WASHINGTON -- Ultra-secret counterterrorism units formed within the Pentagon during President Reagan's administration undertook some operations without informing Congress or appropriate senior military and intelligence officials, according to a forthcoming book.
In 'Secret Warriors: Inside the Covert Military Operations of the Reagan Era,' Steven Emerson details efforts by the units to spy on the Soviet Union, on Panama's Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega and on groups in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Excerpts of the book by Emerson, a U.S. News & World Report senior editor, appear in the weekly's March 21 edition. The book, scheduled for publication next month by G. Putnam's Sons, is based on a yearlong investigation that included hundreds of interviews and perusal of thousands of pages of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the magazine said.
The book also draws on notebooks kept by Lt. Col. Oliver North, fired from the National Security Council staff for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal.
The magazine excerpts asserted U.S. intelligence found five of six Americans held hostage in Lebanon by pro-Iranian captors in 1985 and North used indirect contacts with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, terrorist Abu Nidal and representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization to try to secure their release. A rescue mission was planned in 1986 but was dropped.
As previous reports have said, Emerson wrote that one of the Army covert units, created in July 1983 and code-named Yellow Fruit, was to be used to help supply the Contras fighting Nicaragua's government in case Congress cut off military aid to the rebels.
However, the operation, which was hidden within a phony consulting firm called Business Security International in Annandale, Va., ended within months after the discovery of what Emerson called 'financial shenanigans and abuses in the unit.' Two top Army officers were convicted in military courts.
The shock of Army leaders upon learning of the misappropriations 'turned to horror when they learned they had been kept intentionally in the dark about the activities of the Special Operations Division,' Emerson wrote.
He traced the formation of the secret Army units to the unsuccessful April 1980 mission to free American hostages held in Iran during President Carter's administration. Tostave off failure in future missions, according to the book, the Pentagon in the last days of the Carter administration organized Operation Snow Bird, a model for elite quick-strike units under Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Secord, who became a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal.
The Army then formed a Special Operations Division when Reagan's team decided to make the counterterrorism units permanent, Emerson wrote.
The division's first operation was Seaspray, a joint Army-CIA project to move counterterrorism forces secretly into and out of foreign countries. Begun in 1981, it had the commercial cover of a company called Aviation Tech Services.
'We provided instant clandestine aviation to anyone and anywhere worldwide,' a former Seaspray member told Emerson.
In another top-secret operation, military spies were organized under the title of Intelligence Support Activity. The unit, whose members never know everyone else in the unit, was created to infiltrate hot spots around the world, the book said.
In March 1982, the Special Operations Division set up an electronic spying mission with a Beechcraft King Air plane flying 4 miles above the border of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to intercept communications from left-wing opponents and right-wing death squads trying to disrupt Salvadoran elections, Emerson wrote.
The operation also marked the beginning of the Reagan administration's covert operation to destabilize Nicaragua's Sandinista regime and to aid the Contras, he added. For three years, suspected cross-border intrusions and arms-supply routes were monitored in addition to communications between Sandinista forces in Nicaragua and leftist rebels in El Salvador and Honduras.
Turning to espionage aimed at the Soviets, the magazine excerpt described a 1981 electronic spying operation by the Pentagon's Quick Reaction Team. The secret elite team managed to infiltrate the Opel plant in Ruesselsheim, West Germany, and to bug a fleet of cars ordered by the Soviet Union, Emerson said.
The team also planted electronic surveillance devices in an apartment in Panama occupied by Noriega, the military leader, and collected six 90-minute tapes with no significant intelligence, according to the book.
Believing the relationship between the Army and CIA was becoming too close, Army Secretary John Marsh sent a March 9, 1983, memo to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger complaining of increasing CIA requests and the lack of clear legal guidelines on how the Army should respond, Emerson wrote.
'Ironically, unbeknownst to Marsh, much of the impetus behind the CIA requests came from the Army's own Special Operations Division,' he concluded.