SUDDENLY, THE CODE WORDS are given and the nocturnal tranquility of the desert is shattered by the staccato sound of automatic arms fire and jarring explosions. In minutes, a small commando group has successfully completed its mission - storming the buildings, killing the terrorists and rescuing the hostages.
This exercise, a routine one, took place several months ago at a secret location in the West. The men who carried it out were members of the Army's elite Delta Force, an antiterrorist commando unit that stands ready to fight it out against real terrorists, at any time or place, to save Americans held hostage.
The secrecy-shrouded 250-man Delta Force is part of a $1 billion-plus military counterterrorist effort mounted by the United States in 1981, in the wake of the disastrous mission to rescue the hostages in Iran. American commando teams are now considered to be just behind the Israelis and on a par with the British and West Germans in capability. They have dazzling high-tech weapons, massive computer banks filled with intelligence data and a global spy network at their disposal.
Yet other than for training exercises like the one in the desert, they may never get the chance to use them. For, despite the effort and money that have been spent on these finely honed forces, they face logistical, bureaucratic and political obstacles that have repeatedly kept them out of action, and may insure that they never actually carry out their primary mission - rescuing hostages. The commandos have been thwarted by breakdowns of aircraft meant to carry them into target areas; by a bureaucratic system that requires them to rely on another military unit for intelligence; by a lack of response from the White House at key times; by interference from other agencies, and, ironically, from high-ranking military officers in the Pentagon whose mistrust of small, elite forces is deep-seated.
"Our capability to launch a long-range, Iran-type mission today is worse than it was in 1980," says Noel C. Koch, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in charge of the Pentagon's special operations and counterterrorist units from 1981 to 1986.
Koch, now a private security consultant, is sitting in his office in a (Continued on Page 78) rundown, two-story Arlington, Va., building overlooking an industrial zone near National Airport. It is filled with mementos from special units and troops all over the world. Koch was known in the Pentagon for his outspoken criticism of the military brass's unwillingness to take the counterterrorist units seriously. Asked about the future of those forces, he says flatly, "I don't think we will ever use them."
For many commandos, the cumulative frustration has taken a personal toll, prompting dozens of officers to leave the counterterrorist units in recent years. Marine Lieut. Col. William V. Cowan is a former senior officer in the Army's supersecret Intelligence Support Activity, which gathers intelligence for commandos. When he joined in 1983, after 17 years in the Marines, Cowan turned down a far more lucrative and prestigious job on the White House Science Advisory Council. But two years later, he resigned, tired, he says, of the "bureaucratic mismanagement of the counterterrorism program."
Soft-spoken and cautious, the 45-year-old Cowan does not fit the stereotype of a secret warrior. After leaving the military, he joined the staff of New Hampshire Senator Warren B. Rudman, the ranking Republican on the Senate committee that investigated the Iran-contra affair, and helped probe the activities of a fellow Marine, Lieut. Col. Oliver L. North. He was repelled by North's unauthorized operations and believes in strong Congressional oversight for covert operations. Still very active in the counterterrorism debate within the armed forces, Cowan has refrained from speaking out publicly.
But now, he says, "We simply don't have political or military leaders who really understand the nuances of counterterrorism."
AMERICAN COUNTERTER-rorist units have not been totally inactive. In 1982, they provided technical assistance to the Italian carabinieri in the rescue of Brig. Gen. James L. Dozier, who had been kidnapped by members of the Italian Red Brigades. Immediately after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983, an American commando team tracked down those who had ordered the attack. However, although the commandos devised several ways of striking back at the terrorists, no order for retaliation came from the White House.
Last year, commandos supported the Federal Bureau of Investigation in an elaborate operation that resulted in the capture and arrest of Fawaz Younis on a yacht off the coast of Cyprus. Younis was wanted for his role in the June 1985 hijackings of a Jordanian and a T.W.A. airliner. His trial in Washington on charges of hijacking, hostage-taking and aircraft sabotage is expected to start early next year.
Currently, the units are being used for protective security or in military operations, where their deployment can be carefully planned. For instance: In the Persian Gulf, elements of a secret helicopter unit carried out many of our nighttime retaliatory attacks against Iranian warships, boats and oil platforms.
*American units trained South Korean commandos in counterterrorism techniques, ranging from surveillance to the use of electronic explosive detectors, for the Olympics. Americans gained expertise in these areas during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
*They provided security for the June economic summit in Toronto, and at various times for international lead-ers, such as the Pope on his trips to Central America and elsewhere.
*They have been used routinely in the Middle East and Central America to guard United States ambassadors. A commando was killed in the April 1983 Beirut embassy bombing.
The commandos have been in ground combat only once, in the 1983 invasion of Grenada. According to classified military briefings - and contrary to the view promoted by the Reagan Administration of a highly successful military operation - pre-invasion intelligence in Grenada was poor. There were breakdowns in communication equipment and the multiple military commands involved created much confusion. These factors contributed to the initial failure of the commandos' assault on Richmond Hill Prison, where political prisoners were being held. And for two days, commandos could not find some of the American medical students on the island - a blunder that, if seized upon by Cuban forces, could have resulted in massive hostage-taking or casualties. Four frogmen drowned during a pre-invasion assault. A special helicopter unit was stationed nearby on Barbados, but it was not used.
Since Grenada, the commandos have been ordered into action during at least five terrorist attacks on American citizens. But in each instance, they either could not get to the scene in time, or American officials on site decided action was too dangerous, or no final decision to use them was ever made.
THE CENTER OF THE American counter-terrorist effort is Fort Bragg, a sprawling Army base in Fayetteville, N.C. Home to many of the nation's special forces and birthplace of the commando units, Fort Bragg is known to its denizens as a "macho post." Its units are the first to be mobilized when a military crisis occurs overseas.
The contrast between Bragg's colorful mission and drab appearance is stark. The base looks as though it is carved out of red Carolina clay. Downtown Fayetteville, though a far cry from its honky-tonk days in the 1960's, when it was called Fayette-Nam, still boasts a number of tattoo parlors and go-go bars.
Nestled in an obscure and classified pocket of the Army base is the Joint Special Operations Command (J.S.O.C., pronounced jay-sock), which serves as nerve center for America's antiterrorist forces. Protected by a 12-foot-high fence, armed guards and video cameras along the perimeter, the command is housed in a huge, windowless, concrete building with a giant communications bubble, resembling a 50-foot golf ball, on the roof. The atmosphere inside is calm and deliberate. The officers and staff, many in their early 30's, look like bodybuilders. Their special mission exempts them from the usual military spit-and-polish, so they dress in jeans, sports shirts and sneakers.
Since December 1986, the J.S.O.C. has been led by Maj. Gen. Gary Luck, a 50-year-old Special Forces veteran who served in Vietnam and holds a Ph.D. in statistics and computer science. Colleagues credit him with integrating the independent-minded commando units and lessening the friction between them and the Defense Department's worldwide regional military commanders. (Some bad blood still exists from the October 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, when counterterrorist forces based in the United States were dispatched to the Middle East without the approval of the European Command, whose jurisdiction extends to the Middle East.) Except for their finely tuned bodies, the commandos are not at all like the trigger-happy stereotype personified in "Rambo." The officers tend to be well-read - one retired deputy commander is now a full-time author, having recently completed a novel on Vietnam - and not given to hubris. "We do not let enthusiasm be confused with capability," says one of them.
The commandos are volunteers, selected for their intelligence (according to a senior officer, the average I.Q. is 124), individualism - not a trait always esteemed by the military - and leadership ability. Most come from the South, from conservative families with military traditions, the type known in some Army quarters as MAGs (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia). The selection process severely tests their ability to handle stress, fatigue, sleeplessness and loneliness. It is designed to push candidates well past the point of normal physical endurance.
The military has five primary counterterrorist units. Three of these - the Army's Intelligence Support Activity, the Air Force's Special Operations Wing and the Army Task Force 160 - are used basically to support the two units whose purpose is to carry out hostage-rescue missions, and which are controlled by the Joint Special Operations Command.
One of these units is SEAL (Sea-Air-Land) Team Six, a 175-frogman Navy unit, headquartered in the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base near Norfolk, Va. Its members' training includes running and swimming at least five miles daily and working out as many as four hours a day on weight machines. SEAL Team Six specializes in underwater demolitions, hand-to-hand combat, scuba diving, wilderness survival and clandestine coastal infiltrations.
The other is Delta, the best known of the officially nonexistent commando units. ("The only Delta we know is the airline," goes the official Army line.) Headquartered at a secret installation near Fort Bragg, Delta members - called "shooters" in military parlance - routinely practice with live ammunition and explosives. "Our exercises," says one official, "are every bit as dangerous as what we experienced in Vietnam." Training accidents in the past five years have left at least three dead and 40 suffering from such injuries as shattered limbs, ruptured eardrums and third-degree burns.
Delta's modern, $10 million facilities are equipped with movable walls and rooms, which can be reconfigured to fit various hostage-rescue scenarios. The shooters frequently spend five hours a day on "target discrimination" exercises. One requires them to burst into a room full of "hostages" - played by other Delta members - and fire live ammunition at silhouetted cardboard figures, their "captors" standing within inches of the live hostages.
Each Delta member fires an average of 20,000 rounds of ammunition a month, 40 times more than ordinary soldiers. "Trust is very important down here," says a commando.
For transportation, the commando units rely on two secret aviation units. Task Force 160, a 75-helicopter, 900-man unit, is used for distances of up to 200 miles. Based at Fort Campbell, in southwestern Kentucky, its slogan is "Death Waits in the Dark." Considered the finest aviators in the military, these pilots practice by skimming just above power lines and tree tops during pitch-black conditions using night-vision goggles, maneuvers considered the most hazardous in the United States military - which may account for the more than 100 accidents the unit has had in the past three years. Roughly half of the 160th's choppers are customized with infrared radar, electronic encoding devices, sidemounted miniguns and rockets and special tail rotors that cut noise level by up to 70 percent.
For long distances, the commandos rely on Air Force C-5 and C-141 transport planes and the Air Force's First Special Operations Wing, located at Hurlburt Field, Fla. Among its aircraft is the MC-130 Combat Talon, a low-flying transport/rescue plane that can evade radar detection and slip into enemy territory at a 200-foot altitude, even in zero visibility, dropping off men or supplies with pinpoint accuracy.
IT IS TRANSPORTATION, HOW-ever, or the lack of it, that has been the biggest problem for the counterterrorist program. During a planned assault in 1985 against the Palestinian terrorists who had hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro, commandos were delayed 18 hours in leaving the United States because a transport plane had broken down and no replacement was immediately available. When the commandos finally arrived in Egypt, the only helicopter on call had a range of less than 275 miles. A month later, three planes broke down while ferrying commandos to Malta to advise Egypt on storming a hijacked Egyptair plane. Not waiting for them, Egyptian troops blasted the doors off the plane with explosives so powerful that 60 passengers were burned to death.
"We have less available [ special operations ] aircraft than in 1980," Air Force Lieut. Gen. Harry A. Goodall acknowledged before a shocked audience at a Senate hearing on special operations in March 1988. The number declined from 56 in 1979 to 41 in 1987. The same 14 MC-130 Combat Talons - vital in low-level infiltration missions -and 10 AC-130 gunships from 20 years ago are still being used today. And the number of critical long-range HH-53 (Pave-Low) helicopters declined to seven - two have crashed since 1980.
The Air Force says it is remedying the deficit and will have dozens of new and upgraded aircraft ready by 1992, but many military experts in Congress remain skeptical that this target date will be reached.
"The key to a successful counterterrorist operation is to arrive at the site of an attack quickly," says retired Gen. Edward C. (Shy) Meyer. "This is axiomatic to everyone but the Air Force." As the Army's Chief of Staff from 1979 to 1983, Meyer helped create the counterterrorist units, and frequently battled with the other armed services to win joint support for the counterterrorist program.
To Meyer, who serves on a Pentagon advisory board on special operations, Air Force resistance to beefing up airlift is indicative of the larger problem besetting counterterrorism forces. Top brass view low-cost alternatives as a threat to big-ticket items, contending that massive firepower is the answer to unconventional warfare.
"The Air Force mistakenly thinks that if you want to improve the ability to fight terrorists, just buy more F-111's and bomb Libya again," says Meyer. He contends that a far more effective and less lethal alternative to the Libyan bombing raids - which dropped five tons of bombs on residential areas killing dozens of civilians - would have been to place commandos on the ground in Libya.
ANOTHER PROB-lem for the counterterrorist forces, one that has provoked a bitter debate behind closed doors in the Pentagon and Congress, revolves around intelligence-gathering for the commando units. Delta Force and SEAL Team Six depend primarily for their intelligence upon the Intelligence Support Activity (I.S.A.).
As an intelligence organization, the I.S.A. is required -unlike Delta - to secure Central Intelligence Agency approval before entering foreign countries. This has engendered a natural rivalry, as well as some ill-will, between the two agencies. But the I.S.A. has other problems; it is looked upon with suspicion by both a Pentagon establishment that has traditionally been uneasy with covert units and by a Congress that, because of illegal actions by other Army covert units in the past, would like to disband it altogether.
"Yellow Fruit" was a classified project that conducted C.I.A. operations - which the Army denies authorizing -in Central America during the early and mid-1980's, and later became entangled in the Iran-contra scandal. Yellow Fruit was disbanded in 1983, and an intensive, two-year Pentagon investigation into all military covert activities followed.
Although the I.S.A. was not directly connected to Yellow Fruit, the Army severely curtailed its activities following allegations that I.S.A. operatives were used illegally in Central America. Those allegations have never been proven, but I.S.A. remains tainted and its leaders have spent much time under the glare of a suspicious Congress.
One former I.S.A. officer has recently been indicted for possesing stolen firearms while in the unit, and is awaiting trial. Not surprisingly, morale has plummeted. "The only thing I want out of this unit is myself," says one officer, preparing to retire.
In a secret session last May, the House of Representatives' Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence voted to do away entirely with funding for the I.S.A. But a month later the Senate, after intense lobbying by Army Secretary John O. Marsh Jr., restored it.
Whatever the fate of I.S.A., the imbroglio over it has created, according to one general, a serious gap in "on-the-ground counterterrorist intelligence capabilities." In the past two years, for instance, counterterrorist forces have drawn up plans to rescue the American hostages in Lebanon, and some commandos have even been deployed in neighboring countries in anticipation of such a raid. But lack of reliable intelligence about the hostages' location and disinformation by the terrorists trying to lure the commandos into a deadly trap have kept the units from taking action.
In a partial effort to compensate for the intelligence gaps, Delta Force members and "surrogates" have been sent on "area familiarization" trips to Central America, Asia and the Middle East. Blueprints and videotapes of embassies and airports are kept in the Joint Special Operations Command's intelligence analysis data base, part of its huge computer network, which is plugged into the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the State Department. The command's data base also receives information from foreign counterterrorist forces and the news media. One-third of the command's 172 staffers work on intelligence analysis.
The distance that separates the United States from Europe and the Middle East, where most terrorist actions occur, presents yet another problem for the commandos.
According to an internal Pentagon study, the best time to launch a successful assault with the least number of casualties among hostages is within 24 hours of their capture. To do that effectively in Europe or the Middle East, American commandos would have to be stationed overseas. And the units would still need permission from the host country to react to each incident. The commandos themselves would probably become targets for terrorists.
Counterterrorist officials say that Western European governments are reluctant to have the units stationed full-time in their countries - the French would not even allow United States planes to fly over their territory in the attack on Libya - and that the Reagan Administration has not pressed the European allies for permission to do so.
Even with faster deployment, the new breed of sophisticated terrorists make successful commando operations more difficult - or worse, irrelevant. Random, lightning-quick assaults, like the July attack on a Greek excursion boat and the 1986 massacre at the Istanbul synagogue, are impossible to stop. Intelligence officials were impressed with the countermeasures taken by the hijackers of Kuwait Airways Flight 422 in April to thwart a rescue. The terrorists kept abreast of possible rescue efforts using a transmitter and radio to stay in touch with collaborators on the outside. They changed clothes frequently to confuse hostages, and they parked the plane in full view of the press and public at the airport in Cyprus, eliminating any cover for rescuers.
IRONICALLY, IT IS CON-gress that has emerged as the primary advocate of the Pentagon's counterterrorist and special operations program, often fighting with a Pentagon leadership whose distrust of independent units can be traced to the Vietnam era, when members of the Special Forces flaunted their autonomy. Following a classified briefing two years ago about mishaps and overlapping commands during the Grenada invasion, Congress ordered the creation of the United States Special Operations Command, which coordinates all the counterterrorist units except I.S.A. Its purpose, says Senator William S. Cohen of Maine, is to "insure that counterterrorism and the special operations forces had an institutional voice in the Pentagon because it didn't have its own commercial lobby." Cohen, a Republican, is vice chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
At first, the Pentagon strongly resisted the idea, then gave in but dragged its heels on implementing the legislative order. Contrary to Congress's wishes, the Defense Department put the command in Tampa, Fla., rather than in Washington, where it could have had more direct contact with the White House and Capitol Hill, and let key positions go unfilled for more than a year while sharply limiting the command's budget authority.
Nevertheless, the embryonic command now has administrative jurisdiction over all commando and special forces units based in the United States and has successfully lobbied for more funds. "We're pleased with the progress, but it's really like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill," says Cohen. A senior officer says the problems are endemic: "If we had to do Grenada again, we'd screw it up - because we would still be arguing the question of which command would be in control."
Even if the technical shortcomings were to be cured overnight, counterterrorism forces would still have to deal with a slow and frequently chaotic decision-making process. "From the White House, decisions somehow get lost in an expandable loop that seems to have a life of its own," says Noel Koch. The loop includes the C.I.A., State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and regional and local military commanders. It can literally take days before decisions reach the units. During the 1985 T.W.A. hijacking, for example, a Delta Force was poised in Italy, ready to go to Algiers, where terrorists were holding the plane. "We didn't get a green, yellow or red," recalls a senior officer. Perhaps the most salient reason why American political leaders are slow to approve operations is the concern over failure. After all, the aborted Iran rescue mission helped defeat President Jimmy Carter. Americans are reluctant to risk the deaths of hostages or bystanders.
Ultimately, the problems and obstacles faced by the counterterrorist forces may largely reflect an institutional gridlock - the inability or unwillingness to resolve the tension between bureaucratic accountability and flexibility, between an egalitarian tradition and the need for elite units, and between oversight and the need for secrecy.
At Fort Bragg, hundreds of miles from the bureaucratic brawl over the units, an official tried to sort out all the problems and contradictions, explaining why he trains so hard while suspecting he might never be used. As he sat up late one night in his house, he suddenly blurted out words that betrayed a cynicism he had concealed all evening: "This is one country whose greatest concern is the safety of hostages and the prevention of collatoral damage. This explains why we've never used our units and why our training is so surgical. It also explains why we sold arms to the Iranians for two years."