I recently wrote this paper to pitch an idea for a “new” Special Operations capability, a capability that I think America desperately needs and is currently lacking. At the moment, Special Forces is re-investing in Unconventional Warfare and I wish them the best in this endeavor, however, I know of no effort to establish a network for tactical intelligence such as the one I describe here. Please let me know what your thoughts are. -Jack
On November 4, 1979 a group of Iranian students burst into the American embassy in Tehran, seizing the embassy and taking a large number embassy personnel hostage, the exact number being uncertain when Charlie Beckwith, the commander of America’s premier counter-terrorism unit was woken up at 7 AM that morning. Delta Force had just completed a training exercise for their final certification as a unit that included an aircraft take down and a static objective. Both scenarios included simulated hostages. The unit was less than a year old, and observers from British SAS, German GSG-9, and France’s GIGN were in attendance with US military officers and State Department representatives.
Although there were a number of lessons learned from the training exercise, both A and B squadrons had performed well and completed their objectives. Now, just as the training concluded, Delta Force was given a real life counter-terrorist mission. Like all military operations, this one was fraught with challenges.
Delta had been given a mission: Assault the American embassy in Teheran; take out the guards; free the hostages and get everyone safely out of Iran. That part was simple. All we needed to do now was come up with a plan. But without sufficient intelligence, nothing they said made any sense. We needed three things: information, information, information (Beckwith, 196).
Colonel Beckwith needed an extremely valuable but hard to find commodity in order to plan this hostage rescue mission: solid, reliable intelligence information. Delta Force had the assaulters who were prepared to conduct the Direct Action component of what came to be known as Operation Rice Bowl, but without the intelligence needed to plan surgically executed hostage recovery operations, there was only so much he could do. Turning to the CIA liaison officer that Beckwith had been assigned for the planning of Operation Rice Bowl he said, “What we gotta do is get in touch with the stay-behind assets in country and task them with our intelligence requirements.” The CIA officer then took Colonel Beckwith aside and whispered, “We don’t have any” (Beckwith, 196).
Worse still, it turned out that the CIA was lying to the Army as it planned Operation Rice Bowl. Delta operators were conducting full-scale rehearsals on a mockup of the US embassy in Tehran and the CIA was actually withholding intelligence from them. Just as the mission got the green light and Delta began staging for its execution, the CIA suddenly came forward with detailed, intimate information about the embassy compound. They evidently had access to a source in the embassy all along and had withheld information for fear that leaks could jeopardize their asset in Iran.
Colonel John Carney wrote that, “Eighteen years after the rescue attempt some of us learned that the CIA had received a covert communication that detailed some of the most important information we needed” (Smith, 11). The overall Task Force Commander for Rice Bowl, General Vaught said that, “Intelligence from all sources was inadequate from the start and never became responsive. The CIA did not, would not, or could not provide sufficient agents to go in country and get the information we needed” (Smith, 2). Suffice to say that Colonel Beckwith, General Vaught, and Beckwith’s S2 (Intelligence) Officer, Captain Ishimoto were frustrated with the lack of intelligence on the target they were to assault and as planning went on into the long hours of the night, it was evident that the CIA and the Army did not play well together.
Another frustrated member of the Task Force was Colonel Jerry King. At that time King was the chief of unconventional warfare for special operations in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As a Special Forces veteran who had deployed to Laos as a part of White Star, ran operations with Special Forces along the Ho Chi Minh trail, done an exchange program with the SAS, and worked with Studies and Observations Group, King was a good choice for the job. Like Colonel Beckwith, he was ordered to begin planning to liberate the American hostages in Iran on the day the crisis began.
King, Beckwith, and other Task Force members scrambled to put together an ad hoc military intelligence gathering unit which could fulfill Delta’s needs. Among those recruited was MACV-SOG veteran Dick Meadows. Meadows had run cross border operations with SOG, participated in the Son Tay raid, and like Beckwith and King (not to mention Beckwith’s Executive Officer, “Bucky” Burress) had experience with the British SAS through an early exchange program conducted with US Special Forces. The CIA had their doubts about Meadows, but as a seasoned Special Forces soldier, he successfully infiltrated Iran. Of course he had a little help.
Meadows was accompanied by a young US Air Force member who was born in Iran and spoke Farsi. “We found the most unexpected hero you could imagine,” Beckwith wrote, continuing to state that he was, “in my judgment the bravest” (Beckwith, 239). Only recently has this Special Operations legend had his name published. Fred Arooji was given his choice of assignment after the hairy intel mission to Iran. He retired as a Warrant Officer after flying as a Special Operations aviator for over twenty years (Bottoms).
However, the best intelligence information was gathered by two Special Forces soldiers. As Green Berets assigned to the Berlin Brigade they were technically in Germany illegally as the Four Powers Agreement prevented both Americans and Soviets from having para-troopers in Germany. Both Sergeants spoke fluent German and assumed the cover of West German businessmen. King remarked that, “they provided the best tactical intelligence regarding the exterior of the embassy and guard locations, schedules, communication and weaponry” (Smith, 10).
Meadows, Arooji, and the two Special Forces Sergeants were then tasked to infiltrate Iran and gather the detailed information needed by Delta Force to conduct the rescue operation such as, “establish the support mechanisms for the incoming rescue force. These included renting the buildings and facilities to be used as safe sites, arranging for the trucks and vehicles necessary for the movement around the city, reconnoitering the landing and extraction sites, preparing reception parties and guides, and ultimately successfully exfiltrating all personnel…” (Smith, 10) as these were the mission critical tasks which needed to be completed but the CIA was unable to perform and the military had not been postured to conduct themselves. Today this is known as Operational Preparation of the Environment (OPE).
Operation Rice Bowl, popularly known by the designation of the mission’s staging area of “Desert One” failed for a number of reasons ranging from inter-service rivalries, to helicopter mechanical failures, to poor or lack of intelligence and good old fashion bad luck. Immediately after the debacle at the Desert One staging ground in Iran the planning began for Operation Snow Bird, what would have been the second attempt to free the American hostages held in Iran. General Vaught now wanted a Special Operations intelligence unit which would fill the Army’s previous capability gap that had been exposed during the course of Operation Rice Bowl. Colonel King was tapped to lead what came to be called Field Operations Group (FOG).
FOG was assigned a dizzying array of missions according to Colonel King that ranged from collecting intelligence in Iran, to taking out Iranian command and control structures, sabotaging radar stations, bugging telephone lines, parachuting onto key buildings, marking landing zones and drop zones, and much more. The nucleus for this new unit came from men recruited from Special Forces, but later Navy and Air Force personnel were also assigned to it. FOG infiltrated its members into Iran and collected even more intelligence for Snow Bird than had been gathered for Rice Bowl. Included in this intelligence operation was Bud Spence of the National Security Agency who helped FOG develop cutting edge methods of gathering electronic intelligence (Smith, 16).
After the disaster at Desert One, the Iranians split up the hostages and moved them around Tehran to thwart any future rescue efforts. Despite the good work done by FOG, Operation Snow Bird could never be launched because all of the hostages could not be located. Iran released all of the American hostages on January 20th, 1981 as Ronald Reagan was elected President.
The Iranian hostage crisis and the failure at Desert One led to the creation of several new units and commands. The Joint Special Operations Command was stood up to better coordinate counter-terrorism operations. 160th Special Operations Aviation was created to give Special Operations units helicopter assets which matched their requirements and capabilities. FOG also changed form and was folded into a formal unit known as Intelligence Support Activity.
One interesting aspect of FOG, later known as ISA, was that it traced its lineage back to, “the Jedburgh and Sessex teams that parachuted into northern France during the 1944 D-Day landings to gather intelligence and organize local resistance groups” (Smith, 14). Taking the lessons learned from Operation Rice Bowl, it is worth looking back to the past, before projecting forward into the War on Terror in order to see the history of the US Army’s past intelligence successes and failures before we look at some proposed solutions. As it stands, any solution to gaps in intelligence capabilities need not re-invent the wheel but rather dust off and refurbish an old one. In order to mitigate the constant learning and re-learning that the US Army seems to punish itself with, let us examine FOG and ISA’s predecessor, The Jedburghs, in greater detail.
(Main image: Anti US Mural at The American Embassy in Tehran, 1979. Courtesy of Phillip Maiwald)
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting our Veteran Editorial by becoming a SOFREP subscriber. Click here to get 3 months of full ad-free access for only $1