THE REPORT submitted last week to the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Iranian hostage rescue mission is a puzzling -- and in many ways troubling -- document. Throughout its pages there is a confusing ambiguity: is this meant to be a "no-holds-barred assessemnt of the attempted rescue-operation" or a forward-looking review whose purpose is to "improve future counter-terrorist operations"? The Summary, Conclusions and Recommendations sections (those that have served as the basis of most press accounts) are largely of the second variety. Insofar as they address the mission itself, these "conclusions" and "recommendations" do so in general, mostly favorable terms, asserting that the mission concept was a valid one -- feasible though high risk -- and that no single error accounted for its failure. But the detailed analysis of 23 issues that form the body of the report tells a very different story. This section paints an unmistakable picutre of an operation flawed not by a single mistake but by multiple errors in judgment at every stage of the mission -- planning, training, and execution.
The report itself designates 11 of these 23 issues as "major." Some of those not included in the list of 11 would not have affected the success or failure of the mission, but raise serious questions nevertheless: for example, the inexplicable failure to equip the helicopters with explosive destruct devices so that classified material and equipment would not be left behind intact. But it is the key 11 -- the short list -- that requires and repays study, even if the results are very disturbing.
By far the most important issue among these is whether a "seemingly nondiscriminating overemphasis" on secrecy compromised the mission from the earliest stages of its planning. All of the other critical issues -- the lack of independent review of the plans, confused lines of command at the operational level, lack of training an adequate rehearsals, the shortage of helicopters and the absence of communication between the helicopters in flight, poor use of intelligence and the failure to prepare for adverse weather -- are traced back to this admittedly essential concern. In each of these cases, the review group was able to name an alternative course, which it concludes would have no effect or only a minimal one on security while substantially -- if not critically -- improving the chances of survival.
This destructive and paralyzing excess of secrecy led to a "rigid compartmentalization" of all those involved in the mission. Forces from the different services or from different home bases -- for example, the helicopter and C130 crews -- did not train together or, if they did, had no opportunity to meet and discuss what had gone wrong. Individual units could not even recognize the commanders of other units, leading to the chaos that eventually prevailed at Desert One (see For the Record for a vivid account). Plans were reviewed only by the planners and by the Chiefs themselves -- not by anyone with special operations or recent combat experience. The full resources of even the Pentagon's own intelligence was passed on to members of the task force, and they in turn were unable to discuss it with intelligence analysts.
The "traditional relationship between pilots and weather forecasters was severed," so that although forecasters in Washington knew that dust storms might be encountered, the pilots did not and were unprepared to deal with them during the mission. Because these discussions never took place, high-level planners never appreciated the danger either (the information on dust storms was relegated to an appredix of the oeprations plan). Since the helicopter pilots had to rely mostly on dead reckoning for navigation, this was a key mistake: clear flying weather had been designated explicitly from the beginning as a condition "essential" to success. The dust storms caused the helicopter flight to disintegrate: the leader turned back and landed, none of the others knew what he had done or whether he might be headed back toward the aircraft carrier, and he was similarly ignorant of what they were doing; one helicopter, not knowing that the weather was clear a few miles ahead, turned back; and all the other helicopters were late in arriving at Desert One. Even if enough helicopters had been available to go on, the mission might still have ben aborted because of the delay in their arrival.
If any one mistake is singled out, it is the shortage of helicopters that began the mission. The explanation is surprisingly simple. The helicopters were airlifted to the area soon after the hostages were taken when plans called for only four of them on the mission.Six were sent out and two were added later. Meanwhile, the forces thought to be necessary for the rescue continued to grow so that eventually eight helicopters were called for. No ceiling in the number of troops was ever set, and changes were made up to the last minute. tBy then, planners were reluctant to compromise security by sending out more helicopters, although adequate fuel was available at Desert One "for at least 10" and 11 could have gotten to the halfway point.
These are only some of the many threads the report leaves dangling -- horror stories of mismanagement and poor judgment whose implications are not really addressed. Some questions are never even raised: for example, what accounted for the collision of the helicopter and the C130? Others are treated only in glancing fashion. Chief among these is what effect the planners' determination -- a political/bureaucratic necessity? -- to give equal roles to each of the four services may have had on the effectiveness of the mission. The report merely raises the question of why Air Force helicopter pilots trained in special operations and with previous experience in Vietnam were not used instead of the naval squadron trained as minesweepers that was chosen. nOther sources have also raised the question of whether the Navy's helicopter maintenance was less reliable than the Air Force's, which might account for the unexpectedly high helicopter failure that occurred.
Granted, as the report repeatedly points out, no single one of its suggested alternatives could have itself guaranteed success. But what if six or eight or all 11 of its "major" issues had been decided differently?Would not the mission have had a far greater chance of success? Though the question is neither asked nor answered, the substance of the report itself compels a conclusion that the answer is an unambiguous yes. Despite the authors' obvious reluctance to have it be one, their report turns out to be a damning criticism of the rescue mission.