Source "B" was shaken but not stirred when we first met. The odour of fear and uncertainty was palpable - a fact that was no surprise in view of what I was about to be told. This wasn't my first 007 Bond-like covert rendezvous, but it would certainly be my most startling.
We had agreed to meet in order that the source could tell me about a highly secret and even more highly sensitive US operation known as "Black Dog." Neither of us trusted electronic communication and, therefore, a face-to-face meeting was essential.
It was a sunny day and our encounter was in a seamy pub somewhere in the countryside of England. I had watched my back the entire journey - just in case. The meeting followed a story I had written on Gulf War Illness, when I had cautiously been told about a top secret US mission known as "Black Cat." This, I was told, involved a "black" US B52 bomber launching from Offut AFB in Nebraksa, and flying a round-trip to the Persian Gulf.
The hulking bomber carried one bomb packed with VX nerve agent, the most potent chemical weapon in the US CW armoury. The bomb was dropped on elements of the Republican Guard in Southern Iraq, I was informed. Heavy casualties apparently resulted. The operation, directed by the Central Intelligence Agency, was a counter-strike, following an Iraqi Scud that fell on Israel. The missile had contained Sarin and drove the Israeli government almost apoplectic with rage. Fuming, the Israeli's had readied to detonate a nuclear warhead high above Baghdad. Only the swift intervention of President George Bush forestalled what would have been a cataclysmic move destined to unravel the carefully wrought Arab backed Coalition lined-up against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
To avoid any of the nerve agent being blown back towards coalition troops, the mission involved the launch, from Dhahran of a C130 Hercules carrying one, possibly two, massive five ton Fuel Air bombs. These were detonated above ground zero - the location of the VX chemical agent strike - to ensure all traces of the nerve agent were destroyed. Quite possibly, the Fuel Air Device destroyed all evidence of the illegal counter-strike too, by incinerating bodies. Cleansing by fire is as old as warfare itself.
This information led me to speak to various sources as I searched for corroboration. I was advised to contact Tim Sebastian, former BBC correspondent and well-known author. During a brief telephone call, Sebastian confirmed he also had the same information as I, as recommended I contact the Countess of Mar - a House of Lords representative with a special interest in Gulf War issues. I met Margaret Mar one evening in late summer 1997. A charming and honest individual, she confirmed she had taken Sebastian's information to the Ministry of Defence in private. They later informed her that following consultation with the US Department of Defense officials, no record of the mission had been found. Clearly this was no denial.
Moreover, their explanation didn't gel in other significant ways. The official who responded to the MOD enquiry was Bernard Rostker, the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illness. Hardly, I thought, the person one would expect to be privy to top secret information on a sensitive CIA operation. Besides, I was to later learn that Black Cat almost certainly was subject to a "compartmented" mission name. This simply means that at different levels of the command structure the mission would have been assigned a different name. This nifty device - not dissimilar from Admiral Horatio Nelson holding a telescope to his blind-eye and observing he "sees no ships," - caters nicely to instant deniability, but also helps to identify the level that leaks originate from. Clever. In any event, months later, in December 1997, Tim Sebastian told me that he had fully corroborated Black Cat during a month-long trip to the USA. This was good news but not surprising.
In any event, Source B was concerned not with Black Cat - which I learned he knew about in some detail - but a second, far more sensitive mission known as "Black Dog." This mission had occurred around 25 February 1991 and involved Biological weapons, I was told. Specifically the weapon was a bacterium that resulted in those contaminated drowning in their own bodily fluids. Black Dog involved an aircraft launched from a US carrier in the Red Sea that was targeted on an Iraqi CB weapons plant. The bomb was designed to spread its load via an aerosol spray. Source B provided additional information that cannot be revealed for fear of identifying the individual and other sources.
My first meeting with Lady Mar was predominantly to discuss this second mission. Both she and Tim Sebastian were aware of a second mission that they both knew as "Black Cat 11," but possessed no details. I was not surprised. Some weeks earlier I had contacted a senior US journalist, asking if he would collaborate on my story. I gave him a brief outline of Black Cat, hoping he may stumble on to Black Dog, too. He did, or at least got details of a mission remarkably similar.
Months of investigation resulted in the development of the following mission details:
Original source (B) states that Black Dog entailed the launch of a US Navy warplane from a US Carrier on station in the Red Sea. The source remains unable to identify which of two carriers the aircraft launched from (both the USS Saratoga and the USS Kennedy were on station in the Red Sea during this time-frame: 24/25 February 1991). Nor is source able to provide exact date of this mission. The source further stated that aircrew and ground-crew were CIA.
The source continued by stating that the aircraft dropped biological warfare munition(s) on an Iraqi chemical/biological weapons factory and that numerous deaths resulted. Source states the munition (s) contained a bacteriological agent with a life of no more than 48 hours. The bacterium was not communicable, and had no given name, only a batch number. Those attacked with this weapon drowned in their own bodily fluids, according to the source, who added that the bio-bomb was parachute deployed and its contents dispersed by aerosol spray.
US Sources state that a US Navy S3A Viking aircraft crash landed (presumably as a result of ground fire) behind enemy lines prior to the commencement of the ground war. It is unknown if the aircraft was outward bound on its mission or homebound afterwards. In any event, the spectre of a US "sanitised" aircraft heavily armed with chemical and possibly biological weapons, over-flying hostile territory during time of war logically excludes the possibility this was a training or any other "innocent" mission.
The Viking is used in a long-range recconassaince/anti submarine warfare role. It is thus only lightly armed for defence. In this instance, however, sources say the aircraft was heavily modified with stealth capabilities and was coloured a flat dark grey. The aircraft had no markings, insignia or other identification. Instrumentation was United States manufacture. Bombs were externally attached to wing pylons. The procedure of using unmarked military aircraft (known as “sanitised” i.e., plausible deniability) is known to be consistent with numerous other CIA “black” operations that have reached the public domain.
Sources additionally confirm the mission was conducted under the auspices of the Central Intelligence Agency and that the pilot was an Agency employee (presumably a “sheep-dipped” USN pilot). The aircraft carried, we are told, only two bombs due to “weight considerations.” The downed aircraft had one remaining bomb attached to external pylons. This munition contained a deadly mixture of Tabun, Sarin and Cyclo-Sarin. However, US sources are unable to identify a target or confirm whether this aircraft launched from a USN carrier - giving rise to understandable caution that this was one and the same mission – although the mission profile is similar.
Meanwhile, US sources confirm that the crash site was approximately 60 kilometres behind enemy lines (exact co-ordinates 45.90E – 29.73N) – in a barren wilderness. There the aircraft remained for several days. In the interim, the pilot, who did not eject but came down with his aircraft, was recovered alive.
Following the launch of the Ground War (24 February 1991), US and French divisions swept Iraqi forces away from the general area (As Salman), thereby permitting intact recovery of the aircraft. Consequently, a US two man Black Ops “Search Team” were dispatched from Camp Four, in Saudi Arabia (co-ordinates 44.30E-29.00N) to locate the crashed aircraft and provide exact co-ordinates for recovery.
Camp Four was a large sprawling complex that housed mostly US forces, but some British elements too. It was a jump off point for the US 101 Airborne (Screaming Eagles) into Iraq on the night of 23/24 February 1991. The complex was extensively used to house and repair a variety of equipment.
The two man search team travelled North, into Iraq, by Jeep on or about 27/28 February 1991. Sources state the aircraft crashed approximately one week earlier and that the delay in commencing search and recovery operations was due to the imminent commencement of the ground war. Neither members of the two man search team were US Government employees. In fact, a private US company, almost certainly a CIA proprietary, employed both. Both individuals wore battle-dress but no insignia or other identifying patches – a fact that is again consistent with CIA black operations. An independent British military source has confirmed the presence at Camp Four, of a two man US “Spec Ops” team, in late February 1991. Source stated they were US SpecOps, no insignia or rank apparent and provided a physical description of one individual.
Some distance into Iraq, heading due north along the 45.90 East Latitude co-ordinate the search team observed the downed aircraft from a distance, we are told. Inspection via binoculars showed the right wing of the aircraft to be missing. The left wing was intact. Further observation revealed the presence of one remaining bomb located on the external pylon closest to the fuselage. The bomb was coloured a matt black with no visible marking. It was leaking.
Both team members donned CB protective equipment, we are informed, and approached. The bomb contained a German manufactured fuse designed to ignite the munition above ground. It was identified as a Mark Eleven Seven munition (MC 117) modified for liquid chemical usage and comprised of a steel body with a Mark 131 fin assembly and Central Bursting Tube - according to information made available.
A chemical weapons test with a field test kit (designated “Mary 256”) was conducted and revealed the munition to contain a mixture of Tabun, Sarin and Cyclo-Sarin. It must be stressed that a chemical weapon field test kit would not, repeat not, be capable of detecting the presence of any biological weapon whatsoever. Field detection of biological organisms/bacterium is considerably more complex and requires specialist personnel and equipment. This point is stressed for obvious reasons. The presence of a bacterium as outlined by primary source is neither corroborated, nor ruled out, by these discoveries. However, it is significant that prevailing NATO and Soviet doctrine in the use of biological and chemical weapons, called the use of a “mixed load” – that is to say, munitions would typically carry a varied mixture of inter-acting chemical and biological agents/organisms.
The search team reported their discovery to base, and was ordered to withdraw immediately. Prior to departing the crash site, both team members were puzzled by the presence of a number of dead Iraqi soldiers. All wore face masks (possibly CB protective gear, but may also have been protection against wind-borne sand) and showed no apparent entry wounds or other manifestations of their fatalities. Both team members were said to be sufficiently perplexed by these bodies to take colour photographs of them, we were informed. These photographs and other details were later forwarded to a United Nations source for investigation.
Having left the crash site, the search team were replaced by a US Navy affiliated “Recovery Team.” The latter team recovered the aircraft. The bomb was recovered and transported elsewhere. The damaged aircraft was airlifted – presumably by a Jolly Green Giant helicopter – back to Camp Four and temporarily housed in a compound surrounded with barbed wire. Here, a number of individuals managed to photograph the damaged aircraft on site. Copies of these and other supporting data were privately forwarded to the United Nations for investigation. Meanwhile, other military sources confirm the presence of the barbed wire compound at that location.
The two man Black Ops (search) team were in the Gulf acting under Army Command. Their mission, and, we are told, that of the latter recovery team, was conducted under the orders of General Fred Franks, commander of V11 Corps – the single largest unit in the Gulf war. Both the “Search” and “Recovery” teams formed part of a Special Unit with the designation “SCRSWA” operated under the direct command of Colonel Johnson (attached to AVSCOM – Aviation System Command, US Army). This unit has not been identified, despite a telephone call to the Pentagon library. A Pentagon employee told this writer, with a nervous laugh, that the unit designation is unknown. According to sources, there was a British involvement. This has yet to be identified and confirmed, but it thought possible the bacteriological weapon may have been of British manufacture. In any event, the remaining munition was placed in the custody of Colonel Johnson, sources say. Both members of the search team were specialists in placing, concealing and camouflaging surveillance devices, we were told. These included placing aircraft laser targeting packages.
In November 1997, at my request, the Countess of Mar, in the company of the former Foreign Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Howe, met with a senior Ministry of Defence official to discuss Operation Black Dog. The meeting was acrimonious. The result was that the MOD official could neither confirm nor deny the operation but, personally doubted the possibility that a Viking aircraft would be cast in such a role. If this remains the official's only qualitative doubt, I have some advice for him.
A phone call to the premier and highly respected publication, Janes Defence Weekly, will be rewarded with an informative discussion about the aircraft's capability and the US Navy's "Gung Ho" attitude when it comes to "black" operations. One of Jane's expert journalists told me - months prior to the MOD meeting - that there is nothing theoretically to stop a Viking from flying a mission as outlined. The journalist went on to describe other missions even more "apparently" unlikely, including the launch of U2 "spy-planes" from US Navy carriers - amongst other facts.
It remains to be stated that I was advised - from entirely unrelated sources and, in fact, an entirely unrelated story - that a special CIA team of flyers was stationed at Offut AFB during the Gulf war. One of these, a former Navy pilot, and senior team member, is alleged to have been posted to a US aircraft carrier to assume temporary duty (TDY) as Commander Air Group (CAG) during the same time-frame. For a variety of reasons, I now nurture some suspicions that this later information may have been artfully "planted" as disinformation in order to discredit this story. The identity of the senior team member, employed by the CIA and ONI, is known to me, as is his background, and somewhat adds to my concerns. However, I cannot rule out the possibility that this additional information might have reached my attention innocently and coincidentally and, could be accurate?
As our investigation of this story continued, we learned of a possible reason for Black Dog. In late February 1991, an Iraqi Scud had landed in Israel. Sources were able to confirm that the missile contained biological organisms that were "dead on arrival." Whether the organisms were meant to be dead or not wasn't clear, but Iraqi in-expertise in these matters is well-known. This clearly, in the light of the prevailing logic of Black Cat, to be sufficient reason to authorise Black Dog, I believe.
The foregoing, it must be said, is powerful evidence that the US may have engaged in at least two chemical and biological warfare missions during the Gulf war. It is not, however, proof positive. Caution is understandably a key-word amongst the journalistic fraternity. At the same time outside and perverse influence to "spike" or otherwise discredit highly sensitive news stories is increasingly a fact-of-life. Those who might doubt that the media could be so easily seduced need only focus their attention on the consequences of the Gary Webb/San Jose Mercury News "Dark Alliance Series," to witness media timidity.
Having personally worked on the foregoing story for almost nine months, and witnessed numerous editors, journalists and other media representatives shy-away from it for no good reason, I am inclined to conclude that this is one of those stories destined never to reach the light of day.
The hell with that.