While the Air Force-supported Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden was indeed impressive, it’s sometimes useful to put things in perspective. Both the media and the public have been especially laudatory of the raid, and the team has fully earned all the accolades it has received. While I would have preferred far less post-action publicity and revelations of operational details, the SEAL execution was, in fact, almost as professional as the Army’s Delta, an elite military unit that exists for precisely this type of mission. My highest praise goes to every member of the multi-service Bin Laden Raid team, including those providing air support, the military planners who set it in motion, and the intelligence professionals who made it possible.
But what if, as the SEAL team flew in, bin Laden had stepped out for a beer at the local pub? Such things happen in real life, too. (See Footnote #1.)
Forty years earlier, an extremely risky raid was undertaken by a US military team that had available only a tiny portion of the technology available today. That raid was not conducted inside a sovereign democratic country with which we had a peaceful working relationship, extensive knowledge and frequent unhindered cross-border travel. It was instead conducted deep inside a totally militarized nation in a tightly closed and controlled society on constant full alert with which we were engaged in a very deadly war. Even though the differences with the raid into Abbottabad Pakistan are significant, the earlier raid has much to teach about how these operations are properly executed. It’s important to remember, however, that a whole range of technology that we take for granted today was simply not available to soldiers forty years ago – such as enhanced night vision technology; closed circuit encrypted wireless communications linking ground team members to each other and to off-scene commanders; hovering overhead drones with real-time photo, video and audio communications and weapons capability; stealth technology masking helicopters and aircraft; “smart” laser guided missiles. None of this advanced stuff had as yet been developed to support our ground soldiers. Furthermore, the chances of encountering anyone in that earlier country who might be predisposed or persuaded to cooperate with Americans was simply zero. Getting clandestine intelligence agents into that country was exceptionally difficult, dangerous and laborious; getting them back safely was often even more problematic. Probably the best human intelligence came from interrogations of North Vietnamese POWs, but such information was always dated and questionable. These American soldiers went in almost exclusively on their own talents, plus a silent prayer, knowing in advance that their chances of returning safely were not high. (See Footnote #2.)
A raid from Thailand on the Son Tay Prison in the middle of North Vietnam was authorized by President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger in November 1970, six months after a US and South Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia had set off major demonstrations in the US and major operations by North Vietnamese military forces, especially along the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’ in Laos and Cambodia. The mission into the heart of a very heavily defended enemy state had to rely on critical intelligence that was inherently dated and imprecise, so high US casualties and aircraft losses were expected prior to launch. Further, the mission was to extract up to 100 men in ill health and return them to safety, not to kill a handful of people and quickly leave.
Key US Army Special Forces (SF, “green beret”) Soldiers:
>US Army SF Colonel Arthur D. “Bull” Simons
>US Army SF Lieutenant Colonel Elliot “Bud” Sydnor >US Army SF Captain Richard “Dick” Meadows
>53 other US Army SF soldiers, supported by 92 airmen, 29 aircraft
In 1970 the US had identified the names of over 500 American POWs who were being held by the North Vietnamese, and another 3,000 were “unaccounted for”. Many different sources, including recovered bodies, reported that prisoners taken by enemy forces were being held in atrocious conditions and were being cruelly treated by their captors – both North Vietnamese regular forces and South Vietnamese Viet Cong guerrilla forces. Two years of negotiations in Paris had accomplished nothing to resolve the POW issue, and military service members and their families were increasingly concerned about their fate. It had been two years since the US had stopped bombing North Vietnam – considered by many as “leverage” to recover the POWs – and military faith that the POWs would not be forgotten was being severely tried. It is extremely difficult for soldiers to accept that their fallen or captured brothers must be left behind, but this possibility in 1970 was not high on the American public’s mind, especially among the very vocal anti-war and anti-Draft younger generation.
In early-1970 analysts studying photos taken by an SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance over-flight spotted signs believed made by POWs at a small compound south of Hanoi, the communist capital city of North Vietnam. At that time it was common practice for the North Vietnamese to disperse the POWs throughout the country in small groups to function as human shields protecting nearby military installations from air attack. Adherence to even the most fundamental precepts of the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of POWs was non-existent, despite North Vietnam’s constant external propaganda campaign to the contrary. In May of that year, a study conducted by an Air Force intelligence unit working with the Interagency Prisoner of War Intelligence Committee in Washington of the Son Tay POW camp, and another POW camp at Ap Lo about 30 miles from Hanoi, was briefed to Army Brigadier General Donald Blackburn, Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities (SACSA). Blackburn had been an early commander of the covert Studies and Observation Group (SOG) in Vietnam (which was directly under SACSA-Pentagon control in Washington), and he was now directly responsible to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). (CSA has since evolved into SOCOM – an independent global Joint Special Operations Command.) Blackburn concurred that the intelligence analysis was “actionable” and took the AF intelligence study to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).
That June, while US and South Vietnamese forces were conducting major ground operations inside Cambodia, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Earle Wheeler, authorized the formation a fifteen-member planning group to address a POW rescue attempt, especially in view of the fact that President Nixon had ordered a progressive withdrawal of US forces from the war. Operating under the codename Polar Circle, this group studied the possibility of conducting a night raid on a North Vietnamese POW camp. Polar Circle eventually concluded that an attack on the camp at Son Tay, adjacent to the Red River, was feasible and should be attempted – even though it was known that 12,000 North Vietnamese soldiers (HQ, 12th NV Army) were stationed within 5 miles of the prison, which itself was only 25 miles from Hanoi. In close proximity to the compound were an air defense installation and an artillery training school, and just 20 miles to the northeast was a military air base. The tipping factor: the camp was believed to hold up to 100 American POWs, mostly US Air Force and US Navy pilots. In July General Wheeler gave General Blackburn authorization for the next stage – operational planning.
SR-71 Blackbirds flying out of Japan and unmanned Buffalo Hunter surveillance drones (air-launched from fixed wing C-130A/E) began frequent surveillance over-flights of Son Tay. By the summer of 1970, photos appeared to show Son Tay to be less active than usual, and by autumn the camp had few definitive signs of life. Unfortunately there were a variety of possible explanations for the decline in signs of activity, including illness or death of prisoners, the movement of some prisoners to other sites, enforced cell confinement, etc.. However, Dong Hoi, another POW camp 15 miles to the east of Son Tay, seemed to have increased in activity. But since indicators were not definitive, allowing considerable room for debate, Son Tay remained the focus of operational attention. (Most of the detailed information about the raid now in the public realm comes from Air Force and Navy sources, not from Army Special Forces.)
In August, Operation Ivory Coast commenced to organize, plan and train for the Son Tay mission. The mission would be executed by the US Army’s Special Forces (SF, “green berets”) – the US military’s most elite special operations combat and trainer personnel who had been fighting in Southeast Asia since 1960 in what was for them mostly a covert counterinsurgency war deep in the jungles of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Support for the SF raiders would be provided by the US Air Force and US Navy. Overall command of Ivory Coast was given to Air Force Brigadier General LeRoy Manor, with Army Special Forces (SF) Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simons leading the raid itself. (Manor was then Commander, USAF Special Operations Force, at Elgin AFB Florida.) While Manor assembled a planning staff, Simons selected 103 of over 500 volunteers from the 6th and 7th Special Forces Groups. All had recent combat experience in Southeast Asia. Based at Eglin AFB in Florida and working under the name “Joint Contingency Task Group” (JCTG), Simons’ men began rehearsing the attack on a full-size replica of the prison camp constructed by base engineers of wood and canvas. (The replica had to be obscured or disassembled before each scheduled twice-daily overhead pass of the Soviet Cosmos 355 spy satellite; the Air Force had a lot of experience with this practice at installations like “Area 51” when new technology, such as that developed by the “Skunk Works”, was being tested in the open.) Below senior officers, Army and Air Force members of Ivory Coast were led to believe that they were practicing for a hostage rescue mission involving a hijacked airliner, incidents of which were then occurring with some regularity. (Such airliner incidents, American kidnappings and installation incursions at that time also led to the creation of the US Army’s Delta). Soon the training in Florida expanded to include Air Force personnel and the specific aircraft selected to support the mission.
While Simons’ men were training, BG Manor’s planners identified two windows of opportunity, 21-25 October and 21-25 November, which possessed the ideal moonlight and weather conditions for the raid. Manor and Simons also met with Admiral Fred Bardshar (Commander Task Force 77 – then consisting of aircraft carrier battle groups USS Oriskany, USS Ranger, USS Kitty Hawk and USS Hancock – operating in the Tonkin Gulf) to set up a diversionary mission against North Vietnam to be flown by naval aircraft. Very extensive training was conducted at Elgin that involved both Army raiders and their Air Force support personnel to ensure that both could operate together with a very high degree of synchronization and interoperability. For Air Force personnel, the rigorous air training involved dangerous dissimilar aircraft formations flying low and at night, the varying speeds and flight characteristics of the mission aircraft leaving no room for error. After 170 rehearsals at Eglin, most with live fire, Manor informed the Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, that all was ready for the October window. Following a meeting at the White House with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, our chief negotiator in Paris, the raid was delayed until November.
After using the extra time for further training at JCTG, the Ivory Coast contingent from 12 to 17 November moved to its forward base in northern Thailand, mainly to a secure compound with air strip near Takhli provided under cover by the CIA. (Two MC-130E Combat Talons departed for Thailand earlier on 10 November.) Prior to departing Elgin aboard C-141s, the SF men, who still did not know of their intended target, left all military uniforms and insignia behind. In Thailand Simons selected 56 Green Berets from his pool of 103 to conduct the raid, leaving 47 as stand-by back-up. As is customary of Special Forces infantry contingents, down to the 12-man A-teams, among them they had all the extra individual expertise needed for such a mission, including medical (for rendering care to any injured raid party members or extracted disabled prisoners), explosive ordnance, interpreter linguists, and ground-air control specialists.
These 56 men were divided into three groups, each tasked with a different aspect of the mission. The first was the 14-man assault group, “Blueboy,” which was to land inside the camp compound. This would be supported by the 22-man command group, “Greenleaf,” which would land outside, then blow a hole in the compound wall and support “Blueboy”. These two teams were supported by the 20-man security group “Redwine,” which was to provide defensive security around the camp perimeter against North Vietnamese reaction forces. The main plan included three contingency plans (green, red, and blue), each of which were also practiced extensively with both Army and Air Force personnel working together. Plan green was the contingency for loss of the ground force commander’s helicopter (“Greenleaf”). Plan red was called if the second support helicopter (“Redwine”) did not reach Son Tay. Plan blue was the contingency if the compound assault helicopter (“Blueboy”) failed to make its objective. One Mission, three teams – working in precise synchronization to execute one mission plan with three additional contingency plans. The mission was to extract up to 100 POWs, but the complexity of such a mission invited a range of things that could go wrong, so the team had also planned for the three worst likely contingencies. Optimum time-on-site was 30 minutes, but all recognized that the time could expand depending on the health and mobility of the POWs, but also that the longer that time expanded, the greater probability that significant North Vietnamese reaction forces would arrive on scene thus increasing the need for close coordination with overhead air support – at night.
This was the ground portion of the mission. It needed to be supported by separate synchronized plans for Air Force insertion and extraction, Air Force overhead defense, and Navy off-shore diversion, including search and rescue for any air crews shot down from the very heavily defended airspace over both land and sea. Due to years of previous US bombing missions in North Vietnam, the country was littered with advanced air defense systems, including advanced surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems and MiG fighter bases, all on constant full-time war alert and expecting attacking air incursions at any moment. North Vietnam was an exceptionally “hard” wartime enemy target.
The raid itself was code named Kingpin. The raiders were to approach the camp by air aboard helicopters with fighter cover above to deal with any North Vietnamese MiGs or heavy ground force advance on the compound. The fighters would have to avoid and deal with known very heavy surface to air missile (SAM) defenses, including their associated radar detection and target acquisition technology. The raiders would go in low aboard one Air Force Sikorsky S-61R (HH-3 “Jolly Green Giant”) and five Air Force Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallions (HH-53 “Super Jolly Green Giant”), supported above by two heavily armed fixed-wing MC-130E Combat Talons – all manned by Air Force special operations/rescue personnel. (Call signs for the five HH-53 helicopters were Apple-1, –2, –3, –4 and –5. The HH-3 was Banana.) The smaller HH-3, with a 3-man crew, can carry about 26 armed men, while the HH-53, with a minimum crew of 3, can carry about 38. The entire walled compound was quite small, measuring only about 150 x 200 feet, and offered limited air approach space and only a very small landing area inside, so the 14-man “Blueboy” assault group would use the smaller HH-3 helicopter to land inside and expect it to incur irreparable damage upon landing. (Small confined spaces create unpredictable wind turbulence with helicopter rotor blades that makes steady control of the aircraft extremely difficult, especially under rapidly unfolding combat conditions close to ground level, and the larger the helicopter the greater the turbulence. The difficulty increases under the darkness of night.) The loss of this helicopter would leave a normal airlift capacity of about 190 passengers among the remaining helicopters. Subtracting the raiders, this would leave a capacity for about 130 POWs. All told, 29 aircraft would play a direct role in the mission, including A-1 and F-105 fighters providing contingency overhead air defensive cover, but only five helicopters would touch down according to mission plans.
(The MC-130E was a modified C-130 cargo plane that had been developed to directly support covert special operations missions during the Vietnam War, but there would be no way for them to land during the mission. Bristling with special armaments, defenses and electronic warfare equipment, Combat Talon crews operated unescorted at low altitudes and at night. The plane, which can also be used to coordinate complex air and ground operations, is still operational today, with various advanced modifications and updated equipment.)
Due to the impending approach of a typhoon which could severely disrupt air operations, the mission was moved up one day to 20 November by BG Manor, who then informed all key commanders, including the 7th Fleet, TF 77 in the Tonkin Gulf, and the JCS. An SR-71 photo reconnaissance mission out of Japan earlier that day showed positive signs of habitation at the camp. Following receipt of President Nixon’s final launch approval, Colonel Simons called for a Kingpin group assembly at the Takhli compound and introduced Lieutenant Colonel Elliot “Bud” Sydnor to brief the men on their specific mission target and purpose. LTC Sydnor began by pulling down a map roll showing the Hanoi region, and said they were going to try to bring home some American POWs from the very heart of the lion’s den. That was greeted by cheers, shouts, applause and whistles. After the briefing, the men studied a very detailed scale model (code named “Barbara”) of the camp and its surroundings provided by the CIA based on SR-71 overhead photography, after which they were instructed to take the rest of the day to catch some sleep, with doctor-administered sleeping pills available if desired. SF SGT Terry Buckler, the youngest member of the raiding party, stated a quarter of a century later in 1997: “Simons told us, ‘There’s a 50-50 chance of us not coming back, guys. If the mission is compromised, we’ll make them pay for every inch of ground we occupy.” Even though it was a rescue mission, the men would go in very heavily armed. The scale replica was available up to launch time for anyone who wanted to double-check details.
After nightfall the raiders were flown by C-130 from the compound at Takhli the short distance over to Udorn Royal Air Base in northern Thailand. After transferring from the C-130 they departed Udorn via the Sikorsky helicopters late at night on 20 November. General Manor flew in the left seat (as captain) of Apple-2. The entire mission at that point consisted on one HC-130 refueler, one Jolly Green Giant and five larger Sea Stallions (three empty) all flying at about 1500 feet. The formation was joined over Laos by a specially equipped MC-130E Combat Talon. Except for a dangerous silent night air refueling over northern Laos, the seven mission planes had an uneventful 400-mile flight to the POW camp, the plan having accounted for the different flight speeds of the various aircraft. On the other side of Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin, the Navy’s diversionary raid had achieved its purpose with 59 sorties that drew the intense attention of North Vietnamese defense centers. The Navy feigned a large attack on Haiphong Harbor (Operation Freedom Bait) from three carriers in the Tonkin Gulf to the east, while the small covert mission was flying low into North Vietnam under the radar from the west.
Refueling complete, the HC-130 refueler then broke off over Laos and flew back to Udorn to get topped off in order to provide fuel for the return leg of the mission, also over Laos. The six helicopters were soon joined at low altitude by a second MC-130E Combat Talon and five USAF A-1E Skyraiders (fixed wing/propeller driven attack plane with relatively low speed) flying out of Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Naval Base. The two groups, each led by an MC-130E, continued in side-by-side low formation to the target site, successfully penetrating the deadliest hair-trigger air defense system in the world, still no higher than 1500 feet, often no higher than 500 feet – at night, without lights or commo, and with little of the advanced electronic and none of the stealth technology of today. They continued at very low altitude inside a country with which we were at all-out war for another 75 miles to a point just 20 miles from its very strongly defended capital city.
The MC-130Es then broke off in the target area to drop flares and diversionary ordnance, while the five A-1Es remained further above to provide any air cover needed. It was necessary to light up the facility and surrounding area because no high-tech night vision technology (benefitting only one side) was then available; at night you had to be certain that you were not shooting at your own men, so the use of flares was common. But, of course, the ordinance also announced the presence of enemy forces deep inside North Vietnam. The enemy knew something was up even before the American raiders were on the ground. From that point on, mission success depended on the speed and precision of the raiding party and confusion among very heavily armed enemy forces.
The Air Force and Navy Seventh Fleet (TF 77) off-site support was extensive. In addition to the Navy’s diversionary raid, 116 Air Force and Navy aircraft from seven air bases and three aircraft carriers flew refueling, fighter cover, surface-to-air missile suppression, close air support, early warning, communications support and reconnaissance missions. All of this activity to the east drew a great deal of North Vietnamese defensive reactions. The raid itself also set off rather heavy local SAM fire in the Son Tay region, and at least one SA-2 site launched missiles against aircraft directly supporting the raid before being taken out.
Colonel Simons and his men captured Son Tay in the very early morning of 21 November 1970. As soon as the camp was lit up by flares dropped from the MC-13oEs at 2 AM, the helicopter carrying “Blueboy” successfully “crash” landed inside the compound at Son Tay after chewing up the guard towers with heavy small arms fire on the way in, which also started a small fire in nearby trees. To maximize speed and surprise the plan had called for a rapid flight straight into the compound that would with high probability result in a hard or “crash” landing – which is just what happened, the HH-3’s rotors even clipping trees. Racing from the helicopter, Captain Dick Meadows led the assault team in quickly eliminating the guards and securing the compound with the benefit of surprise, precision timing and potent firepower, while using a bullhorn to tell the POWs, in English, that he was American and for them to keep their heads down. Timed explosive charges were quickly placed in the wounded Jolly Green Giant so that it would be destroyed after the team had extracted. While “Blueboy” was going in, two empty HH-53s (Apple-4 and –5) landed at a pre-selected landing area – on an island in a large nearby lake – to await extraction time. The last empty HH-53 (Apple-3) remained aloft to provide any needed close fire support until the camp was secured and evacuated.
Three minutes later, Col. Simons’ HH-53 (Apple-1), with command group “Greenleaf”, mistakenly landed in the dark near a compound similar to Son Tay approximately 500 meters south of its intended LZ. The location had been identified as a “secondary school” during training, but turned out to be a military barracks. After attacking those with weapons who exited the barracks in disarray, and killing perhaps 50 NVA soldiers, “Greenleaf”, recognizing the landing error after about five minutes, re-embarked and flew over to the prison compound. In “Greenleaf”’s brief absence, “Redwine”, led by LTC “Bud” Sydnor (in Apple-2, under flight captain Manor), landed outside Son Tay and began executing “Greenleaf”’s mission as per the operation’s ‘green’ contingency plan, including blowing a hole in the compound wall to extract personnel. Within minutes “Greenleaf” was back in play and picking up where “Redwine” left off, with “Redwine” taking up perimeter defensive security positions per the original plan. The initial missed LZ by “Greenleaf” turned out to be fortuitous since it effectively delayed or eliminated the closest possible North Vietnamese ground response to the activity at the prison and interjected a significant element of confusion and disarray on the other side.
After “Blueboy” had conducted a thorough search of the camp, Meadows radioed “Negative Items” to the command group, signaling that no POWs were present.
Needless to say, everyone was shocked and incredibly disappointed, and there was initial disbelief, a feeling that perhaps they hadn’t been thorough enough. But there just were no POWs in that camp, and the plan had to be followed. After fifteen minutes, during which a second very thorough search of the compound was conducted, the first group began to load up for departure by helicopter, followed by the second nine minutes later.
The damaged HH-3 inside the compound was as planned destroyed in place. The empty Apple-4 and Apple–5, which had been parked nearby during the raid, lifted off and were diverted over a mountainous area of the Plaine des Jarres to successfully recover the crew of a downed F-105 fighter supporting the operation after it sustained damage from a SAM exploding near the aircraft. The North Vietnamese focused on the US fighter aircraft and missed the slow and low-flying helicopters then exiting North Vietnamese airspace. Again refueling over northern Laos, the raiders in the three remaining HH-53 Sea Stallions arrived back in Thailand at 5 AM, a little over five hours after departing. They had spent a total of twenty-nine minutes on the ground, one minute less than the planned optimum of 30. The intense disappointment with the results of the mission by everyone involved was almost overbearing, but all, up to President Nixon, were pleased with the absence of US losses. Still, the party had gone into the center of the lion’s den on the ground, executed its mission with a high degree of precision, and returned safely – a fairly nice night’s work that would have significant impact in North Vietnam. Many of the SF people wanted to return the next night to search for the POWs, but this simply could not be done.
Brilliantly executed, American casualties for the raid were one wounded. This occurred when an HH3 helicopter crewman broke his ankle during the insertion of “Blueboy”. (With the heavy landing, a fire extinguisher broke lose from its inside fuselage mount and slammed into his leg). In addition, two supporting aircraft were lost in the operation, with their crews recovered safely. North Vietnamese casualties were estimated at 100 killed.
For their actions during the raid, the members of the task force were awarded six Distinguished Service Crosses, five Air Force Crosses, and eighty-three Silver Stars.
The Gremlin In The Plan
Intelligence later revealed that the POWs at Son Tay had been moved to the camp fifteen miles away at Dong Hoi, probably due to a flood threat, in July – soon after Polar Circle began conducting its feasibility study. A senior POW in North Vietnam, Air Force MG John Flynn, later contended that the move was due to construction at the camp to improve its security, after which the prisoners were to have been returned. Regardless, the prisoner move had taken place four months prior to the raid, an inescapable fact that revealed a significant intelligence shortcoming, especially human intelligence, despite efforts made. As with previous aerial photos, the last minute SR-71 photos had revealed signs of life inside the compound, but could not determine whose life. While other intelligence immediately prior to the raid indicated the absence of prisoners, there was not time to change the target. On November 19, one day before the launch, Admiral Thomas Moorer, the new Chairman of the JCS, received intelligence from “a Hanoi source” that the Son Tay POWs had definitely been moved to Dong Hoi. Attempts to confirm or refute this information within such short time constraints were unsuccessful. Even though DIA analysts went into all-night last-minute crash mode with receipt of the new intelligence, time zone difference made it impossible to adjust targets, which probably would have been catastrophic anyway.
The raid planners above Kingpin all the way up to BG Blackburn argued that, despite the last-minute intelligence that cast doubt on the whole purpose of the mission, it be allowed to go forward. At that time there were almost 3,000 men on the US military’s “unaccounted for” list (mostly MIA) in addition to the 500 identified POWs, and the families of these men deserved to know that the military was doing all that was possible to resolve their fate as it gradually withdrew its forces. The POWs were an especially visible issue inside the military since the status and probable location of these men, and under which conditions they were struggling to stay alive, were known. (See Footnote #3.) If nothing else, such a raid might just get lucky, and, regardless, would send a powerful message to the North Vietnamese and to the American people, as well as possibly develop or recover intelligence of value to any future such operations. President Nixon concurred, knowing that with his green light it was now probable that no POWs would be rescued, and that there was a real possibility that many Special Forces lives could very well be lost in a futile effort. But it was the effort itself that counted. President Nixon sided with the military experts and made an extremely gutsy call, knowing that there would definitely be high political prices to pay no matter the outcome. Politically it was all lose-lose; only among the members of the US military was a lose-win possible.
Because of the time zone difference, operational security and established communications “black out”, no member of the Kingpin party was informed of the recent intelligence developments prior to their launch. Everyone in the raiding force chain-of-command knew about the possibility of no POWs at Son Tay – except the raid force and its leaders. Still, all the raiders were veteran volunteer professional soldiers.
But the last-minute negative intelligence was especially irritating to all involved in the raid. “The raid was allowed to take place because those who had the correct intelligence information were not aware that someone was contemplating a POW rescue” – concluded a Congressional inquiry. Draw your own conclusions. Everyone in the proper chain of command, all the way up to the President, was fully briefed on the mission prior to launch. All knew that the success of the mission was very heavily dependent on accurate and timely intelligence. The first standing order of every member of the US military when taken prisoner is to escape, or to assist in their own rescue, if and however that is possible – either of which can occur at any moment when an opportunity presents itself. It’s a permanently standing military order. Any signal conveyed by POWs by any means is not intended for an intelligence agency end user; it is intended for those in a position to act on that signal – and those in such a position wear military uniforms. When the US military is at war, its commanders fully deserve ALL available intelligence as fast as possible. Period. Just ask yourself what benefit could possibly go to anyone or any agency knowingly withholding intelligence about US military POWs for even five minutes. It’s not necessary to reveal the exact source of that intelligence unless authorized queries are made, and then it’s only necessary to assign an accurate degree of reliability to the information. During a war, all relevant bureaucrats need to be placed under the direct command of one military boss – who operates within a very clear chain of command for one very clear purpose – to win the war as rapidly and effectively as possible. Despite this intelligence “failure”, subsequently identified as undue “compartmentalization” among agencies, the raid was officially deemed a “tactical success” due to its near flawless execution.
Like all such “intelligence failures”, it led to a major reorganization of the US intelligence community within a year – which, of course, solved nothing. It’s one of those many American lunatic loops that repeat themselves among our marginally qualified “leaders” every five to ten years. As with all such Baby Boomer lunatic loops, the “brilliant solution” is always, “More money!” Every time I see people, including those of the idle chattering class, doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result each time, I know I am watching genuine morons – incredibly dense and unimaginative products of our public schools that now afflict our whole dysfunctional society. It’s all about process; results are irrelevant. Intelligence failures are now endemic to every sector of our society.
(This is why I remained a member of the uniformed military and never agreed to jump ship for much bigger bucks. America’s combat soldiers fully deserve the very best and most immediate support, including intelligence support, their nation can possibly provide. THAT support is the mission.)
The raid was executed with great professionalism, and by all standards was a successful operation marred only by the absence of the prisoners. However, criticism of the raid, particularly in the US news media and by political and interest group opponents of the Vietnam War and the Nixon Administration, was widespread and seemed to go on forever. It started when North Vietnam quickly announced to the world that the US had bombed a POW camp, added various other allegations, and fanned that line through its extensive propaganda network in the US and Europe, a line which many were quick to take as gospel and run with. AF BG Manor and Army COL Simons immediately flew from Thailand to Washington to assist in briefing the press in broad terms while omitting operational details, but they were fighting an uphill battle with strong anti-war and anti-military emotions. Not only was the “failure” denounced as the result of poor or outdated intelligence, but charges were made that the “ill-conceived” operation caused increased mistreatment or even deaths of the prisoners. Criticism from privileged young Baby Boomers enjoying America’s college campuses was especially loud and caustic. The nation’s overall reaction was cool at best, probably due to its weariness of the war and perceiving the raid as just one more thing that didn’t go as planned. There was muted oratory in Congress, which resulted in low-key proclamations by both the House and Senate praising the effort. Some in the Pentagon wondered if the press would have covered the story at all if the mission had returned all the prisoners previously held in the camp. In those days, military successes were far less newsworthy than perceived “failures”. In the end, soldiers are just expendable pawns primarily serving cheap domestic politics and the chattering class in the midst of young Baby Boomer chaos.
No one seemed interested in digging into the true details of the mission despite the Special Forces’ well-known aversion to publicity, and everyone seemed to just run with their own preconceived “take” on the “competence”, or lack thereof, of the US military. There was certainly no juvenile chest-thumping or girly widespread leaking of mission secrets among sideline-sitters not participating in or even involved with the mission, as is often the case today. Except for the broad briefings provided by General Manor and Colonel Simons, no member of the SF raid party ever broke silence, and some mission details remain unknown even now (and will not be published here). The whole idea was, success or not, that our enemies never learn how we did it, or even what the thinking was, so that they, or anyone else, would be no better prepared the next time. (These days Washington DC is entirely similar to a really huge clique of junior high school girly gossips, where one gets to pump up their own “importance” by blabbing as many of the nation’s most important secrets as possible – and somehow avoid going to prison – just to put the lives of those who actually DO things for a living in much greater danger next time. How truly pathetic we have become, with such a sad need to acquire “relevance” vicariously through the accomplishments of such a tiny few. Talk, of course, is the cheapest thing there is, and most especially when “someone else” will pay the price of that talk later.)
Almost three years later, in 1973, according to the terms of the treaty finally negotiated in Paris, the North Vietnamese released 591 POWs under “Operation Homecoming”. (A small additional number was released later.) A total of 113 POWs are known to have died in captivity. The returned POWs were able to offer their insights into operations Ivory Coast and Kingpin from their perspective as POWs at the time of the raid.
The major consequence of the raid was that all remote POW camps were consolidated into central prison complexes. While this did make any future rescue attempts much more difficult, it also did benefit the POWs. The North Vietnamese, fearing a repeat performance but not knowing when, where or how, closed the outlying POW camps and consolidated all POWs in the two main prisons in downtown Hanoi (the old French prisons of Halo and Culac). (The French were those who taught the Vietnamese many of the more creative and extreme ways to treat humans inhumanely, often at these very same “esteemed” institutions.) The closing of the many dispersed POW camps made military targets they had been shielding more vulnerable to US air attack. An area of the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” formerly housing civilian and South Vietnamese prisoners became “Camp Unity”, a block of large communal areas housing 50 POWs each. This increased visibility and better regimented administration, standards, care and treatment. The number of POWs at these two prisons grew to the extent that POWs lived in groups, rather than what for many had been solitary confinement. After their repatriation, many POWs said that being in close contact with other Americans lifted their spirits, as did knowledge of the rescue attempt, even though they remained under still miserable and brutal conditions. Some POWs said that general treatment by guards, food, medical care, and even seemingly basic things like mail delivery vastly improved after the raid. Overall morale also immediately improved and, as a result, so did general health. POWs stated that lives were saved. Back home, morale among family members of POWs, for the most part, also improved.
Air Force COL Jay Jayroe (ret), a former Son Tay POW, recalls, “When the fireworks went off that clear night in November of 1970, we knew exactly what was happening – a raid on Son Tay was in progress! Some fifty-two of us had been moved from Hanoi to Son Tay in late 1968 and had immediately recognized it as a place for escape or rescue. During the following months we did what we could to indicate our presence there, hoping our efforts would result in success via US airborne surveillance. However, for reasons unknown to us, in July 1970 our captors moved us a short distance to a newly opened complex, where we were aggregated with other POWs from outlying prison camps. I do not believe the Vietnamese suspected an impending rescue attempt, because the move was quite routine with no sense of urgency.”
Look at the situation after the raid from the North Vietnamese perspective: “The Americans came right into our living room, despite the high fence, trip wires, trained armed guards and vicious attack dogs, and almost walked away with the family jewels. Then they just left. What if they had succeeded? What if they succeed next time? The Americans know that we spread those prisoners around in small groups mainly to use them as human shields for military targets. They know we treat them worse than animals. But knowing is not showing the world the truth. What if they end up with a whole plane full of proof? What would that do to our years of propaganda? What would that do to our negotiating position in Paris? What would that do to all our carefully nurtured friendships around the world? Maybe it’s time for us to clean up our act – before we get caught with even worse egg on our face just when we are an inch short of achieving our final objectives.”
The raid on Son Tay was a truly excellent example of all three services, and the CIA, doing their expert parts very well under one plan and one command to achieve a worthy common objective. So the raid was a good thing even though no POWs were recovered, and every member of the Special Forces raid party was eager to do it again, without reservation. For a variety of reasons, that opportunity never again presented itself.
The Special Forces were formally withdrawn from Southeast Asia after the fall of Saigon in 1975, after fifteen years of war, although small teams did continue to operate covertly in the region, mostly on POW/MIA matters.
So, …. what if, …. as the SEAL team flew in, …
… bin Laden stepped out for a beer at the local pub?
Luck is always a part of The Plan. Oh, and for the record, compared to the Son Tay Raid, the Abbottabad Raid was a rather simple low-risk piece of cake with a quite simple objective. It was tailor-made for Army’s Delta, who are even more closed-mouthed than the tight-lipped Special Forces; perhaps that is why Delta was not chosen for the Abbottabad Raid. But also consider this: If the bin Laden mission had been to rescue hostages, it would have failed. It’s easy to quickly kill people, quite something else to not get people killed on such missions, to bring them out alive and well. There were 22 minutes in Abbottabad during which any hostages could easily have been killed, and in trying to avert that, probably half of the SEALs would have paid with their own lives.
There is a very remote possibility that North Vietnamese General Tran Ba Thanh was responsible for the failure of the Son Tay raid to recover any POWs. Some have suggested this since Thanh served under deep cover as a ARVN officer on the South Vietnamese Prime Minister’s staff during the war, providing invaluable intelligence to Hanoi. It has been propositioned that Thanh could have gotten wind of planning for the raid and tipped off the North Vietnamese. However, the movement of the prisoners occurred while very early study was still underway in Washington under Polar Circle, a month before planning under Ivory Coast commenced, and long before any part of the Kingpin execution party had moved to Southeast Asia – and even then to Thailand, not to South Vietnam. Furthermore, the whole operation remained directly subordinate to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bypassing the bureaucracy in Saigon. And lastly, if the operation had been compromised, the raid party would have received a very potent and deadly reception at Son Tay and would never have achieved the level of surprise that it did. It is highly likely that the Special Forces raiding party would not have returned to Thailand.
It is also possible that the US Air Force actually contributed inadvertently to the prisoner move as a consequence of another operation then underway elsewhere. The Air Force had been trying for years, with little success, to destroy with heavy bombing the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” over which the north was continually bringing enormous war manpower and materiel south through the very heavily canopied jungles along the border between Vietnam and Laos. Then in 1969 they switched to a secret experimental approach (“Project Popeye”) that involved “seeding” heavy clouds west of the region during the monsoon season for several years, hoping to trigger much heavier rain – which would produce floods along the “trail” that would either destroy it or make it impassable, at least during the monsoon season. The program was partially successful in that monsoon rainfall in the region was estimated to have increased by 30%, but, while it did significantly increase water rushing in streams and rivers (and endanger Son Tay Prison), it did not destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (Part of the operation, which ceased in July 1972, involved first dropping chemicals on the “trail” which, when mixed with rain, would significantly destabilize the earth. But if you could coat roads with chemicals, why not just coat those roads with bombs?)
Ironically, both “Bull” Simons and Dick Meadows were directly involved with the failed 1980 mission (Operation Eagle Claw) to rescue prisoners taken from the US Embassy in Teheran and held by revolutionaries in Iran for 444 days. The reasons for that “failure” were due to factors very different from the Son Tay raid ten years earlier. Some of those factors are traceable to what hapened to the Special Forces within the larger Army during the 1970s. (They were pretty much left to wither on the vine.)
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt (“The Man In The Arena” passage from “Citizenship In A Republic” speech at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910.)
Those who never do anything “wrong”, never do anything.
Talk is the cheapest thing there is.
P.S. It was also President Nixon who in 1972 authorized the launch of the extremely high-risk mission of the “Hughes” Glomar Explorer, designed and built at great expense and secrecy for the CIA recovery of the wreck of Soviet nuclear submarine K-129 from three miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean – without nearby Russian observers knowing what they were watching. This was Project Azorian (finally confirmed 38 years later) that was known by the public as “Project Jennifer”. (The following year a Russian soldier at a railway station in communist East Germany, not realizing with whom he was conversing, informed me that my Commander-in-Chief, President Nixon, had resigned his office.) Despite public perceptions, due to bits and pieces leaked to the media during the 1970s which also precluded a second trip to complete the mission, this deep-sea operation was also a success. No official or back-channel confirmation of this operation was offered by any member of the US Government until after the end of “Cold” War and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact around 1990. Some elements remain secret today. Revealing national defense secrets for personal or political aggrandizement without the express authority of the project manager or operational commander is simply despicable.
Footnote #1. Hiding bin Laden. Considerable criticism has been heaped on the Pakistanis over the past year or so for the fact that Osama bin Laden was found to be living inside Pakistan in relative comfort, and not far from a major Pakistani military installation. Critics claim that it was not possible for bin Laden to have remained in Pakistan unknown to at least certain officials of the Pakistani military or the Pakistani Intelligence Service. I have seen no evidence to support such claims, despite Defense Secretary Panetta’s strong “gut feeling”. However, it might be helpful to remember that the 19 members of the terrorist team that executed the atrocities of 9/11 had been moving around the United States in complete freedom and relative comfort for years, some even taking flying lessons. Some had slipped CIA surveillance overseas, and some on watch lists also slipped through US passport consular services. Some of them even resided in northern Virginia not far from the US Joint Counter-intelligence Center tasked with tracking such men, and others resided in Laurel Maryland right under the nose of the all-knowing National Security Agency. No one has ever accused anyone in the US government of knowing where these men were or what they were up to prior to 9/11 and then knowingly withholding that information. So what says that the Pakistanis can and must meet higher standards, even given the fame of bin Laden? While I will grant that there is a definite possibility that someone in the Pakistani Intelligence Service did know of bin Laden’s location, I am willing to give the country the benefit of doubt until irrefutable evidence to the contrary surfaces. After all, what is better, when everyone is looking under rocks, than “hiding in plain sight”? After all, a Boston mobster long on the FBI’s “Most Wanted List” lived for decades in plain sight in comfy southern California.
As a general rule, those who wag their sanctimonious fingers at others are usually able to do so only by ignoring their own very similar actions. Americans have a tremendous predilection to readily accuse others of all sorts of skullduggery while absolving themselves of very similar activity, and politicians and bureaucrats especially are simply notorious at serving themselves by doing whatever is necessary to cover up their own incompetence. Incompetence is the most universal of traits among all governments, and the one in America certainly holds its own in this measure.
While Pakistan is not quite as open a democracy as is the US, it is a democracy with a very active press whose citizens hold certain rights, and its population of 173,000,000 in an area 1/12th as large as the US sometimes makes finding people a matter of a needle in a very tightly packed haystack. Nine and a half million people live in Karachi alone. Pakistan is the sixth most populated country in the world, with a population density of 583 per sq mile (225 per sq km). By comparison, the US has a population density of just 76 per sq mile (29 per sq km).
Pakistan: Population: 173,000,000 Area: 310,403 sq miles ( 803,940 km²)
USA: Population: 310,000,000 Area: 3,794,100 sq miles (9,826,675 km²)
The country is a semi-permanent home to at least 4,500,000 refugees, mostly from Afghanistan who have been streaming in since the 1979 Soviet invasion, and less than a third of whom are even registered and thus considered “legal”.
Still, a 2013 Condé Nast Traveler survey rated Islamabad as the world’s second unfriendliest city – right after # 1 Newark (NJ) and right before #3 Oakland (CA). (I still harbor a special place in my heart for Oakland in recognition of the vicious and often violent “Welcome Home” many of its residents long afforded US soldiers returning from Vietnam through the Army’s processing center in that city.) Separating friend from foe in such places is often a difficult and dangerous task.
Addendum: A 336-page exhaustive investigation report by the Pakistani government was leaked to al Jazeera in July 2013. The report concluded that bin Laden had been able to live in Pakistan undetected for nine years due to the same factors that allowed the attacks of 9/11 to occur in the US: “a glaring testimony to the collective incompetence and negligence” of intelligence agents, police, and all national and local authorities, plus several missed opportunities. The report stated that the failure had taken place because authorities were not doing their jobs, but also admitted that it could not rule out the possibility that “rogue elements” of Pakistani intelligence had colluded with al Qaeda to protect bin Laden. I remain convinced that bin Laden was able to reside comfortably where he did because comfortable bureaucrats whose lives did not depend on them doing their jobs proficiently were simply characteristically incompetent.
Footnote #2. Special Operations. While many others directly supported the operation, the following, all now deceased, were some of the members of the Special Forces raiding party on Son Tay Prison:
COL Arthur D. “Bull” Simons, US Army
MAJ Richard “Dick” Meadows, US Army
CSM Billy K. Moore, US Army
CSM Galen “Pappy” Kittleson, US Army
CSM Marion S. Howell, US Army
CSM Thomas J. Kemmer, US Army
MSG David A. Lawhon, Jr., US Army
MSG William L. Tapley, US Army
MSG Donald D. Blackard, US Army
MSG Tiny Young, US Army
MSG Paul F. Poole, US Army
SGT Marshall A. Thomas, US Army
The execution of the Son Tay Raid was an unusual mission for the Special Forces (SF), but they are fully qualified to both execute and teach such operations to others. In fact, teaching is their primary mission. (The size of the green beret team (56) required to successfully execute the unique Son Tay Raid, and safely return over 100 other men, many of whom would be in less than optimum physical condition, required an SOF contingent larger than the normal size of most other types of SOF missions. It’s possible to quickly assemble SF combat personnel with the full range of other military specialties, including medic, required of any special operations mission conceivable.)
The US Navy SEALs are joined in highly specialized small-team military missions, usually of rather brief duration, by the US Army’s Delta and the very small US Marines Force Reconnaissance. The 75th Ranger Regiment now also conducts special operations, often of larger and more lengthy missions. The Army also fields a highly specialized unit called Nightstalkers that provides covert helicopter support to military special operations missions of all such SOF ground personnel. The Army’s Intelligence Support Activity (ISA) provides covert and clandestine human intelligence support, primarily to special operations missions. (US Air Force special operations concentrate mainly on air rescue operations and providing personnel to ground operations for coordinating Air Force and Navy air support.) The considerably larger US Army Special Forces (“green berets”) exist for a very different kind of military mission, one that can last many months, even years, and almost always with indigenous personnel they train. Brain power is every bit as important as physical endurance for all seven special operations forces (SOF), and the basic skill required for all military special operations forces is infantryman qualification. All except Delta and Nightstalkers were deployed in Vietnam; Delta (“The Unit”) was formed later, with the help of the British SAS, primarily to deal with the many terrorist airliner hijackings and other hostage situations that were occurring with alarming frequency throughout the world during the 1970s. The Nightstalkers were formed in 1981 and have steadily improved their highly specialized and advanced capabilities. Basic case officer skills for ISA have been employed by the US military since World War II – after which the US military provided the training foundation for the CIA while retaining its own capability. Delta, Nightstalkers, ISA and SF are extremely publicity-shy; SEALs less so. All SOF now operate under the unified (all-service) command of the global US Special Operations Command (US SOCOM) at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.
All US Marine infantry units also conduct special operations, usually on a larger and rapid brute-force scale.
Other countries having formidable and highly respected special operations forces include Britain (SAS & SBS), Israel (Shayetet/”The Unit”), Russia (Spetsnaz/”Alpha”), Germany (KSK), France (COS), Poland (GROM) and Pakistan (SSG). The best foreign soldiers who would fit easiest in US military special operations forces today are those from Australia.
(Delta. Despite its very potent capabilities, civilian political leaders for a long time would not give Delta the green light to be employed for its purpose – until the military exercise in Panama in 1989 – but then the same political reluctance resurfaced after Mogadishu in 1993. The main problem Delta had on most high profile missions was difficulties with air support, whether Army, Navy or Air Force; this includes the crash that occurred in Desert One in Iran in 1980 after the mission had been called off due to inadequate helicopters making it to target. (Delta now gets its air support directly from the highly specialized special operations-dedicated Nightstalkers.) Since the start of the “War On Terrorism”, Delta has come into its prime, even though the unexpected requirement to operate with locals resulted in the failure to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora in December 2001. Delta had trained for the Tora Bora mission in the high snow-packed mountains of Montana but had planned to operate customarily alone in Afghanistan. (The requirement to operate with locals was a last-minute change imposed on the mission from outside Delta – which historically has been a problem for many SOF missions. It is believed that some of those locals enabled bin Laden to escape into Pakistan.) Today “The Unit” makes the best, fastest and smartest use of all-source intelligence, as well as the latest high tech equipment and best personnel, to successfully and quietly execute hundreds of bin Laden raid-type missions anywhere they are sent throughout the world. And they are even better than Special Forces in their ability to blend in and disappear among foreign indigenous populations for limited durations. The US Army’s Delta is now almost universally considered the best special ops force in the world for rapid missions, surpassing its former teacher – the British SAS. But, like the Special Forces, The Unit doesn’t showboat. Delta is the unit that should have gotten the bin Laden raid mission, and it remains inexplicable why it did not. (My own guess is that Delta did not want to deal with the inevitable post-mission publicity.)
Warning to wannabes: Only about 20% of the US population today in the appropriate age group can qualify for Regular Army service and get through basic training required of all Army personnel. Qualification rates within the Army drop from there as skill demands increase with more specialized jobs. Delta accepts for training about 10% of those who apply from other military units such as Rangers, and about half of that 10% washes out of their basic training course. Even graduating from the Delta course does not guarantee success, or retention. So, essentially Delta draws from the very top 2% of US ground forces personnel who have already proven themselves as infantrymen elsewhere, including as Airborne and Rangers. The same applies to SEALS and SF. Nightstalkers is a bit different with its heavy emphasis on extreme pilot skills. ISA does not accept applications; it seeks out and recruits those with the special skills, traits and educations it needs. So, essentially, we are talking about less than 0.001 of the US population between 18 and 28 who might have a shot. Fitness, dedication, brains, fortitude and education all count.
Except for the nonsense about busting out of a prison in China. there are a number of parallels between milestones in the life of the character Tom Bishop in the movie “Spy Game” (USA, 2001) and a big chunk of my own early career, including the time sequence Vietnam/Southeast Asia, Berlin, Mid-East, during the same time periods as Bishop, then followed by Pacific, Helsinki, Hong Kong, Munich, Latin/South America, Mid-East, etc., (1967-07), with brief periods here and there in Washington and elsewhere. By the late-1980s, I was the guy stuck with a job like Bishop’s boss, Muir, but responsible at DIA for a global hemisphere.
Footnote #3. POW/MIA. Neither Vietnam or any other country is believed to be holding POWs from the Vietnam War era. At the end of “Operation Homecoming” in the Spring of 1973, 2,646 Americans did not return from Southeast Asia — they were “unaccounted for.” Since then, 957 have been “accounted for” by (1) return of a small number of individuals after “Operation Homecoming”; (2) recovering and identifying remains; (3) recovering the remains of several individuals as a group whose remains are not separately identifiable.
Currently, 1,689 Americans remain “unaccounted for” in Southeast Asia:
Vietnam : 1,296
(North Vietnam : 476)
(South Vietnam : 820)
Laos : 328
Cambodia : 58
China (territorial waters) : 7
(Figures include 468 at-sea or over-water losses.)
Source: COL Joe Schlatter, US Army (Ret), former DIA Special Office for POW-MIA Affairs (1986-90) and DoD Deputy Director POW-MIA Office (1993-95).
Footnote #4. Some People Used To Be “Off-Limits”. Note that it was CIA and political hack civilians who consciously decided to use a doctor in a humanitarian health program in a single-minded effort to locate bin Laden, and then actually confirmed that deception to the world – effectively undermining the future utility of that and similar altruistic programs while also sealing the fate of the Pakistani doctor who had assisted the US effort, as just more “acceptable collateral damage”. Even though the plan to identify bin Laden through DNA to be obtained by the doctor failed, after his participation was actually confirmed by a White House spokesman, the doctor was arrested by the Pakistani government and sentenced to prison for his unauthorized cooperation with a foreign government inside Pakistan. He remains in jail today. Soon thereafter another eight medical workers, suspected by extremists of being more American agents, were predictably killed in Pakistan for the “crime” of vaccinating children against polio, and other such innocent killings have followed. The US used to have sensible adult rules that prohibited the use by intelligence and special operations personnel of certain categories of people – to preclude just this sort of blow-back on innocent and very vulnerable others, and no idiot, civilian or military, ever was so stupid as to confirm in public just who, if anyone, had assisted in those operations — until now, until “we” became defined as “me”, and became crude, unimaginative, limited, ignorant civilians seeking cheap political gain and self-aggrandizement. At the top of those categories of “off-limits” personnel were those engaged in humanitarian health missions, including our own Peace Corps people.
It’s more than ironic that polio vaccines for children were pioneered and developed during the 1950s by America’s Greatest Generation, and especially by a great gamble taken by Dr. Jonas Salk and funded by the voluntary citizen charity March Of Dimes during the height of a major childhood polio epidemic that gripped the nation’s parents in fear. Dr. Salk tested and proved his vaccine on himself and his family, took no financial reward for his work, and gave his life-saving vaccine to the world for free. Within a few short years of vaccinating all American children, polio had been eradicated from the nation, and similar effects were experienced around the globe. But constant adult vigilance is paramount.
(March 2014: Two years later such killings of volunteer medical personnel on humanitarian missions in Pakistan continue unabated, despite the government assigning armed guards to their small teams. Most of the guards have become additional targets, just more “collateral damage”. This has had a dramatic impact, for example, on the country’s polio vaccination campaign. As a result, childhood polio, nearly eradicated from the rest of the world, is on a steady rise in Pakistan. The cost of using that one doctor, and then publicly advertising it solely for despicable self-aggrandizement, has enabled extremists to taint all such personnel as engaged in American conspiracies. This has cost the lives of hundreds more, while also jeopardizing the medical health of a whole future generation of Pakistanis. And the death of bin Laden has changed absolutely nothing in the “war on terrorism”. It’s pretty difficult to get lower than that. It makes me ashamed of my whole life.)
(20 May 2014: BBC: “The CIA has ended the use of vaccine programmes in its spying operations amid concerns for the safety of health workers, the White House has said. In a letter to US public health schools, a White House aide said the CIA stopped such practices in August (2013). The CIA’s move comes after a wave of deadly attacks by militants on polio vaccination workers in Pakistan. “By publicising this policy, our objective is to dispel one canard that militant groups have used as justification for cowardly attacks against vaccination providers,” CIA spokesman Dean Boyd said in a statement to the BBC.
“In a letter dated 16 May, the White House assistant to the president for homeland security and counter-terrorism, Lisa Monaco, wrote that CIA director John Brennan had directed the agency to cease “operational use of vaccine programmes”. “Similarly, the agency will not seek to obtain or exploit DNA or other genetic material acquired through such programmes,” she wrote, adding the policy applied worldwide to US and non-US persons alike. (It was then-White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan, and Secretary of Defense and former CIA director, Leon Penetta, who confirmed the use of a Pakistani doctor – obviously without considering the repercussions of their stupidity.)
“Mr Boyd said, “It is important to note that militant groups have a long history of attacking humanitarian aid workers in Pakistan and those attacks began years before the raid against the Bin Laden compound and years before any press reports claiming a CIA-sponsored vaccination programme.” ((That long history all over the world is precisely why the use of medical workers was originally banned by US intel and special ops in the first place. Now it’s too late; the damage has been done, and no one will believe the CIA has changed anything, and that will also taint military special ops.))
The Pakistani doctor accused of running the vaccination campaign remains in jail.
Pakistan has a population of 173,000,000, most living in very close quarters in huge cities. Diseases like polio can spread like wildfire, and often remain there out of sight just waiting to form an epidemic among children. Polio had been nearly eradicated; now all bets are off, especially considering global travel. Not only are medical workers and their security people being killed, but many parents are afraid to take their children in for the shots where security is high. Makes me thoroughly ashamed to be an American. What has happened to this country? “Look at me, everyone! Look what I did, Mommy!! Ain’t I just GREAT?!!” What kind of twisted arrested-development idiot 7-year old creep DOES that?
(It’s all part of our culture of “very special me” forever taking “selfies” while glorifying “my” pathetic navel and hiding the truth that “I” never really DO anything worthwhile for others. It’s all about advancing “me” at the expense of any “inferior” humans who happen to get in the way of that paramount objective.)
Footnote #5. Couriers and “Enhanced Interrogations”. I do fault the “thinking” that went into early US attempts to locate bin Laden – “thinking” that apparently continued for years, “thinking” that placed far too much reliance on machines and toys (and on “enhanced interrogation” methods). Soon after 9/11, an investigation into a routine criminal police action in Finland inadvertently led to the accidental revelation in the press that it was possible and relatively easy to track and monitor cell phones. This story was picked up by other media outlets around the world. That revelation was also quickly picked up by al Qaeda, which immediately altered its primary method of communications. Once that happened, it threw our primary intelligence collection tools into disarray – which necessitated a complete re-thinking of our approach. But there were other approaches available, approaches as old as civilization, that had once been integral to clandestine operational tradecraft.
Al Qaeda is a clandestine human network. Such a network cannot function without communications among its parts, from worker bee to top management and back down. Such networks are always very stringently compartmented. Those arrested almost never have knowledge beyond their immediate part of their own compartment. This makes communication links inherently the network’s greatest vulnerability. The vulnerability actually increases the closer you get to top management. Any case officer or operations officer who operated during the “Cold” War should know that by systematically compromising various methods of potential communication (i.e., by demonstrating a capability to intercept the more technical means such as mail, telephone, internet, cell phone), you eventually reduce the remaining possibilities to human couriers and the non-technical means they employ to avoid detection. Now you are dealing with a certain small group of people with travel capability, travel patters, other associations and capabilities, etc.. It’s not easy, but it is possible, to zero in on a few such people and place them under surveillance. Sooner or later one will reveal a certain pattern worth following more closely. Any case officer who ran courier operations against the very potent counter-intelligence capabilities of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact knows that they require an extreme degree of care and attention to even the smallest detail – something that most humans would prefer to shortcut, and very often eventually do. Identifying, compromising and following a known courier can eventually lead you to the whole enchilada. There are, of course, ways to reduce the vulnerability of couriers, such as swapping them out, using various types of “cut-outs”, etc., but most such methods are difficult, tedious and time-consuming, and not very glamorous work – so usually the required safeguards are simply not implemented or are occasionally violated. It’s a natural human tendency; people knowing the risks still take them. A smart, patient and diligent counter-intelligence professional will capitalize on that tendency. Why it seems to have taken so many years to zero in on this obvious inherent weakness escapes me.
The people who were tasked with finding bin Laden were the same people who had lost track of known terrorists they had under surveillance overseas – who then entered the United States and participated in the attacks of 9/11. How many years did it take to find bin Laden? Between Tora Bora in December 2001 and Abbottobad in May 2011 was 9 years and 4 months. How long would it have taken if those at CIA tasked with finding him had placed much greater emphasis on methods other than the “enhanced interrogation” “short-cut”? In the end, of course, it was a courier who proved to be the key, and a tenacious dedicated analyst who kept plugging away until she had that key. Did “enhanced interrogation” methods speed up the process? I seriously doubt it. My own estimation is that it needlessly delayed the result, by at least a factor of four. And I have always wondered, whenever I encountered it, how well those conducting such “interrogations” would themselves, regardless of gender, handle it if they were placed on the receiving end. But such people are very rarely in positions vulnerable to being placed on the receiving end. American soldiers, however, are. There’s always the matter of blow-back. Remember that old adage about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you? How many CIA people consider how their actions impact US military personnel? Does anyone really think that this enemy makes any real distinction among various categories of Americans? To them, we ALL are “the enemy” – “fair game”.
(Of course, the narcissist doesn’t have to consider such things. When all that matters is making a name for themselves, is being able to jump up on the stage to shout, “Look what I did, Mommy!”, the only thing that counts to the self-involved child is “me” and “now”, at any cost necessary. It derives straight from American Baby Boomer “feminism” – with which our children are inculcated constantly from the moment of birth onward. “I am special!” How many such “special” people ever see the connection between their own actions and the videos of beheadings of captured and tortured Americans posted on the internet? This is what has happened to “American exceptionalism”.)
The CIA spent billions of US taxpayer dollars for eight years using thuggish “short-cuts” – kidnapping, caging, transporting, humiliating, mutilating, torturing and killing hundreds of prisoners of war – in a single-minded effort to locate bin Laden. All of that was done in the name of the American people, and it accomplished almost nothing. Of twenty top targets, the CIA managed in all that time to kill four. The critical key leading to bin Laden turned out to have been in CIA files all along. If the agency wasn’t so focused on exploiting prisoners, maybe they would have been forced to re-examine what they already had. And once they recognized that key, spotted by an analyst, the CIA used its other “sophisticated” method – a suitcase full of US taxpayer cash to buy a telephone number. And, of course, after bin Laden finally was located and killed, his death changed absolutely nothing (other than a certain sense of American retribution). But, in that process, America lost the moral high ground in a war that was always destined to last decades.
Now Americans, with a truly twisted rationale, prefer KILLING people, including innocents, by remote control from a very safe distance, rather than deal with the “messiness” of taking prisoners. What the hell has happened to us?
There was a time when the CIA did what they claimed others could not – conduct highly sophisticated espionage operations to obtain critically needed human intelligence that could not be obtained by any other method. Any bunch of twisted degenerates could have done what these people did. So why do we need a CIA? If the object is to locate and kill the enemy, the US military exists for that purpose, and it does it within acceptable parameters of warfare. But the US military can no longer conduct highly sophisticated espionage operations to obtain critical intelligence the military needs. So we now have civilians with weapons of war and paramilitary contractors operating outside military standards of conduct and accountability doing what the military does within standards of conduct with full accountability – and almost no one running spies, doing the hard stuff out there where it just might get dangerous.
The CIA should have pulled out the Army field manual and used it as its primary guidance. That field manual, like all those constructed during the 1970s on all the many aspects of unconventional warfare, represent the very best thinking that our entire society could come up with. That includes military, government and a wide range of applicable academic fields. There are very firm reasons why it says what it says. Even thugs working for CIA can understand its wording. (I have no problems with the field manual’s classified annex.)
If you don’t want to deal with the inevitable blow-back, if you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t do it.
(For the record, only one enemy faced by US soldiers over the past 100 years has ever treated American prisoners with a modicum of humanity – the WW II Germans. But there’s simply no argument to be made if you don’t treat their prisoners humanely. So the US military does.)
Thanks, Bernie. Wonder how many readers noticed that AF Brigadier General Manor was on the ground at Son Tay. His big bird (Apple-2) took team “Redwine” in, and brought them back out.
A very good presentation of why some events do not work while others do. You allude to the political side ever so lightly while relating to how the Congress and the Media ( formerly know as Fourth Estate ) reacted or failed to react to this incident. It appears that this political side is still alive and feeding off the risk our service members take to protect us and follow the orders of their superiors.
Keep up the commentaries.