In the annals of secret warfare there are few disasters to match the bloody humiliation at Desert One, the remote landing strip where the attempt to rescue American hostages from the United States Embassy in Teheran in 1980 collapsed of its own ungainly weight. The enemy was nowhere in sight, but eight men died anyway when a helicopter collided with a troop transport plane. The survivors made their dismal way home, leaving the hostages to molder in captivity for another nine months.
Never again! swore the new President inaugurated in 1981, Ronald Reagan. The result was an all-out Pentagon effort to build a formidable covert capability to fight terrorism, rescue hostages and carry the war to clandestine enemies wherever they challenged American interests. The story of that effort is told by Steven Emerson, a senior editor of U.S. News & World Report, in "Secret Warriors."
Alas, the title is a sad irony. Far from secret, hardly warriors, the new team made a mess of things from the beginning. A single heartening success - the rescue, with United States help, of Brig. Gen. James Dozier from a Red Brigade hideout in Italy in 1982 - was followed by a string of failures. The 1983 bombing of the United States Embassy and the Marine barracks in Lebanon never should have happened and went unpunished afterwards. The hijackers of a T.W.A. airliner in 1985 were two jumps ahead of American rescuers from the start, and other covert operations - to bug the offices of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega in Panama, to rescue the C.I.A.'s chief of station, William Buckley, kidnapped in Beirut - were failures, comic in the first instance, tragic in the second. Buckley died after a year of torture in captivity.
Mr. Emerson's carefully documented effort to sort out the secret history of this effort is no academic exercise. The operational failures and occasional small successes were matched by a growing covert mentality in really efficient secret team could not only confound the enemy, but evade the scrutiny of Congress and the press. Careful students of the Iran-contra affair will find many suggestive new details in "Secret Warriors" about its origins in the C.I.A.'s use of Pentagon assets in carrying out President Reagan's policies in Central America. But Mr. Emerson's real subject is how the Pentagon, trying to learn from the disaster at Desert One, got so little in return for its trouble and its money.
What went wrong? The Pentagon did its best, spared no expense, assigned some of its most promising young officers to the task, and even abandoned its most time-honored standard operating procedures to cut a path through the red tape. In the case of one small elite group code-named Yellow Fruit, the Army jettisoned all the red tape, spinning the unit off into an orbit of its own. As described by Mr. Emerson, the group's leaders abandoned the perils of operations for the pleasures of unvouchered funds. A string of courts-martial eventually ended the boondoggle. Other failures were more prosaic, the doing of bureaucratic jealousy, confusion of purposes, official timidity when action was called for and action when caution would have been better.
"Secret Warriors" is a reporter's book, full of stories and colorful characters but short on analysis. Mr. Emerson has no quarrel with official insistence that the country "desperately needs a special operations capacity" but nowhere suggests what the country needs this capacity for. President Reagan seems to have wanted it so the country could stand tall and give as good as it got when terrorists challenged our interventions in the far corners of the world. Fair enough. No one likes to look the fool. The real question is whether the fights we picked were important and necessary.
MR. EMERSON touches on this question when he says that the American military has grown cumbersome and unwieldy -more like the redcoats who marched with heavy packs into Lexington and Concord in 1775, than the minutemen who picked them off with long-barrelled squirrel guns from behind trees and stone walls. The comparison is apt, but not because the British were equipped for the wrong war. The British failure had a deeper cause: they were far from home, trying to assert imperial rights that meant nothing to them against aroused local citizens who made up in passion whatever they lacked in military expertise.
Throughout "Secret Warriors" it is always the Americans who are far from home. With few exceptions they are able and dedicated professional soldiers, trying their best to carry out the orders of superiors in Washington. But no amount of expertise or high-tech gear, fabulous as some of it is, can quite compensate for the fact that they are alien. Among the grace notes of Mr. Emerson's fine book are many small, well-told stories, like the one about two members of the Army's supersecret Intelligence Support Activity on a mission in Lebanon in December 1983, trying to pin down just who had been responsible for the bombings of the embassy and the Marine barracks. When the two men were stopped at a road checkpoint manned by Syrian Army regulars, loudly demanding - in Arabic, of course - to see their papers, they knew they were in the deepest sort of trouble. Their papers identified them as American military men and neither spoke Arabic. But one of them had learned Vietnamese, and he managed to squeak them through by shouting back in this unknown tongue. There you have it - two American "secret warriors," trying to spy out somebody else's country with the wrong language, picked up in the last war, already lost. This is not the sort of problem that can be solved by more R & D back at the Pentagon.