[Marxism] NYT: U.S. Aid Was a Key to the Hostage Rescue

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Sun Jul 13 13:44:33 MDT 2008

(Bragging by Washington comes as no surprise, or it shouldn't. More
of the details will certainly be coming out in the coming weeks, and
gee, how convenient, to have John McCain there for a sound byte, too.)

July 13, 2008

U.S. Aid Was a Key to the Hostage Rescue

BOGOTÁ, Colombia - The United States played a more elaborate role in
the events leading up to this month's rescue operation of 15 hostages
in the Colombian jungle than had been previously acknowledged,
including the deployment of more than 900 American military personnel
members to Colombia earlier this year in efforts to locate the
hostages, according to an official briefed on these efforts.

At one point in the first three months of 2008, the number of
American military personnel members in Colombia passed the limit of
800 established by law, but a legal loophole in the United States
allowed the authorities to go above that level since the service
members, including more than 40 members of the Special Operations
forces, were involved in search and rescue operations of American

The official who provided this detailed account spoke to The New York
Times and several other news organizations, asking not to be
identified because of the political sensitivity surrounding the
involvement of American forces in Colombia. (Normally only about 400
to 500 American military personnel members are believed to operate in
Colombia in noncombat roles.) A spokesman at the United States
Embassy here declined to comment on the account.

Some of the details provided by the official have been confirmed by
Colombian officials. But other details could not immediately be
corroborated Saturday with other sources.

According to the official's account, the United States pared down its
military presence in Colombia in early March after problems arose in
attempts to track a unit of the rebels, the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guarding three American defense
contractors. Alexander Farfán, commander of the rebel unit holding
the three men, discovered an American surveillance device planted in
a remote area of southern Colombia, prompting the rebels to change
location quickly.

At that point, Colombian military officials began devising their own
plan to free the hostages by infiltrating the rebels' radio
communications system and convincing a regional guerrilla commander
that he needed to transfer the hostages aboard the helicopter of a
fictitious aid group. The Colombians delayed formally informing the
American authorities here of their plan until June 25, just a week
before it was carried out on July 2.

In the earlier search-and-rescue effort with heavier American
involvement, personnel included F.B.I. hostage negotiators embedded
with Colombian counterparts at a location in San José del Guaviare, a
provincial capital 200 miles southeast of Bogotá, and members of
American Special Operations forces inserted into small Colombian
reconnaissance teams tracking the rebels on foot through the jungle.

Hundreds of American support personnel members on the ground in
Colombia complemented these elite forces, in addition to a frenzied
intelligence-gathering operation located in the United States Embassy
here, drawing on intercepts of the rebel group's radio systems, human
intelligence, satellite imaging and "air breathers," as piloted
surveillance aircraft are called in military jargon.

The idea then was for Colombian forces to surround rebel units in the
jungle and encourage them to negotiate the release of their captives,
emphasizing that no attack on them was imminent. Given the rebel
group's execution of captives in previous military rescue efforts,
the chances of such a plan succeeding were believed to be dim by both
Colombian and American officials.

The plan later devised by Colombian military intelligence officials
first came into focus for the Americans in early June when they began
intercepting communications pointing to three rebel units shifting in
the jungle to converge near the village of Tomachipan, a location
near where Venezuelan envoys picked up two hostages freed by the
rebels in January.

Soon after American officials asked Colombia's government about the
movements, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos invited William R.
Brownfield, the American ambassador to Colombia, to a meeting at his
home here to go over the details of the plan, called Operation Check,
as in "checkmate." After that meeting, the United States placed
military and intelligence personnel members alongside Colombian
officials planning the operation.

While the Colombians devised and carried out the operation with a
team of more than a dozen elite Colombian commandos disguised as aid
workers, television journalists and rebels, they did so with some
important assistance from the United States, which provides Colombia
with $600 million of aid a year as part of a counterinsurgency and
antinarcotics project that has made Colombia the top American
military ally in Latin America.

For instance, the Americans provided emergency signaling technology
on the two Russian-built Mi-17 helicopters used in the operation,
only one of which landed, in addition to tiny beaconing systems
placed with all the commandos. An American audio system to transmit
the operation live to personnel in Bogotá was also put on the
helicopters, but it did not work well when the sounds were drowned
out by the noise the rotor blades generated.

While the Colombians and Americans generally agreed on the details of
the operation as it was put into motion, some differences emerged,
like when American officials resisted a plan to place two former
rebels among the commandos aboard the helicopter, apparently in an
attempt to assuage any concerns the guerrillas might have in handing
over their captives.

In the end, just one former rebel member took part in the mission
aboard the helicopter. On July 2, a small number of diplomats,
military officers and intelligence officials gathered in a safe room
at the American Embassy to monitor the operation.

The mission, originally intended to last 8 minutes on the ground as
the hostages boarded the aircraft, ended up taking more than 25
minutes. The delays intensified the anxiety in the safe room in
Bogotá, which was relieved only when an American military official in
direct contact with a colleague in San José del Guaviare proclaimed,
"Helos with pax," military slang for helicopters with passengers.

"Fifteen pax, all airborne, all good to go," he continued, and
embassy officials quickly scrambled to push ahead with a plan to get
the three rescued Americans on an Air Force C-17 bound for Texas.

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