THE BOOK OF HONOR -- THE LAST MACCABEE
The Last Maccabee
TRUTH, it is said, is the first casualty of any war. But in Somalia truth was the second casualty. Larry Freedman was the first. The Pentagon conferred that dubious distinction upon him when it reported that on December 23, 1992, he had been killed by a land mine and that he had been a civilian employee of the Defense Department. The first part was true enough. Freedman was dead. The second part was a lie.
Back home in the States, Freedman's death was reduced to a terse obituary and a fleeting item on the evening news. Those wary of America's foreign entanglements, especially those labeled "peacekeeping missions," cited his death as a kind of "told-you-so." He had become kindling in the debate, the ante lost in a hand that should never have been played. On the Pentagon's casualty list even his name was misspelled. They left out the "d" in "Freedman."
Of course, Freedman had no interest in geopolitical debates. Never one to question America's role abroad, he had stood ready, decade after decade, to be one of the nation's sharpest, and if need be, most deadly instruments of foreign policy. He lusted after action like he lusted after everything else. As for recognition, he had long since made his peace with anonymity. It went with the territory he had chosen for himself as much as his sniper's rifle and scope. He had lived an explosive life and yet a life of stealth. It was only fitting his exit be one of fire and flash, and steeped in deception.
In the public's mind Freedman was at most a glancing thought, a fifty-one-year-old grandfather who died far from home and close to Christmas. He was just another faceless bureaucrat, a "civilian employee of the Department of Defense." Truth and Freedman now shared a common grave. And that was exactly how the CIA wished it to remain.
Mention Larry Freedman's name even today, nearly a decade after his death, and a mischievous smile creeps across the faces of those who knew him. It is as if they suddenly remembered a bawdy story too risque to repeat but too delicious to forget.
Six years after his death, Freedman's longtime friends from Philadelphia gather in the Bucks County, Pennsylvania, home of his sister, Sylvia Doner. Within moments all semblance of sobriety vanishes, replaced by a convulsive hilarity. Like Freedman, they are Jewish, streetwise, and, even in their mid-fifties, not to be pushed around: Petey Altman, Kenny Gold, Paul Weinberg. Also here is Wynne Crocetto, who first set eyes on Freedman at seventeen and was forever smitten.
Weinberg was the first to meet Freedman. That was in kindergarten. They were both born to raise hell. "We even flunked twice so we could graduate together," Weinberg says. True enough, but it would not have taken much on Freedman's part to fail. Bright as he was, he was no student.
Back then, the gang hung out at the Pit, a bowling alley in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia. To them, Freedman was known affectionately as Gus. At ten he had seen the movie Cinderella and was enamored with the antics of a fat mouse by that name who always seemed to get caught either by the cat or the broom. Freedman could identify with that.
Whatever defied common sense he took to be a personal invitation. A high school gymnast and diver, he was always looking for something more daring. He found it one night at the Ascot Motel in Atlantic City when he dove off a third-story balcony into the horseshoe-shaped swimming pool "The edge was his favorite place," says his sister, Sylvia.
At five feet nine he was powerfully built, coiled like a spring wound a little too tight. He was utterly fearless. He never spoiled for a fight, but woe to the fool that pushed him too far. All such encounters were short and decidedly one-sided. But mostly he tested his body against gravity and his own limits of endurance. Often he would do handstands on the backs of chairs, on balconies and railings. He did it not for the attention, but for the pure rush of adrenaline. He was an odd mix of Tarzan and John Wayne, both of whom he idolized.
As an adolescent he took a keen interest in weapons, particularly bows and arrows, not the kind of rubber-tipped playthings sold in toy stores, but the real deal: deadly steel-tipped broad arrows launched from a fiberglass longbow. He would put paper targets on neighborhood trees and drive the arrow clean through the bull's-eye and deep into the living wood. His eye was unerring, his approach unnervingly silent. These were gifts that would serve him well in later years, but as a boy got him into considerable hot water.
At thirteen he and two of his buddies walked into an Esso gas station on Stenton Avenue and attempted to rob the place. Freedman was armed with his bow and arrow, drawn and trained on the owner, who dismissed the boys with a laugh. Just how many times Freedman ran afoul of the local constabulary is a matter of some dispute. Suffice to say, he could be a handful.
His parents would learn to be flexible but not when it came to attendance at temple. On March 27, 1954, Freedman was bar mitzvahed in a Conservative synagogue. From the pulpit he read from the Talmud with deep conviction. It was no act. In later years he could be vulgar, even downright raunchy, but never profane. About the same year he was bar mitzvahed he and his buddies were summarily kicked out of Boy Scout Troop 99.
To the outside world Freedman and his ilk might easily have been mistaken for juvenile delinquents, but there was nothing thuggish about them. It was themselves, not others, they usually put at risk. Occasionally they fought with the Oxford Circle boys, but it was nothing more than fists. They covered one another's backs. Between them grew an uncommon camaraderie and a raw but abiding sense of honor.
Freedman was the lead dog, adored, almost worshiped, by his co-conspirators. For all his excesses, he was, at heart, quiet and gentle, capable of casting a spell over other rebels. They would be drawn to him as to an outlaw Pied Piper.
But his parents were not to be envied. Again and again he tried their patience. His father, Leroy, gave him a '54 Buick Special. Freedman could not resist pushing the big V-8 to the max. Soon after, he rolled the car, then secretly had it repaired in a garage at night, at his sister's expense. His father never found out.
But like his patron mouse, Gus, Freedman seldom got away with anything. One day he returned home and announced that he had gotten a part-time job in a neighborhood pharmacy. His parents were elated. At last he was doing something productive. One night the family decided to surprise him and pick him up at work. There they learned Freedman had been fired three weeks earlier. Vintage Freedman.
From high school he went to Kansas State University. It was the only school that would have him. Friends say he majored in class avoidance and bedding coeds, but he did in fact have a genuine interest in veterinary medicine and a soft spot for any suffering animal -- something that would later haunt him.
At college, to the delight of coeds, he would leap from stairwell to stairwell, deftly catching the railing, except when he did not. It was just such a maneuver that once opened his head and left some to wonder whether he really thought he could fly. Such kamikaze stunts won for him a kind of Superman moniker which was later amended to "Superjew," a title he proudly clung to for the rest of his life.
It was about this time that he came upon one of his abiding passions -- motorcycles. There was nothing that gave him more pleasure than endless hours cruising on the open road. Regularly he would ride from Kansas to Philly for nothing more than the excuse of a milk shake, then head back forty-five minutes later. His friends remember him dismounting his thunderous blue Norton and proudly picking the bugs out of his teeth.
He still had the Buick but showed it little respect. One time he drove from Kansas to Philly through a deluge. When he arrived at home he was completely soaked. His family couldn't understand why until they looked out the window. Freedman had sawed the roof off his car to make it a convertible and had been driving something akin to a portable pool.
Ivan Doner, now married to Freedman's sister; remembers the time in 1963 when he first set eyes on Freedman, then twenty-two. He was wearing tight jeans, black boots, a T-shirt with sleeves rolled back to reveal rippling biceps, and long hair slicked back. He was the very picture of a greaser. It was easy to feel intimidated in his presence.
It wasn't long before Freedman flunked out of college. It came as a surprise to no one. Wild and undisciplined, his prospects seemed dim at best. The exuberance of youth, to put a polite spin on whatever it was that torqued Freedman's overheated engine, seemed destined to doom him as an adult. And then something happened that would change the course of his life. He found the army.
On September 30, 1965, with the war in Vietnam on full boil Freedman enlisted at a recruiting station in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Within six months he had maneuvered himself into a position as a medic-in-training. Instinctively Freedman had sought out the one unit that would impose upon him the discipline he needed, and yet place him among others who shared his infatuation with the edge -- Special Forces. Twenty-four-year-old Lawrence N. Freedman was about to don the Green Beret.
One of the most wrenching experiences of his entire military career came early on and not on the battlefield. As part of his training as a medic he was to take a puppy that had been anesthetized and remove one of its legs. For a man who had aspired to be a vet it was almost too much to bear. Even twenty years later he spoke of the experience haltingly as one of the most traumatic events in an often violent life.
But whatever focus he had lacked in the civilian world promptly resolved itself in the military. Freedman discovered that he was born to be a warrior. He had at last found a place where his vices could be turned to virtues, his abandon into valor. Even among the elite of the elite, he determined that he would distinguish himself. He saw himself as one in a long line of Jewish warriors -- the last Maccabee.
And distinguish himself he did: two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, numerous Good Conduct Medals, the Humanitarian Service Medal, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, and a chestful of other decorations.
His first Bronze Star dated back to May 23, 1968. Freedman was a senior adviser heading up a team of Vietnamese civilian irregulars on ambush patrol along a North Vietnamese infiltration route. He and his men suddenly found themselves about to be outflanked.
The citation spells out what happened next. "Sensing the enemy's plans, Sergeant Freedman left cover, and although under murderous enemy fire, ran from position to position redeploying his men and directing their fire. The friendly positions began receiving mortar fire from minimum range.
"Spotting the muzzle flash of the weapon, Sergeant Freedman ran from cover and made his way to within 50 meters of it. Opening fire with his rifle he killed two of the enemy gun crew and caused the remainder to abandon their weapon and run ... Sergeant Freedman's actions prevented heavy friendly casualties and were instrumental in the victory over a numerically superior enemy force. Sergeant Freedman's personal bravery and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, the Special Forces and the United States Army."
Piece by piece, Freedman assembled all the essential components of the ultimate soldier. In the years ahead he underwent advanced training in parachuting, martial arts, intelligence, and weaponry. He honed his skills as a sniper until he became one of the army's most accurate and deadly long-range shooters.
But Freedman was not immune to the emotional toll of Vietnam. He told one friend, Nick Garber, how he was firing his weapon to repel an attack while all the while drowning a Viet Cong soldier in a shallow rice paddy with his booted foot. Not until the soldier ceased struggling did he raise his foot. Such images were not easy for him to put out of his mind. On his first visit home from Vietnam his family took him to a nightclub. Freedman sat quietly, declining drinks and answering questions with a stiff "yes" or "no."
But through it all, his eye for women never flagged. In Vietnam he had met a slender Vietnamese woman named Thuy, then with two children. He married her, adopted her children, to be named Michael and Linda, and together, they had a third child, David. But the marriage was ill-fated. They had little in common and less and less to say to one another. The marriage ended long before the divorce.
There is no doubt he was an incurable flirt, but his approach, like everything else about him, could be highly unconventional. How he met his second wife, Teresa, is a case in point. It was 1978. He had been checking out a woman who lived in an adjoining lot. She was petite and shapely, with long black curls and green eyes. One day as she was hanging her laundry he perched over the back fence and struck up a conversation with her. She seemed to be wilted as if in pain. He asked how she was doing.
"I just had a hysterectomy," she explained.
"Oh, I just had a vasectomy," he fired back cheerfully. "We'll have to have a sterilization party." He and Teresa married on May 10, 1981, though it, too, would be a turbulent marriage.
With women he was usually the perfect gentleman, romantic to a fault. But he could also be obnoxious and randy. A video captures him chairing a solemn meeting of officers at Fort Bragg. In walks a young lady bearing a surprise birthday cake for him. It is decorated with a menorah made of icing.
"Happy birthday," she bubbles as she places it before him.
"Great Gugamugal!" thunders Freedman, feigning disappointment. "I told her I wanted a blow job!" Even the officers at the table momentarily fainted away in shock.
But it was never Freedman's intent to offend. It was just his way of testing for reactions, of seeing whether the person would pass muster or fold in a fit of embarrassment or pique. Often it was the first step toward a friendship.
By the late 1970s Freedman had already established himself as a consummate soldier. But it was now peacetime, a state Freedman was not quite as comfortable with. He preferred action and sought it out at every turn. On March 28, 1978, he became a team member of one of the military's most elite and shadowy units, the recently formed Special Forces Operational Detachment. Today it is known as Delta Force, the legendary counterterrorist group, though the military is still reluctant to acknowledge its existence.
Trained in CQB, close-quarters battle, Freedman's superquick reflexes were refined and readied for overseas hostage rescue and extraction missions. With his medic's skills, his talents as a sniper, and his combat experience, he was a valued component of Delta Force. There are many in the military who are crack shots, but the perfect sniper, of which Freedman was one, is a rarer breed. It is said of Freedman that he could hike for two days through a jungle with a ninety-pound rucksack on his back, set up his scope and rifle without pause, and focus for three days on a window waiting for his target to show himself for a second only. His concentration was unflagging and lethal.
At training exercises he wowed even expert marksmen. At close range his weapon of choice was a Colt .45 that had undergone a "combat conversion," meaning the magazine would load quicker and the trigger was "tuned" to release without unwanted "creep." His body, too, was a finely tuned weapon. Each day he ran five miles, pumped iron, and practiced martial arts.
In Delta Force, Freedman was at last among peers, part of a warrior class, a full cut above the rest. But these soldiers exhibited none of the swagger of a John Wayne. They were content to be known as "the quiet professionals." They strove for invisibility.
Within the subdued ranks of Delta, Freedman maintained a somewhat higher profile. Still known as Superjew, he would literally show up at parties and other affairs wearing a red cape emblazoned with a large Hebrew letter, a gift from sister Sylvia. Freedman's escapades could be counted on to provide welcomed comic relief.
But sometimes he would make a few too many waves. "He pulled some crap on me and I had to hammer his ass," recalls one of his superiors from Delta. But Freedman was too talented to dismiss. Most of his offenses were peccadilloes that momentarily irritated the brass but cumulatively endeared him to them. His commanding officers remember him as a silent tiger in the field, a man ready at a moment's notice to go wherever asked and do whatever was required. "You knew he would always be there," said retired general Richard Potter, who was three years with Delta. "You may not like how he got there but you knew he would be there."
General Peter J. Schoomaker, commander in chief of the United States Special Operations Command, was in the field with Freedman and remembers him with affection and respect. In an otherwise low-key unit he was something of a firecracker. And he had a streak of vanity.
"I would say he was narcissistic," recalls Schoomaker. "He's the kind of guy that always tries to stay pretty, like his fascination with his hair. He was always a lady's kind of guy and always upbeat.
"He was one of the guys you could count on being there and also one of the guys who would have a good time. You had to jerk him up every once in a while to get his attention. He was a confident kind of guy who needed to be led well. Otherwise he'd lead you."
Freedman's missions, all of them still classified, took him to Africa, the Mideast, and the Far East. More than once he undertook covert operations in Ethiopia, a country that was said to be special to him. There was a sketchy story told of him helping a girl in Turkey to come to the United States. He promised to one day look her up in the States. He took out a dollar bill, tore it in half and presented her with one of the halves. Five years later, in the United States, he presented her with the other half of the bill, redeeming his pledge.
He was even consulted in the design of the presidential limo and tested the armor plating on other vehicles used by ambassadors and visiting heads of state. Who better to test such defenses than a man who, given the order, would be the perfect assassin?
Freedman was extraordinarily closemouthed about his missions, but there was one instance in which a personal indiscretion identified his place of operation. Sometime in the mid-1980s he visited his sister, Sylvia, and called aside her husband, Ivan Doner, a physician. "You have to do me a favor," he said somewhat sheepishly. "When I was in Ethiopia I performed a transgression over there."
Doner understood instantly what Freedman was saying. He had had sexual intercourse with a local and now was worried about AIDS. Fearing both the personal and the security repercussions of his actions, Freedman asked that Doner do a blood test and assign him a pseudonym for purposes of the exam. The test came back negative and the usually steely Freedman exhaled a sigh of relief.
The major missions he and Delta Force undertook were often performed in conjunction with the CIA. It was an uneasy relationship between Delta and the Agency. Increasingly the Agency came to view Delta as its paramilitary arm, a role Delta did not relish.
Freedman and the men of Delta knew they could rely on each other. The Agency, on the other hand, had demonstrated a propensity to distance itself from anything that could go awry and seemed to be planning escape routes from responsibility even before operations commenced. "They'll have you crawl way out on a limb and then saw off the branch," said one former Delta Force leader. "They've done it many times." Often, too, Agency intelligence was inadequate or flat- out wrong. Freedman and his teammates came to be deeply suspicious of the Agency -- and yet, when called, they went without hesitation.
It is nearly impossible to judge the efficacy of Delta's missions, so shrouded are they even years later. Sadly the one most daring operation and the one for which Delta will long be associated would come to haunt Freedman as it did the others. The code name was Operation Eagle Claw.
It was the spring of 1980. For six months the nation watched with revulsion as fifty-three American civilians were paraded about as hostages, humiliated at the hands of their Iranian captors. With apparent impunity the Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers taunted the United States as "the Great Satan." President Jimmy Carter saw his political standing and authority dwindle with each passing day. The crisis would define his presidency, cast America as a kind of impotent giant, and embolden other fanatics to strike at U.S. targets.
But in the deepest, most secure recesses of the U.S. intelligence and defense communities an elaborate plan was afoot to liberate the hostages. It would soon be payback time, a chance to regain face and show that the United States would not abandon its citizens. Perhaps not since the Vietnam War had a covert mission of such daring been undertaken. Completely cloaked in secrecy, a key part of the operation was placed in the hands of the country's most select military unit, Delta Force.
And among those chosen from that crack unit was Larry Freedman.
It was to be Delta's first real mission, a chance to prove its mettle and demonstrate that two years of training had not been for naught. It was the moment that Delta Force had been waiting for. It was the moment Larry Freedman lived for.
On the night of April 24-25, 1980, Freedman was aboard an EC-130, part of a larger group of modified Hercules aircraft and RH-53D helicopters known as Sea Stallions. They were to rendezvous at a prearranged refueling site inside Iran, code-named Desert One.
Dressed in a black field jacket, Levi's, boots, and a naval watch cap, Freedman sat quietly as the massive plane droned on through the night toward its destination. On his right sleeve was a strip of tape concealing a small American flag that he was to peel off once in Teheran as a sign to the hostages that he was part of a rescue team. In his mind he went over and over the welter of intricate steps that lay ahead. He and the rest of the team were convinced that the plan would work. Just get them to Teheran and leave the rest to them.
Freedman had been assigned to the "Blue Element." He was to be a "blocker," making sure that the crowds that could be expected to assemble outside the U.S. Embassy in Teheran, where the fifty- three hostages were being held, did not make it past him. With his sniper's rifle and the support of a machine gunner, he was to provide a delay, if need be laying down deadly fire, while the hostages were removed and led to safety. Few in the operation would be more exposed to risk.
But of the eight Sea Stallions assigned to the mission, three either never made it to Desert One or were stricken with mechanical problems. It was decided that there were no longer enough choppers to make the operation work. The radical change in temperature from the cold of a desert night to the heat of daytime was deemed certain to ground another one or two choppers. That would leave just three to ferry to safety Delta, a Defense Department contingent, the fifty-three hostages, and the assault unit that was to storm the Foreign Ministry Building which housed another three hostages. In all, 178 people would have to be carried out. It was cutting it too close.
The decision was made to abort.
On the ground at Desert One a Sea Stallion was repositioned for its return. Close by was the EC- 130 with Freedman and his fellow Blue team members aboard. As the chopper moved to get into position, its rotors ripped through the cockpit of the EC-130 and instantly set off an explosion, igniting both aircraft. Suddenly the desert went from night to day, and the mission was transformed into a tragedy. Colonel Charles Beckwith would remember the Redeye missiles eerily "pinwheeling" through the desert night as on the Fourth of July.
Freedman and others of his team escaped the flames and leaped to safety, rolling in the sand to put out the flames that licked at their clothes. Freedman returned to the aircraft to help carry away one of the crew who was badly injured and screaming for help. But trapped inside the inferno, now fed by hundreds of gallons of fuel were eight members of the rescue mission.
Four hours and fifty-six minutes after landing at Desert One, Freedman and the others were forced to abandon the site and head for the safety of the Indian Ocean. The flight back was nearly silent. Freedman and his fellow team members sat sullenly, some with tears sliding down their cheeks. They had come to rescue Americans and show that the United States would not abandon its citizens. But behind, on the desert floor, amid the twisted and burned-out wreckage of Sea Stallion and Hercules, were eight charred corpses. It was the most dramatic defeat since Vietnam. The enemy had been sand and night and, perhaps too, a lack of fundamental coordination. America's humiliation was now compounded by horror.
Such was the legacy of Operation Eagle Claw. But while it was an unambiguous fiasco, it also made Delta even more determined to play a frontline role in any future covert rescue and extraction operation. Freedman was convinced that had Delta been in control of the operation, they could have pulled it off. In this he was not alone.
In time, his grief gave way to rage. The aborted rescue mission was a subject he disciplined himself not to dwell on. Rarely would he speak of it and only to those who had played a role in the operation. The pain, the injury to pride and profession, the loss of friends, dogged him as nothing else would.
In October 1982 Freedman left Delta Force. His subsequent military record grows more murky with each passing year as he descended into increasingly sensitive and compartmented operations. On November 5, 1982, only weeks after leaving Delta, Pentagon records note he was an "infantry man (special project)." A year later he became a "special projects team member." None of those operations have come to light.
By December 1, 1984, his record clarifies somewhat with the notation that he had been made noncommissioned officer in charge of the Interdiction Branch, a position he held until 1986. In those years he trained Delta and other Special Forces units at Fort Bragg in many of the arcane arts he had mastered. In the "interdiction" course he taught advanced marksmanship, judging distances, camouflage, and concealment techniques, observation skills, and how to "deliver precise rifle fire in support of special operations." It was the Special Forces version of Sniper School.
That same year he attended a birthday party for his old Philadelphia friend Petey Altman, who was turning forty-four. Altman had been smoking pot and was stoned. Freedman avoided him throughout the evening until Altman finally cornered him. Freedman glowered, and it was clear to Altman it was over drugs. "It occurred to me that here he was literally risking his life to stop this stuff and here I was at the other end of the pipeline being the retail consumer," recalls Altman. "That summer I gave it up altogether."
As Freedman approached his forty-fifth birthday, his career took a turn. He temporarily left the field for a classroom at the U.S. Army Sergeant Major's Academy at Fort Bliss, Texas. There, for the first time, he got a great report card. His transcript declared: "He is a true professional of the highest caliber and has exhibited the potential to succeed in any position at any organizational level within the Department of Defense." In August 1986 he returned to Fort Bragg as a sergeant major.
He continued to train Special Forces at Fort Bragg's John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, passing along to the next generation his skills and knowledge acquired over two decades of combat and covert missions.
But he was hardly the professorial type. He ached to get back into the fray. Talking about it was fine but no substitute for the real thing. Still running five miles a day and pumping iron, he was fit and trim and ready for action. But who would deploy a forty-nine-year-old grandfather?
He thought for a time of becoming a mercenary, perhaps working for Israel and the Mossad, the counterpart to the CIA. "You're Jewish, but you're not Israeli," one of his senior officers cautioned him. Freedman next decided to make a run at the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). He had had experience in the field fighting drug operations. It seemed a perfect fit. But the DEA was not interested in someone of Freedman's age for field assignments. Freedman was crushed.
So it was by default that he turned to the CIA. A friend of his from Delta had recently joined the Agency and knew firsthand Freedman's capabilities. On February 31, 1990, Freedman retired from the military after twenty-five years in Special Forces.
With hardly a break in service, he joined the CIA. For the Agency it was something of a coup. There were few employees at Langley that possessed Freedman's paramilitary skills. In 1947 when the Agency was founded, virtually all employees of the clandestine service were veterans of military service. The early 1950s saw an influx of men seasoned in battle on the Korean peninsula.
But by 1990 those in the Agency who had served in the military were in the distinct minority, and many of those still there were either too old or ill-conditioned to meet the physical demands of a covert paramilitary officer. Even at fifty Freedman carried a chiseled physique, a young man's stamina, and a wide array of skills rarely found in one person.
But for Freedman it was not the perfect fit. Once out of the military, he grew a ponytail and sported a full white beard. At Langley he was constantly being pushed to get a haircut. But more than that, something about the culture of the Agency put him off. He continued to harbor some distrust dating back to his days on Delta Force.
Like Freedman, the Agency itself was going through a period of self-doubt and reexamination. In 1991 William Webster resigned after four years as head of the CIA. The Agency had come under criticism from both the Bush White House and Congress. Specifically cited were intelligence failures connected to the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, the collapse of the Soviet economy, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait a year later. In November 1991 Webster was replaced by Robert M. Gates, a veteran Agency analyst known as something of a hard-liner.
For Gates and the Agency there was little time to reflect on the past or celebrate the collapse of its archenemy, the Soviet Union. The CIA was faced with nothing less than redefining its future. Its raison d'etre -- the Cold War -- was history. If Langley did not quickly embrace a new mission, it risked being identified as an anachronism and disemboweled, not unlike the fate of the OSS in the immediate aftermath of World War II. That was the same situation Larry Freedman found himself in as a warrior in middle age having consecrated himself to fighting Communists.
But Gates was an unabashed believer in the CIA's accomplishments. He counted the Agency's multibillion-dollar support of the mujahedin against the Soviets in Afghanistan as one of its finest hours. Even Angola, decimated by war and superpower intervention, he put in the Agency's win column, as one more strain on the Kremlin. That the Agency helped prop up, even install, many despotic regimes was simply a necessity of containing Communism. He would later muse that the CIA had "ended up with some strange and often unsavory bedfellows. Most you wouldn't bring home to Mom." But it was the future, not the past, that preoccupied Gates and the thousands of overt and undercover Agency employees. The CIA's resources, once directed against Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, now were increasingly being deployed to gather economic intelligence and to fight terrorism, international crime syndicates, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction -- biological, chemical, and nuclear -- and the international narcotics trade. Each of these areas was affected by the demise of the Soviet Union. If "the evil empire" was gone, so, too, was the restraint and stability with which it held sway over its client states in the long era of superpower rivalry. In its absence, age-old strains of nationalism and ethnic conflict erupted, drawing the CIA into them.
For Langley and for Freedman it was an unfamiliar world, one in which containing chaos, not Communism, often seemed to be center-stage. Both wondered how they would fit in and what their new role would be. Freedman did not have to wait long to find out. He was repeatedly dispatched to Africa, primarily in the north, returning again to Ethiopia. He also is said to have been sent to Poland. That mission, too, remains a mystery.
It had been almost more than Freedman could bear that he was not sent to the Gulf War in 1991, but had to sit by and watch as Desert Storm unfolded.
"Haven't you had enough?" his lifelong friend Paul Weinberg asked him.
"No," Freedman fired back. "One more war. I could go for a good war."
Years of Special Forces training had sharpened his skills but had also implanted in him a wariness and hair-trigger reaction that sometimes frightened those around him. And with reason. He could be the perfect killing machine and was now paying a price for his expertise. A hunter so long, he had come to know a little too much about what it was to be hunted.
He would not sit before windows or doors, aware that snipers like himself looked for just such opportunities to fell their prey. Always, he insisted on sitting with his back to the wall where he could survey everything and everyone around him. As his training increased, so, too, did the ferocity with which he reacted to perceived threats. In his profession deliberation meant death.
Late one evening in 1990, while on leave, he was staying with his sister, Sylvia. Sitting in a black leather chair, he was watching television. Even in Sylvia's suburban living room, he had strapped to his ankle his .357 Smith & Wesson with a two-and-a-half-inch barrel. It was loaded with special Teflon-pointed bullets. Sylvia entered the room a little too quietly, padding about in her slippers. She came upon him from behind and gently placed her hand upon his shoulder.
Before she knew it, Freedman had leaped over the back of the chair and was an instant away from delivering a potentially fatal strike. "I saw the look in his eyes and I learned never to do that again," Sylvia would say. After that she announced her entrances. Others of Freedman's friends had their own such encounters. They knew to approach him face-to-face and never to surprise him.
The Larry Freedman that Wynne Crocetto knew was a man who pulled the chair out for her, never cursed, and through the years remembered her on birthdays and Valentine's Day. But she, too, caught a terrifying glimpse of the other Larry Freedman, the master of close-quarters combat. "I'm really sorry," he told her. "I'll never do that again."
But it was not something he had control over. The skills that kept him alive in times of peril stalked him in times of peace. Even waking him could unleash the warrior's fury.
But there were by now other, more pressing problems in Freedman's life. His marriage to Teresa had worn hopelessly thin. Freedman wanted out. He may well have loved her but he could not live with her any longer. He took an apartment in Arlington, Virginia. Teresa remained in Fayetteville. He called it "a separation." It was headed inexorably toward divorce.
He still had a roving eye but little expectation of meeting someone special. He had had enough of marriage. But a year after he joined the CIA, in 1991, he found himself enamored with one of his female colleagues, a thin and athletic divorcee. She had even accompanied him on the back of his blackberry-colored Harley FXRT to Sturgis, South Dakota, where annually tens of thousands of bikers gather. It was the first time he had been with a woman who both understood and shared his passion for action and intrigue. At fifty Freedman had found a soulmate.
Freedman was even giving some thought to what life might be like in retirement. He and his buddy Larry Walz had spoken of buying Harleys in Anchorage, Alaska, and driving them for a year all the way to the tip of South America.
But he was also conscious that between now and retirement his life was fraught with risk. Late one afternoon Freedman was in his sister's backyard, rocking slowly in the hammock. Sylvia pulled up a lawn chair and they began to talk. He said that when he died he wanted to be buried in Arlington Cemetery and to have the complete military ceremony and even the small white government-issued tombstone. "I deserve that," he told her, "and I want to be among my peers."
By December 1992 Freedman's bona fides as one of the CIA's premier paramilitary operatives were well established. He had become one of the Agency's "go-to" players, someone who could be counted on to perform well even in the most hazardous of situations. One such situation was quickly taking shape in an area already familiar to Freedman -- the horn of Africa.
The country of Somalia was virtually disintegrating before the eyes of the world. Warlords and factionalism had plunged it into a hellish chaos in which even the most dedicated relief workers could not get food and medicine to the country's 8 million people. At the White House, President Bush had determined that the United States would not sit by while countless Somalis starved to death. A decision was made, on humanitarian grounds, that the U.S. would send a military force into the country to reestablish some semblance of order so that the "nongovernmental entities," or NGOs, could go about their work of bringing relief to the country. Already some 350,000 people had died from hunger or fighting.
As a preface to such military intervention, the National Security Council (NSC) decided it wanted the CIA to send operatives into Somalia to ensure that the airports would be open and secure They did not want the NGOs to return only to become targets or to have their food looted or taken by militias. The CIA team could also provide U.S. troops with a clearer idea of what they might expect in country.
The Agency officers, operating under cover, were to arrive in advance of the military. It would be a risky operation because CIA operatives would be inserted into a conflict in which there was no way to distinguish between good guys and bad guys. All sides were heavily armed.
The call for a CIA team went to Tom Twetten, then deputy director for operations, the man who oversaw the Agency's clandestine service. He understood only too well the risk of deploying people in areas where factionalism was rife.
It was not that Twetten was squeamish about putting his officers into the field when it was necessary, but he was skeptical about the need for Agency people in Somalia. He had good reason to have his doubts.
Over the years, demands on the Agency increased while its budget remained the same or shrank. Cuts were made in personnel and operations. Resources had to be husbanded. An internal CIA study was conducted to identify those countries in Africa in which the United States had little or no political, economic, or strategic interests. The idea was that in those countries the Agency could afford not to have a presence. The study was undertaken in the aftermath of the Cold War and was completed in 1991.
It concluded that there were four countries in which the United States had no significant interests and that the Agency would therefore cease collecting intelligence on those nations. That list was forwarded to the State Department and the NSC.
"The Cold War was over and there was no more interest in those countries," recalls Twetten. "There was no U.S. presence there. They were essentially off our screen. We were trying to remold ourselves, so we were going to drop off what was least important and we listed those four countries in rank order and at the top of the list, that which was least important, in which there was no embassy, no American presence, and nobody had asked any question about for the last year -- the name of that country was Somalia."
Now the Agency was being asked to put its officers at risk in a country it had determined was not even worthy of routine collection efforts. Twetten had a second reservation about Agency involvement. He viewed it as a request for military assistance, something the CIA tried to avoid unless there was a presidential finding. In Twetten's view it was the military who should fill the need.
Unspoken was yet a third reason. The Panama operation three years earlier had left some residual "bad blood" between Langley and the Pentagon. Twetten politely declined what he took to be an invitation for assistance and heard no more on the matter for a short time.
But a week later a second call came in. This time the NSC spoke to the Director Central Intelligence, Robert Gates. This time it was no longer a request, but a directive. The Agency was to field a team in Somalia. End of discussion.
"I was given the instruction 'You will do it,' recalled Twetten. "The director of operations will organize an intelligence-gathering effort in several villages including Bardera and you will confirm that the airports are secure so that the NGOs can arrive. You will do that by working with the local authorities, whoever is in charge of the area. You have to go out on the ground and figure out who that is."
There was little discussion about who would be the right person to send. "Freedman was a character and really well known for his bravery and audacity," remembers Twetten. Besides, Freedman knew the landscape of the country, had the requisite skills, and was, as always, itching to go. A desk in Langley had never agreed with him. This was what he had joined the Agency to do. Twetten spoke with him personally as he readied himself for the assignment.
But Freedman was to be part of a second phase of the CIA operation. Even before he was to go into Somalia, the Agency had hired some bush pilots in Kenya to bring in pre-positioned Agency officers who had previous experience in Somalia. Once in country, the CIA case officers contacted Somali agents they had known from earlier operations and assigned them to collect intelligence on specific airports. Only then was Freedman to go in as part of a combined CIA and U.S. Army reconnaissance squadron.
A few days before Freedman was to leave he flew to Phoenix, Arizona, to visit a longtime friend, Gale McMillan. It was part business, part pleasure. McMillan was a specialty weapons maker who had outfitted elite Special Forces units. Freedman was there to pick up a ten-power sniper's scope to fit his .308 rifle.
But McMillan was much more than just a source of weapons. Freedman had known him since his days on Delta and had come to view him as a surrogate father. "He was kind of like a third son," said McMillan. One of the nights Freedman was in town McMillan put on a demonstration of his night scopes at the local police firing range and turned to Freedman to prove the accuracy of the rifle and scope. In the blackness of night Freedman set up his rifle, poised on a bipod that rested on a table. He sighted the target and squeezed off five shots at a target the distance of two football fields away. All five shots found their mark, dead center -- all within three-tenths of an inch of each other. The police had never seen such a thing before.
The next morning Freedman was to fly back to Washington and then on to Somalia. McMillan met him for breakfast in the coffee shop of the local Sheraton. Freedman seemed ebullient. He was headed for action. He was also, he said, deeply in love with someone from the Agency. "I don't have to justify my work to her," he said. McMillan sensed that Freedman was thinking marriage.
McMillan just listened. He knew not to ask Freedman where he was headed or what he was going to do. Besides, Freedman would not have told him. Anyone he counted a friend understood that such questions would be unwelcomed. But McMillan had something he wanted to say to him, something he knew Freedman would not want to hear.
"Go in the rest room," McMillan told him, "and look at all the white in your hair. It means you better start slowing down and let the young guys take the risk."
Freedman shrugged it off.
"Mac," he said, "you know I'm doing what I love to do. If I have to go, what better way to go?"
When Freedman arrived in Somalia in December 1992, he was dressed in faded blue jeans and a khaki field jacket. He wore a tan Harley-Davidson hat that could not contain the cascades of long curly white locks that broke down his bull-like neck. His beard was nearly all white, and his eyes were hidden by a pair of dark aviator sunglasses.
A photo of him taken on December 18 captures him in a moment of impish delight, a black automatic weapon slung across his wide chest, a field radio pressed to his ear, and the broad grin of someone hamming it up, enjoying every moment. But for his age, he might easily have been mistaken for a kid at camp rather than a CIA operative in the vanguard of Operation Restore Hope.
Not long after he arrived, he and a team of three other combat-seasoned men set out to examine the situation around Bardera and its airport, some two hundred miles to the west of the capital, Mogadishu. It was of little strategic value but was squarely in what had become known as the famine belt. Feuding warlords and gun-toting thugs had completely disrupted the flow of relief. Some three hundred people a day were dying of hunger there.
The date was December 23, 1992. Freedman sat behind the wheel of a civilian vehicle as the four- member team took to the road. Along the way, Freedman stopped the vehicle and walked out to the edge of the bush to relieve himself. Someone snapped a picture of him from behind. Freedman laughed. He was in high spirits.
The journey resumed. But on a remote and dusty stretch of road outside Bardera at just about nine o'clock that Wednesday morning, the vehicle hit a land mine. In one hellacious nanosecond, fire and black smoke, red-hot shards of metal and a deafening concussion filled the air.
And when it settled and the quiet returned, Larry Freedman lay dead.
He had suffered a massive head wound, his lower right leg had been blown off; and the right side of his chest was opened. Death had been instantaneous as surely as if one of Freedman's own sniper bullets had unerringly found its mark. The other men were wounded but alive.
Freedman's body and the three survivors were flown by chopper to the USS Tripoli, a helicopter carrier off Mogadishu. There Lieutenant Commander David A. Beatty, a U.S. Navy doctor, filled out the death certificate for Freedman. It listed Freedman as a civilian employee of the Department of Defense, a GS-12. His next of kin was listed as "unknown", as was his Social Security number.
So flamboyant a life was now masked in the cover language provided by the Agency. Those responsible for concealing Freedman's Agency identity and the identities of the other three men disseminated a mix of fact and falsehood. It was said the three survivors had been State Department security officers. Doubtful. Their names were never released. Nor was the nature of their mission. The mine was described as of Russian origin, an older model. How long it had been there was anyone's guess. Later it was whispered at the CIA and Delta that Freedman had been warned not to take that road, that it was not safe. And yet he chose to take it anyway. Maybe it was true, maybe not. It just seemed to fit into the myth that was already taking shape around Larry Freedman.
The day after Freedman was killed a battalion of marines entered Bardera and prepared to distribute food to the thousands of starving Somalis who gathered about. They would later spend Christmas Eve on the airstrip that Freedman had been assigned to.
Most of the marines had no inkling who Freedman was, but one senior officer did attempt to express his appreciation and debt to him. Lieutenant General R. B. Johnston of the Combined Task Force Somalia sat down and typed a letter addressed "To the Larry Freedman Family."
"There are many young Marines and Soldiers who can take credit for the early success of our operation in Somalia," he wrote. "But there are also a number of very special people like Larry who made the most significant contribution by performing missions that gave us the highest possible guarantee that our troops could enter the major relief centers safely. I cannot underscore how important was the performance of Larry and his fellow team members. They courageously put themselves in harm's way and took personal risks on behalf of our entire force. I know I speak for every man and woman in uniform here in Somalia in expressing to Larry's family our deepest sympathy."
The letter was dated December 24, 1992. That was the day Freedman's name was released to the press. At the CIA in Langley his colleagues were reeling from the loss. No one was more devastated than the woman Freedman had hoped to spend the rest of his life with.
But if December 24 was a day of mourning for some at Langley, it was a day of celebration for others. That very day, President George Bush, former head of the CIA, granted pardons to three Agency officials -- Duane Clarridge, Alan Fiers, and Clare George -- for their role in the Iran- Contra scandal. Bush had effectively put an end to further inquiries into the affair. That was just fine with the CIA.
On December 29, 1992, Freedman's funeral was held at the Fort Myer Chapel at Arlington National Cemetery. Even before the funeral got under way, Colonel Sanford Dresin, the officiating chaplain and a rabbi, assembled the family for a ritualistic rending of black cloth, a Jewish custom symbolic of grief and remembrance. But there was no black cloth to be found in the chapel and no pins with which to fasten it. So the rabbi had to make do with black construction paper which was torn into strips and attached to lapels with paper clips. Freedman, he observed, was an expert in resourcefulness and would have appreciated such field expediency.
Those who gathered in the chapel might just as well have come from a series of diverse Hollywood sets. Senior government officials arrived by limousine. From Langley came representatives of the Agency's clandestine service, men and women in black suits and silvered sunglasses. From Fort Bragg came beefy Special Forces types -- Green Berets and Delta Force. Bikers from who knows where arrived on Harleys and Nortons. From Philadelphia came the old gang from the days at the Pit.
One of those was Petey Altman. He and his pals slowly walked behind the gleaming black caisson drawn by six white stallions as it made its way through the twisting paths of Arlington carrying Freedman's coffin. It came to a stop at the corner of Patton and Eisenhower where Freedman was to be buried. Four of the horses were mounted by soldiers, two were riderless, and one bore reversed boots in the stirrups, for the one who had brought them all together and was not here.
It was a cold Tuesday that threatened rain. Freedman's flag-draped coffin was protected by a plastic sheet. His family took their places in velvet-draped chairs as the rabbi, under shelter of a canopy, began the graveside service.
Freedman would have liked this. In a way, his final cover story -- that he was a "civilian employee of the Defense Department" -- was closer to the truth than even the Agency knew. Yes, he was CIA, but he had never seen himself as an Agency man. He was a soldier and he was going out that way.
Only the stone that Teresa had picked was, perhaps, at variance with what he would have wanted. Instead of one of the simple white stones the government provides and that dot the verdant hills in dizzying numbers, she selected a block of jet-black granite. She had her reasons. Where she had gone to look at markers, she noticed that the men cutting the stones were Harley bikers. She took this as a sign that they were meant to inscribe her husband's headstone. On it is a Star of David, a Green Beret, and a paratrooper's wings. Inscribed are the words:
The day after the funeral, on the afternoon of December 30, 1992, a memorial service for Freedman was held in the John F. Kennedy Memorial Chapel at Fort Bragg. There Brigadier General Richard Potter gave the eulogy to a chapel spilling over with Freedman's friends from Delta and other Special Forces detachments, as well as those second-generation combatants he had trained. General Potter cited a passage from Isaiah to explain what he called Freedman's "warrior ethic," his willingness to serve wherever, whenever:
And I heard the voice of the Lord say "Who shall I
Years later, in retirement, General Potter mused over the fuss shown over Freedman's passing and the interest of an inquiring journalist. "I will tell you that wherever Larry is in Valhalla up there with all the other warriors, he would probably be laughing that we are having this conversation."
Remembering Larry Freedman would take many forms:
In Buundo, Ethiopia, a bridge built by U.S. troops that supported tons of food for the starving bears his name. On a steel plate, in white paint, is stenciled "Lawrence R. Freedman Bridge." Never mind that his middle initial was "N" not "R."
In Keystone, South Dakota, just below Mount Rushmore, is a small wooden plaque that reads, "In Memory of Larry Freedman." It is affixed to a picnic shelter where Freedman often escaped the August heat on his annual pilgrimage to the Sturgis motorcycle rally.
In Fayetteville, North Carolina, in the Special Forces Memorial Plaza, his name appears on a plaque dedicated to those who died in the Somalia campaign, though here the CIA's cover story became entangled in yet another cover story. He is listed as an employee of the State Department, not the Pentagon.
And not far away, in the JFK Special Forces Museum, is a small stage named for him: the Larry "Superjew" Freedman Theater, a fitting tribute to a man with a keen sense of theater.
But it was the Agency's memorial service to Freedman the morning of January 5, 1993, that his family remembers best. The CIA assembled Freedman's colleagues and family in "the Bubble," the auditorium across from the headquarters building. Just inside the entrance was a life-sized portrait of Freedman set upon an easel. The room was filled with covert operatives and Agency brass. Even Colin Powell was there. Director Bob Gates spoke briefly, and then one of Freedman's colleagues offered a few remarks about the friend he missed:
"He was blessed with a sense of street savvy, which numbered Larry in that small handful whom, without hesitation, you can trust with covering your six o'clock when you walked into the woodline on a tactical mission ... Pick a continent, pick a decade, Larry was there ..."
Moments later the lights were lowered. Bette Midler's rendition of "The Wind Beneath My Wings" was played, and from floor to ceiling was projected a giant picture of Freedman against the left wall. It was a touch of drama Freedman could only have applauded.
Three days after the ceremony, on January 8, 1993, President George Bush, fresh from a trip to Somalia, visited Langley and addressed CIA employees. Langley was a special place for Bush and he could count on receiving a warm welcome there. It was not so with many of his successors. These were troubled times for the Agency.
"Last November," Bush told them, "when Bob [Gates] became director, I noted that the men and women of the intelligence community faced a new mission in a dramatically different world ... I wish all of you could have been with me on this visit to Somalia. It was very moving. And we are doing the right thing." It was to be a pep talk designed to inspire the Agency personnel at a time when there was an increasing chorus of voices questioning the need for a CIA in a post-Cold War environment.
"The dangers that we face are real," Bush told them. "I still get emotionally convinced of that when I see the stars out in the hall of this building ... So I came to say thank you." No reference was made to Freedman. Not long after, a nameless star was added to the wall and to the Book of Honor.
For some, Freedman's death remains a dark tragedy. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, his widow, Teresa, has created a kind of unseen shrine to him. She has kept his heavy black Harley-Davidson jacket with fringe sleeves as well as the dress uniform she had pressed in the belief that he could be buried in it. That was before she was told the coffin could not be opened. Behind the headboard of their king-sized bed are boxes and boxes of medals and memorabilia -- Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, pins and service ribbons, the otoscope of a medic, a piece of a gun, an old buck knife, dog tags from Vietnam, a Star of David, and a sterling-silver "Chi," Hebrew for "life." Here, too, hidden away, is the palm-sized gold medallion that reads, "Central Intelligence Agency For Valor: Lawrence N. Freedman 1992." It was awarded by CIA Director Robert Gates only eight days after Freedman's death. But it took three years before the Agency would consent to send the medal to Freedman's widow. It is an honor that even now she is not to put on display.
But if there are those who are still in mourning, there are others who find such solemnity ill-suited to one as lusty and vital as Larry Freedman. It seemed somehow fitting when his sister, Sylvia, and his rowdy friends from Philadelphia decided to throw a party in Larry's memory. It was a raucous evening. As the video camera rolled, each friend outdid the other with outrageous stories of Freedman. In the background was a huge cake with the name Gus on it and a life-sized portrait in icing of Freedman, complete with his rakish smile and the desperado's mustache. No one dared cut a slice anywhere near his face. To this day, it remains in a Philadelphia freezer.
Sylvia still can't quite bring herself to believe that her brother is dead, only that he is not coming back. "My great fantasy," she says, "is that he went off to be James Bond and just didn't know how to leave us."