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Trained to Combat Terrorists : U.S. Teams Ill Prepared to Rescue Prison Hostages

November 26, 1987|RONALD J. OSTROW and LEE MAY | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Despite years of planning and millions of dollars spent developing special hostage rescue teams, federal officials responsible for dealing with the potentially disastrous riots by Cuban inmates have been forced to scramble and improvise responses because the crisis has presented challenges they did not foresee and are ill-equipped to handle.

Officials have dispatched the FBI's 50-member hostage rescue unit and several FBI SWAT teams from Los Angeles, San Diego and other cities to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta and a detention facility in Oakdale, La. They have also ordered in about 50 members of the U.S. Marshals Service's 120-member special operations group, trained to deal with civil disturbances.

Commandos on Hand

But, even with the addition Tuesday night of about 100 special operations Army commandos from Ft. Bragg, N. C., federal law enforcement sources acknowledged Wednesday that they do not have adequate resources for gaining control of the situation without sacrificing the lives of hostages.

"We are just scrambling" to put together an effective response, one senior Justice Department official conceded.

In effect, the problem is that federal law enforcement officials--and the military as well--have focused on how to handle problems that are similar to ones they have faced in the past. That is, they had concentrated on hostage situations in which relatively small bands of highly disciplined terrorists held a handful of hostages in ordinary buildings and airliners.

At the Atlanta facility, however, hundreds of desperate and undisciplined inmates--panicked by fears of being deported to Fidel Castro's Cuba--are holding dozens of hostages inside a fortress-like prison. And, although Oakdale--a new low-security detention camp--does not present such a difficult physical problem, it, too, is far larger than anything the FBI or other agencies are trained to deal with.

Regular Army units have the men and firepower necessary to subdue the rioters, but not without potentially disastrous loss of life.

Army Assault Ruled Out

The Army commandos will not participate in an assault on the prison, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

"We're there to lend some advice and possibly some equipment," one official said. "There are some things we have that the Feds don't. But this is a civilian show. We're not going to conduct an assault."

Reflecting the hectic nature of the Justice Department's response, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III called off a six-day European trip, FBI Executive Assistant Director Oliver B. Revell and Marshals Service Director Stanley E. Morris rushed back from trips, and Howard Safir, the Marshals Service associate director, canceled a trip.

They refused to discuss in detail why they were seemingly caught unprepared in the first place and how the Cuban prisoners in Atlanta were able to seize 25 new hostages two days into the ordeal.

No Warning of Accord

The Justice Department's problems were compounded by the fact that it got no warning about the immigration accord with Havana that set off the rioting.

The accord restored a previously canceled pact in which the Castro government agreed to take back Cuban immigrants who were found to be criminals or mentally ill.

"This is a classic example of how a federal agency's failure to coordinate with other agencies was literally disastrous," said Russ Bergeron, an official with the New Orleans office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"I know for certain that no one was aware of (the accord) before Thursday evening," when the negotiations were concluded, a Justice Department official said.

Even after Meese was told of the agreement at 7 a.m. Friday, no attempt was made to inform the Cuban prisoners about the situation, the official acknowledged.

Staff writers John Broder in Washington, David Lauter in Oakdale, La., and William Overend and Doug Frantz in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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