. For Jerry King, time spent with the highly experienced SAS sergeant was deeply rewarding. “I was wet behind the ears,” King said. “He taught me how to walk.”
Born in Canton, North Carolina, in 1937, Jerry King was an army brat, brought up at military bases in Germany, Korea and the Philippines. His stepfather was a career noncommissioned officer in the US Army. King enlisted into the armys airborne infantry and after swift promotion through the ranks was picked out as a potential officer. The rookie lieutenants first posting was as a platoon commander in Germany. “Facing the Fulda Gap and the possibility of a Soviet thrust, I began to realize that my survival was dramatically enhanced when I had more control over my units actions,” he said. “The arrogance of the young but a belief reinforced over time.”
As a direct result of that conviction, Jerry King developed a hard-nosed attitude that would win him a great deal of respect, and quite a few enemies, in his chosen field of special operations. At 6 foot 2 inches and weighing in at just under 196 pounds, King was a born winner. There might be others who were fitter, but very few could outlast him. Whether it was swimming underwater in preparation for covert approaches on targets or running marathons, he had the kind of mentality that meant he wouldnt give in. He joined the 77th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Bragg and was sent to Laos at the head of one of the White Star mobile training teams, which were training local forces to counter North Vietnams use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Viet Cong supply route that ran through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. King subsequently led a Special Forces detachment in Vietnam and helped to set up the training program for the Studies and Observations Group (SOG), the euphemistically named special operations command which, between January 1965 and March 1973, mounted several thousand highly success-
ful cross-border reconnaissance missions into Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam. At 28, King was deemed “too old” for the gruelling missions but on a couple of occasions he managed to bypass the naysayers and went across the border anyway.3
He had known Charlie Beckwith when they were both young lieutenants and was not the Delta commanders greatest fan, but that didnt affect his judgment that Delta was “the obvious choice for the entry force.” The first suggestion was that the raid to rescue the hostages should be mounted from eastern Turkey, which seemed a sensible option, allowing total flexibility in the type of aircraft used on the rescue mission and a safe base just across the border from Iran. But inexplicably General Jones ruled out the use of Turkey and two other friendly Middle East countries. “What I considered a purely political and unreasonable decision by the Chairman forced us to look for an alternative launch platform,” King recalled. “Carriers were the only feasible option available.”4
Eventually it was decided that the MC130 Combat Talon aircraft carrying the Delta personnel and a small security force of US Rangers would take off from Wadi Qina, making a brief stopover at the British air base on the island of Masirah, off Oman, while the helicopters that were to carry the Delta teams into a hide site close to Tehran and exfiltrate them, along with the hostages, would launch from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Gulf of Oman. That last decision created a whole raft of problems that would ultimately lead to the failure of the mission.
“The choice of a carrier as a launch platform virtually dictated the type of aircraft,” King said. They would be US Navy RH53 Sea Stallions, normally used for mine-clearing operations but big enough to carry the hostages and the Delta rescue team out of Iran to safety. It didnt take long for King to realize that the navy pilots who flew the aircraft were simply not good enough. “I recommended we bring in air force pilots who flew the same helicopter with considerable long flight experience, including one who had participated in the Son Tay raid.” But the senior officer he had to ask for authorization to replace the navy pilots was a US Marine general and the interservice rivalry that would bedevil the Eagle Claw mission took over. “Before I finished laying out a proposed solution,” King said, “he picked up the phone and called Marine headquarters, claiming they had the right guys for the job at hand.”5
The plan was for all the aircraft to rendezvous at Desert One where the helicopters would be refuelled by EC130 tanker aircraft. The helicopters would then take the Delta extraction teams to a second staging post 50 miles southeast of Tehran where they would hide up for the day and wait for a team that had been infiltrated into Iran. It was to drive six prepositioned trucks containing the Delta commandos to Tehran to snatch the hostages from the embassy compound and the Foreign Ministry, where three of the US diplomats were being held separately. Air cover would be provided by two AC130 Spectre gunships. The helicopters would meanwhile fly to Tehran and orbit above the city waiting for the signal to land and lift off the Delta rescue teams together with the hostages. They would then fly to an airstrip at Manzariyeh, thirty-five minutes due south of the Iranian capital where giant C141 Starlifter transport aircraft would be waiting to fly the hostages out of the country.6
Put like that it all sounded pretty easy, but Jerry King and his fellow planners had one major difficulty, the lack of any reliable intelligence. Charlie Beckwith complained that Wade Ishimoto, the Delta assistant intelligence officer, was inundated with intelligence, most of which appeared to be of only limited reliability and had nothing to do with the hostages and their situation. “Nearly every agency that sent us material used a different system,” said Beckwith. “A report would come in stating that the source was ‘untested. The intelligence guys needed more than that. Was the source reliable on any basis? Another report might read: ‘An untested source received through an unofficial contact . . . What does unofficial contact mean? Was the contact reliable or unreliable in the past? Some people in intelligence became highly indignant when we complained about the reports. An official came down to point out that well over 200 reports had been furnished to Delta. Wade Ishimoto explained, very nicely but firmly, that most of the information we received and laboriously read had nothing to do with the hostages. A report he pulled out listed fourteen items that had come from travelers whod just returned from Iran. The fourteen items covered everything from the Turkish border area down to Baluchistan via Sistan in the south. Not one of these was even remotely related to the hostages.”7
There was plenty of imagery collected by the US Keyhole spy satellites and SR71 Blackbird spy planes. But what they needed could only be provided by human spies and Stansfield Turner, the CIA director, had deliberately run down the Agencys men on the ground, the guys who provided human intelligence, what the spooks call Humint, in favor of technical means, the spy satellites that could photograph every detail of the embassy compound and intercept what the Iranian guards were saying to each other on their radio systems. Turners view was clear: “Not only do agents have biases and human fallibilities, there is always a risk that an agent is, after all, working for someone else. Rather than instinctively reaching for human, on-site spying, the United States will want to look to those impersonal technical systems, primarily satellite photography and intercepts.” If that claim had been made by the head of the National Security Agency, the US signals intercept operation, or the National Reconnaissance Office, which runs the spy satellites, it would have been understandable. Coming from the director of the CIA, it was close to catastrophic.8
For Jerry King and the other special operations officers trying to plan the Eagle Claw mission, Turners attitude seemed to go to the heart of their problems. “We had zillions of shots of the embassy and they were magnified a hundred times,” one said. “We could tell you about the tiles; we could tell you about the grass, and how many cars were parked there. Anything you wanted to know about the external aspects of that embassy we could tell you in infinite detail. We couldnt tell you shit about what was going on inside the building. Thats where humans come in.”9 The intelligence they needed had to come from human sources, said Carney, who flew in ahead of the mission to reconnoitre the Desert One staging post and lay out the landing lights. “But Turner had decimated the agencys Humint ranks, and there was almost no human intelligence coming out of Iran.”10
The CIA was forced to rely more and more on technical means of collection and, as far as Jerry King was concerned, its few remaining operations officers were not good enough to make up the gap. “As I later testified to Congress, the Agency had a bad habit of recruiting what I called the ‘garden party set, occasionally valuable but the first to lose access in a coup or revolution,” he said. “They lacked assets and general ability to work the alleyways and souks of the world.” The CIAs representatives in Tehran were among the hostages held in the embassy compound and the Agency claimed not to have “a single contactable asset” inside the country.11
There was some limited human intelligence from a US Air Force source—an expatriate living in Tehran—and from an Iranian employee of an American company, who had left Iran a few months after the Islamic Revolution and volunteered to return to gather what information he could from former friends, now part of the Revolutionary Guards. But while useful, their intelligence was not enough. The rescue team desperately needed people on the ground inside Iran to produce the detailed intelligence they would require if they were to know where to find the hostages. They also needed someone to provide the trucks and equipment that were essential if they were going to get into Tehran undetected by the Iranian authorities. Jerry King decided that they had no choice but to put their own people in. “The task force spent a long time screening the military for Farsi speakers,” he recalled. “To further complicate the issue, Charlie Beckwith insisted that he have his own men. This in itself was understandable but no one in Delta acceptable to Charlie was trained in undercover operations.”12
The man they decided to send in was Dick Meadows, one of Deltas point men with Kings planning team. Meadows was another old Vietnam Special Forces hand and a key player in the Son Tay raid, the legendary 1970 attempt to rescue US POWs from a prison camp near the North Vietnamese capital Hanoi. (When Meadows and the rest of the Son Tay team arrived they found that the POWs had been moved shortly before the mission. The intelligence was faulty but the mission had otherwise been executed perfectly and those involved became legends in the US special operations community.) Dick Meadows was the Special Forces sergeant sent with Beckwith on attachment to the SAS base at Hereford, and as a result had married the daughter of an SAS sergeant major. He had been acting as a consultant, advising Beckwith on how Delta should be run. Meadows wasnt the ideal undercover operator. The Agency was concerned that he looked too much like a terrorist, asking King to try to get Meadows to wear a collar and tie rather than the turtleneck sweaters he favored. They also complained that he didnt seem to be taking too much notice of their attempts to make him blend into the background. “The Agency came back several times and said hes not catching on fast enough,” one member of the Delta team said.
But Meadows was a true pro with the confidence to carry off the flimsiest of covers, going into Tehran, on a fake passport provided by the CIA, as Richard H Keith, an Irish businessman working for a European car manufacturer. At the same time, the Agency said it had finally found an Iranian agent who could help Meadows buy the trucks and equipment he needed and brought Bob Plan, a former member of the wartime Office of Strategic Services, out of retirement to run him. Plan went in and out of Tehran virtually at will, providing confidence that there would be no problem getting other undercover agents into Iran. The trawl of the armed forces personnel files for anyone who spoke Farsi turned up a young USAF sergeant who had been born in Iran and he went in to act as a fixer for Meadows. (Other Farsi speakers the search turned up were added to Delta rescue team to try to minimize any problems on the ground.) But the best intelligence was gathered by two Special Forces sergeants based in Berlin, who spoke fluent German and could operate under cover as West German businessmen. “They provided the best tactical info regarding the exterior of the embassy and guard locations, schedules, communication and weaponry,” King said.13 During the operation itself, he had a team of NSA civilian operators working alongside him in the Wadi Qina forward operations center, using the US satellites to monitor every radio transmission coming out of Iran. They were able to tell him if any Iranian aircraft took off and where it was going. At one point, as the US helicopters crossed into Iran, “the NSA team heard an Iranian police post report that an aircraft had passed overhead and we all held our breath because they were not supposed to pass over any populated areas.”
the four undercover operators checked out the six Ford trucks and the two Mazda vans the Iranian agent had stored in a warehouse ready for the mission, drove the route to the US embassy the Delta rescue team would take, and sat for hours in a coffeehouse opposite the embassy compound checking out the efficiency of the guards. “The skill, training, expertise and daring exhibited by this small group of military men was unique and of the highest order,” one former special operations intelligence officer said. “Working quietly and carefully, and taking enormous personal risks in order to accomplish their missions, these men were able to obtain, and report on, the detailed intelligence necessary to properly plan for the execution of a rescue attempt in a hostile environment. They were able to establish the support mechanisms for the incoming rescue force. These included renting the buildings and facilities to be used as safe sites, arranging for the trucks and vehicles necessary for movement around the city, reconnoitring the landing and extraction sites, preparing reception parties and guides, and ultimately successfully exfiltrating all personnel when the inbound forces were forced to abort the mission.” That was in itself no mean feat. Meadows and his colleagues managed to get out only just ahead of the Iranian security forces who had recovered documents in the US helicopters left at Desert One that led them to the warehouse.14
“Not overly surprisingly, the CIA operative left Iran the day before the rescue operation was launched,” Jerry King recalled. “I was deeply involved in coordinating these operations with the CIA. At the working level, cooperation with the CIA was not exactly enhanced when I accused the CIA liaison to the task force of using the CIA as a cover for his real job in the State Department. He was replaced not long after this conversation.”15
But the behavior of the CIA was worse even than Jerry King and his fellow task force members believed. Shortly before the Delta rescue team set off, the Agency announced that a Pakistani chef from the US embassy, allowed to leave by the Iranian authorities, had fortuitously sat next to a CIA officer and told him precisely where all of the hostages, including the three thought to be in the Iranian Foreign Ministry, were being held. The Agency also passed on other important intelligence the chef had allegedly provided. “Suddenly we were deluged with information,” one of the mission planners said. “The lock turns this way, the window goes this way. The light switch is down the hall. It was a massive dump of intelligence.”
Jerry King was not alone among the task force members in smelling a rat. But it was only much later that the widespread belief that the Agency had been holding back on them would be confirmed. “Eighteen years after the rescue attempt some of us learned that the CIA had received a covert communication that detailed some of the most important information we needed—the exact location of three hostages being held in the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” said John Carney. “The CIA claimed that it had stumbled only by providence on similarly detailed information on almost all the other hostages who were being held in the American embassy compound when a Pakistani cook who had been working in the embassy happened to be on the last leg of a flight from Tehran to Frankfurt and found himself seated next to a CIA officer. The CIA apparently fabricated the Pakistani cook story in order to protect its own source inside the embassy and gave up its information only after it was absolutely certain that the rescue mission could be launched.”16 The Agency had someone in Tehran all along, a very good source supplying his bosses at CIA headquarters in Langley with top-grade intelligence. But it held back the wealth of vital intelligence he was providing until the very last minute because it feared that the existence of their agent and his subagents would leak out, putting its only source of information at risk.
Jerry Kings judgment that the CIA had fucked up big time was backed up by the six-man Special Operations Review Group set up under former chief of Naval Operations Admiral James L Holloway III to find out why the mission failed. The Holloway Commission, as it became known, was critical of “certain elements of the intelligence community” for their failure to give sufficient assistance to the Eagle Claw mission in a timely enough manner.
“For an operation of the scope and complexity of the Iranian mission, a significant augmentation of existing intelligence capabilities was mandatory,” the commission said. “This augmentation tended to evolve over time and in a somewhat piecemeal fashion. Certain elements of the intelligence community seemed slow in harnessing themselves initially for the tasks at hand. The group believes that intelligence community assets and resources could have been pulled together more quickly and effectively than was actually the case.”
Despite the commissions determination not to name names or attribute blame to anyone involved in the mission, it was clear that those comments were aimed at the CIA. The commission said that in future similar situations there should be a specialist intelligence team set up, “harnessing selected elements of the US intelligence community and bringing them together as an integrated supported mechanism.” This would “greatly facilitate achievement of acceptable readiness and forward deployment of forces where time is a critical factor.”17
the failure of operation Eagle Claw was a major embarrassment for the American military, with Iranian television showing pictures of burned bodies of dead US servicemen, footage that was rebroadcast on the US networks nightly news programs. To the American people, watching their television sets daily for any news of the hostages, it seemed that all hopes of rescue had been abandoned. But in fact planning for the second mission, codenamed Snow Bird, began almost immediately. General Vaughts response to the debacle at Desert One was to set up a special operations intelligence team to help Delta to mount Operation Snow Bird. This time, the CIA was not to be given the chance to hold back the key pieces of intelligence until the party was just about to begin. In a memo to the army secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, dated 31 July 1980, Vaught requested funding for “the formation of a small operations group which could infiltrate, by various means, into Iran. This small, handpicked group is tasked to train, plan and be prepared to conduct a wide variety of operations to enhance mission success and permit the primary rescue force to focus on its primary mission.” The force had already been assembled at a secure training site and was ready to commence “intensive training” but it needed a budget running into many millions of dollars to fund its formation, Vaught said. The funding was approved within a week. Jerry King was put in charge of the new aggressive, proactive special operations intelligence unit capable of gathering the information the rescue team needed on the ground in Iran. He was told to get his people inside Tehran in numbers and to do it damn quick.
“Field Operations Group was the name of the element I was tasked to put together as planning for the second Iran rescue mission,” King recalled. “Actually the acronym FOG came first. Every time I attempted to define what we were expected to do, the mission changed. We were tasked to conduct intelligence operations inside Iran, to take out Iranian military command communications capability, to surreptitiously destroy or render inoperative several radar sites, to tap selected telephone communications, to be prepared to free-fall parachute onto key buildings, to mark landing and drop zones, to be prepared to conduct diversion missions, to collect and extract personnel left behind, and other assigned missions. You can see why FOG came to mind, hazy, ever-changing, hard to get a grip upon and often unpredictable.
Copyright © 2006, 2007, 2008 by Michael Smith. All rights reserved.
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