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Today’s collaboration fueled by failed Iran mission

By Jason Moll, Office of Corporate Communications
Pathfinder Magazine
Dec. 1, 2014


Shortly after the tragic end to the 1980 mission to rescue the U.S. embassy hostages, the Joint Chiefs of Staff commissioned a study to examine the mission’s planning and implementation as a basis for improving special operations in the future.

Excessive constraints on operational collaboration and mission planning, and the lack of coordination among the armed services were issues highlighted by the Special Operations Review Group, led by former Chief of Naval Operations James L. Holloway III.

OPSEC involves all of the measures required to protect sensitive activities and operations. Mission planners took extreme OPSEC measures to prevent the mission’s discovery, the Holloway Commission found in its unclassified report published Aug. 23, 1980.

“Surprise was [the essential element] for mission success, and complete security was essential to attain surprise,” the report said.

To prevent unauthorized disclosures and mission compromise, participants were only given the information required to fulfill their responsibilities, the report found.

While the commission was not designed to levy blame, its members questioned whether OPSEC inhibited a comprehensive understanding among the participants and contributed to its failure.

Brian Detrick, a former CIA analyst who provided planners with imagery intelligence, said that OPSEC was too tight at the time. Detrick was among several analysts who provided information the soldiers needed to rehearse the rescue attempt. While other CIA imagery analysts scouted areas for possible landing sites, the teams were not allowed to discuss their work with each other.

“I think [OPSEC] was too good,” said Detrick. “On the imagery side, we could have reinforced each other better if we knew what [others were] doing. It did cause some difficulties.”

The inability to discuss the mission engendered hard feelings among Detrick’s colleagues, especially after requests for information were denied, he said.

The lack of coordination among the services — what Detrick called interservice rivalry — was another issue the commission cited. Detrick said he experienced this rivalry firsthand.

“It was the mindset that if you’ve got a big, high-profile operation like this, every service has got to be involved,” said Detrick. “Instead of who can do the job best, the Navy has to have a part, Army has to have a part and the Air Force has to have a part.”

Special operations forces were flown into Iran on Air Force planes, while naval helicopters stood by to fly the hostages to safety.

The helicopter pilots had to fly for hours in a sandstorm to reach the desert staging area. The storm, called a haboob, caught the pilots by surprise and contributed to the mechanical problems that left three helicopters inoperable and prompted commanders to cancel the rescue attempt. A helicopter collided with a C-130 turboprop airplane while leaving the staging area, killing eight servicemen.

While the poor weather conditions caught the military pilots by surprise, the CIA’s pilots were deeply familiar with Iran and its weather conditions, said Detrick. He recommended that CIA pilots fly the mission and wonders if the rivalry between the CIA and military played a part in the decision not to use the agency’s pilots.

“I don’t know whether that was a CIA management call. But, I do know from talking with our managers that the interaction between the [CIA Directorate of Operations] and the military wasn’t all that good,” said Detrick.

The lack of coordination among the armed services led to the formation of the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, in 1983. JSOC is charged with coordinating activities among the special operations components of each of the services and ensuring their interoperability.

The intelligence community and military have both made major strides in improving mission planning, interoperability and OPSEC, ensuring effective coordination in the years following the Desert One tragedy, said the mission manager responsible for OPSEC at NGA. The mission to find Osama bin Laden stands out as a major operation where planners were able to find the right fit in terms of mission planning and execution, operational collaboration and OPSEC— those who needed to know were able to obtain the appropriate level of information at the appropriate time to do their jobs. NGA played an important role in the bin Laden operation and created the model of the Abbottabad compound where he was found.

While agency rivalries may have inhibited information sharing in the past, the IC’s mantra has been integration and collaboration since the 9/11 Commission highlighted the issues in its 2004 report to the public, the OPSEC manager said.

The creation of the IC Desktop Environment, or IC DTE, is one aspect of the ongoing integration of the IC, the mission manager said. The DTE was officially launched in 2011 as part of the IC Information Technology Enterprise, which is designed to increase efficiencies, improve collaboration and deliver cost savings.

“The emphasis on collaboration and sharing means that we’re working together more effectively and executing the mission,” the OPSEC mission manager said.

“We’re in a much better state today than we were 20 or 30 years ago.”