Unintentional Human Error Led to Airstrikes on Syrian Troops, Pentagon Says: Greater Care Is Required in Many Areas


The US Central Command (CENTCOM) Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar (above). It is comprised of a joint US military and Coalition team that executes day-by-day combined air and space operations and provides rapid reaction, positive control, coordination, and deconfliction of weapons systems. On September 17, 2016, CAOC was monitoring a Coalition airstrike over Deir Ezzor when Russian Federation forces informed it that the attack was hitting a Syrian military position. The attack impacted a US diplomatic effort with Russia on Syria.

According to a November 29, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Unintentional Human Error Led to Airstrikes on Syrian Troops, Pentagon Says,” the US Department of Defense identified “unintentional” human mistakes as the causality for the US-led airstrikes that killed dozens of Syrian government troops in September 17, 2016. The strikes occurred as a deal to ease hostilities in Syria, brokered by the US and Russia, was unraveling. They particularly undercut US Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to coordinate the US and Russian air campaigns over Syria. Russian Federation military units, which were working closely with the forces of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad to fight ISIS and other rebels, said the attack had killed 62 Syrian troops and wounded more than 100. The attack marked the first time the US had engaged the Syrian military since it began targeting the ISIS in Syria and Iraq two years ago. It was determined as result of the investigation, led by US Air Force Brigadier General Richard Coe, that the attack was conducted under the “good-faith belief” that the targets were ISIS militants. It also concluded that the strikes did not violate the law of armed conflict or the rules for the US military. Danish, British and Australian forces also participated in the airstrike. Coe said, “In my opinion, these were a number of people all doing their best to do a good job.”

As Kerry was engaged in a crucial effort to persuade Russia to coordinate its air campaign in Syria with similar US efforts when the airstrike occurred, greatcharlie has been fogged-in over why the risky attack was ever ordered. In a previous post, greatcharlie stated that Russian Federation military commanders could benefit greatly from working alongside US air commanders and planners. It was also suggested that the US might provide a demonstration of its targeting and operational capabilities to encourage Russia’s cooperation. However, the errant attack was certainly not the sort of demonstration greatcharlie had in mind. On better days, US air commanders and planners have demonstrated a practically unmatched acumen in using air assets of the US-led coalition’s anti-ISIS air campaign to shape events on the ground in support of the goals of US civilian leaders. US air commanders and planners have very successfully conducted No-Fly Zones and sustained air campaigns over the past three decades, in Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, where political goals endured, and in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Those experienced enough in life fully understand that it has its promises and disappointments. Whether events go well or negatively for one, an authentic truth is revealed in the outcome from which valuable, edifying lessons as well as new ideas can be extrapolated. The errant bombing of September 17, 2016 and findings of the investigation of it have come late in the administration of US President Barack Obama. Too little time is really available for lessons from the incident to influence any remaining decisions that the administration might make on Syria or military coordination and cooperation with Russia. The subsequent collapse of the negotiations on military coordination may have assured such decisions would not be required. Yet, for the incoming US administration, they may offer some useful hints on negotiating military coordination and cooperation with Russia on Syria or other countries on other issues if the opportunity arises. A few of those lessons are presented here with the hope they might mitigate the potential of an unfortunate military incident as witnessed in Syria that might also derail a crucial diplomatic effort. The overall hope is that the next administration will be tended by an honorable peace. Quidquid ages, prudenter agas et respice finem! (Whatever you do, do cautiously, and look to the end!)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leave after their bilateral meeting at the APEC Ministers Summit in Lima

The airstrike undercut US Secretary of State John Kerry’s (right) diplomatic effort with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) to coordinate the US and Russian air campaigns over Syria. Bringing Russia over to the US view was already dicey. A few days before the incident, the US and Russia exchanged charges of noncompliance with a ceasefire agreement reached on September 12th in Geneva.

This Was Not the Demonstration of US Capabilities Imagined

The Obama administration may not have actually been enthused about working with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin on Syria, but it recognized that Russia, with its considerable military investment in Syria, can play an important role in ending the war. To that extent, it sought to have Putin agree to have agreement crafted by Kerry and Lavrov to cooperate militarily. The agreement called for formation of a US-Russia Joint Implementation Center to coordinate strikes against ISIS as well as Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic militant forces after there had been seven consecutive days of reduced violence in the civil war and humanitarian aid had begun to flow to besieged communities in Syria. Bringing Russia over to the US view was already dicey enough. A few days before the incident, the US and Russia exchanged charges of noncompliance with the ceasefire agreement that Kerry and Lavrov reached on September 12, 2016 in Geneva.

On August 20, 2016, greatcharlie suggested the US could increase the value of its assistance through an actual demonstration of US capabilities to further encourage a change in Putin’s perspective on Kerry’s proposal on military cooperation. Included among recommendations was providing Putin with a complete US military analysis of the setbacks Russia and its allies have faced in Syria, and the relative strengths and weakness versus their Islamic militant opponents. The exact manner in which intelligence resources the US proposed to share with Russia and US military resources would have been of value to Russia could have been demonstrated by targeting and destroying a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria. Where possible, US airstrikes could have disrupted and destroyed developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Through a video of the attacks, Putin could have been shown how the unique capabilities of US weapons systems could enhance the quality of Russian airstrikes. He might also have been provided with US military assessments of those attacks.

The US Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees US military operations in the Middle East, told the Russians in advance about the planned strike on an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province, calling it a “professional courtesy.” A senior US official said the Russians had acknowledged the message, thereby assuring they would the audience for the US attack. However, after the attack, the Russians had no reason to express appreciation or compliments to CENTCOM. The strike began in the early evening of the next day. According to Russia, two A-10s, two F-16 fighters, and drones of the US-led Coalition were deployed to attack the airfield. They began hitting tanks and armored vehicles. In all, 34 precision guided missiles were erroneously fired on a Syrian Arab Army unit. The attack went on for about 20 minutes, with the planes destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of people in the open desert, the official said. Then, an urgent call came into CENTCOM’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which provides command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and 17 other nations.  The Russians relayed to the CAOC the disappointing news that the US strike was hitting Syrian forces. Four minutes later, the strikes were halted.


A “bombed up” A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter (above). In the early evening of September 17, 2016, two pairs of Coalition A-10 and F-16 fighters along with drones were deployed to attack an airfield in Deir Ezzor. They began hitting tanks and armored vehicles. In all, 34 precision guided missiles were erroneously fired on a Syrian Arab Army position. The attack lasted about 20 minutes, with the fighters destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of Syrian troops in the open desert. If not halted, the entire Syrian unit might have been wiped out.

In Syria over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade enemy air defenses. As aircrews cannot identify targets, bombs are dropped in areas where air intelligence reports the enemy is located. In attacking urban centers, that can result in collateral damage in the form of civilian deaths and injuries and the destruction of nonmilitary structures. US Permanent Representative to the UN, Samantha Power pointed to the issue of targetting by Russian Federation Air Force and Syrian Arab Air Force jets.  On September 17, 2016, Power stated the Syrian government, assisted by Russia, has tortured and bombed its people. She added, “And, yet, in the face of none of these atrocities has Russia expressed outrage, nor has it demanded investigations, nor has it ever called for . . . an emergency meeting of the Security Council” on a Saturday night or any other night.

Air intelligence provides commanders with information on enemy targets to the extent that visual searches of enemy targets is no longer required. Given the speed of fighters and the need to protect aircrews and aircraft from anti-aircraft weapons and other arms, flying at lower altitudes with the goal of identifying targets by visual search is no longer feasible. Even friendly forces are often required to mark targets with flags or smoke for their own safety. US air commanders ordered the attack in the proximity of Syrian forces, calculating that the conclusions of air intelligence about the target were accurate. Informing aircrews that they would be operating in close proximity to Syrian troops did not create any requirement for them to engage in a time consuming, very hazardous, visual search of the target before going into their attack. Nevertheless, as US Air Force Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, the commander of US Air Forces and Combined Forces Air Component in CENTCOM aptly explained, “In this instance, we did not rise to the high standard we hold ourselves to, and we must do better than this each and every time.”


The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services use their intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of air commanders and planners. However, over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties in Syria are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade air defenses. Bombs are dropped where air intelligence reports state the enemy is located. Attacks in urban centers have resulted in civilian deaths and injuries and the destruction of nonmilitary structures.

Intelligence Analysts Erred

The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services proudly use their own intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners would certainly like to believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success without US assistance. However, the summer of 2016 proved to be particularly difficult for Russian Federation forces and their allies as progress eastward toward Raqqa and Deir Ezzor was slowed. ISIS was able to apply pressure, infiltrating into areas retaken by the allies and launching counterattacks. The fight for Aleppo became a greater strain than anticipated. Beyond human intelligence collection–spies, the US gathers continuous signal and geospatial intelligence over Syria. Those multiple streams of intelligence could assist Russian Federation commanders and planners in pinpointing ISIS and other Islamic militant groups on the ground even if they are dispersed. Air assets of the Russian Federation and its allies could destroy them, disrupt their attacks, and support ground maneuver to defeat them. In support of the proposal, Kerry and Lavrov already agreed that a map could be drawn up indicating where Islamic militant forces are positioned. They also agreed that US and Russian military personnel working in the same tactical room would jointly analyze the intelligence and select targets for airstrikes.

Reportedly, US surveillance aircraft had been watching the erroneously-labelled Syrian unit for several days. According to a redacted copy of a report that summarized the investigation, a drone examined an area near an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province in eastern Syria on September 16, 2016, identifying a tunnel entrance, two tents and 10 men. The investigation found that those forces were not wearing recognizable military uniforms or identification flags, and there were no other signs of their ties to the Syrian government. On September 17, 2016, a CENTCOM official, who at the time requested anonymity because the incident was still being investigated, said military intelligence had already identified a cluster of vehicles, which included at least one tank, as belonging to ISIS. Coe stated, “In many ways, these forces looked and acted like the Daesh forces the coalition has been targeting for the last two years,” using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

In a statement on the investigation of the incident, CENTCOM outlined a number of factors that distorted the intelligence picture for the airstrike. Included among them were “human factors” such as “confirmation bias”; “improper labelling”; and invalid assumptions. The Syrian Arab Army unit observed at Deir Ezzor was wrongly identified or labelled as ISIS early in the analytical process. CENTCOM’s statement indicated that incorrect labelling colored later analysis and resulted in the continued misidentification of the Syrian unit on the ground as ISIS. Further, the statement laid out a series of changes to the targeting process that the Defense Department has already made to include more information-sharing among analysts. The US Air Force has independently placed its process for identifying targets under review.

Qui modeste paret, videtur qui aliquando imperet dignus esse. (The one who obeys with modesty appears worthy of being some day a commander.) What appears to have been needed at the time beyond issues concerning tactics, techniques, procedures and methods for conducting air operations was better coordination of its own diplomatic and military activities regarding Syria. As a sensible precaution, US air commanders and planners should have been informed that operations conducted at that time could have considerable positive or negative impact on US diplomatic efforts in Syria. (The publicized record of the investigation does not touch on this point.) The delicate nature of diplomacy would have been factored into planning, not shrugged off. Interference by civilian leaders in military units’ tactical operations is surely not desired by commanders. Yet, by failing to call attention to the unique political and diplomatic environment in which they were operating over Syria, the matter was left open to chance.


MQ-1 Predator drone (above). Reportedly, US surveillance aircraft had been watching the erroneously-labelled Syrian military position for several days. A drone examined an area near an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province on September 16, 2016, identifying a tunnel entrance, two tents and 10 men. The investigation found that those forces were not wearing recognizable military uniforms or identification flags, and there were no other signs of their ties to the Syrian government.

Confirmation Bias and Hormones: Decisionmaking on the Airstrikes

Decipimur specte recti. (We are deceived by the appearance of right.) In the conclusions of the US Defense Department’s investigation, causality for the incident was found to be in part the thinking of US air commanders and planners. It was determined to have been a bit off-kilter and confirmation bias was pointed to specifically. Confirmation bias is a result of the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When individuals desire a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are driven by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to cease collecting information when the evidence gathered at a certain point confirms the prejudices one would like to be true. After an individual has developed a view, the individual embraces any information that confirms it while ignoring, or rejecting, information that makes it unlikely. Confirmation bias suggests that individuals do not perceive circumstances objectively. An individual extrapolates bits of data that are satisfying because they confirm the individual’s prejudices. Therefore, one becomes a prisoner of one’s assumptions. The Roman dictator Gaius Julius Caesar has been quoted as saying “Fene libenter homines id quod volunt credunt,” which means, “Men readily believe what they want to believe.” Under confirmation bias, this is exactly the case.  Attempting to confirm beliefs comes naturally to most individuals, while conversely it feels less desirable and counterintuitive for them to seek out evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This explains why opinions survive and spread. Disconfirming instances must be far more powerful in establishing truth. Disconfirmation requires searching for evidence to disprove a firmly held opinion.

Cogitationem sobrii hominis punctum temporis suscipe. (Take for a moment the reasoning of a quiet man.) For the intelligence analyst, appropriately verifying one’s conclusions is paramount. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. This has been pointed to as a true manifestation of self-confidence: the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can serve a hypothesis and then gather information from each member in a way that allows the expression of independent assessments. A good example can found in police procedure. In order to derive the most reliable information from multiple witnesses to a crime, witnesses are not allowed to discuss it prior to giving their testimony. The goal is to prevent unbiased witnesses from influencing each other. US President Abraham Lincoln intentionally filled his cabinet with rival politicians who had extremely different ideologies. At decision points, Lincoln encouraged passionate debate and discussion.

At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, research is being done to better understand the biological basis for decisionmaking using lab experiments and biological data. Some of the findings of research scientist, Gideon Nave, who came to Wharton from the university’s neuroscience department, prove as relevant to this case as much as confirmation bias. Nave explains that the process of decision-making is influenced by their biological state. Factors that can influence that biological state naturally include hunger, sleep deprivation and stress. However, Nave is also looking deeper at the influence of hormones on decision-making. In dominant situations, different hormones fluctuate in people. For example, stress creates a clearly measurable biological stress response that consists of elevation of several hormones in our body. Nave has focused on noradrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol specifically affects decisionmaking.

In examining decisionmaking, Nave recognizes that people trade-off by people accuracy and speed when making decisions. Cortisol, Nave has found, influences people’s will to give the simple heuristic, or “gut answer” faster, as if they were under time pressure. There is a simple test Nave uses through which one can observe their own responses. It come in the form of a math word problem. There is a bat and a ball for the US sport baseball. Together, they cost $1.10. Now, the bat costs a dollar more than the ball. What’s the price of the ball? More often than not, individuals tested will give their intuitive answer. Indeed, as the ball is 10 cents, and the bat is $1 more, they typically believe it means that the bat is $1.10, so together the bat and ball would be $1.20. However, that would be incorrect. The correct answer is 5 cents and $1.05. When the answer 10 cents is given, it usually has not been thought through. There is no time limit set for providing an answer. There is no incentive offered by the tester for answering with speed. It seems the only real pressure is the desire of an adult, who may be paid for being correct at his or her job, and may be achievement oriented, to correctly answer what is an elementary school-level math woth word problem with speed and confidence.

In analysis at the tactical level, target identification can require splitting-hairs. Much as a bank teller dispensing cash, a mistake by an intelligence can lead to a crisis. Doubt and uncertainty can be mitigated with sufficient, timely redundant assessments. In a sensitive political and diplomatic environment as the one faced in Syria, the slightest uncertainty should have been cause enough to deliberate and think through a target’s identification. While normally action-oriented, in a sensitive political and diplomatic environment, the commander, for that brief period, could order unit commanders and planners exercising caution in targeting and launching attacks.


In anew initial statement (above), CENTCOM, still uncertain, recognized the possibility that Syrian forces were hit in Deir Ezzor. For the intelligence analyst, verifying one’s conclusions is paramount. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. It requires the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can set a hypothesis and gather information from each member, allowing for the expression of independent assessments.

Ensuring the Right-hand and the Left-hand Know What the Head Wants

Perhaps civilian leaders in the Obama administration failed to fully consider or comprehend issues concerning measures used to identify and decide upon targets. Perhaps they were unaware that it was more important in that period of intense negotiations with Russia to minimize or simply avoid attacks on targets in close proximity to the forces of Russia and its allies. Under ordinary circumstances, the matter could reasonably be left for Russia commanders in the field to handle without concern for any implications in doing so. If in the future, an effort is made to demonstrate to Russia the best aspects of US capabilities and the benefits enjoyed by US-led Coalition partners in operations against ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic militant forces, some guidance regarding urgent political goals for that period, and the need for enhanced diligence and perhaps restraint in the conduct of operations must be issued. It was either determined or no thought was given to reviewing and approving relevant procedures and initiatives at a time when crucial diplomatic efforts needed to be, and should have been, supported.

Historia magistra vitae et testis temporum. (History is the teacher and witness of times.) During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, civilian leaders recognized the need for enhanced diligence and perhaps restraint in the conduct of a Naval blockade of Cuba. The effort US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to inform US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral George Anderson of that resulted in a renowned angry exchange between them. The sources on which Graham Allison relied upon in the original edition of his seminal work on the crisis, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Little, Brown and Company,1971), claimed that the US Navy failed to implement the President John Kennedy’s orders to draw the blockade like we closer to Cuba ostensibly to give the Soviet Union’s calculating Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nikita Khrushchev, more time to decide to half Soviet ships, and that Anderson resisted explaining to McNamara what procedures the Navy would use when intercepting the first Soviet ship to approach the line.

According to Allison’s account of the confrontation between McNamara and Anderson, US President John Kennedy was worried that the US Navy, already restive over the controls imposed on how the blockade of Cuba was to be executed, might “blunder into an incident.” McNamara was closely attuned to Kennedy’s worries and resolved to press the Navy leadership for additional information on its modus operandi. Confronting Anderson, McNamara minced no words: “Precisely what would the Navy do when the first interception occurred?” Anderson told him that he had already covered that same ground before the National Security Council, and the further explanation was unnecessary. This answer angered McNamara, proceeded to lecture Anderson on the political realities: “It was not the President’s design to shoot Russians but rather to deliver a political signal to Chairman Khrushchev. He did not want to push the Soviet leader into a corner; he did not want to humiliate him; he did not want to risk provoking him into a nuclear reprisal. Executing the blockade is a an act of war, one that involved the risk of sinking a Soviet vessel. The sole purpose of taking such a risk would be to achieve a political objective. But rather than let it come to that extreme end, we must persuade Chairman Khrushchev to pull back. He must not be ‘goaded into retaliation’.” Getting the feeling that his lecture did not sink in, McNamara resumed his detailed questioning. Whereupon Anderson, picked up the Manual of Naval Regulations, waved it in McNamara face and shouted, “It’s all in there!” McNamara retorted, “I don’t give a damn what John Paul Jones would have done. I want to know what you are going to do, now!”

Other sources that Allison utilized claimed that civilian leaders believed US antisubmarine warfare operations included using depth charges to force Soviet submarines to surface, raising the risk of inadvertent war. According to Richard Betts in American Force: Dangers, Delusions and Dilemmas in National Security (Columbia University Press, 2011). Subsequent research indicated that these stories were false. Indeed, Joseph Bouchard explains in Command in Crisis: Four Case Studies (Columbia University Press, 1991) that McNamara actually ordered antisubmarine procedures that were more aggressive than those standard in peacetime. Harried civilian leaders may not have fully comprehended the implications of all these technical measures, or may have had second thoughts. Nevertheless, the relevant procedures and initiatives did not escape their review and approval.


US President John Kennedy (left) with US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (right). During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, civilian leaders recognized the need for enhanced diligence in the conduct of a Naval blockade of Cuba. McNamara’s effort to inform the US Navy of that resulted in a renowned exchange between himself and the Chief of Naval Operations, US Navy Admiral George Anderson. Well before the errant Syria airstrike, civilian leaders should have told US air commanders and planners of their operations’ potential to impact crucial, ongoing US diplomatic efforts.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s comedy, The Tempest, Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, although forced to take refuge on an island for twelve years after his brother Antonio seized his title and property, refused to use his extraordinary powers, magic, to take revenge when the opportunity presented itself.  Prosperous remarks, “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” The best definitions of virtue can be found among teachings of various religions. However, to avoid being impolitic by choosing one religion and its tenants over others, its definition can be drawn from philosophy. From a philosophical perspective, virtue is well-defined by the “Golden Mean” proffered by Cleobulos of Lindos, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. The Golden Mean manifested an understanding that life is not lived well without following the straight and narrow path of integrity. That life of moderation is not what is popularly meant by moderation. The classical Golden Mean is the choice of good over what is convenient and commitment to the true instead of the plausible. Virtue is then the desire to observe the Golden Mean. Between Obama and Putin, no confidence, no trust, no love existed, and relations between the US and Russia have been less than ideal. Regarding the errant Syria airstrike, the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said it perhaps served as evidence of US support for ISIS and an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting the Syrian government which the US sought to remove. Churkin’s statement could be viewed as indicaing that insinuated into his thinking was the notion commonly held worldwide of the US as virtuous country, a notion proffered, promoted, and purportedly fashioned into its foreign policy. It appears that he, too, would have liked to believe US actions and intentions are guided by virtue. Yet, it would seem that was a hope unfulfilled as a result of the bombing Syrian troops, coupled with all the disagreements and disputes, trials and tribulations between the US and Russia, and led to his expression of so much disappointment and discouragement. Nihil est virtute pulchrius. (There is nothing more beautiful than virtue.)

The US must be a role model, a moral paragon as the world’s leader acting as virtuously as it speaks. The US leaders must act virtuously not just because others worldwide expect it, but rather because they should expect it of themselves. Diplomatic relations with Russia must be transformed in line with a new policy necessitating efforts to end misunderstandings and to exploit opportunities in which the two countries can coordinate and cooperate. However, achieving that will require the effective stewardship of US diplomatic, military, political, and economic activities by US leaders. Micromanagement can often result in mismanagement in certain situations. Still, in the midst of on-going efforts  to resolve urgent and important issues, US leaders must take steps to ensure that all acting on behalf of the US. They must thoroughly understand the concept and intent of the president, the implications of any actions taken individually or by their organizations, and perform their tasks with considerable diligence. All must make a reasonable effort to ensure errant actions are prevented. Melius est praevenire quad praeveniri. (Better to forestall than to be forestalled.)

Book Review: Donald P. Gregg, Pot Shards: Fragments of a Life Lived in CIA, the White House, and the Two Koreas (Vellum, 2014)

Pot Shards presents the life and times of Ambassador Donald P. Gregg (above), an individual who contributed greatly to US foreign and national security policy. Readers are taken on a journey through Northeast and Southeast Asia and halls of power in Washington, DC. Readers will discover how much Gregg valued others and his value to humanity.

The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) is an independent, non-profit organization that advances the understanding of diplomacy and supports the training of foreign affairs personnel through a variety of programs and activities. As part of its Foreign Affairs Oral History Project, it has prepared thousands of transcripts of interviews recorded with US Foreign Service veterans.  These excellent oral histories present the realities of diplomacy to include thought provoking, sometimes absurd, and often horrifying stories from which valuable lessons can be drawn.  In April 2014, ADST graciously authorized greatcharlie.com to present the oral history of Ambassador Donald P. Gregg, an authentic intelligence professional and consummate diplomat.  In July 2014, Gregg published his extraordinary, must read memoirs entitled, Pot Shards: Fragments of a Life Lived in CIA, the White House, and the Two Koreas (Vellum, 2014).  It is part of ADST-DACOR’s Diplomats and Diplomacy Series. (DACOR is an organization of foreign affairs professionals.)

Donald Gregg was an employee of the US government for forty-three years, working in the fields of intelligence and diplomacy.  Gregg served in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for thirty-one years from 1951 to 1982.  Paramilitary trained and airborne trained, he spent most of his career in assignments overseas and advising the most senior leaders of the CIA.  He was assigned to Japan, Burma, Vietnam, and Korea.  He was special assistant to the Ambassador of Korea from 1973 to 1975.  Gregg also served as a member of the White House National Security Council staff from 1979 to 1982. Upon retirement from CIA, Gregg became National Security Adviser to US Vice President George H.W. Bush from 1982 to 1989, and US Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 1989 to 1993.  Outside of government, Gregg served as a senior consultant to Goldman Sachs, the chairman and president of The Korea Society in New York, and he currently serves as the chairman of the Pacific Century Institute in Los Angeles.  Gregg was born in New York. He enlisted in the US Army upon graduation from high school in 1945.  He received training as a cryptanalyst and reached the rank of sergeant.  He went on to attend Williams College from 1947 to 1951, majoring in Philosophy.  Gregg has received numerous awards from CIA, the US Department of Defense and the South Korean government and five honorary degrees from American and foreign colleges.  Gregg has visited the North Korea several times and advocates for the normalization of relations between that country and the US.

On its face, Pot Shards is a significant contribution to the record of the US experience in the Far East written by a major player, an intelligence icon.  Pot Shards covers some weighty matters regarding intelligence, diplomacy, and defense policy.  Some of the issues and events discussed by Gregg have never been revealed in other texts. Gregg could have limited the book to the audience of policy scholars, analysts, historians, intelligence professionals and veterans and all those familiar with the subject matter.  However, he presents Pot Shards in a way that everyone can understand and enjoy at some level.  There is much in Pot Shards that would especially thrill those beguiled by spy novels and films and spy craft enthusiasts.  Yet, what makes Pot Shards most exciting is the story of the man: Donald Gregg.  With good humor, he recounts many satisfying exploits, but also reveals vicissitudes and trials he faced.

Individuals that Gregg mentions in Pot Shards are those with whom he had continuous contact as managers, mentors, and friends. Some of are well known, “foreign policy celebrities,” such as Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, Creighton Abrams, Richard Helms, William Colby,  Harold Brown, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Richard Holbrooke, and Richard Allen. Others may be remembered only by a few.  Gregg sheds light on their impact and exactly how their ideas ignited events from the inside. Moreover, Gregg indicates those individuals helped him develop a greater understanding of the world and other ways of thinking, allowing him to become something that he perhaps would not have been without them.

In Cloud of Witnesses, George Rutler examines sixty-six individuals, who have influenced his life, based on what Aristotle would refer to as their ethos (an honest use of talent), logos (an honest use of mind), and pathos (an honest involvement in the suffering of the world).  That would be the best way to examine Gregg’s presentation of his life and career.  At Williams College, Gregg was influenced by the thinking of Professor John William Miller, the head of the Philosophy Department, who taught him the simple definition of morality, “Never treat another human being as an object.”  Gregg explained that he has tried to live by that definition.  Gregg was also influenced by Miller’s interest in people taking action and being defined by, and held responsible for, the actions they took.  Miller taught him that “Man does not have a nature, he has a history,” Gregg recalled Miller urged his students to act upon what they believed in and to “cut behind appearance toward reality.”

It was clear from many anecdotes in Pot Shards that Gregg has had a genuine interest in people.  He has looked beyond differences, avoiding being caught up with race, ethnicity, or other things which had been used particularly in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s to determine how one should relate with another.  For example, when he first came to Washington, he would enjoy going to jazz clubs which catered to African-American patrons.  That was notable because Washington, DC at the time was a segregated city. Serving in the military at a young age, he learned about different men and different behaviors, and witnessed racial and ethnic prejudice which repulsed him.  In Kai Bird’s excellent work, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, it was indicated that racial and ethnic prejudice was apparent at CIA.  It was manifested in the casual and official discussions of some, and even worse, in decision making.  That was certainly not Gregg’s way.  His type of clearheaded, solid judgments resulting from giving situations and individuals a deeper look, was always needed.  Virtue shines in the presence of vice.

Having served as a cryptanalyst in the US Army, Gregg was sought by the National Security Agency in the middle of his senior year at Williams.  However, the recruiter rather than take Gregg suggested he join CIA.  Gregg knew little of the CIA and what it did.  However, the recruiter, with what Gregg now thinks was a bit of cynicism said, “Oh, they jump out of airplanes and are going to save the world!” That attracted Gregg, and initiated his thirty-one year career with the Agency.  Gregg has provided an incredibly intriguing discussion of his paramilitary training at CIA and the others he met during it. Gregg makes it clear in that discussion though, that so-called “good old days” in CIA were not always so good.  There were crazy events. Some people were not best serving the needs of CIA or their country. Managers who were very most often former OSS officers tried to recreate approaches taken by their former organization in German and Japanese held territory in Europe and Asia.   Often proposals for covert operations were based on questionable judgment and scant research.  Real possibilities for success were not fully considered by decision makers.  They were praised and approved by management as displaying a “Gung-Ho”, “Go Get ’em”, motivated attitude.  Yet, those operations more often resembled suicide missions.  Gregg found himself on such an assignment.

In March 1952, Gregg was assigned to fly to Bangkok, Thailand, where he would pick up a group of North Vietnamese whom he would train in sabotage and small unit tactics at a secret base. Following the completion of the training, Gregg and his team would be parachuted into North Vietnam.  Gregg spoke neither Vietnam nor French, and knew nothing of Vietnam or its history, and he was far from a veteran saboteur or guerilla leader. Gregg discovered an attractive post-debutante in her mid-thirties was the Vietnam plans officer and he had heard her say that her “Vietnam plan” had been accepted.  A cocktail party was given to celebrate the occasion, but Gregg was not invited.  When Gregg met his team, they turned out to be totally untrained Vietnamese with whom he had no way of communicating.  Gregg said they looked childlike.  Later he further learned that they were ethnic-Vietnamese from Thailand and had never set foot in Vietnam.  The potential for disaster was enormous. Gregg had no intention of backing out, but the truth behind the operation eventually revealed, and things worked out for the best. The operation was exposed as a fraud.  It turned out that a corrupt principal agent had hoodwinked CIA officers in Bangkok and had “taken the money and run.”  The mission was cancelled.

However, Pot Shards does not serve as some expression of some longstanding of primal doubt.  Gregg never moved about stating “Something is rotten in the Agency.”  Readers discover that through coping with those problems he learned not only what to do, but more importantly, “how not to do it.”  Gregg could recognize what was good, as good.  Gregg also worked with many in CIA who were true professionals.  He modeled his own management and decision making style in part from theirs. Gregg’s loyalty to his country and conviction toward duty was surpassed by no other.  He is proud of his years in CIA. So much of that experience was central to his personal life.  Through CIA, he met some life-long friends.  Through CIA, he met his wife.

Gregg makes it clear that his wife Margaret (“Meg”) has been central to his life.  A fortuitous encounter while hailing a taxi at Washington, DC’s Union Station set off of chain of interesting events that led to their life-long partnership.  Unbeknownst to Gregg, Meg, fluent in Russian, was actually Gregg’s superior in the Operations branch at CIA when they met.  However, as Gregg makes clear he was irresistibly taken by her combination of beauty, intellect, and charm, which made her something supreme to him.  Whether accompanying him in Japan, Korea, or Burma or remaining back in the US with their three children while Gregg served in Vietnam, she was the rock on which Gregg was able to build a career while raising a family. Relating the course of their marriage, Gregg leaves no doubt that meeting Meg was the best luck he ever had.

As Gregg rose through the ranks at CIA, he saw more clearly how many policies that drove CIA activities were not carefully considered and constructed. Gregg saw how euphonious policy speeches by political officials would often be based on captivating assessments of positive outcomes and capabilities of foreign partners not based in reality. He could see that near desperation on wanting a situation to be certain way led many, even the well-intentioned, to project their thinking on that of senior foreign counterpart, or worse, an adversary.  Only a negative outcome would reveal the error of a flawed approach for some.  In the early years of the US involvement in Vietnam Gregg witnessed this.  Gregg recalled accompanying US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to Vietnam in 1963. McNamara was told by General Paul Harkins, who commanded the US Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) that “We will be out of here with a military victory in six months.”  McNamara was disturbed by the unrealistic reporting, and told US President Lyndon Johnson that things were really not as good as Harkins’ people seemed to think they were.  Gregg also recalled a war game in 1964 on the use of airpower in the North Vietnam.  He participated with: General Maxwell Taylor, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General Earl Wheeler, US Army Chief of Staff; General Curtis LeMay, US Air Force Chief of Staff; John McCone, CIA Director; and, in the presence of McGeorge Bundy, the National Security Adviser.  Gregg, as the CIA representative of the Blue Team, gave CIA’s analysis of the plan to bomb North Vietnam.  Gregg described the rationale of the plan and then proceeded to explain why it would fail.  The rest of that story will not be spoiled here.  One will have to read Pot Shards to discover what the response to Gregg was from the many powerful men in the room.  Gregg’s description of it all makes the moment palpable.

Writing about his second tour in Vietnam, Gregg provides good lessons on how to function effectively as a manager or leader under extremely adverse circumstances.  His lessons hold true for professions beyond intelligence for they primarily concern human nature and the wonders and realities of human interaction.  There were many difficult experiences that were a part of that period.  One evening Gregg received a frantic call from a member of his crew who he described as a gifted and committed paramilitary officer, with several tough tours under his belt.  The officer had married a Vietnamese war widow with children and lived in her Bien Hoa apartment.  He had just returned from a mission to find one of his children “desperately ill.”  Gregg rushed to the officer’s apartment with medical assistance in tow.  Yet, by the time he arrived, he found the tragic scene of a beautiful young girl, eight years old, lying silent and still, with her frightened siblings and anguished mother, who was being comforted by the officer.  The girl was confirmed dead and the officer asked Gregg to take her away.  Gregg picked up the child and walked out.  Doing so reminded him of carrying his own small daughters Lucy and Alison to bed after they had fallen asleep. He searched for an answer on how to handle the situation.  This was a CIA matter and had to be kept confidential.  Gregg eventually decided to bring the child to the emergency room of the US Army hospital at Long Binh, where US Army Military Police told him where to go to have the body cared for.

In this segment of Pot Shards, there are also fascinating stories of Gregg’s exploits in combat.  He was in the thick of things as CIA Regional Officer in Military Region 3 (War Zone D).  There are accounts of Gregg managing paramilitary operations and interrogations of his crew.  He flew with forward controllers, directing fire support for US and allied troops.  He described radio communications from battles, the descriptions of which bring the reader right to the scene.  Gregg’s efforts were appreciated by US and allied commanders he worked with such as: General James Hollingsworth (US);  General John McGiffert (US); General Nguyen Van Minh (South Vietnam); General Jangnai Sohn (Korea); and General Roh Tae-woo (Korea); Colonel Nguyen Cong Vinh (South Vietnam); and, Colonel Bach Van Hien (South Vietnam).

On his second tour, Gregg could still see how different ideas, among policy and decision makers, about what was truly happening in there impacted the decisions being made and the lessons the US military as well as other security organizations as CIA, were learning from the experience.  At the very end of his tour in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams hosted a lunch for Gregg at his MACV Headquarters in Saigon, a place where he had been excoriated in the past.  At lunch, Gregg sat next to Abrams and six or eight of his subordinates.  He felt Abrams was the best of the three commanders the US sent to Vietnam.  Knowing Abrams had been in Vietnam for some time, Gregg asked him how long it had actually been.  Abrams proudly responded, “Six years.”  Gregg then asked him how he kept going, and Abrams stated, “Well, I keep learning things.”  Gregg then politely asked him what he had learned so far, and Abrams replied that just finished reading Bernard Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place, an account of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Abrams said that he “now” understood Fall’s reasoning as to why the French had failed to reestablish their colonial rule in Vietnam.  When Gregg asked “How did Fall explain it,” Abrams explained, “Fall said that the French lost because they failed to politically organize the terrain.  I think I understand that now, but I would not have understood that a year ago.”  Gregg had no response to that, but explained that when he later saw pictures of heavy US battle tanks, named after Abrams, crashing around Iraq and Afghanistan, he thought of Abrams’ answer.

Through his achievements in Vietnam, Gregg developed a reputation in CIA as a very wise and capable officer.  He knew how to present ideas and concepts to develop agreement or consensus on issues. Bringing his thoughts to precise declarations took skill.  This was one of the many skills that Gregg honed through interactions with a number of accomplished professionals.  One who helped Gregg elevate his capabilities while he served in his next overseas assignment as CIA Station Chief in Seoul, was US Ambassador Philip Habib.  Habib was gruff and outspoken.  However, by Gregg’s account, he understood people well and was an excellent diplomat for whom he developed tremendous respect.  Gregg indicates that it was Habib’s maneuvering that help to save the life of liberal South Korean politician, Kim Dae-jung, after he had been kidnapped from his Tokyo hotel room by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA).  Habib never accused the Korean President Park Chung-hee of ordering the kidnapping but sent a message to him explaining that the US was aware of the action and hoped he could do everything to keep Kim alive.  This allowed Park a chance to avoid direct embarrassment and contrive a story in which he accused rogue elements of the Korean government had alone committed the act, and in which he took credit for saving Kim.  Gregg said Habib’s astute handling of the situation kept Kim alive and allowed Park to save face.  Gregg explained saving face was always a major concern in Asia.  Habib’s actions allowed Washington’s relations with Seoul to improve.

Gregg completed his career at CIA on a high note at the US National Security Council.  He had achieved success maintaining an ethic of his own, a moral code.  There was goodness living inside a good man.  He saw the greater good that would result from his actions against Communism.  Gregg was invited to join the administration of US President Ronald Reagan as the National Security Adviser to then Vice President George H.W. Bush.  His job made use of all of his skills and experience from CIA.  During those six years with Bush, Gregg traveled to 65 countries.  Along with those visits came his attendance at endless formal events.  Gregg recounts some of rather unusual happenings at such gatherings, providing readers with a gift bag of humorous stories.  Yet, while in the Reagan administration, his self-image was put to the test.  Gregg dedicates a chapter to a painful period of that service: IranContra, which was the purported attempt by the administration to sell surplus arms to Iran in exchange for it to ensure the release of US hostages being held in Lebanon.  Claims that Gregg was involved with that matter were invalidated.  Gregg’s account of it all is captivating.

As Ambassador to South Korea in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, Gregg successfully made use of his experience at CIA as well as the White House.  However, Gregg did not tap into his training as an intelligence officer to manipulate Korean officials or simulate closeness with Koreans he met.  There was no deception at all. Gregg was genuine, natural, in his interactions and that is what helped him gain their respect and confidence.  There was a type of communion between Gregg and many of his senior Korean counterparts.  One of the issues Gregg was determined to confront as ambassador was the continuing negative note in US-South Korean relations over the alleged US involvement in the Kwanju Uprising of 1980.  Then Korean President Chun Doo-hwan had brutally cracked down on protests in Kwanju in the wake of the arrest of Kim Dae-jung on charges of treason. At least two hundred Koreans were killed in the streets.  Chun claimed that the US had fully supported his actions.  That was not true, but by the time Gregg arrived in Korea as ambassador, hostility toward the US was still strong in the city.  The US Cultural Center in Kwangju was often attacked with fire bombs by rioters trying to drive the US out.  Gregg after consulting with others, including Kim Dae-jung, went to Kwangju in January 1990.  While there, Gregg met with six leaders of anti-US groups for over three hours.  Gregg explained that he came to Kwangju to lessen the hostility that the people in the city seemed to hold for the US.  Gregg explained to them that the US was not connected at all to the incident, and many of the actions by the US at that time, such as moving an aircraft carrier to Pusan were not a show of support for Chun. That particular move was meant to signal to North Korea not to intervene.  The anti-US protesters believed the US was close to Chun administration, but Gregg let it be known that there was general distaste for it.  In that vein, Gregg explained, that at the time, the Reagan administration had agreed to receive Chun at the White House if Chun agreed to lift the death sentence imposed on Kim Dae-jung, and to release him from prison.  Most important in the conversation was Gregg’s apology over the fact the US had remained silent for so long on the Kwangju issue.  Gregg diffused the hostility toward the US and attacks on the Cultural Center in Kwangju stopped.  Gregg explained his first visit to Kwangju was deeply valuable in showing him how Koreans can hold feelings of han (deep-seated resentment) when they are dealing with events caused by others and which they feel are unjustified, immoral, and unfair.  When Gregg made his first visit to Pyongyang in April 2002, he explains that he encountered the same feelings of han that he had encountered in Kwangju twelve years before.  However, he notes that lessons learned in Kwangju were helpful as he tried to establish a dialogue and some degree of trust between his North Korean hosts and himself.  Ambassador Philip Habib certainly would have been proud of Gregg’s performance.

There is much more in Pot Shards to enjoy!  It is a book one will want to read again and again.

Quam bene vivas referre, non quam diu!  (It is how well you live that matters, not how long!)  There have been a few stories written about Gregg in books, articles, in anecdotal form.  Many were written in the troubled time of the Iran-Contra Affair.  Pot Shards presents the true life and times of Gregg, an individual who contributed greatly to US foreign and national security policy. Readers are taken on a journey through Northeast and Southeast Asia and halls of power in Washington, DC.  Readers will also discover how much Gregg valued others and his value to humanity.  Gregg continues to make a valuable contribution to US foreign and defense policy efforts as a private citizen.  Pot Shards is an absolute pleasure to read.  Without reservation, greatcharlie.com highly recommends Pot Shards to everyone.

By Mark Edmond Clark