JSOC Gets Its Feet Wet

The peaceful resolution of the hostage drama gave Scholtes and JSOC time to draw breath and consider their role in the Reagan-era national security structure. A February 1981 memo from Caspar Weinberger, the new administration’s defense secretary, directing each service to “maintain and continue to develop its own [counterterrorist] capabilities,” not only helped solidify the position of JSOC and its constituent units, but more generally set the tone for the increased role the military’s covert and clandestine actions would play in the 1980s.

In that context, it is important to note that JSOC still didn’t have a monopoly over these actions. At the direction of “Shy” Meyer, the Army chief of staff, the Field Operations Group was renamed the Intelligence Support Activity, or ISA, and on March 3, 1981, became a permanent entity located in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C. But because JSOC was considered a purely tactical counterterrorist organization and ISA was to have wide-ranging national-level clandestine intelligence-gathering missions, the Pentagon did not place “the Activity,” as it became known, under Scholtes’s command. Instead King, who remained in charge, reported straight to the Army’s assistant chief of staff for intelligence.

A day before ISA’s official establishment, and in conjunction with the CIA, the Army stood up a covert aviation unit code-named Seaspray, with a mission to move men and matériel in civilian, or at least, civilian-looking, rotary and fixed wing aircraft. Such missions and units are referred to as “covered air.” Seaspray was the covered counterpart to Task Force 158, which had survived the hostage crisis denouement to earn a new name—Task Force 160—and a permanent home at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. But although TF 160 was also a secret unit, its function was purely military, while Seaspray could be used to clandestinely infiltrate CIA or military intelligence operatives. The covered air unit soon amassed a small fleet of nine Cessna and Beechcraft King Air planes, as well as several Hughes MD500 helicopters (the civilian version of the Little Birds), which could be rigged with weapons and/or pods for operators if need be. The unit also acquired an innocuous cover name—1st Rotary Wing Test Activity—and a home at Fort Eustis, Virginia, conveniently close to Camp Peary, the CIA’s training center better known as “the Farm.” Like ISA, initially Seaspray did not report to JSOC.

As new covert units proliferated, the two special mission units dedicated to direct action—Delta and SEAL Team 6—continued to evolve. For Delta, that meant learning to cope without Beckwith, who left the unit in October 1980. Meyer, the Army chief of staff, called Scholtes and suggested that he make Beckwith his director of operations. Although not a career special operations officer, Scholtes had great respect for the out-of-left-field mind-set with which Beckwith was trying to imbue Delta, but he still regarded the colonel as something of a loose cannon. He told Meyer that he would keep Beckwith on his staff as a special assistant, but had no intention of making him his operations officer. Beckwith retired shortly thereafter.

Scholtes also quickly became disenchanted with the hard-drinking, free-spending ways of “Demo Dick” Marcinko, Beckwith’s Team 6 counterpart.4 Marcinko had built his unit into a tightly bonded 175-man organization that pioneered new tactics to take down a variety of maritime targets, from oil rigs to cruise ships. Initially based at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Virginia Beach, Virginia, before moving to nearby Fleet Training Center, Dam Neck, where it would remain, Team 6 trained hard—and expensively. The unit’s annual small arms ammunition allotment was larger than that of the entire Marine Corps. But the resources lavished on the team and the sheer pleasure Marcinko took in flouting authority combined to antagonize just about every other officer in the Naval Special Warfare community and many beyond.

So long as the largesse seemed focused on mission-essential training and equipment, Marcinko was on reasonably solid ground with Scholtes. But it wasn’t long before the straight-arrow infantry general began to think things had gotten seriously off-kilter at Dam Neck. Events came to a head when Marcinko invited Scholtes to an evening function at the team headquarters at which several men were to be promoted. When Scholtes arrived, Marcinko told him Maine lobsters were on the menu. Scholtes inquired as to how the team came by the lobsters. “I flew them down,” Marcinko replied.

“The evening progressed and they got so shitfaced they couldn’t stand up,” said a senior JSOC official. Scholtes waited until the SEALs had had a chance to sober up the next day and then told Marcinko he was writing a letter of reprimand and sending it to the chief of naval operations, “because last night was an absolute disgrace.” The CNO invited the JSOC commander to his office in Washington to talk. The admiral told Scholtes that Marcinko was the “best man” to lead Team 6. “He was outstanding to get this unit started, because he had to fight your system, he had to fight the Navy system,” Scholtes replied. However, the general added, Marcinko was not the best choice to lead Team 6 into the future.

By early 1981, JSOC’s staff had grown to about eighty personnel. The command had already moved out of Delta’s compound and into three World War II–era barracks that had a twelve-foot fence and round-the-clock civilian guard force, but just one secure phone line to Washington between them. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger agreed with Scholtes that JSOC needed new facilities and arranged a meeting between the general and some Pentagon bureaucrats he’d ordered to make it happen. In the meeting, Scholtes listed everything that he needed in his new headquarters. A Pentagon officially dutifully wrote it all down. But Scholtes overlooked one item: windows. As a result, his new headquarters was built on Pope Air Force Base (adjacent to Bragg) in record time, but with no windows.

Within six months of Reagan’s inauguration, Scholtes’s Pentagon bosses gave JSOC a new mission that would come to dominate much of the command’s training for the next two decades: countering the spread of weapons of mass destruction. They told the general to talk with Energy Department experts to determine the threat that terrorists might pose by gaining access to nuclear material, and to figure out ways to counter that threat.

JSOC’s interest in weapons of mass destruction would grow, but during the early 1980s its focus was on the threat of nuclear-armed terrorists, rather than attacking enemy countries’ facilities. “We never got into those [nation-state] types of scenarios,” said a senior JSOC official. “Ours were small nuclear weapons held by terrorists in a hostage situation against one of our cities or against a U.S. facility.” The command worked closely with the Energy Department and its national laboratories, running exercises everywhere from downtown Los Angeles to the Nevada desert to ensure they could all work together if terrorists ever gained access to a nuclear device. The exercises were invaluable for uncovering small flaws that could derail an operation. The L.A. exercise, for instance, which featured Delta operators working with a team from the national labs trying to secure and disarm a “nuclear” device held by “terrorists” played by FBI agents, revealed that “scientists with big beards have a hell of a time wearing a protective mask,” the senior JSOC official said. This was a problem because Delta was using “a lot of tear gas in there.” (The exercise was part of JSOC’s three-year mission to help with security preparations for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. During the games themselves, JSOC positioned its joint operations center at Los Alamitos Army Airfield in Orange County, with a Team 6 element down the coast at Coronado. Team 6 also placed undercover operators with satellite communications on a cruise ship that was going to be at harbor in L.A. during the day but sail offshore to become a casino at night. JSOC wanted the SEALs, who had signed on as crew, on the ship so that they could communicate back to the JSOC in case terrorists took it over.)

At the Department of Energy’s request, the Pentagon also tapped Delta and Team 6 to provide “red teams” to test the security of nuclear power plants in the United States. The operators had to base their plans on whatever “open source” information they could find in libraries. They found numerous weaknesses in the plants’ security programs. “We had no trouble getting in them,” said a JSOC staff officer. “But the more we did, the more they wanted.” Often the units would break into a power plant’s safe, only to find a consultant’s report gathering dust inside that identified the same weaknesses the operators had just exposed. “They were wasting our time,” the staffer said.

Modestly sized joint exercises soon became a regular occurrence for the headquarters and its subordinate units. “We tried to do an exercise every quarter and it was either a hostage rescue or a hit on a terrorist facility,” a senior JSOC official said. Away from the larger exercises, the units were training constantly. Scholtes put JSOC on a readiness cycle, so each unit kept a small element ready to deploy on four hours’ notice. The troops had to know the basics of the mission before they took off so that they could pack whatever mission-specific gear they might need, but any other details were to be briefed in flight. For larger operations, JSOC aimed to get more forces in the air within eight hours of being alerted, but rarely made that target due to the complexity of organizing the various air elements required for such missions.

For all the training, what the operators really yearned for was a chance to test their skills in combat. An opportunity seemed to present itself at the very start of JSOC’s existence when, in late 1980, intelligence suggested Americans captured during the Vietnam War were being held in a prison camp in the jungle near the central Laotian town of Nhommarath. The “intelligence” took the form of RD-77 satellite and SR-71 Blackbird spy plane photos of a wooden stockade with what some analysts interpreted as the number “52” marked out on the ground, as if prisoners there were trying to signal U.S. overhead reconnaissance. Not everyone was convinced. “I didn’t see it,” said a JSOC staffer who viewed the photographs. Nonetheless, at the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, JSOC began tightly compartmented preparations for a rescue operation code-named Pocket Change and set for May 1981.

But the effort was complicated by the bizarre intrusion of retired Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel James “Bo” Gritz (pronounced “grites”). In March 1981 Gritz informed the White House he was planning his own rescue mission. The government told him to stand down, but he continued his efforts, this time (unbeknownst to JSOC) in collusion with the Intelligence Support Activity. Gritz’s appearance on the scene, which had the potential to jeopardize the operation, pushed JSOC’s timeline to the right, but the command continued planning. Scholtes considered on-the-ground confirmation of the presence of American prisoners essential before launching the mission. He wanted to assign the task of gathering that intelligence to a few Delta operators, but, to his displeasure, the CIA insisted on employing Laotian mercenaries for the purpose instead. The mercenaries returned to say they’d found no evidence of American prisoners, prompting a fierce debate over the reliability of their reporting.

JSOC rehearsed extensively in Hawaii for the mission, which would involve a task force launching from the tiny Pacific island of Tinian in the Northern Marianas and using an abandoned and overgrown U.S. military airfield in Thailand as a forward staging base. With the airfield under control, C-5 transport planes would have landed, bearing JSOC’s own version of a Trojan horse: white, civilian-style eighteen-wheel trucks, each hiding two TF 160 AH-6 Little Birds with folded rotor blades. As Delta operators made their way overland to the prison camp TF 160 personnel would have driven the trucks close to the Laotian border, before stopping and launching the helicopters.

TF 160 kept this rarely used technique—known in JSOC as “Smokey and the Bandit” after the 1977 trucker comedy starring Burt Reynolds—up its sleeve for decades, because it offered a clandestine way to move a lethal capability close to a target. “Our guys were trained and even had the truck licenses,” said a TF 160 veteran. The unit had its own trucks, but locally obtained vehicles would suffice “with maybe a couple of days’ work and some welding,” he said. When the time came to launch the aircraft, the crew would roll them off the back of the truck and have them flying within three minutes. “You have to be really well trained,” the TF 160 veteran said. “It’s absolutely an incredible capability.”

The Little Birds’ role was to provide fire support to the Delta assaulters, and, in particular, to destroy the prison camp’s three wooden guard towers. The delays caused by Gritz’s interference meant it was now 1982. Army General John Vessey had replaced Jones as Joint Chiefs chairman. When briefed on the plan, Vessey refused to believe that the Little Birds could take out the guard towers. JSOC had replicas built at Fort A. P. Hill in Virginia and held a nighttime demonstration there for the chairman that ended with the AH-6s turning the towers into splinters, much to his amazement.

Not for the last time, the preparations were for naught. The discovery that Gritz was still involved in planning a rescue effort—with help from ISA, no less—was bad enough, but then the story showed up in the press. “We were flying missions over [the camp] taking pictures of it every chance we got and after the newspaper article came out about Bo Gritz putting his team together, a week later, the next picture we got, there was nobody in the camp,” said a JSOC staffer. “They deserted the camp.… That’s what stopped the mission.” However, a Delta officer involved in the planning said the mission was canceled because of a CIA report, which the Agency said was based on the word of a Marine detailed to the Agency who’d gone into Laos and gotten “eyes on” the camp, that no Americans were there. “I don’t think there were ever Americans in there,” the Delta officer said. A Pentagon special operations official said the mission was scrubbed because the Thai government withdrew its approval. Whatever the reason, the mission faded away, leaving in its wake rancor and bitterness, but also a certain amount of relief. Army Colonel Don Gordon, the JSOC intelligence director, had strongly advised against an operation. “This is not worth it,” he told Scholtes. “We lose half the force if we screw this thing up, [and] if you lose half your force in the middle of Laos you’ve got a problem.” Nevertheless, JSOC was prepared to launch the raid, said a senior official at the command. “But thank God we didn’t,” he added.

As preparations for the Laos mission continued through summer 1981, JSOC ran its first real-world mission at the end of July in the tiny West African nation of the Gambia. There, Marxist rebels had taken advantage of President Dawda Jawara’s attendance at the royal wedding in Britain to launch a coup and seize more than a hundred hostages, including American, French, Canadian, British, Swiss, and German citizens. The Gambia had no military to speak of, so efforts to reverse the coup fell to neighboring Senegal and the Gambia’s Western allies. JSOC flew a five-man team into Dakar, the Senegalese capital. Working from the U.S. embassy, the team coordinated with three SAS personnel Britain had sent into the Gambia. Once Senegalese paratroops had secured the airport in the capital city of Banjul, and the SAS had effected the release of the hostages, Delta’s Major William G. “Jerry” Boykin and Sergeant First Class Tommy Corbett plus a radio operator flew in to organize their evacuation to Dakar on an Air Force C-141. The coup was over within a few days. JSOC hadn’t seen combat, but had at least gotten its feet wet without embarrassing itself.