The Secret War

You knew them by their pallor. The pilots of the army's top-secret Task Force 118 slept through the Persian Gulf's searing 120-degree days, and hunted by night. Painted black, their OH-58D helicopters were so tiny and quiet that they could sneak up on a target in the dark; the Hellfire missiles slung on their sides could sink a ship four miles away. The pilots flew 100 mph at 30 feet over the water through curtains of sand blowing off the Saudi desert. With mordant understatement, the men of 118 referred to the lead chopper as the Splashguard. "We figure if he gets wet, we're too low," explained one task-force member.

The pilots' war was as murky as the night they fought in. When the Reagan administration decided in 1987 to protect oil tankers traveling through the gulf, it calculated that the sheer presence of U.S. naval forces would scare the Iranians off. On the very first convoy, however, a tanker called the Bridgeton struck an Iranian mine. And the American Navy, it turned out, had no modern minesweepers. For Washington, the embarrassment was a crisis. Policymakers still remembered the humiliation of having to pull out of Beirut after the bombing of the Marine barracks in 1983.

Congress was not about to declare war on Iran. Indeed, the administration feared that lawmakers would simply shut down the navy's escort operation. So the Pentagon was forced to deal with the threat by covert means. Some of these operations, like the October 1987 raid against the Rostam oil platforms used by the Iranians as hideouts, are well known. But American secret operations in the gulf were more extensive than has been reported, NEWSWEEK has learned, and they were controversial even among the top brass. They began with a CIA reconnaissance program, code-named Eager Glacier, that sent spy planes and helicopters flying over Iranian bases beginning in July 1987. Navy SEALs, manning Mark III patrol boats, were stationed on two giant floating barges, and special operations helicopter units first the Little Birds of the army's Delta Task Force 160, later joined by the specially built gunship Warriors of Task Force 118--roamed the gulf by night. On Sept. 21, the helos had their first success, catching the mine-laying ship Iran Air in the act. The Reagan administration publicized the incident to expose Iran, which had denied responsibility for mining the gulf. Left unreported was the fact that one of the Task Force 160 helos was downed by friendly fire. The Pentagon also kept secret the fact that American forces captured "several" other minelayers, according to senior administration officials. A month after the Iran Air incident, NEWSWEEK has learned, the navy seized the Iranian minelayer Rakish and secretly repatriated its crew. (The prisoners were turned over to an Iranian C-130 at an Omani airfield in the dead of night.) "For a while, it was pretty rough out there," concedes Adm. William Crowe Jr., former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Too rough, in the opinion of Rear Adm. Dennis Brooks, the commander of the U.S. Joint Task Force-Middle East. After bitterly complaining that he had been kept in the dark about secret operations, Brooks was replaced as the commander in the gulf in February 1988. When he retired, in 1991, NEWSWEEK has learned, Brooks handed Navy Secretary Lawrence Garrett a 200-page report on what he called "extralegal" operations in the gulf. The report remains classified.

The Pentagon prepared elaborate contingency plans for covert raids against the mine warehouses and piers in the Iranian port of Bushehr, but the plans were scrapped as too provocative and risky. The United States did, however, provide targeting and intelligence to enable the Iraqi Air Force to bomb the Iranian storage sites on Farsi Island at the end of 1987. American AWACS acted as air controllers for Iraqi raids against other targets in Iran as well. Washington was particularly eager to aid Iraq after U.S. intelligence obtained detailed Iranian plans in early 1987 to capture part of Kuwait. The plans called for an assault, using special forces and fast launches, on Kuwait's Bubiyan Island. Washington did not want to see Iran set up Silkworm missile sites on the island, which commands Kuwait's tanker jetties. The military assistance was all part of Washington's pro-Iraqi ',tilt" during the Iran-Iraq War. No one realized, of course, that the United States would soon be at war with the military regime in Baghdad. American forces may have also taken a more active role, NEWSWEEK has learned. According to one senior official on the National Security staff, strikes were authorized by U.S. carrier-based warplanes against Silkworm missile sites in the Strait of Hormuz. Former Pentagon officials differ on whether these and other mainland strikes were actually carried out.

In the gulf, Brooks's successor, Rear Adm. Anthony Less, was leery of covert operations. Navy SEAL commanders interviewed by NEWSWEEK Say they were kept on a short leash, riding defensive patrols but not acting in their preferred role as "hunter-killers." Washington, on the other hand, kept pressuring the navy to be more aggressive against the Iranian gunboats. A senior Pentagon official recalls authorizing the use of a "decoy ship" to lure the gunboats into international waters. The plan, according to navy sources, was to simulate a tanker with fake radio transmissions. It was the trial run for such an operation, two sources have told NEWSWEEK, that the Vincennes blundered into on the fatal July morning.

PHOTO: Navy SEAL teams deployed patrol boats from two giant barges

Wings fold for easy transport

Made specially for gulf missions by modifying 15 existing helicopters. Some of its components:

Mast-mounted sight with telescopic TV camera and forward-looking infrared radar for night and day surveillance

Four extra antennas

Two-men cockpit packed with 11 extra displays for gunship role

Stinger or Hellfire missiles, rocket pods or machine guns