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October 31, 2003
Notes from the Pentagon

Mission impossible
A U.S. rescue of the three Defense Department contractors held hostage in Colombia is all but impossible at this stage, administration officials tell us.

This is because their brutal captors, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), guard them in a multilayered ring of sentries in thick jungle growth. There is the base camp holding the three, then two to four outer rings of FARC guards.

A Delta Force unit would have to be inserted in the area undetected. That's a tough first step, since the sound of any helicopters would be a tip-off. Then, the commandos would have to breach the dense security perimeters and exit with the hostages before FARC reinforcements arrived.

"Anyone flying a helo has to be government," said one official. "How do you get in?"

The contractors were trying to spot coca labs when their aircraft's engine quit over the Yari jungle Feb. 13. They survived a glide landing, only to be taken prisoner by the notorious FARC. The terrorist group claims a left-wing ideology, but is a murderous band of criminals that funds operations from the lucrative cocaine trade.

Sources said the best chance of Colombia or U.S. troops freeing the hostages is to launch when the FARC is moving them and security is not so tight. For that, the United States will need "actionable" intelligence — which is sometimes a rare commodity in the global war on terrorism.

The FARC, which makes a practice of kidnapping journalists, politicians and anyone else of value, recently released a videotape of the three Americans. They appeared to be in good health considering their circumstances, U.S. officials said.

Personnel changes
Peter Flory, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, is the likely choice to be the next assistant defense secretary for international security policy, we have learned.

He would replace the outgoing assistant secretary, J.D. Crouch, who is returning to his job as a professor at Southwest Missouri State University.

Also, Marshall Billingslea, who for a time was an acting assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, is set to became the No. 2 U.S. official at NATO.

Cao snubbed
The Chinese Embassy in Washington held a dinner banquet for visiting Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan on Tuesday. The dinner however, was hampered by a major no-show: Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The defense secretary instead sent a deputy undersecretary of defense, Ryan Henry, in his place. A Pentagon spokesman said the secretary had a prior engagement and was unable to attend.

Pro-China officials in the Bush administration got a boost on Wednesday when the president dropped by a meeting between National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Gen. Cao. Conservatives had sought to dissuade Mr. Bush from meeting the general.

At the banquet, several former high-ranking U.S. officials were in attendance, including former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci, former Defense Secretary William Perry and former National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger.

One U.S. official said the Chinese hosts, including Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi, were "visibly stunned" by Mr. Rumsfeld's snub.

Watching North Korea
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, director of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), said U.S. space spies are watching closely for any signs North Korea might conduct a nuclear test.

"We are intensely monitoring activity in North Korea," Gen. Clapper said.

He noted that having spent two years as the intelligence director for U.S. Forces Korea, "you're dealing with a very, very tough, very secure target." North Korea does much of its military activity in underground shelters to avoid U.S. spy satellites.

"I don't want to mislead you to say that something is imminent ... but we are certainly watching very carefully what is going on in North Korea," he said. "It's a major concern of ours."

A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said Oct. 18 that "the strengthening of our nuclear deterrent will be proved in practice when the time comes," a statement interpreted by U.S. officials as a possible nuclear test.

U.S. intelligence agencies are "bringing all capabilities to bear to detect the most subtle anomaly," Gen. Clapper said.

Gen. Clapper said about 90 NIMA intelligence specialists were deployed to Iraq during the conflict to assist the U.S. military. The specialists handled dissemination of satellite intelligence, which is used in targeting and bomb-damage assessment.

NIMA, an offshoot of the supersecret National Reconnaissance Office, analyzes satellite photographs and other images and makes maps for the U.S. government. The agency will be renamed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency as part of the changes now in the pending fiscal 2004 defense authorization bill.

Media thrust
The Pentagon is following the White House lead on how to get its message on Iraq to the American people.

It launched this week a series of interviews by top department officials. The interviewers are not the regular Pentagon reporters, but TV affiliate stations around the country. President Bush did the same maneuver earlier this month, going over the heads of a hostile White House press corps.

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

  • 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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