The news from southern California was enough to make acid drip from the pens of editorial cartoonists. In the aptly named Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra last week, a private contractor was recruiting a ragtag army of Vietnam veterans for a paradoxical mission: to train Saudi Arabian troops to defend the very oil fields that Henry Kissinger recently warned the U.S. might one day have to invade. The Pentagon's brokering role in the deal - and its halfhearted attempt to conceal it - raised suspicions that the government might circumvent, by means of hired guns, the legal bans against new U.S. involvements abroad. It also prompted a public re-evaluation of a military-arms-sales policy that threatens to drag the U.S. into a greater role in the volatile area of the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. has been selling weapons to the Persian Gulf oil states for years, but the evidence last week was that the program was far more massive than most people had suspected. To begin with, there was the $77 million Saudi Arabian deal under which the Vinnell Corp. - with the aid of a one-eyed former U.S. Army colonel named James D. Holland - will provide 1,000 ex-Special Forces troops and infantrymen to train King Faisal's 26,000-man royal palace guard. The Vinnell contract seemed to be only the tip of the iceberg. The Pentagon announced that Bell Helicopter International, which recently rounded up 1,500 Vietnam-era chopper jockeys and sent them off to train pilots and crews for the Shah of Iran's sizable new helicopter fleet, was getting a $170 million expansion of its contract. NEWSWEEK also learned that the Army Corps of Engineers is designing a $60 million headquarters for the Saudi Arabian National Guard - and sending American GI's to supervise construction.
Understandably enough, the Pentagon and the private contrators were sensitive to charges that they were using surplus soldiers as mercenaries. "We are not mercenaries because we are not pulling triggers," said a former U.S. Army officer who was among the scores of men who flocked to Vinnell's cramped employment office in Alhambra (page 32). "We train people to pull triggers." But as one of his colleagues pointed out: "Maybe that makes us executive mercenaries."
Whatever they were called, Vinnell's private army represented a significant shift in Pentagon policy. In the past, the U.S. has awarded contracts to private firms to train foreign forces in the use of such sophisticated American weapons as anti-aircraft missiles, helicopters and jet aircraft. This, however, was the first time that American civilians would be permitted to train foreign infantry and artillery battalions in ground warfare.
That novel prospect raised political hackles in Congress and elsewhere. Sen. John Stennis, the powerful Armed Services Committee chairman, said the deal "raises some questions" and promptly phoned Defense Secretary James Schlesinger for an explanation. Democratic Presidential hopeful Sen. Henry Jackson told newsmen that he was "completely baffled" by the Vinnell contract and would launch a thorough inquiry. Even some of the brass at the Pentagon weren't too happy. "The buildup of weapons in the Persian Gulf area is so enormous that there is a danger that it will destabilize the area relationships and set off a war," said one officer.
Arms: That such a buildup is taking place is beyond dispute. Last year, the U.S. sold over $4 billion worth of weapons to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman - about half the total of all foreign arms sales in 1974. ALready, a small army of 663 uniformed American advisers is operating in Iran (which recently ordered six new U.S. destroyers at a cost of $700 million). Oman is considering a U.S. Air Force request to set up shop on strategic Masirah Island near the mouth of the gulf. What's more, the U.S. has expanded its intelligence-gathering activity in the region. Excellent sources in Beirut told NEWSWEEK that Oman's Sultan Quabus recently met with CIA director William Colby and asked for the help of American undercover agents in coping with his tiny country's internal-security problems.
Despite all the Administration's hints that it might have to seize the gulf oil fields if the U.S. is ever threatened with "strangulation," the simultaneous military buildup of the Persian Gulf states is not as contradictory as it might appear. The U.S. has two main interests in the area: to the area: to strengthen the hand of non-radical regimes while assuring the West an uninterrupted flow of oil. Thus for all its apparent paradox, Thje use of civilian "executive mercenaries" is a relatively inexpensive way to serve those interests - up to and including the opportunity of gathering intelligence on the gulf military establishments against the unlikely day when the U.S. might feel called upon to intervene.