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Special Operations Samurai

By Jonathan Marshall City Paper, July 3, 1987 When certain desk-bound Pentagon bureaucrats aren't shuffling papers or attending meetings, they disappear into darkened rooms to study Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris movies. Give them an imaginary machine gun and an ammunition clip, and they'll rid the world of anti-American scum. At least, that's the conclusion one could draw from listening to the recent testimony of Noel Koch before the Iran-Contra investigating committee. The top counterterrorist planner for the Defense Department until last year, Koch told an earnest questioner how he would put an end to the hostage negotiations once and for all: "I would go pay a call on Mr. Fadallah, who is the head of Hezbollah, the...pro-Iranian Shiite faction in Beirut, and I'd take him off to a nice warm, dry place, and I'd take off something that's non-life threatening like a finger and I'd wrap it in a note...(that) would say, `There's a lot more where this came from, and I'd like to see my hostages in the bar of the Commodore Hotel by Friday...and if not, we'll be sending some more of this stuff around." To Koch's disgust, "messed up" planning and perpetual administration "turf battles" ensured that Mr. Fadallah kept his fingers--and the American hostages. If Koch's questioner did not blink an eye, it was because he and another Senate colleague on the committee had long been Koch's leading champions in Congress. Neither Sam Nunn of Georgia, Koch's friendly interrogator, nor William Cohen of Maine, are apologists for the Constitution-stompers in the White House and National Security Council. Yet both, ironically, have goaded the administration into beefing up the very covert infrastructure within the national security establishment that produced the Iran-Contra crisis. Koch the Obscure Aside from a few appearances on Nightline and his brief moment of fame in the hearings, Koch has maintained the almost imperceptible profile of a Stealth bureaucrat throughout the current scandal. Yet as deputy assistant secretary of defense in charge of counterterrorism and special operations, he was in the thick of the Iran arms deal, working closely with North, Secord and other key players. The full extent of his role has not been plumbed publicly. But as early as November 1985, by his own testimony, Koch learned about the shipment of Hawk surface-to-air missiles to Iran in exchange for hostages. According to a Senate report released earlier this year, Koch also sat in on a February 1986 meeting with North, Secord and two CIA officers regarding the ongoing arms deals. Koch could hardly have avoided playing a significant part in the operation. Practically everyone he worked with was in on the job. Koch's boss Richard Armitage, for example, was reportedly assigned by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger to oversee the Pentagon's role in the Iran arms shipment. One of Koch's most important bureaucratic assignments was to the top-secret Operations Sub-Group of the National Security Council, which specialized in covert operations organized under the rubric of counterterrorism. His gung-ho colleagues there included Oliver North and a high-level CIA official implicated in the Iran plot, Duane Clarridge. (Clarridge ran the CIA's covert war against Nicaragua until the fall of 1984; then, as head of European operations, he used CIA resources to facilitate the November 1985 shipment of Hawk missiles to Iran.) Koch also sat on the elite Senior Review Group of the Vice President's Task Force on Combatting Terrorism. Joining him was Charles Allen, Clarridge's right-hand man at CIA, who dealt extensively with the Iran arms go-between Manucher Ghorbanifar and his Israeli control officer, Amiram Nir. Nir, the Israeli government's chief counterterror operative and its chief salesman of the arms deal to doubting administration officials, was Koch's counterpart in Jerusalem.

Koch had no less contact with Secord, whom he oversaw in the Pentagon's International Security Affairs office until Secord retired in 1983. Secord stayed in touch as a consultant to Koch's office and as a member of the Pentagon's special operations policy advisory group until August 1986, after Koch's own resignation from the Defense Department that May. And Koch was even the chief Pentagon contact of Michael Ledeen, the failed academic who has made a handsome living as a trendy consultant who tells Reagan administration ideologues what they want to hear about Soviet sponsorship of international terrorism. He became a "consultant" to the Defense Department and NSC on terrorism after losing his job with the State Department in the wake of Al Haig's departure. Ledeen spent his summer vacation in 1985 traveling to and from Israel, organizing the arms-for-hostages deal with a group of private Israeli arms dealers and spies. Until recently, none of the revelations of Irangate moved Koch to question his loyalty to these characters. Defending North's style, Koch explained that given the bureaucratic gridlock between the State Department and Pentagon, "If you're going to do anything bold or innovative, you're going to have to do things through irregular channels." And Koch served as the chief fundraiser for Secord's legal assistance fund until it suddenly grew $500,000 richer from three anonymous contributions through the very Swiss bank, Credit Suisse, that held many of the Iran and Contra accounts. The "peculiar odor" of that money was too much even for Koch, who took a friend's advice to "get out" while he could. The special operations samurai Koch's affinity for North, Secord and the boys stemmed from their shared mission: to promote "special operations," that largely clandestine group of military capabilities including counterterrorism (Delta Commandos), unconventional warfare (Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces) and related logistics support (Special Air Commandos). "Special Operations Forces," Koch told Congress in 1984, "provide us a precisely tailored capability" for resisting "insurgency and international terrorism in every region of the Third World." As a few members of Congress have come to dimly comprehend, special operations forces also provide a precisely tailored capability for frustrating congressional oversight. While intelligence committees grill the CIA, secret military units often have free rein in the field. As Sen. James Sasser, D-Tenn., warned after uncovering such operations in Central America, there is "a real danger that these Special (Operations) Forces could be used by CIA programs and thus skirt congressional review." There is another danger: Veterans of special operations units, like better-known graduates of the CIA, are prone to using their arcane skills as samurai-for-hire by the Oliver Norths of the world. The rogue CIA alumnus Edwin Wilson, a friend and business partner of several key Iran-Contra figures, was the first entrepreneur to spot the potential of this specialized labor pool. He recruited Special Forces veterans to train Libyan terrorists, marshal Col. Khadafy's forces in Chad and carry out selected assassinations. The Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, who funded some of Oliver North's hostage-rescue schemes, likewise hired a Special Forces veteran to rescue his employees from an Iranian jail and funded another's attempts to locate American POWs in Laos. Lt. Col. North simply dipped into the same pool. He came up with Richard Secord (Air Force special operations in Laos), John Singlaub (commander of the Special Operations Group in Indochina), Richard Gadd (Pentagon liaison to the Joint Special Operations Agency), John Cupp (Delta Force), Robert Dutton (Air Force special operations), Larry Stearns (chief special ops planner at the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and a host of others to run the Contra and Iran arms operations. North himself claims to have been "in the Special Operations Force, team commander" and to have undertaken "classified missions" in Laos during the late 1960s. By some accounts, Koch played a key role in "off-loading" several of these covert specialists from official duties at the Pentagon to low-profile support roles in the private sector. Richard Gadd, who masterminded

the Contras' air logistics network, reportedly got his start as a clandestine Pentagon contractor thanks to Koch. It was only logical, therefore, that when Koch mounted his fundraising drive for Secord's legal defense, he relied on mailing lists of special operations personnel. Congressional cheering gallery Far from investigating Koch, some members of Congress seem more inclined to sanctify him. Senator William Cohen of Maine, a member of the Iran-Contra committee, once praised Koch as "instrumental in revitalizing special operations" and as "the champion of special operations on policy matters." Cohen's colleague on that committee, Sam Nunn of Georgia, has expressed an ardent commitment to the former Pentagon officer's mission. In the name of fighting terrorism, Nunn called in early 1981 for restoring "covert capabilities which have largely been demolished....We must...repeal some laws and executive orders which go far beyond constitutional requirements or court decisions and which have resulted from a massive overreaction to the Watergate/Vietnam era." Citing the same rationale, President Reagan followed Nunn's advice in late 1981 and issued Executive Order 12333, which authorized the very kinds of domestic espionage exposed and condemned in the postWatergate/Vietnam era. No less ominously, it also handed authority for special covert operations to the National Security Council itself. Reagan followed up in 1984 with National Security Decision Directive 138, which guided 26 government agencies in drafting counterterrorist measures. Noel Koch called it "a quantum leap in countering terrorism, from the reactive mode to recognition that pro-active steps are needed." Although it did not specifically authorize US "hit squads," as reportedly recommended by North and senior Pentagon officials, the directive was said to permit "the use of force in other forms, such as by FBI and CIA paramilitary teams and Pentagon military squads." Administration sources called the aggressive plan an "effort to give the cloak and dagger back to the Central Intelligence Agency. The campaign will include pre-emptive strikes and direct reprisals" based on the Israeli models. They also admitted that the distinction between retaliation and assassination was mainly rhetorical. Last year, Cohen and Nunn introduced legislation to accelerate the administration's already dizzy expansion of special operations and counterterror capabilities. Their stated aim was to "greatly improve the effectiveness, funding levels, readiness, force structure, and command and control of special operations forces." They were taking up the battle where Koch had left off. Though Koch had helped oversee a quintupling of the budget for special operations units and a 50 percent growth in their manpower, the Rambo in him grated at the bureaucratic resistance of the main-line military commanders. His battles with the traditional services got so heated that enemies tried to smear Koch as an agent of Israeli intelligence, a claim perhaps related to the fact that in civilian life he had been a Washington lobbyist for the Zionist Organization of America. Before he resigned, Koch fingered his anonymous accusers as belonging to the Air Force. Cohen kept his fight alive in Congress. In a chilling argument for boosting special operations capabilities, Cohen noted in early 1986 that "today we face a situation in Central America which is in many respects similar to Vietnam and yet . . . we are not organized effectively to deal with it." Just who Cohen would turn to for this Vietnam Redux was suggested by a speech later that year in which the senator quoted no less than retired Gen. John Singlaub on the need for greater integration of special operations forces and their functions. Even in 1986, Singlaub was already notorious as the leading "private" fundraiser and arms procurer for the Contras, working with special operations colleagues from Vietnam and with the far-right World Anti-Communist League, which he headed. The final legislation closely followed the Senate model. It mandated a unified military command for special operations forces, a new board within the National Security Council for "low intensity conflict" and an

accompanying presidential adviser on the same, and a new assistant secretary within the Pentagon to oversee special operations. The bureaucratic structure is thus firmly in place for a continued expansion of special operations resources and missions. Congress and the special prosecutor will expose and punish a few wrongdoers, then call their mission accomplished. But they will leave behind the apparatus with which future presidents, and their nameless functionaries in the NSC, Pentagon and CIA, can once again take foreign policy into their own hands.