Members of a secret, elite task force that the Pentagon formed last year were sent to Italy to be available to Italian police in the rescue of Brig. Gen. James L. Dozier, government sources said yesterday.
The Counterterrorist Joint Task Force group, which reportedly numbered fewer than 20 men, has since returned to its base in a remote portion of Fort Bragg, N.C. The new Pentagon task force has taken over the duties of the Army's Blue Light team that provided the core of the group sent to Iran in 1980 in the attempt to free the 52 American hostages.
The day after Dozier was kidnaped from his Verona apartment by members of the Red Brigades, the Pentagon announced it had sent a six-man squad to act as a liaison with Italian authorities. In fact, sources said, those men--never identified--were a cadre from the CTJTF, as the counterterrorist organization is known within the Pentagon bureaucracy.
The Dozier operation, sources said, was the first major deployment for a unit of the elite group, which was created to help deal with terrorism against American citizens, interests and property around the world.
The task force has its own intelligence operations and attempts to predict activities that could affect Americans. Then it develops contingency plans on how to respond. It is continually running exercises, in part based on what it believes is going on within terrorist groups.
While the FBI has the prime role in dealing with terrorism within the United States, the Pentagon's task force has become the main one to be employed abroad if the president decides action should be taken.
In cases involving friendly countries, the task force does not become involved unless it is invited, as was the case in Italy, sources said.
Pentagon spokesman Benjamin Welles said yesterday there would be no comment on the group or its activities.
One hallmark of the unit is the secrecy of its organization and operation. The identities of its commanding officer and associated personnel are classified.
At a closed congressional hearing last summer, which has been declassified and released, members of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense were told that requests to visit the unit by members of Congress had been turned down.
"We wish to keep the techniques and the specific capabilities and identification of the force down to an absolute need to know," Lt. Gen. Philip C. Gast, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the congressmen.
A major reason for the tight security, Gast said, is possible reprisal against the people involved in an operation if they were identified.
The idea for this special counterterrorist organization came from the Holloway commission, led by retired admiral James L. Holloway, which investigated the ill-fated attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran.
In October, 1980, then defense secretary Harold Brown approved the task force's establishment; it began operations in January, 1981.
The size of the organization is kept secret, but Gast described it as "a small unit" in comparison to the well-publicized Rapid Deployment Force. In addition to a full-time cadre and a core group with members from all the services, special units from the Army, Navy and Air Force have been given training in counterterrorist operations.
These include air and naval crews to provide transportation, for example. Training is carried on in various parts of the country.
In a real operation, units would be attached to the task force if needed and be put under command of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.