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May 3, 2002
Notes from the Pentagon

Covert action
Under the radar screen, British Special Air Service (SAS) troops are waging a drug war in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is the source for most of the heroin that enters Europe and Great Britain, with devastating effects on the population. Early on in the war, designated SAS units began conducting raids on suspected safe houses for huge stashes of heroin processed from Afghanistan's abundant poppy harvest. The country's farmers can turn out poppy virtually year-round, harvesting the crop in the spring in the south and in the fall in the cooler north.

We are told these SAS units have enjoyed great success in finding and destroying huge stockpiles of drugs. The search-and-destroy missions continue.

Gulf shootout
A U.S. Navy replenishment ship was threatened by several small boats during an encounter April 23 near Iran.

The USS Walter S. Diehl, an underway replenishment oiler, was passing through the Strait of Hormuz when it was approached by as many as six deep-v small power boats. The ship fired flares to warn the approaching boats away, but the boats kept coming closer.

A gunner on Diehl opened fire with a 50-caliber machine gun. The boats sped off.

"They tried to surrender, but the ship kept going," one official said of the incident.

Defense officials suspect the boats were smugglers from Oman. "They did not appear to be terrorists," the official said.

However, since the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, Navy warships have orders to take no chances with approaching small boats. Terrorists associated with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network carried out a suicide bombing of the Cole using a small boat packed with explosives. The blast killed 17 sailors, wounded 39 and ripped open a 40-foot-wide hole that nearly sank the ship.

The Diehl belongs to the Military Sealift Command's Far East command. The 677-foot ship is one of 34 oilers that are used to support Navy ships in the region.

Bad feelings
Emotions are running hot in the Pentagon and State Department, as civilian policy-makers are growing to dislike their counterparts over the issue of toppling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

It's no secret that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and his band of civilian policy-makers, want the war on terrorism extended to toppling Saddam's regime. It is also well known that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is skeptical of invading Iraq and publicly dismisses talk of war.

But what's not well known is the depth of resentment on the two sides.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a former Navy SEAL who did four combat tours in Vietnam, derisively refers to hard-line Pentagon civilians as the "Harvard crowd."

Some Pentagon officials make fun of Mr. Armitage's hobby of lifting weights, saying he could make better use of his time.

Army's crusade
Pentagon civilians are furious at the Army for purportedly lobbying Congress behind the scenes to save the Crusader artillery piece from cancellation.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz informed Army Secretary Thomas E. White on Tuesday that his staff had decided to terminate the $11 billion program, one of the Army's top priorities.

Mr. White, a Vietnam combat veteran, is fighting the decision. His stance is an acceptable protest by the rules of bureaucracy. But some of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld's aides believe the Army crossed the line by immediately starting to lobby Congress to save the 155 mm, self-propelled howitzer.

"OSD [Office of Secretary of Defense] is mad because they think the Army went behind Rumsfeld's back," one defense official said.

"We are looking into that right now," Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters yesterday, when asked about the Army lobbying.

Cambone's defenders
Last week, we told how Lawrence DiRita, special assistant to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, came to the defense of Stephen Cambone, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy. We had reported on Mr. Cambone's unpopularity in some Pentagon quarters for pushing budget cuts. Mr. DiRita, in a letter to The Washington Times, took us to task for understating Mr. Cambone's extensive defense experience.

This week, another Pentagon leader, Vice Adm. Mike Mullen, came to Mr. Cambone's defense. Adm. Mullen, who is deputy chief of naval operations for resources, requirements and assessments, said he wants to offer a different side of Mr. Cambone than the one we, and other writers, have presented.

"He has worked hard to be very collaborative in my experience with him," said Adm. Mullen. The admiral said he meets up to three times a week with Mr. Cambone on budget issues.

We have written that Mr. Cambone is combative and dismissive in some meetings with uniformed officers. Some resent his penchant to want to cut force structure, saying he fails to realize how it increases the risks of more casualties.

"I just haven't experienced any of those things," said Adm. Mullen, adding that he has not heard of complaints from other services.

Speicher update
Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, has asked Syria's President Bashar Assad, to use the Syrian intelligence service to help resolve the case of missing U.S. Navy pilot Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher.

Mr. Nelson, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, said in a floor speech Monday that Mr. Assad had agreed to help during a recent meeting in Damascus.

"I asked the Syrian president if he would use his good offices and task his intelligence apparatus to see what they could find out from Iraq and their contacts with Iraqi intelligence activities," Mr. Nelson said.

Mr. Nelson said he spoke to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld this week about the case of the missing pilot. Cmdr. Speicher was declared killed in action in 1991, then reclassified as missing in action by the Pentagon last year.

The Pentagon is mulling an offer from Baghdad to send a team of investigators to Iraq to look for Cmdr. Speicher, who according to intelligence reports was seen alive last year.

Mr. Nelson is the first Democrat to speak out on behalf of Cmdr. Speicher. The Speicher family lives in his home state of Florida. Until Monday, the only senators who have taken up the cause are Republican Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas, Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama.

"What we need to do," Mr. Nelson said, "is to use every avenue to try to find out, is he alive? Is he in Iraq? If he is, we need to get him out. If he is not, we need to find out the specific circumstances that led to his death after his apparent surviving being shot down in the Iraqi desert."

Mr. Nelson said any delegation sent to Iraq should be a "high-level" team that can investigate one eyewitness report that said Cmdr. Speicher was driven to a hospital from his crash site in 1991.

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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