As a high-ranking NATO officer in the 1970s, Maj. Gen. Richard B. Collins was privy to the alliance's war plans and other military and intelligence secrets.
Now he says he will expose some of those secrets to defend himself against charges that between 1975 and 1978 he misused $445,000 from an Air Force fund in Swiss bank accounts for clandestine intelligence operations and that he embezzled $19,000.
In his 25-year Air Force career, the experienced combat pilot had moved up through the ranks to serve as U.S. supervisor of war planning in Europe and as liaison between Washington and the NATO nations. When he retired five years ago, Collins received a 13-gun salute and a formal commendation from his boss, Gen. Alexander M. Haig Jr., then NATO commander and later secretary of state.
Today, Collins, 53, is scheduled to go on trial in U.S. District Court here. Now working in nearby Fort Lauderdale as a consultant and real-estate developer, he has denied the charges and notified the government that, to defend himself, he must expose classified U.S. information.
Most of the documents in the Collins trial are still classified. But interviews with his lawyer, Stephen Bronis, and information in open court records indicate that in his defense Collins will detail his handling of a classified Air Force fund kept in numbered Swiss bank accounts to pay for clandestine military and CIA intelligence operations in Europe and Southeast Asia.
To defend his client, Bronis said he will call not only Haig and other high-level military figures but also covert CIA operatives who may have been involved.
Bronis, who had to get a top-secret security clearance to handle the case, also is expected to question whether the Air Force legally could maintain the secret fund, which existed from the mid-1960s until 1978, and run covert operations without congressional approval.
In addition, Bronis is to examine the role in the secret fund played by Lockheed Corp., the aerospace defense contractor. A.G. Otsea, chairman of Lockheed Aircraft International in Switzerland, has been called by Bronis as a defense witness. Otsea is identified in government and defense court documents as a former manager of the account.
A Lockheed official said the company would have no comment.
The Justice Department has asked the court to block introduction of classified material as evidence. But after meeting in closed sessions with Bronis and government lawyers, Judge James C. Paine ruled that Collins may use such information.
"The court is aware not only of its responsibility to protect the government's interest in preserving the national security but also of its responsibility to protect the defendant's interest in a fair trial and the public's interest in access to criminal proceedings," Paine said.
The Justice Department has filed an appeal, which could postpone the trial. But department spokesmen have said that the trial will go forward, even if classified information becomes public.
Because of a court order barring release of any classified material, Bronis is limited in what he can say about the case. Collins will not comment.
But Bronis does say that Collins first became involved with the fund in 1975 while stationed in Geneva. He said Collins urged his superiors in 1975 to close the accounts because of questions about their legality.
"He felt the accounts should be terminated," Bronis said. "His recommendation was overridden, and he was placed in charge of the various accounts."
Because of Swiss neutrality, military accounts are forbidden in Swiss banks. As a result, Bronis said, Collins--like previous custodians--kept the money in several accounts under his own name.
Bronis said secret depositions recently taken in Switzerland indicate that previous custodians frequently moved the funds from account to account as banks became suspicious of military involvement.
Bronis said Collins eventually moved the funds to the Swiss Bank Corp., where he had a personal account left to him by his father-in-law. According to Bronis, Collins believed that, because he had done business with the bank for many years, placing the accounts there would not raise as much suspicion. But there his legal problems began.
Bronis will not detail day-to-day operations of the account, which at times contained almost $1 million, or reveal what path the money took into and out of it. But he said Air Force guidelines required that the fund balance remain above a certain level. To accomplish that, Collins sometimes put personal funds into the account temporarily, Bronis said.
In retrospect, Bronis said, Collins probably would agree that it was unwise to mingle personal and government funds. But Collins has insisted that he did not profit personally at any time, Bronis said.
He said that Collins, a Naval Academy graduate with three Distinguished Flying Crosses and seven Air Medals, is willing to take a polygraph test but that the government has not accepted the offer.
Most of the government case against Collins is secret. Prosecutor Deborah Branscomb said through a spokesman that she cannot discuss it. The six-count indictment, handed down Jan. 27, charges Collins with "knowingly and willfully converting to his own use approximately $445,000" and with embezzling $19,000.
Bronis said the government first thought that Collins embezzled the entire $445,000 because it was difficult to trace the money after the account was closed in 1978.
"Collins went to the Air Force and said, 'I've been ordered to terminate the account,' but the Air Force controller said, 'Hey, we're not taking that money,' " Bronis said. " But the money got back to the U.S. It was funneled through a sophisticated laundering system back into the U.S. Treasury."
Bronis said that, although the indictment charges Collins with embezzling $19,000, he believes that the government will try to prove that Collins returned the $445,000 to the Treasury but kept about $40,000 in interest.
Bronis insisted that, in running something as murky as a clandestine operations fund, Collins could not possibly account for every penny. He said questions about Collins did not surface until 1981, three years after his retirement, even though "the account was audited periodically and given a clean bill of health."
"The government has not been able to point to one penny of money that was taken out and put to personal use," Bronis said. "He could have made a fortune . . . , but he put the money into very conservative certificates of deposit ."
Bronis said he will try to force the government to reveal whether the fund and its operations were approved by Congress. "I don't think Congress knew what was going on," he said, adding that, if it was approved, "what lie did they tell to Congress to explain what the money was for?"
He said he also will try to lay out Lockheed's alleged role in U.S. undercover operations.
"A link between Lockheed Aircraft International and the project for which the funds were originally used has been established," Bronis said in one defense motion. "Moreover, it appears that the accounts in question were the property of Lockheed Aircraft International, rather than the U.S. Air Force, at the time Mr. A.G. Otsea was a custodian of said accounts."
Bronis said in an interview that Lockheed was at one time "a critical element in terms of controlling the manner in which this money was spent . . . . Certain agreements were entered into between the U.S. government and Lockheed, but I can't go any further."
Citing national security, the government is working to keep classified as much information as possible. But Bronis insisted that, although the information may embarrass the government, it will not damage national security. If it is up to him, he said, the government will not be allowed to delete a single name from documents entered as evidence.
"From our perspective, when you talk about someone like Gen. Collins sitting down and telling the jury this bizarre tale, it sounds more like something out of James Bond than the Air Force," he said.
"The average jury wants to know the specifics. If I can name names and dates and facts and figures, it lends credibility. And that's what I plan to do."