San Diego 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."