TWO WASHINGTON columnists, Jack Anderson and Jody Powell, have been trading charges of late about who has the documents to prove or disprove whether former President Carter was reckless when it came to planning the rescue of Americans held hostage in Tehran in 1980.
Well, I have one of the documents in contention. I am satisfied it is a forgery. But the way I got it, what it says and how it surfaced after The Washington Post decided it was not worth printing in its news columns give an insight into how the disinformation game is sometimes played in Washington, especially in a presidential election year. The episode also illustrates how a persistent disinformer, by trying a number of avenues in the loosely structured world that is "the press," can get his information into print.
First came the telephone calls, both to the office and to my home, from August into September, 1980. This was after the failed rescue attempt of April, 1980, but before the November election which pitted Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter. The caller, often in a tense voice, said he had been part of a special CIA team which had estimated that 60 percent of the American hostages would have been killed or severely wounded if the rescue operation approved by Carter had gone all the way through rather than been aborted at Desert One. If true, this would have been political dynamite for anti-Carterites. It would make Carter look to many as reckless when it came to risking American lives.
I of course told the anonymous caller that we would need documentation before considering whether to write the story about the alleged CIA study. After weeks of telephone conversations with the anonymous caller, who dubbed himself "Lloyd," he agreed to send the CIA document to The Post. It arrived in a plain manilla envelope with an out of town postmark and a return address that did not check out as real.
The document inside was stamped "Eyes Only." It was dated 16 March 1980. It looked like a crude imitation of a secret document and raised my suspicions in its second line, which read: "Subject: OPLAN EAGLE CLAW Loss Estimate." I happened to know at the time that the secret code name of the overall rescue operation, as distinguished from its individual elements, was not Eagle Claw but Rice Bowl. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had called the operation Rice Bowl in hopes of making anyone who heard about it think it had to do with Asia where rice was grown, not Iran.
I copied the document on a Washington Post typewriter and took that copy to the Pentagon. If "Lloyd" and his document were genuine, government experts might be able to trace the peculiarities of his document back to him. I figured I should protect him against this detective work until I had checked out his offering for authenticity. The politically damning sentences for Carter in Lloyd's document were these: "Best estimates are that a loss rate of 60% could be expected in a moderately sucessful (sic) operation. CA and M & P Staff concur." Under recommendations, the document said: "1. That the JCS and key mission personnel revise the OPLAN to simplify the key elements. 2. That OPLAN EAGLE CLAW NOT be utilized in its current form."
Through the offices of Thomas B. Ross, then assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, I took the copy of Lloyd's document to a general on the Joint Chiefs of Staff who had helped plan and execute the aborted Iranian rescue mission. He pronounced it a forgery; said he had heard of no loss estimates by anybody approaching 60 percent, and questioned whether there was a CIA unit called CA and M & P.
Lloyd called me after that session with the JCS general. I asked him what the real code name was of the rescue operation. He could not tell me. I asked him what the CIA unit was, and he said, "Covert Action and Mission Programs." He called the next day and left word with the national desk of The Post that the code name of the operation was Rice Bowl. By that time I had talked by telephone to Frank Carlucci, then deputy director of the CIA. He said that he had never heard of anything in his agency called CA and M & P. I sent the agency a copy of my typewritten copy of Lloyd's "eyes only" submission. After the CIA had examined it, its spokesman termed the document "a total fabrication." Ross informed Jody Powell, then Carter's press secretary, about the document and apparently sent my copy of it to him. Ross and I suspected it was an attempt at disinformation to hurt Carter's re-election chances.
That might have been the end of the story if Lloyd and/or his fellow operatives had not been so persistent. I have no way of knowing what telephone calls they made to other news people or what documents they may have mailed to them. Columnist Anderson would have been a likely prospect because of several columns he had written in August, 1980, asserting that Carter was planning a second rescue mission. Anderson's Aug., 19, column said "Jimmy Carter has ordered preparations for a limited invasion of Iran. For planning purposes, D-Day has been set in October on the eve of the election. Troubled planners suspect that Carter has been guided more by his political studies than their military assessments." Anderson said in his Aug. 20 column that "the primary invasion target is Kharg Island in the Persian Gulf and possibly some of the southern Iranian oil fields. .fs.Carter is preparing for an October invasion." Anderson added in his Aug. 21 column that "if President Carter should go ahead with his plan to invade Iran in October, he would risk war with the Soviet Union."
Those were stunning charges. White House spokesman Powell denied them. One Washington Post editor said that either Carter should be impeached or Anderson's column should be cancelled, depending on who was telling the truth. After I had taken the columns to a member of the Joint Chiefs and to others in the military I trusted, and after an editor of The Post had met with Anderson, The Post decided not to publish the columns because it could not confirm their contents. The closest thing in the Pentagon which I could find to a second rescue attempt was a roughed out plan code named Fleetwood which called for an elaborate pincer movement to free the hostages in an around Tehran, not an invasion of Kharg Island or the oil fields far to the south. Invading the oil fields, military analysts told me, while the hostages were held captive might well sign their death warrants. Fleetwood never got beyond the Joint Chiefs, sources told me, largely because the intelligence community did not know where all the hostages were hidden. Iran had dispersed the hostages after the April rescue attempt.
However, The Post on Nov. 16, 1980 -- after the election -- did run an Anderson column headlined: "Desert One: Doomed From the Start." Information in that column tracked closely with that offered by Lloyd in his telephone calls and "eyes only" document. For example, the column said this: "If the mission had proceeded, as scheduled, from Desert One to a mountain hideout east of Tehran and then on to the actual rescue, the prospects were even more grim. The CIA estimated informally that there would be 60 percent losses among the hostages --i n other words, about 30 of them would die. This estimate was regarded as optimistic by CIA analysts."
Powell and Anderson are still fighting over this column. Powell challenged Anderson in a column printed in The Post on July 29 to document for the National News Council the claim that the CIA had estimated casualties would be 60 percent. "I'll make a copy of the forged document available for comparison," Powell wrote. "Here's betting you can't find yours." Anderson responded in an Aug. 9 column that in citing the loss estimate "Jody shrewdly deleted the first five words of the sentence, because these words made it clear that the information didn't come from any document, forged or otherwise. The words Jody left out described the CIA estimate as informal, and the next sentence added that other CIA analysts disagreed with the estimate." Anderson did not repeat his earlier assertion that the analysts regarded the 60 percent loss estimate "as optimistic."
Powell vs. Anderson goes beyond the entertainment of two columnists fighting in print. It raises anew the question of whether our checks and balances in the press are adequate given the persistence and sophistication of a seemingly growing number of disinformers in an age of instant, worldwide communications where the damage can be fatal -- politically or worse. The problem is aggravated by the fact that newspapers feeding the worldwide communications net often are so big that one news department prints something that another one has found flawed, as was the case with The Post when it came to the fabricated document Powell has spotlighted in discussing disinformation efforts past and present.