Killer Elite: The Inside Story of America's Most Secret Special Operations Team

Killer Elite: The Inside Story of America's Most Secret Special Operations Team

by Michael Smith

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Killer Elite: The Inside Story of America's Most Secret Special Operations Team by Michael Smith

America’s most secret Special Forces unit does not even have a name. Formed as the “Intelligence Support Activity,” the group has had a succession of innocuous titles to hide its ferocious purpose: to operate undercover in the world’s most dangerous places and penetrate such enemy organizations as Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Here is the first detailed account of its history, and it traces the I.S.A. from its very beginnings to the present day, when it has accomplished such missions as locating Saddam Hussein. By translating intelligence information into direct action, it is well on its way to becoming the most effective and feared force in the U.S. military.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312378264
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 03/04/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.08(w) x 9.16(h) x 0.94(d)

About the Author

Michael Smith writes on defense for the Sunday Times of London and was named the 2006 UK Press Awards Specialist Writer of the Year. He has worked for a number of newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph, where he was defense correspondent. A former member of the British Army's Intelligence Corps, Smith covered the wars in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq and has broken a number of important stories, most notably the infamous Downing Street Memos. He is the award-winning author of numerous bestselling books, including The Emperor's Codes, a true story of code-breaking during World War II.

Read an Excerpt

Killer Elite

The Inside Story of America's Most Secret Special Operations Team

Chapter One


Sitting in the forward operations centre in a filthy Egyptian Air Force hangar at the Wadi Qina air base, 300 miles south of Cairo, Colonel Jerry King was powerless to prevent the debacle at Desert One. As chief of staff to Major General James "Hammer" Vaught, the man in charge of the Delta Force attempt to rescue 53 American hostages held captive in Tehran, King could only listen with mounting anger to the frantic satellite radio messages coming out of Iran in the early hours of 25 April 1980. Not that anyone out there at the Desert One staging post, 250 miles southeast of the Iranian capital in the Dasht-e-Kavir desert, could do any better. Even Chargin' Charlie Beckwith, the former Green Beret colonel who set up Delta and was leading Operation Eagle Claw on the ground, couldn't prevent what was by any measure "a total goat-fuck" that left eight US servicemen dead.

The operation had been called off after three of the eight US Navy helicopters taking part in the mission developed technical problems that left the joint task force with too few to get both the hostages and the rescue team out. One was abandoned in the desert after an indicator light warned a rotor blade might snap, a second had to pull out of the mission when its gyroscope malfunctioned and the third was declared unserviceable after landing at Desert One. After some argument among the task force commanders over whether or not to go ahead, the mission was called off. It was then that a helicopter and one of the C130s collided, killing the eight US servicemen.

There was a whole bunch of reasons why they died and why the task force failed in its mission-the interservice rivalry that meant every one of the four armed services wanted some involvement in the mission regardless of the fact that they had never worked together before, and all used different operating procedures; the decision to fly the helicopters off an aircraft carrier rather than in from a neighboring country; the navy's poor maintenance of its helicopters; and the strange decision not to have air force pilots with experience of special ops fly all the aircraft, a move that would have at least ensured the mission got beyond Desert One.

But even if it had, there was another major problem that could have led to the mission failing at its most dangerous point, inside Tehran itself, and afterward Jerry King, a straight-talking veteran of Army Special Forces operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, was not slow to make his views known. The CIA had fucked up big time. It had claimed, falsely as it later turned out, to have no one in Tehran who could help Delta prepare for what was always going to be a tricky task. King's disparaging view of the Agency's contribution was shared by virtually everyone else involved in Eagle Claw, not least the task force commander General Vaught. "Intelligence from all sources was inadequate from the start and never became responsive," he said. "The CIA did not, would not or could not provide sufficient agents to go in country and get the information we needed."

whatever the reasons for the failure of Eagle Claw, it certainly wasn't a lack of detailed planning. Preparations for the raid had begun six months earlier on 4 November 1979, the very day a mob of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and militant students, supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini, forced their way into the US embassy in Tehran and seized the hostages. Jerry King, who was then chief of unconventional warfare for special operations in the Joint Chiefs of Staff operations directorate, was called in by Air Force General David C Jones, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, together with the chief of current operations, Brigadier General Johnson. "We were told about the embassy seizure and I was ordered to develop some military options by the following morning," King recalled. "I was forbidden to inform or involve anyone else, including my immediate superior."

Jones eventually backed down slightly to allow King to bring in two of his special operations colleagues so there were at least navy and air force representatives involved in his special planning cell, which was set up in the Pentagon's Eighth Corridor close to the River entrance. Those three men were to become the nucleus of the task force commanded by Jim Vaught, who was described by John T Carney, one of the US Air Force special operations officers brought in to set up the Desert One forward operating base, as "a tall, lean, scraggly, quiet, gravely voiced but soft-spoken infantryman." The unit Vaught and King picked to execute the actual rescue mission was the newly formed Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, the counterterrorist force that Beckwith had just recently set up, modeling it on the British Special Air Service (SAS), to provide the US with a counterterrorist team. Delta was based at the Pope air force base-in what became known as "the Stockade"-right next door to the Army Special Forces headquarters at Fort Bragg, Fayetteville, North Carolina. Beckwith and King were both veterans of special ops in Vietnam and had learned a lot about their trade serving alongside members of the SAS. "I had an SAS sergeant assigned to me at Fort Bragg in the early sixties," King recalled. It was part of the exchange mission that provided the inspiration for Delta. The sergeant and an SAS officer were sent to Fort Bragg while Charlie Beckwith and a Green Beret sergeant went to the SAS base at Bradbury Lines, Hereford, in England. For Jerry King, time spent with the highly experienced SAS sergeant was deeply rewarding. "I was wet behind the ears," King said. "He taught me how to walk."

Born in Canton, North Carolina, in 1937, Jerry King was an army brat, brought up at military bases in Germany, Korea and the Philippines. His stepfather was a career noncommissioned officer in the US Army. King enlisted into the army's airborne infantry and after swift promotion through the ranks was picked out as a potential officer. The rookie lieutenant's first posting was as a platoon commander in Germany. "Facing the Fulda Gap and the possibility of a Soviet thrust, I began to realize that my survival was dramatically enhanced when I had more control over my unit's actions," he said. "The arrogance of the young but a belief reinforced over time."

As a direct result of that conviction, Jerry King developed a hard-nosed attitude that would win him a great deal of respect, and quite a few enemies, in his chosen field of special operations. At 6 foot 2 inches and weighing in at just under 196 pounds, King was a born winner. There might be others who were fitter, but very few could outlast him. Whether it was swimming underwater in preparation for covert approaches on targets or running marathons, he had the kind of mentality that meant he wouldn't give in. He joined the 77th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Bragg and was sent to Laos at the head of one of the White Star mobile training teams, which were training local forces to counter North Vietnam's use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Viet Cong supply route that ran through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. King subsequently led a Special Forces detachment in Vietnam and helped to set up the training program for the Studies and Observations Group (SOG), the euphemistically named special operations command which, between January 1965 and March 1973, mounted several thousand highly successful cross-border reconnaissance missions into Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam. At 28, King was deemed "too old" for the gruelling missions but on a couple of occasions he managed to bypass the naysayers and went across the border anyway.

He had known Charlie Beckwith when they were both young lieutenants and was not the Delta commander's greatest fan, but that didn't affect his judgement that Delta was "the obvious choice for the entry force." The first suggestion was that the raid to rescue the hostages should be mounted from eastern Turkey, which seemed a sensible option, allowing total flexibility in the type of aircraft used on the rescue mission and a safe base just across the border from Iran. But inexplicably General Jones ruled out the use of Turkey and two other friendly Middle East countries. "What I considered a purely political and unreasonable decision by the Chairman forced us to look for an alternative launch platform," King recalled. "Carriers were the only feasible option available."

Eventually it was decided that the MC130 Combat Talon aircraft carrying the Delta personnel and a small security force of US Rangers would take off from Wadi Qina, making a brief stopover at the British air base on the island of Masirah, off Oman, while the helicopters that were to carry the Delta teams into a hide site close to Tehran and exfiltrate them, along with the hostages, would launch from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in the Gulf of Oman. That last decision created a whole raft of problems that would ultimately lead to the failure of the mission.

"The choice of a carrier as a launch platform virtually dictated the type of aircraft," King said. They would be US Navy RH53 Sea Stallions, normally used for mine-clearing operations but big enough to carry the hostages and the Delta rescue team out of Iran to safety. It didn't take long for King to realise that the navy pilots who flew the aircraft were simply not good enough. "I recommended we bring in air force pilots who flew the same helicopter with considerable long flight experience, including one who had participated in the Son Tay raid." But the senior officer he had to ask for authorization to replace the navy pilots was a US Marine general and the interservice rivalry that would bedevil the Eagle Claw mission took over. "Before I finished laying out a proposed solution," King said, "he picked up the phone and called Marine headquarters, claiming they had the right guys for the job at hand."

The plan was for all the aircraft to rendezvous at Desert One where the helicopters would be refuelled by EC130 tanker aircraft. The helicopters would then take the Delta extraction teams to a second staging post 50 miles southeast of Tehran where they would hide up for the day and wait for a team that had been infiltrated into Iran. It was to drive six prepositioned trucks containing the Delta commandos to Tehran to snatch the hostages from the embassy compound and the Foreign Ministry, where three of the US diplomats were being held separately. Air cover would be provided by two AC130 Spectre gunships. The helicopters would meanwhile fly to Tehran and orbit above the city waiting for the signal to land and lift off the Delta rescue teams together with the hostages. They would then fly to an airstrip at Manzariyeh, thirty-five minutes due south of the Iranian capital where giant C141 Starlifter transport aircraft would be waiting to fly the hostages out of the country.

Put like that it all sounded pretty easy, but Jerry King and his fellow planners had one major difficulty, the lack of any reliable intelligence. Charlie Beckwith complained that Wade Ishimoto, the Delta intelligence officer, was inundated with intelligence, most of which appeared to be of only limited reliability and had nothing to do with the hostages and their situation. "Nearly every agency that sent us material used a different system," said Beckwith. "A report would come in stating that the source was 'untested.' The intelligence guys needed more than that. Was the source reliable on any basis? Another report might read: 'An untested source received through an unofficial contact ...' What does unofficial contact mean? Was the contact reliable or unreliable in the past? Some people in intelligence became highly indignant when we complained about the reports. An official came down to point out that well over 200 reports had been furnished to Delta. Wade Ishimoto explained, very nicely but firmly, that most of the information we received and laboriously read had nothing to do with the hostages. A report he pulled out listed fourteen items that had come from travelers who'd just returned from Iran. The fourteen items covered everything from the Turkish border area down to Baluchistan via Sistan in the south. Not one of these was even remotely related to the hostages."

There was plenty of imagery collected by the US Keyhole spy satellites and SR71 Blackbird spy planes. But what they needed could only be provided by human spies and Stansfield Turner, the CIA director, had deliberately run down the Agency's men on the ground, the guys who provided human intelligence, what the spooks call Humint, in favor of technical means, the spy satellites that could photograph every detail of the embassy compound and intercept what the Iranian guards were saying to each other on their radio systems. Turner's view was clear: "Not only do agents have biases and human fallibilities, there is always a risk that an agent is, after all, working for someone else. Rather than instinctively reaching for human, on-site spying, the United States will want to look to those impersonal technical systems, primarily satellite photography and intercepts." If that claim had been made by the head of the National Security Agency, the US signals intercept operation, or the National Reconnaissance Office, which runs the spy satellites, it would have been understandable. Coming from the director of the CIA, it was close to catastrophic.

For Jerry King and the other special operations officers trying to plan the Eagle Claw mission, Turner's attitude seemed to go to the heart of their problems. "We had zillions of shots of the embassy and they were magnified a hundred times," one said. "We could tell you about the tiles; we could tell you about the grass, and how many cars were parked there. Anything you wanted to know about the external aspects of that embassy we could tell you in infinite detail. We couldn't tell you shit about what was going on inside the building. That's where humans come in." The intelligence they needed had to come from human sources, said Carney, who flew in ahead of the mission to reconnoitre the Desert One staging post and lay out the landing lights. "But Turner had decimated the agency's Humint ranks, and there was almost no human intelligence coming out of Iran."

The CIA was forced to rely more and more on technical means of collection and, as far as Jerry King was concerned, its few remaining operations officers were not good enough to make up the gap. "As I later testified to Congress, the Agency had a bad habit of recruiting what I called the 'garden party' set, occasionally valuable but the first to lose access in a coup or revolution," he said. "They lacked assets and general ability to work the alleyways and souks of the world." The CIA's representatives in Tehran were among the hostages held in the embassy compound and the Agency claimed not to have "a single contactable asset" inside the country.

There was some limited human intelligence from a US Air Force source-an expatriate living in Tehran-and from an Iranian employee of an American company, who had left Iran a few months after the Islamic Revolution and volunteered to return to gather what information he could from former friends, now part of the Revolutionary Guards. But while useful, their intelligence was not enough. The rescue team desperately needed people on the ground inside Iran to produce the detailed intelligence they would require if they were to know where to find the hostages. They also needed someone to provide the trucks and equipment that were essential if they were going to get into Tehran undetected by the Iranian authorities. Jerry King decided that they had no choice but to put their own people in. "The task force spent a long time screening the military for Farsi speakers," he recalled. "To further complicate the issue, Charlie Beckwith insisted that he have his own men. This in itself was understandable but no one in Delta acceptable to Charlie was trained in undercover operations."

The man they decided to send in was Dick Meadows, one of Delta's point men with King's planning team. Meadows was another old Vietnam Special Forces hand and a key player in the Son Tay raid, the legendary 1970 attempt to rescue US POWs from a prison camp near the North Vietnamese capital Hanoi. (When Meadows and the rest of the Son Tay team arrived they found that the POWs had been moved shortly before the mission. The intelligence was faulty but the mission had otherwise been executed perfectly and those involved became legends in the US special operations community.) Dick Meadows was the Special Forces sergeant sent with Beckwith on attachment to the SAS base at Hereford, and as a result had married the daughter of an SAS sergeant major. He had been acting as a consultant, advising Beckwith on how Delta should be run. Meadows wasn't the ideal undercover operator. The Agency was concerned that he looked too much like a terrorist, asking King to try to get Meadows to wear a collar and tie rather than the turtleneck sweaters he favored. They also complained that he didn't seem to be taking too much notice of their attempts to make him blend into the background. "The Agency came back several times and said he's not catching on fast enough," one member of the Delta team said.


Excerpted from Killer Elite by Michael Smith Copyright © 2007 by Michael Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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