The Secret War
By 1986, Robert Johnson was spending an inordinate amount of time facilitating covert shipments to Iraq. The job was growing burdensome. He had to liaise with messengers from the U.S. government, supervise the foot soldiers who executed the details of his deals, and coordinate frequent trips to Europe and the Middle East. There were some missions, moreover, that he simply could not leave to others.
One of those missions came in early November of that year. His contacts in the intelligence community reported that the White House was worried by how poorly Saddam Hussein was faring in his war against Iran and thought it necessary to get more military supplies into Baghdad. While for Johnson it was just another of what he called his “technical operations,” the aim this time was to transport Soviet-made ground-to-ground 122-mm. missiles, which was an odd thing for an American operative to be doing. “The reason,” he later explained, “was that the Iraqis had Soviet-made equipment, and it was cheaper to get them what they needed from the Eastern bloc than to provide entirely new systems from America. They were having financial problems anyway, and we were trying to supplant their dependence on the Soviets. So we ended up getting them some of the equipment through gray channels that they used to get directly from Moscow.” Since the Reagan administration had decided to provide covert assistance to Baghdad but couldn’t achieve its objective through official routes, the task of handling the shipments fell to operatives like Johnson.
On this trip he headed to Bern, Switzerland, where he met a CIA contractor who operated his own specially fitted Boeing 707 cargo jet, in which the two men flew on to Bucharest. There, a Romanian arms broker who had worked for years with American intelligence had the missiles ready for loading. They had been purchased on Eastern Europe’s thriving black market for Soviet-made arms. The missiles were designed for use in multiple launchers and were eight feet long, so it took some time to get them packed aboard the 707. Then the operatives took off for Iraq. “I didn’t like the flight or having to deal with the Iraqis,” recalled Johnson. “We landed in Baghdad at night, and the air force guys came up to the plane. We gave them bottles of Scotch whisky, copies of Penthouse magazine, and cartons of cigarettes so they would unload the stuff quickly. We carried $18,000 in cash, the amount needed to pay for refueling, in a bowling bag. Then we were put up at a government hotel. It was tricky because our own U.S. intelligence officers in the embassy didn’t know the details of what we were doing. We were supposed to keep the entire operation to ourselves.”
This kind of work had occupied Johnson for more than five years by then, and he was weary of personally handling missions; he was no longer a young man. As a former CIA operative who was senior enough to contract work to others, he didn’t like going out in the field himself anymore. But there were a number of extra flights that winter, and in 1987 at least one a week into Baghdad. he made the exhausting trip only a few more times before deciding he had had enough.
He was not the only American who found himself in Baghdad for confidential purposes. Some were American military personnel whom the Reagan administration had secretly begun to station in the Iraqi capital for intelligence-sharing in the early 1980s; at the White House, they were known as “liaison officers” or “observers.” At first they came in teams of four or five, from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in Washington and from the Joint Special Operations Command headquarters at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; but over time, their numbers began to swell.
Other Americans in Baghdad were visiting arms merchants, and the most prominent among them was Sarkis Soghanalian, a Miami-based former CIA contractor who brokered tens of billions’ worth of military hardware for Iraq during the 1980s, reporting many of his transactions to officials in Washington. Soghanalian, who resembled an Arab Sidney Greenstreet, was close to the Iraqi leadership and to intelligence officers and others in the Reagan administration. In many respects he was the living embodiment of plausible deniability, serving as a key conduit for CIA and other U.S. government operations. When Vice President Bush secretly sent his chief of staff to Panama to meet Manuel Noriega, Soghanalian supplied the aircraft from a nongovernment carrier in Miami. Soghanalian claimed that Vice President Bush was among those senior American officials who knew of his arms sales to Iraq; another was William Eagleton, the head of the U.S. interests section, who welcomed the arms dealer to Baghdad and described him to a journalist as a “friend of the U.S. government.”
Back in 1983, that friendship had led DIA officials to consider an offer from Soghanalian to procure a Soviet-made Hind helicopter from Iraq in exchange for American permission to sell to Baghdad U.S.-made helicopters equipped with missile launchers. The offer was refused, however, when in a secret memo General Richard Stilwell, a deputy undersecretary of defense, advised against the deal because Soghanalian was already facing criminal charges, “I believe the potential for causing embarrassment to the U.S. government is too great,” wrote Stilwell, “if it became known that the U.S. had used the services of such a notorious individual to arrange an arms deal with Iraq.” (See Appendix B, page 307.)
But although Soghanalian might have been notorious, he was useful. A year later, in Baghdad, he helped broker the sale of forty-five Bell helicopters to Iraq. This time the Reagan administration approved the deal, despite fears that the helicopters would probably be used by the Iraqi military. He even flew CIA contractors to Baghdad aboard his private jet; their job was to help install some of the equipment that would transmit U.S. satellite photographs to the Iraqis.
In the mid-1980s, Soghanalian also brought military officers to Baghdad on his plane, and since he had a personal relationship with Iraqi defense officials, including Adnan Khairallah, the defense minister, he arranged quiet introductions between the U.S. officers and Iraqi battlefield strategists. Joseph Trento, a documentary filmmaker who accompanied Soghanalian on one trip to Baghdad, was surprised to learn that in addition to the officers Soghanalian transported, an American general had come to Baghdad, arriving on an Alitalia flight by way of Rome “to do business, to discuss arms.” In 1984, Trento stayed in Baghdad for a month, and while he was there he was summoned to meet with William Eagleton, who told him that Soghanalian’s relationship with the Iraqi defense minister “helps us.” During the visit Eagleton showed Trento a map that highlighted suspected Iraqi poison gas-manufacturing facilities. “Aren’t you uncomfortable about the poison gas and about this being a haven for terrorists?” Trento asked Eagleton, adding that it seemed odd that Washington would countenance the arms shipments Soghanalian was bringing in. “Yes,” Eagleton answered, “I am very uncomfortable. These are not nice people, but you have to do what you have to do.”
The American military commitment that had begun with intelligence-sharing expanded rapidly and surreptitiously throughout the Iran-Iraq war. A former White House official explained that “by 1987, our people were actually providing tactical military advice to the Iraqis in the battlefield, and sometimes they would find themselves over the Iranian border, alongside Iraqi troops.” A military officer who was sent to the war zone remembered the Iraqis being relaxed about his presence and grateful for it: “Access to the battlefield was allowed not just to Americans, but to military personnel from other nations such as Britain and France. There was great interest on our part in strategy and order of battle, and we wanted to know about the competence of Iraqi officers. They wanted any advice we could give. We were under instruction to give them everything they wanted in the way of information.” The officer, like his colleagues, carried a sidearm only, for self-defense, and he did his best to avoid the heaviest fighting on the front lines. The only problem was that it became impossible at times to know where that line was. “As a result,” he said, “I guess some of us from America ended up inside Iranian territory from time to time.”
There was another problem with the deployment of U.S. military personnel on the ground in the Iran-Iraq war: It took the Reagan administration to the very fringes of the law. The War Powers Act requires that Congress be notified whenever American soldiers are deployed in a military conflict, or even involved in imminent hostilities, whether they number in the dozens or the thousands. Calling the soldiers in Iraq “observers” made aides to President Reagan feel more comfortable, but some White House officials, already jittery about the breaking Iran-Contra affair, worried that they were becoming involved in yet another off-the-books operation. These worries were compounded when the same NSC staff members who were using the services of facilitators like Robert Johnson and Richard Smith and their operatives decided, along with William Casey, to ship U.S. military supplies to Iraq directly from American military bases in Europe. Once again, U.S. military officers were called upon to perform tasks that were not only politically controversial and secret but illegal because they were not being reported to Congress.
NATO stockpiles in Europe were the source of these shipments, according to a former NSC official. The U.S. base most utilized was the sprawling Rhein-Main compound at Frankfurt, the largest combined cargo and passenger terminal in the air force and home of a squadron that flew in support of Defense Department and European airlift requirements. Rhein-Main was convenient because it shared runways with Germany’s largest civilian airport, the busiest on the continent. “The chain of command was secret but incredibly simple,” said a former Special Operations officer from Fort Bragg who was sent to Frankfurt to organize the clandestine transfers. “A call would be made by someone at the National Security Council to a midlevel officer at the Pentagon. We would then hear about the request at Bragg, and we would go over to Frankfurt and into the warehouses on base, where we would arrange the flight manifests. There was so much surplus equipment there that if you came over with confidential orders and dealt with the right supply people, they would move the stuff over to the civilian side of Rhein-Main. Then an Iraqi Airways cargo jet would land and the pallets would be loaded up by the local airport workers without any American personnel in sight.”
The matériel involved was always very carefully selected and was determined chiefly by judging which critical supplies the Iraqis could not manufacture themselves or purchase with ease. These determinations were made in Washington after consultations with U.S. military personnel on the ground in Iraq. “The kinds of things we handled out of Frankfurt included spare parts mainly, such as fuses for artillery pieces. You could get hundreds of thousands of fuses into just a few packing pallets,” recalled the Fort Bragg officer. “We also sent chopper parts, specialty fuels, and graphite lubricants, and a few black box items, meaning high-tech electronics and other sensitive bits and pieces.”
In January 1987, as the war entered its seventh year and the combined death toll neared one million people, Iran began yet another major offensive. This time, it pushed deep into Iraqi territory. Saddam Hussein needed help—but he also required reassurance from Washington about its intentions, since revelations in the Iran-Contra scandal were now detailing the U.S. covert military aid that had been going to his enemy Iran. From Baghdad’s point of view, Washington was either ambivalent or duplicitous. Thanks to the rival pro-Iraqi and pro-Iran factions inside the government, the United States had indeed sent out very confusing signals. Nonetheless, the secret shipments to Iran paled when compared with the support given Saddam, and William Casey led the drive to placate Iraq. He had already met with Tariq Aziz at the United Nations to make sure Iraq was happy with the flow of intelligence it was receiving, and he encouraged Aziz to go ahead with more attacks on Iranian economic targets.
Then neutral ships in the Persian Gulf began coming under attack from both Iran and Iraq. Those of oil-rich Kuwait were of particular concern to the administration. Kuwaiti leaders wanted their oil tankers protected by either Moscow or Washington, and in March 1987 top U.S. officials, including Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, and Admiral William Crowe, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, decided to defend Kuwaiti vessels that were navigating the Gulf. Two months later, on May 17, pro-Iraqi officials such as Weinberger suffered an instant case of political whiplash when a U.S. frigate, the Stark, was attacked by an Iraqi warplane and thirty-seven Americans on board were killed. The episode was quickly dismissed as an error, and Baghdad apologized and offered to compensate the families of the crewmen who had died. Nonetheless, the Stark incident underscored the increasingly risky state of affairs in the Gulf, and it was followed by a formal announcement from President Reagan that the United States would reflag Kuwaiti oil tankers so that the U.S. Navy could escort them.
On Capital Hill, the reflagging announcement drew protests, and some in Congress demanded that if the United States were to become military active in such a dangerous venture, then the War Powers Act ought to be invoked. The White House rejected the idea, and the State Department’s Richard Murphy argued that the entire reflagging operation was merely a defensive action based on the need to protect the freedom of navigation and the flow of oil. Yet Murphy also gave a not-so-subtle hint of the administration’s intentions by warning Iran, not Iraq, that any attack on American naval forces in the region could result in U.S. involvement in the war in the Gulf. The reflagging exercise, he said, was part of a comprehensive strategy.
Murphy did not describe that strategy in detail, but it soon became known, on a need-to-know basis, to lower-level operatives at the CIA, at Fort Bragg, and in the U.S. Navy. “The real plans were for a secret war, with the U.S. on the side of Iraq, against Iran, on a daily basis,” said retired Lieutenant Colonel Roger Charles, who was serving in the Office of the Secretary of Defense at the time and who later conducted an extensive investigation of American clandestine operations on the Persian Gulf. Using military terminology, Colonel Charles called it “a mixture of black and white operations at the same time.” The black operations were covert, aimed at provoking Iran; the white operations were public, aimed at defending navigation rights in the Gulf.
In June 1987, although senators of both parties had warned that the United States was in danger of being drawn into armed conflict with Iran, President Reagan ordered warships into the Gulf. The White House pronounced the threat to American personnel as “low to moderate.” Simultaneously, but hidden from public view, the administration sent a team of high-ranking officers to Baghdad, including an admiral, to begin sharing strategic information with Iraq about movements in the Gulf. In U.S. military circles, the purported reason for these visits was to improve understanding and avoid a repeat of the Stark incident. The reality was that it was a black operation, in which cryptographic radios were provided to Iraqi pilots, allowing them to communicate with American petty officers stationed on ships in the Gulf. “What happened,” said a retired military officer, “was that as the Iraqis flew their airplanes down the Gulf, they would talk to our officers. As the relationship grew on a daily basis, the petty officers would give them the bearings and range of tankers that were trading with Iran, thus helping the Iraqis to choose their targets.”
The reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers began on July 18; three days later, American naval ships started the escort operation. Some of the navy’s biggest warships, designed for the open sea, were now on patrol in the constricted and unpredictable war zone of the Persian Gulf. The first disaster was not long in coming. On July 24, the 400,000-ton Bridgton, a Kuwaiti supertanker, struck a mine as it moved through a major shipping channel. The explosion was so powerful, as Admiral Crowe would later write, that the captain and some crew members were literally bounced up in the air, but although the ship’s hull was torn open, there were no casualties. In Washington, the Bridgeton accident set off political mines; several dozen members of Congress announced that they planned to file a suit in federal court against President Reagan’s Persian Gulf policies in order to force the president to comply with the War Powers Act. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, but George Shultz was already busy taking evasive action. Frank Carlucci, the national security adviser, had sent Shultz a memo asking him to take charge of efforts at the United Nations to end the war. “There is no support in Congress for our Gulf policy,” Carlucci wrote to Shultz, “so we need to draw attention away from the reflagging idea.” Shultz went to New York and joined decisively in a discussion at the Security Council, which voted unanimously to approve a resolution calling for a cease-fire.
The summer of 1987 was dominated by diplomatic efforts to bring about peace and by a mounting number of military incidents involving the United States and Iran. A navy fighter jet fired missiles at an Iranian aircraft, an American supertanker operated by Texaco hit a mine, and several navy men were killed when their helicopters and jets crashed into the sea. At the same time, Washington was conducting black operations with the help of a CIA mission code-named Eager Glacier. Only fragments of this story have been made public up to now. It is known that the CIA sent spy planes and helicopters over Iranian bases starting in July 1987. In fact, the CIA’s intelligence-gathering operation soon turned military. The CIA utilized the assistance of an American oil service company that transported its workers on helicopters from Saudi air bases of Dhahran to oil platforms in the Persian Gulf. During the day, Agency operatives flew in the company’s civilian helicopters; at night, they used their own aircraft to patrol, and eventually they engaged in secret bombing runs. The Agency aircraft flew over Iranian territory, and late in the summer of 1987, having located a factory in which mines were being manufactured, they blew up a warehouse full of mines.
The CIA’s clandestine activities in the Gulf were followed by a more public incident. On Monday, September 21, 1987, a Special Operations helicopter equipped with night-vision equipment spotted the Iran Air, an Iranian minelaying ship, swooped down, and fired rockets and a barrage from its machine guns. The shots riddled the entire side of the ship, shattering windows and piercing the bulkheads, stairwells, and oil barrels. Three Iranian sailors were killed instantly, and twenty-six were captured, including four who were wounded. The crew members were help briefly and then repatriated.
In Washington, President Reagan defended the helicopter attack, claiming it was authorized by law. But what he did not say was that many of the military actions in the Gulf were being discussed on an almost daily basis by a special committee comprised of senior officials from the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA on a secure telephone conference line. By agreement, the truly black operations were handled by lower-level officials in the Pentagon and the CIA on a highly compartmentalized basis. That way, Reagan’s political appointees could plausibly deny any awareness of the details.
The helicopter that shot at the Iran Air was a Hughes AH6 attack helicopter from the U.S. Army’s Delta Task Force 160, a special unit that had traveled to the Gulf all the way from Fort Campbell, Kentucky. These helicopters, nicknamed Sea Bats, were stationed on a U.S. barge the size of a football field that was anchored in the middle of the Gulf. In February 1988, the pilots from Fort Campbell were joined by colleagues from Fort Bragg, who manned a second barge and flew small, heavily armed OH-58D helicopters made by Bell Helicopter. Fifteen of these helicopters, called Little Birds by their pilots, had been specially modified at Bell’s facilities in Fort Worth, Texas, to spectacular effect. “These things looked extremely sinister,” recalled a Special Forces officer who was stationed on the barge. “They were all black and bristling with antennas and had a huge round sight module about two feet in diameter stuck on a mast above the rotor blades. That contained radar and cameras. The impression you got, just looking at one of these things on the ground, was of a giant insect staring at you before you die.”
The Sea Bats and the Little Birds flew missions night and day, conducting reconnaissance and at times firing on Iranian minelayers. Some of their successes were made public, but when one helicopter crashed, the accident was kept secret. “A Marine buddy of mine saw the helicopter afterward,” said a former Pentagon official. “It had been hit by our own ordnance. The operation was so secret that the families of the two crew members who died were told the men had been killed in a car crash.”
Also kept secret were the navy’s black operations. Lieutenant Colonel Charles learned that in 1988 a couple of Mark III patrol boats were lowered by cranes from a barge and sent off on a decoy mission aimed at luring Iranian gunboats away from territorial waters and provoking an incident. “They took off at night and rigged up false running lights so that from a distance it would appear there was a merchant ship, which the Iranians would want to inspect. Deceptive radio traffic was also used in that instance.”
“I talked to Marines from Fort Bragg who were given these black missions, and they weren’t confused about what they were doing,” he added. “They said they were at war, that their daily actions included combat activities against Iran. The truth, which the government has never told, is that in 1987 and 1988 there were two operations going on in the Persian Gulf. One tracked with President Reagan’s policy declarations, that we were there to defend international waterways and Kuwaiti tankers, and the other was a black operation, designed to provoke the Iranians.”
Admiral Crowe, who had gone before the House Armed Services Committee and denied a press report suggesting that Congress had been misled about any covert operations, decided in his memoirs to address the definition of American actions in the Gulf. He wrote that the administration had argued in Congress that the Gulf operation was not subject to the War Powers Act. “The argument was somewhat dubious, but nevertheless that was our story and we were sticking to it,” wrote Crowe. Years later, after he had left government, Frank Carlucci was asked if it was fair to say that America had been fighting an undeclared war. “Oh, yes, I don’t think there’s any question that—well, war—you get into semantic issues here. The military would call it more an engagement or a firefight. . . . We were having problems with the War Powers Act, so I hesitate to use the term war, but there’s no question it was a conflict.”