We Did the Dirty Work

— Plumbers, Spooks, the Boys in the Band, the Boys Up the River, the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. Or, as former SEAL Dan Cerrillo referred to them when he testified recently at SEAL Lieutenant Andrew Ledford's court-martial at Naval Station San Diego: "the people we're not supposed to talk about." By any other name these spooks are Central Intelligence Agency operatives, a few of whom have been causing trouble for special operations folks like Lieutenant Ledford and his men since at least the Vietnam War. Lie down with dogs and you risk getting up with fleas.

A SEAL admiral charged Lieutenant Ledford, another officer, and several enlisted men with assaulting an Iraqi who they suspected had planned the deadly attack on the Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad. The attack took place in late October 2003. The SEALs were members of a platoon that captured Manadel Jamadi at the request of the CIA. According to SEALs who testified at Lieutenant Ledford's trial, they "poked and prodded" the combative Jamadi because the spooks wanted him "softened up" for interrogation. Lieutenant Ledford punched the Iraqi in the arm after another SEAL invited Ledford to "give this turd a knock." In an act that can best be described as felony stupid, the SEALs gleefully photographed their fun.

The SEALs turned the battered but walking, talking Jamadi over to the CIA for questioning in the agency's "romper room." An hour later Jamadi was tits up in a slushy at Abu Ghraib prison. Nineteen months after Jamadi died, the Navy brought Lieutenant Ledford to trial. Newsworthy stuff. But only the New York Times zeroed in on what it referred to as "ad hoc collaboration between the SEALs and the CIA."

There's nothing ad hoc at all about such collaboration: SEALs and spooks have had a working relationship since 1962, when JFK commissioned the naval commandos. In the early '60s, SEAL Team Two in Norfolk, Virginia, ran ops for the CIA in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Throughout the Vietnam War, SEAL Teams One and Two worked for the CIA, and the collaboration continues. A senior SEAL admiral serves full time with the CIA in a billet that for years was known innocuously as CTF 157.

I had my first experience with the CIA in 1967, when I commanded a detachment of three SEAL Team One platoons headquartered in the wretched river port of Nha Be, near Saigon. My detachment also provided administrative cover for SEALs who worked for the CIA in its notorious Phoenix Program. These SEALs would report to me, and then off they would go to do the CIA's dirty work as advisers to so-called Provincial Reconnaissance Units, or PRUs. PRUs were assassination teams the CIA recruited from prison inmates and VC deserters. Cream of the crop. SEALs and Special Forces (SF) trained PRUs at a secluded base in Vung Tau, hard by the South China Sea.

SEALs and SF who led PRUs operated pretty much outside any military chain of command: they took their marching orders from the CIA. Most of these men were professional, dedicated, and courageous. But a few rogues would have made Colonel Kurtz smile.

When Phoenix expanded, a SEAL lieutenant was placed in charge of a new outfit, Detachment Bravo, to provide administrative cover. Det Bravo had no operational SEAL platoons. It handled such matters as pay and casualty reporting for PRU advisers and provided liaison with the spooks.

SF snake eaters who worked for the CIA ran many of their ops out of SF headquarters in Nha Trang. But the CIA still called the shots -- at least until the shit hit the fan, as it did during the summer of '69, when SF "terminated with extreme prejudice" a Vietnamese they suspected with good reason of being a double agent.

CIA officers at Nha Trang at least implicitly approved and encouraged the termination. All was well until the head honcho in Nam, General Creighton Abrams, learned of the event: he charged seven SF officers and a sergeant with various crimes, including murder. The senior man among the "Nha Trang Eight" was Colonel Robert B. Rheault, who commanded SF in Vietnam at the time.

Rheault had an impressive résumé: he was a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, West Point, and the University of Paris. He spoke fluent French. He'd also had a previous tour in Nam before assuming command of SF. He was what is known as a "hot runner" -- an officer on the fast track to general.

To keep itself spic 'n' span, the CIA denied any involvement whatsoever with the death of the double agent and blamed SF. In the meantime, Colonel Rheault and his men languished in the stockade at Long Binh awaiting what's called an Article 32 investigation that would almost certainly result in courts-martial.

But once the lawyers got involved it soon became public knowledge that SF was running a spy network for the spooks as part of something called Gamma Project. The project was charged with, among other things, developing target lists for Nixon's secret war in Cambodia. Once this cat was out of the bag, Nixon pulled the plug on Abrams's plan to court-martial the snake eaters. But the damage was done: Colonel Rheault's once-bright career had been terminated with extreme prejudice. He retired shortly thereafter and began working for Outward Bound, guiding wilderness treks. For several years he took Vietnam vets into the boonies as part of a program to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

Colonel Rheault is alive and well and at the age of 80 living in Owls Head, Maine. I talked with the colonel by phone and asked what he thought about the court-martial of Lieutenant Ledford and this business of SEALs and Special Forces working for the CIA.

He told me in a quiet, firm voice that he would not bad-mouth special operations or the CIA. "Most of the people in these organizations are pretty good. Many have risked and lost their lives in service to the country. And you need the CIA to coordinate covert ops, or people will end up shooting each other. But there are those few in the agency who will lie through their teeth to cover their asses."

Is that what happened to you and your men in Vietnam?

"Sure is. When we learned one of the spies we were running for the CIA was a double agent, I sent my unit commander to ask the CIA officers responsible for the program what they wanted us to do.

"See, we had a real dilemma: if we turned the spy over to the VNs, Lord knows what would have happened. But we didn't have any place to sequester him until his information on our operation was stale. And we couldn't just let him go: he was carrying the death sentence for a lot of agents in his head."

What did the CIA tell you to do?

"The head guy looked at my commander and said, 'You know what to do.' "

A wink and a nod?

"Yes. Of course, the CIA officer had a different story when he testified at the Article 32 hearing. To this day I remember his exact words when asked what he told us to do with the double agent: 'I told the SF commander that whatever they did out in the rice paddies, don't kill the man. Nobody does that anymore. Not even the Russians.'

"At that my lawyer leaped to his feet and screamed, 'Liar!' It was just like during the court-martial in Breaker Morant. You see that movie?"

More than once. The British High Command hung the Aussie, Breaker Morant, out to dry after he killed a German spy -- among others -- during counterinsurgency ops in the Boer War. Court-martialed and executed the Breaker.

"Right. Send the colonial troops to do the dirty work of empire, then abandon them when things go south. You know how it was with special operations in Nam. We did all the hard, dirty work but were not really accepted because we wore camouflage tiger suits and had our own way of doing things. We were the redheaded stepchild.

"Now I don't condone the mistreatment of prisoners. First of all, it's immoral, and secondly, you're probably not going to get good intel. But by the same token, when things come up like with Bob Kerrey, if you haven't been there you have no right to judge what people do under those circumstances. You send people out to do the hard, dangerous work, you got to cut them some slack.

"I'm glad Ledford was acquitted. As I said, he shouldn't have mishandled the prisoner, but that's something that could have been dealt with informally and certainly without a court-martial. His boss should have chewed his ass out and let Lieutenant Ledford and his platoon get on with the war."

Then Colonel Rheault asked a telling question: "Where did the pressure come from for a court-martial?"

I told the colonel that the admiral who runs Naval Special Warfare -- the SEALs -- ordered the court-martial. But I pointed out there are two or three admirals who outrank him, and the Army runs special operations in Iraq. I told the colonel about the photos the SEALs took and suggested senior officers could have been afraid of another Abu Ghraib scandal if they appeared to be covering up. Wouldn't have been good for careers.

"No need to have worried about another Abu Ghraib," the colonel said. "Nobody but the lowest-ranking enlisted people paid for that disgrace. There was the reserve brigadier -- the woman -- who got a letter, but no court-martial for any officer. Where the hell were the lieutenants, the captains, the majors, and colonels? They should have been on site. Probably were sitting in some air-conditioned officers' club."

What do you think about the CIA guy testifying against Ledford, saying he'd seen Ledford's platoon mistreat prisoners before?

"I was appalled. If the CIA people had a problem with the way Ledford's platoon was operating, why didn't someone go to the SEAL commander and say, 'Listen, this is getting out of hand'? I mean, why didn't the CIA say something right then and there rather than wait until a court-martial?

"For the most part, special operations and the CIA work very well together. That's why what those agents did at Ledford's court-martial and my Article 32 was so terrible. That kind of stuff will destroy the trust you must have.

"You're a SEAL. You know the essence of unit integrity is trust. I trust that you will save my life, and you trust that I will save yours. We don't fight for democracy and the American way: we fight for each other. Like I said, I'm glad Lieutenant Ledford was acquitted. Never should have been a court-martial in the first place. But again, I have the highest regard for the CIA and special operations -- it's just that every once in a while bad choices are made."

News Item: "Charges tossed for Marine accused in Iraqis' deaths," by Tom Foreman Jr. (AP) "The Marine Corps yesterday dropped murder charges against an officer accused of riddling two Iraqis with bullets and hanging a warning sign on their corpses as a grisly example to other possible insurgents.... The decision to drop the charges was made by Maj. Gen. Richard Huck, commander of the 2nd Marine Division, based at Camp Lejeune, N.C."

Semper fi.

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Hi Bill -

I just read your piece "We Did The Dirty Work." Like your article on Jesse Ventura, it made for interesting reading. I'm sorry we didn't talk more about this stuff back in the old days.

Hope you are well. If you're interested, please drop me a line at [email protected] and we can catch up with each other. If not, then best wishes to you and your family.


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