In Colombia Jungle Ruse, U.S. Played A Quiet Role

In these previously unreleased photos, individuals involved in the Colombian rescue operation pose for pictures in the plane immediately following the event.
By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 9, 2008

BOGOTA, Colombia, July 8 -- For months before a group of disguised Colombian soldiers carried out a daring rescue of three American citizens and a prominent Colombian politician from a guerrilla camp, a team of U.S. Special Forces joined elite Colombian troops tracking the hostages across formidable jungle terrain in the country's southern fringes.

The U.S. team was supported by a vast intelligence-gathering operation based in the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, far to the north. There, a special 100-person unit made up of Special Forces planners, hostage negotiators and intelligence analysts worked to keep track of the hostages. They also awaited the moment when they would spring into action to help Colombian forces carry out a rescue.

That moment came in June after a Colombian army major hatched an unconventional plan. Further developed by Colombian intelligence agents, the plan abandoned the idea of a military raid and relied instead on tricking a rebel group notorious for killing hostages into simply handing over 15 of their most prominent captives. Those included three U.S. Defense Department contractors who had been imprisoned five years in remote jungle camps, as well as Ingrid Betancourt, a politician of French-Colombian citizenship whose plight had become a cause celebre in Europe.

As Colombian planners made last-minute preparations June 30, the U.S. ambassador in Bogota, William R. Brownfield, briefed Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials in a videoconference call. Two days later, Colombian commandos scooped up the Americans, Betancourt and 11 Colombian soldiers and policemen, receiving praise from around the world for a plan deftly executed.

U.S. troops did not participate directly in the operation, but behind the rescue in a jungle clearing stood years of clandestine American work. It included the deployment of elite U.S. Special Forces in areas where rebel fighters roam, a vast intelligence-gathering operation against the guerrillas, and training programs for Colombian troops and communications specialists in how to intercept and subvert rebel communications.

"This mission was a Colombian concept, a Colombian plan, a Colombian training operation, then a Colombian operation," Brownfield said in an interview Monday in which he recounted details of the U.S. role. "We, however, had been working with them more than five years on every single element that came to pass that pulled off this operation, as well as the small bits that we did on this operation."

Just months before "Operation Check," Brownfield promised the families of the three Americans, whose single-engine plane had crashed over rebel-held territory in 2003 while on an aerial reconnaissance mission, that he would never recommend that the Bush administration approve a Colombian rescue that would put their loved ones at risk. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has killed hostages rather than permit their rescue.

The Bush administration had an understanding with Colombia's government that any operation to rescue the Americans required U.S. approval, meaning an American rejection of the plan could have scuttled it. But Brownfield and a team of 15 American strategists -- including intelligence agents and military officers -- thought the Colombian plan could succeed.

The complex operation included infiltrators in the FARC's highest echelons, a team of Colombian commandos playing the parts of relief workers and guerrillas, and an elaborate scheme to intervene in the rebels' radio communications network. The sting was directed at the leaders of guerrilla units who were responsible for moving hostages through the jungle but who communicated infrequently with the FARC's seven-man directorate.

Brownfield explained to Cheney, Rice and the others how Colombian officials would ensure that a fake radio message -- purportedly from the unit headed by the FARC's supreme leader, Alfonso Cano -- would be sent to the guards. The order would be to prepare the hostages to be picked up by a relief agency and then flown by helicopter to the rebel high command.

Members of Bush's Cabinet were uneasy, the ambassador recalled.

"I was pressed fairly hard, as I would expect to be, as I would hope to be, to justify, to explain my recommendations, to offer the basis for my having reached the conclusions that I'd reached," Brownfield said in an interview in his office. "At the end of the day, I felt that I had been forced to offer up a very clear explanation as to how all of us down here -- Team Bogota -- had come up with this particular set of positions."

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