JSOC during the early and mid-1980s

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General Carl W. Stiner

The Pentagon’s wholesale commitment of JSOC to combat in Urgent Fury proved an exception to the rule during the early and mid-1980s. Not that there weren’t numerous crises—terrorist-related and otherwise—for which the command prepared, and sometimes deployed. But when push came to shove, the Reagan administration displayed a marked reluctance to commit its most elite forces to battle. Nowhere was this more so than the Middle East in general, and Lebanon in particular.

In 1981 Delta began routinely deploying two operators—one each from A and B Squadrons—on three-month stints as bodyguards for the U.S. ambassador in Beirut. The Lebanese capital was the most violent city in the world, with numerous armed militias vying for power and influence. After the United States deployed a Marine task force to Beirut as part of a “peacekeeping” force in 1982, some local factions, rightly or wrongly, viewed the United States as party to the conflict. On April 18, 1983, militants detonated a truck bomb in front of the embassy, shearing the front off the structure and killing sixty-three people. The blast wiped out virtually the entire CIA station. It also took the life of Sergeant First Class Terry Gilden of Delta’s A Squadron, who was waiting for the ambassador with the rest of the chief of mission’s dozen-strong security detail at the front of the building when the explosion killed them all. Gilden was the first Delta operator killed in action. When yet another bomb attack damaged the new U.S. embassy in September 1984, it was another A Squadron operator, Eagle Claw veteran Sergeant First Class Edward Bugarin, who pulled injured ambassador Reginald Bartholomew to safety.3 (The action earned Bugarin a Soldier’s Medal—the highest U.S. Army award for bravery not involving conflict with an enemy.)

Protective detail deployments to Beirut continued into the late 1980s. Delta usually did not use them as cover for any other low-visibility activities. “When we went over for our protection missions, that’s all we did,” an operator said. But according to Eric Haney, an operator who later wrote of his experiences in Beirut, there were occasional deployments to Beirut for other missions, such as the time he and a partner successfully targeted a pair of snipers who had wounded several Marines.

In his autobiography, Richard Marcinko also describes a December 1982 deployment of a dozen Team 6 operators to the Lebanese capital with a mission to analyze threats to the embassy and the Marines and recommend security improvements. In Marcinko’s version of the story, he told a senior embassy official that the embassy was vulnerable to a car bomb, but the diplomat dismissed the SEAL officer’s concerns and refused to take his advice, which was to station a “black box” device on the embassy roof that could detonate radio-triggered car bombs at a safe distance. The SEALs left Beirut the next day, about three months before the car bomb attack that destroyed the embassy, but not before they had tested their device by driving around Beirut until a house in a residential neighborhood “erupted” as they approached it. Marcinko implies the device he was holding caused the explosion. He describes a scene of devastation in which “dozens of Lebanese, some of them in pieces, lay in the street” as he watched others try and fail to rescue two women who were trapped in a car and burned to death.

Intelligence officials later surmised that the organization responsible for the truck bombs that shattered the embassy and destroyed the Marine barracks that October was Hezbollah, the Shi’ite militant group also behind the spate of kidnappings of Westerners in Lebanon that began in 1982. Hezbollah in turn was largely a tool of Iran, the country whose actions had prompted JSOC’s formation, and which the command would repeatedly confront over the next thirty years.

The kidnappings drove JSOC to employ innovative countermeasures. “We were concerned about security for some of our ambassadors, so we were looking at how could we identify where they were if they were kidnapped,” a senior JSOC official said. “We developed a tagging system based on the polar bear systems that were used in Alaska.” The initial tag design was cylindrical, white, a few inches long, and was actually called the “polar bear.” It worked on a line-of-sight basis, so JSOC needed an aircraft somewhere in the area to locate the tag. The Joint Communications Unit was at the center of the effort, which placed the tags in the belts, waistbands, or—for women—brassieres of ambassadors and any other individuals JSOC considered most at risk of kidnapping.

Another new technology, the satellite fax, proved its worth in July 1983 when JSOC had to respond to a hostage crisis in Sudan. Two dozen Southern Sudan Liberation Front “rebels”—in reality little more than poorly equipped bandits—had taken five Westerners, including two American missionaries, hostage in the jungle of the Boma plateau in the southeastern tip of the country. Delta’s Jerry Boykin led a small team to Khartoum and then Juba in southern Sudan to advise the Sudanese hostage rescue force, which by good fortune he and other JSOC personnel had helped establish a few months previously.

Meanwhile, a small ISA element located the rebels and their hostages by getting a fix on the shortwave transmitter they were using to negotiate with the Sudanese authorities. With the target location in hand, a Keyhole reconnaissance satellite was positioned overhead. But the satellite transmitted its photos back to Washington, not Sudan. This is where the satellite fax came into its own.

Boykin’s team had arrived in Sudan with recent satellite imagery of the target area, which they had given to the CIA station chief in Khartoum, who in turn had passed it to the Sudanese military. But the details the hostage rescue force required—the location of guards, for instance—changed frequently enough to quickly render the photos out of date. After some urgent transatlantic phone calls to North Carolina, an officer in JSOC’s operations directorate called the command’s Washington office staff. It was a Saturday morning, but the staffers returned to the Pentagon and got hold of the latest Keyhole pictures. The staffers compared the new pictures with the originals in Boykin’s hands, noted the differences—“where they could see people on the roof of a building or where a guard post had been established”—and then traced those differences onto a new piece of paper sized to the exact dimensions of the original satellite photos and faxed that image to Boykin’s team, who used it as an overlay for their imagery. “It was very rudimentary, but it was effective,” said a Delta officer.

After two weeks the Sudanese military made their move and rescued the hostages unscathed in an air assault mission that killed most of the kidnappers. As Boykin relates in his memoir, he and Delta Sergeant First Class Don Feeney flew down to Boma for the mission, but took no part in the action. It was one of a series of behind-the-scenes advisory efforts on JSOC’s part that led to successful hostage rescues during the early 1980s. Others included a March 1981 operation by Indonesian commandos to free the passengers and crew of a hijacked Indonesian airliner at Bangkok airport, and Venezuelan forces’ July 1984 storming of a hijacked Aeropostal jet in Curaçao.

A frustrated Scholtes left JSOC in August 1984 to command 2nd Armored Division. He was replaced by another infantry officer, Army Major General “Country” Carl Stiner, whose only previous special operations experience had been two years with 3rd Special Forces Group in the mid-1960s. Stiner took over a headquarters that had grown to about 120 people,11 but which was still figuring out where it fit in the crowded national security structure. There were plenty of envious stares cast JSOC’s way by conventional military leaders, who by nature and tradition are usually suspicious of “elite” units and resentful of organizations that receive a disproportionate share of the Pentagon budget, as JSOC and its special mission units assuredly did.

Other military organizations were not the only partners with whom it was in JSOC’s interest to stay on good terms. The command also relied on the intelligence agencies to provide it with mission-critical information. Although Scholtes didn’t much care for CIA director Bill Casey, JSOC’s overall relationship with the CIA was good. The Agency kept a representative at JSOC’s headquarters, but Scholtes’s determination to keep his staff at a manageable size meant JSOC did not place a liaison at Langley. JSOC also enjoyed a “good relationship” with the Defense Intelligence Agency, but the command’s “best relationship” was with the National Security Agency, which specialized in collecting signals intelligence around the globe, a senior JSOC official said. “They were very good to us,” he said. Hidden from the American people, that relationship would only improve over the next three decades.

Stiner took command of what he would later describe as “the best trained and most competent joint headquarters and the finest special missions units in the world.” But although JSOC had seen fierce combat in Grenada and had undertaken numerous advisory and training missions abroad, the command had yet to conduct a major hostage rescue or other major counterterrorist mission—the sort of operation that was supposed to be its raison d’être. The following year, however, events in the Mediterranean twice almost put JSOC to just such a test. Two hijackings would reveal how far the command had come in less than five years, and how far it still had to go.

The first of these crises began June 14, 1985, when two Lebanese Shi’ite terrorists hijacked Trans World Airlines Flight 847 carrying 153 passengers and crew en route from Athens to Rome and forced the pilots to fly to Beirut, where they refueled and began a two-day pattern of shuttling between the Lebanese capital and Algiers, releasing most of the hostages before stopping permanently in Beirut June 16 with forty American men as their remaining captives. On the second stop in Beirut, on the morning of June 14, the hijackers viciously beat Robert Stethem, one of six U.S. Navy divers on the flight, before killing him with a shot to the head and dumping his body on the tarmac. The terrorists also took nineteen American prisoners off the plane and held them in Beirut while about a dozen more well-armed hijackers came aboard, including Imad Mugniyah, Hezbollah’s youthful “enforcer,” who would remain a major player in Middle East terrorism for more than two decades.

Meanwhile, the JSOC and Delta compounds were a blur of activity. A report on the television that Delta kept tuned to CNN at all times alerted the unit’s watch officer to the crisis, who in turn contacted individual unit members at home via beeper, using a numeric code to tell them to prepare for a rapid deployment. Similar processes were under way at Dam Neck and Fort Campbell with Team 6 and TF 160, respectively. At JSOC headquarters, where officers first learned of the hijacking from BBC and Reuters reports, not from Washington, staff pulled up profiles of the Algiers and Beirut airports from the command’s database. The various headquarters also put into practice a new telephone routine intended to keep everyone with a need to know up to speed on events. “When all this hijacking shit started, they built this system where once a plane’s hijacked, phones ring everywhere that there are people that are supposed to be involved, and you can never hang up—somebody’s got to stay on that phone,” said a JSOC staff officer from the period.

Early that morning, the Joint Chiefs told Stiner to put a task force together and draw up a rescue plan. At Bragg, Dam Neck, and Campbell, troops were ready to go, but, not for the first or last time, the Air Force’s Military Assistance Command had no planes or crews immediately available to deploy them. The Pentagon also wanted to wait to see where TWA 847 ended up before deploying the task force. That meant JSOC missed the best opportunity to rescue the hostages: when the plane was on the ground for the first time at Algiers, with only two lightly armed hijackers. By the time the Air Force was able to provide airlift and the Reagan administration had made a decision to launch the task force, the hijackers had killed Stethem. The task force flew overnight and landed on the morning of June 15 at Naval Air Station Sigonella on the Italian island of Sicily. Stiner planned to use the joint Italian-U.S. facility as an intermediate staging base and quickly set up an operations center inside a hangar. A pair of MC-130 Combat Talons (Air Force special operations variants of the venerable Hercules turboprop transport plane) flew in from England. A TWA Boeing 727 identical to that used by Flight 847 also arrived. Delta regularly trained on airliners awaiting destruction at an aircraft boneyard at North Carolina’s Laurinburg-Maxton Airport, but the opportunity to rehearse the planned takedown using an exact replica of the hijacked airliner was priceless. TWA’s loan of the 727 meant the operators could also use it as a Trojan horse to bring them unnoticed into either Algiers or Beirut. (If it came to that, the plan was for the Delta operators to land in “their” 727, put it nose-to-nose with the hijacked plane, free the hostages, “turn the other one around and fly off,” said a Delta operator.)

The night of the 15th offered another opportunity for a rescue mission, although it would be a tougher challenge now that the terrorists had been reinforced. A couple of operators had infiltrated Algiers to keep watch over the target and report back to Sigonella over satellite radio. “They were in the bushes, they could walk up, put their hands on the fence and look at everything that was going on at the airfield and then go back in the bushes and talk to us,” said a JSOC staffer. A JSOC officer in Sigonella was on the hangar roof—the only place the task force’s satellite communications worked—talking to a general in the White House Situation Room. The JSOC officer told the general the task force was ready to launch the mission, but the White House needed to give the okay within the next hour and forty-five minutes or they would run out of the darkness deemed essential to the plan. The opportunity for JSOC to conduct its first set-piece counterterrorism operation beckoned. “This was the closest we’d ever come to being told we could do it,” said a JSOC staffer. “We were getting excited.” The Algerian government was steadfastly opposed to a military rescue, however. To the utter frustration of the operators and staff gathered in the hangar on Sicily, the White House never gave the okay. The next morning the hijackers ordered the plane flown back to their home base of Beirut, where they took the hostages off the plane, eventually distributing them around Hezbollah safe houses in southern Beirut.

Stiner moved the entire task force to the British Royal Air Force base at Akrotiri in Cyprus. By now the task force was almost 400 strong, including two Delta squadrons, about fifty Team 6 operators, plus elements of TF 160 and ISA (deployed on the authority of the DIA) and other military and intelligence personnel. (Seaspray helicopters and crews also deployed to Europe during the crisis.) The entire force was in one enormous hangar. The near-constant presence overhead of two Soviet reconnaissance satellites meant the operators could only train outside at night or during two one-hour periods of daylight.

Aided by information from a four-man team that had infiltrated Beirut via Black Hawk, as well as the Delta operators attached to the embassy security detail, JSOC drew up a series of elaborate rescue plans involving air assaults and AC-130 gunships, but the intelligence on the hostages’ location was never solid enough to act on. (This lack of what JSOC referred to as “actionable intelligence” would remain a constant challenge for the command, particularly in Lebanon.) While the JSOC task force cooled its collective heels in Cyprus, the diplomats went to work. Sixteen days after the crisis began, Hezbollah released the hostages. In exchange, but never publicly acknowledged as such by the Reagan administration, Israel released 700 Lebanese Shi’ite prisoners it had been holding.

The TWA 847 hijacking had been another wrenching humiliation for the United States and an exercise in bitter frustration for JSOC. The terrorists had stayed one step ahead of the Americans throughout. They had realized that the keys to preventing a rescue attempt were to never remain in one place too long while on the plane, and to separate the hostages into small groups once off the jet.

At JSOC, there was aggravation that the operators had not gotten to Sigonella quickly enough to launch the first time the plane landed at Algiers, and had not been approved to launch after the jet returned there for a twenty-four-hour period. That frustration was exacerbated by information they received from debriefing hostages after their release. “When we take an airplane down, 80 percent of the holes to get into that airplane are in the first-class section,” said a JSOC staff officer. “What they [the terrorists] had done is they had taken all the passengers and put them back in coach. And all the bad guys were up [in first class] sitting around bullshitting.… So it would have been like shooting ducks if they had just let us go that fucking night.”

Upon his return to the United States, Stiner visited the Pentagon and spoke directly to the Joint Chiefs in the Tank. The JSOC commander did not mince his words. “We ought to be able to understand that the terrorists understand better than we do the timing of the decision-making process here in Washington and the time required for launching and getting to where they have perpetrated their action—and that they are operating within that cycle,” he told the assembled brass. “Consequently we are always chasing our tail—and we always will be unless we do something about this situation. We are the most powerful nation in the world and if we cannot give this mission the appropriate priority—with dedicated lift assets—then we ought to get out of this business and quit wasting the taxpayers’ money.”

It was a tense, critical moment in JSOC’s history. Stiner was gambling that Vessey and at least a couple of other chiefs would support him. He was right. Within several months, the Air Force placed multiple double-crewed C-141 Starlifters at Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, on the same alert status as the special mission units. JSOC finally had its J-alert birds.

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