War details often remain secret years later

Posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2001

WASHINGTON -- A decade later, Americans still don't know how far special operations forces went inside Iraq during the Gulf War. Some parts of the fighting in Kosovo and Vietnam -- even Korea -- remain sketchy.

Even in conventional wars, the secrets are many. In the war against terrorism, where special operations forces play a crucial, almost unprecedented role, the public may never learn more than a sliver of what happens inside Afghanistan.

''If they catch someone on the most-wanted terrorist list, they might eventually acknowledge that,'' said John Pike, a military and intelligence analyst in Washington. ''But not quickly. Anybody they'll catch, they're going to want to interrogate first'' in secret, to help catch others.

And when American special ops soldiers die? ''They'll tell us that,'' Pike said. ''But they may not say where -- or how.''

Saturday's overnight raids by 100 airborne Army Rangers and other special forces into southern Afghanistan were the first publicly acknowledged covert missions of the war -- and a bit of an anomaly.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Monday that no prisoners were taken. But he said officials would never again provide such detail.

U.S. officials would not say what the raid's objectives were, beyond gathering ''useful intelligence'' on the movements of Taliban leaders, specifically leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. They wouldn't say what they found, beyond a cache of weapons and documents. They said two soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash in neighboring Pakistan, but provided almost no details.

Two U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said troops were still conducting secret operations inside Afghanistan -- including some operations that will be kept secret even when they're over.

''Some of the invisible operations we will provide information on,'' said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. ''There will be other invisible operations where we will not say a thing.''

The reasons for secrecy are clear: To protect soldiers' safety, and to protect tactics that might be used elsewhere. Special ops have to be secret, Pentagon officials say, and they are necessary to hunt Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network. Airplanes and bombs ''can't crawl around on the ground and find people,'' Rumsfeld said.

But maintaining the public's support is more tricky.

Americans were so outraged by the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that they will give the military much leeway to wage war, and will not demand constant accounting, said Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution.

But over time, ''If people don't get a sense of movement, that this is the direction things are headed, they are going to get extraordinarily antsy,'' said Dan Goure, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute.

The military will announce its successes, most believe, perhaps omitting details of how they happened. But secrecy also allows officials to hide bad news, at least temporarily. They might wait to announce troop deaths, for example, until they also can announce positive results.

''We will do our best to give you as much information as we can safely provide,'' Rumsfeld said Monday. He criticized leaks before Saturday's campaign, saying they endangered soldiers' lives, and said ''the goal is to confuse'' the terrorists.

Asked, for example, if helicopters had been used to extract the Rangers from southern Afghanistan, Myers said, ''If I were to divulge that, then the next time we conduct an operation somewhere in this world on this globe, people would have an understanding of how we operate.''

Goure noted that many military operations, both special ops and conventional, become public only when former soldiers tell war stories -- sometimes decades later.

Details of the killing of refugees at No Gun Ri by Army troops in 1950 took a half-century to surface, Goure said. Information about Sen. Bob Kerrey's actions as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam came out more than 30 years later. Stories of special ops teams hunting Scud missile sites in the Gulf War have appeared, but there has been no hard information about how far the teams went into Iraq.

It's still unclear where all the Apache helicopters were based during the Kosovo air campaign, Pike said.

All of that secrecy will be magnified in Afghanistan -- and beyond.

''Here, almost everything we do will be behind the line of secrecy,'' Daalder said. ''That's very different.''

Sally Buzbee covers foreign affairs and military matters for The Associated Press.

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