It was September 1997 and fall was coming fast to the Washington area. From my office on the 13th floor of the tallest building in the Clarendon section of Arlington, Virginia, I could see that the trees had already started to change color. The pinkish-beige granite structure at 3100 Clarendon Boulevard was home to the headquarters of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Directorate of Attachés and Operations, the organization responsible for managing the hundreds of military attachés assigned to American embassies around the world. It also directed the clandestine and overt human intelligence (HUMINT) operations of the Department of Defense. These HUMINT operations, both military and civilian, were consolidated in the Defense HUMINT Service (DHS).
In my corner office, one of the few perks of being a division chief, I took advantage of the expansive view toward Arlington National Cemetery, the Potomac River and the Georgetown section of the District of Columbia. At times, I could watch U.S. Air Force F-15 Eagle fighter jets from Langley Air Force Base lining up into the “missing man” formation for a flyover of the cemetery, rendering final honors for a military funeral. On Fridays, it was sometimes possible to see the Presidential helicopters flying up the river on their way to Camp David. The view was the only calm part of the office.
I was the chief of the Defense HUMINT Service Counterterrorism Division. The division, part of the Office of Middle East Operations (called DH-6), was created in 1996 in response to a terrorist attack on a U.S. Air Force housing facility at Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; 19 airmen were killed in the massive truck bomb blast. I had focused the division on developing intelligence sources with access to information on the prime perpetrators of terrorism and their state sponsors: Iran, Iraq and the al-Qa’idah organization.
Virtually every agency in the U.S. intelligence community regarded Iran as the world’s primary state sponsor of terrorism. Iraq under Saddam Husayn was also listed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. Department of State. However, the “poster boy” for the division’s primary focus was none other than Usamah bin Ladin and his al-Qa’idah organization, then based in Afghanistan. As far back as 1995, the intelligence community had identified him as not only intent on conducting terrorist attacks against the United States and its interests, but assessed al-Qa'idah as capable of actually conducting such attacks.
Part of the division’s effort against Usamah bin Ladin was to collaborate with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Alec Station, an issue-based organization headquartered in a suburb of Washington geographically separated from the CIA headquarters campus in McLean, Virginia. I was a strong proponent of joint agency operations. I believed that the intelligence community functioned better and produced more usable and actionable information for decision makers when it worked together, drawing on the strengths of the various components, rather than each agency independently producing its own version of reality.
I believed this because I had practiced it. I had just returned from a two-year assignment to the CIA’s Iraq Operations Group in which I had served with the Northern Iraq Liaison Element (NILE) teams operating in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, in Jordan working with the Iraq National Accord, as well as at CIA headquarters. I had survived an improvised explosive device (IED) attack in Iraq in October 1995 that engendered my great respect for explosives and IED’s.
By mid-1997, I had spent nine months getting the counterterrorism division up and running, no easy task in the bureaucracy that is the Defense Intelligence Agency. The DIA leadership had allocated 11 new counterterrorism personnel billets to complement the existing billets in the Middle East Operations office. Billets meant manpower, and thus were a valuable commodity, so it came as no surprise that I found myself defending the billets from other office chiefs wanting additional resources of their own. Several of the “geographic” offices, those responsible for attaché offices and HUMINT operations in specific areas of the world, sought to have some of the new billets assigned to them, but nominally still be part of my division’s counterterrorism effort.
My office chief, U.S. Air Force Colonel James “JB” Shelton, and I saw this idea for exactly what it was - a blatant attempt to steal the billets. Once the new officers were assigned to the other offices, it would be difficult for me to direct their efforts exclusively towards counterterrorism. It was a bitter, acrimonious bureaucratic fight. Fortunately, Shelton, a former U.S. Marine Corps sniper in Vietnam, and I prevailed.
The division was finally beginning to develop assets around the world and produce intelligence reports. In addition to CIA’s Alec Station, I had assigned division officers to the CIA Iran Task Force in McLean. A cooperative working relationship with terrorism analysts at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was in the works. However, the Bureau analysts were constrained by strict rules governing the handling of evidentiary material and the Attorney General-mandated artificial wall between intelligence agencies and law enforcement organizations. That wall was later identified by the 9/11 Commission as a major problem that prevented the intelligence community from detecting the attacks of September 11, 2001. As of 2012, the issue still has not been resolved.
It appeared that things had fallen into place organizationally and I could concentrate on directing intelligence operations rather than being a bureaucrat, or what I liked to call a “cubicle warrior.”
It was not to be. The gray phone on my desk rang. The phone was part of the secure telephone system used throughout the intelligence community in the Washington area. The ringing brought my attention from the view outside back to my paper-laden desk.
The phone call was from Army Lieutenant Colonel Chuck Preston. Chuck and I had worked on several intelligence operations before and were friends as well as colleagues.
“Rick, it’s Chuck from upstairs. The boss wants to see you.”
Translated from military-speak between two lieutenant colonels into civilian verbiage: Rick, this is General Harding’s executive officer. The general is directing your presence in his office as soon as you can get here.
Brigadier General Robert “Bob” Harding - "the boss" - was the Director of Attachés and Operations, and chief of the Defense HUMINT Service. Since I was on the 13th floor, “upstairs” could only mean the 14th floor, the top floor of the building.
“Any idea why?” I asked.
Translation: Am I in trouble, again?
“Sorry, you’ll want to hear this straight from the boss.”
Translation: I don’t want to be the one to tell you something you’re not going to like.
I had been in the Air Force for almost 27 years. I assumed that my immediate supervisor, Colonel Shelton, knew what was going on, or should. I stopped by Shelton’s office on my way to the 14th floor, poked my head in and asked if Shelton knew the reason for the summons to meet with General Harding. Shelton, uncharacteristically short of words, just nodded his head resignedly and said to get upstairs. I was puzzled, since normally Shelton would have accompanied me to the meeting. After all, that’s how the military worked.
I walked up the stairs to the command suite, wondering what was so important and why all the mystery. When I arrived in the outer office, I nodded to Preston and said, “Okay, Chuck, I’m here.”
“They’re waiting for you,” he said and nodded at the door to Harding’s office. I silently asked myself, “And who exactly are ‘they’?”
I walked over to the open door and saw Harding sitting behind his desk; there was a civilian whom I did not recognize sitting in one of the armchairs. Harding was on the phone, but raised his arm and waved me in and pointed to a vacant chair. I nodded a greeting at the civilian, sat down and waited for Harding to finish his call.
I was still curious why I was in Harding’s office. Harding had recently been assigned as the senior operations officer for DIA, coming to the position after completing a tour of duty as the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence at the United States Southern Command, then headquartered in Panama. Southern Command was responsible for U.S. military operations in Central and South America.
General Harding and I had only met a few times previously, and the meetings were not cordial. Despite being a brigadier general with many years in the intelligence career field, Harding was new to the human intelligence operations arena; I was not.
At our first meeting, I had briefed the general on several of our sensitive Middle East operations. Harding seemed to view all operations from the perspective of his previous experiences in Central and South America, which had no bearing on the very difficult and very different operational environment in the Middle East. I later described Harding to my boss as “another Army general who has read all the ‘how-to’ manuals, but has never ‘done’.” Put another way, he could “talk the talk” but not “walk the walk.”
General Harding finished his phone call and turned his attention to the unidentified civilian and me. Harding was brief. He introduced the civilian to me as the senior operations officer from the Office of European Operations (called DH-2). I waited to hear why General Harding was introducing me to an officer from European Operations in his private office. If it were a counterterrorism issue, the DH-2 officer would have simply called Colonel Shelton or me directly. Something out of the ordinary was up. Years of experience with military bureaucracy and protocol made me wary.
The general began. He said that DIA was part of a joint Department of Defense-CIA sensitive operation in the Balkan nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The mission of that operation was to hunt down and capture alleged war criminals, more correctly “persons indicted for war crimes,” commonly referred to as PIFWCs (and pronounced pif-wiks). The mission was to find them, detain them long enough for an FBI agent to formally arrest them, then turn them over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, The Netherlands.
The general explained that neither the Defense Department nor the CIA was concerned with the PIFWCs' guilt or innocence - the tribunal had already indicted them as war criminals. The mission was to bring them to a courtroom where they could make their case. Again, I wondered why the general was telling me this since there did not appear to be either a Middle East or a counterterrorism angle to the operation. It seemed to me to be an operation under the sole purview of the European Office.
General Harding went on to explain that initial operations had already begun in Bosnia, but that he needed to replace the senior DOD officer, a U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel. The general did not elaborate on why a replacement was necessary, nor did I ask. If Harding had wanted me to know, or thought I needed to know, he would have told me. I assumed he was relieving the officer for cause. (That turned out to be the case.)
The general further explained that he needed to deploy an additional lieutenant colonel for a second team that would focus solely on two high-value targets. I continued to wonder why I was a part of this conversation. After all, I was an Arabic-speaking case officer in charge of a division focused on Iran, Iraq and al-Qa’idah, far removed from hunting war criminals in the Balkans. I said as much, politely, to the general.
General Harding smiled at my seeming naiveté. He said that the CIA wanted to wrap up the capture of the PIFWCs as soon as possible, responding to the repeated demands of the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) , U.S. Army General Wesley Clark. Staff officers described Clark as “passionate” about capturing the Balkan war criminals - at one point I actually heard the term "rabid." I was to learn about Clark’s passion first hand in the months to come.
General Harding continued that the Director of DIA had ordered him to provide his two “best and brightest” lieutenant colonels to serve as the senior DOD officer on each of the two operations teams. I tried not to roll my eyes at the “best and brightest” cliché, realizing that I was soon to learn more about Bosnia than I ever wanted to know.
As I exited the general’s office, I looked at Chuck Preston. Preston almost smirked trying to suppress a laugh when I walked over to his desk and gave him what we in the military call the “Whisky Tango Foxtrot” look and asked, “Bosnia, Chuck? Seriously? I’m not sure I can find that on a map. He knows I’m a Middle East guy, an Arabic linguist, right?”
Preston responded with, “Hey, did he use the ‘best and brightest’ line? I kind of like that one.”
“Thanks a lot,” was about all I could mutter.
I shook my head and walked toward the door and headed back down to the 13th floor. I poked my head into Colonel Shelton’s office and asked, “Do you know what that was about?”
Shelton obviously knew. He shook his head resignedly, sighed and said, “I tried. You better call Emily.”
Ah, yes, time to call Emily. My wife Emily was a retired Air Force case officer herself and now a professional staffer for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. It seemed that I was yet again going to tell her that I was being deployed to yet another dangerous place to conduct yet another classified operation. After all these years, she was used to it, or at least I hoped so.
Khobar Towers was a high-rise apartment building used to house U.S. Air Force personnel assigned to Dhahran Air Base, Saudi Arabia. On June 25, 1996, a truck bomb killed 19 Airmen and one Saudi.
For this work, I have chosen to adhere to the U.S. government mandated transliteration system, the Board on Geographic Names system.
CIA headquarters is usually referred to as being in Langley, Virginia. McLean is unincorporated, but is the more correct geographical description.
These efforts were aimed at the overthrow of Saddam Husayn in the program known as DBACHILLES. In 1996, that attempt failed.
Since 1997, U.S. Southern Command is based in Miami, Florida.
SACEUR is also the senior commander of NATO military operations and the Commander of the United States European Command (EUCOM).
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