Asheville resident Craig Sloan was just drifting off to sleep last Aug. 19 when helicopters with their lights off began buzzing low overhead, and he heard what sounded like gunfire and percussion grenades. For a moment, Sloan wondered whether prisoners had broken out of the nearby Buncombe County Jail.
Stepping outside, he looked toward City/County Plaza, the apparent locus of the commotion. "It was so black and so dark," remembers Sloan, an Army veteran who works at Mission Hospitals. "The jailhouse lights were off, and the courthouse lights were off. All you could see was flares. It was frightening. ... With the elevation of the terrorist threat, the first thing I was thinking was, we're being attacked."
What Sloan was seeing was indeed a raid of sorts -- but not by any foreign force. Instead, it was an elite U.S. Army commando unit that swept into Asheville that night in a training operation quietly hosted by the Buncombe County Sheriff's Department. Cloaked in secrecy, the exercise left many Asheville residents feeling startled and confused (see "Ground Zero: Asheville?" Sept. 1, 2004, Xpress).
Top local officials first learned about the Army's plans in a hush-hush meeting in 2002 that some say may have run afoul of the state's open-meetings law (see "None of Your Business?"). At the time, the Army apparently assured these local leaders that the public would not be endangered, and indeed, the Aug. 19 exercise doesn't seem to have done lasting harm. But similar operations elsewhere have caused extensive property damage and even loss of life. And while the mayors of some other cities, citing the risks, have said no to hosting military training, city and county leaders here appear willing to accept whatever the Army tells them.
Eight months after the Asheville exercise, some local officials -- sworn to secrecy by the Army -- still aren't willing to talk about that night or the events leading up to it. And those who will talk say they don't know if or when the Army may strike here again.
Defense Department officials say today's military must "train as we fight," and particularly in the post-9/11 world, they're striving to improve the armed forces' ability to operate in urban environments. But before U.S. troops see action in cities like Baghdad and Fallujah, the military says, they must first practice stateside -- in cities like Asheville.
That's what members of the Combat Applications Group told officials here three years ago, when they first approached the Buncombe County Sheriff's Department about hosting the exercise. The Fort Bragg-based Army unit, commonly known as Delta Force, was created in the late 1970s, though military officials still refuse to confirm its existence. The unit conducts such super-secret tasks as hostage rescues, surveillance in hostile territory, and targeting and interrogating key enemy leaders, according to a growing body of published literature on Delta Force, including books written by veterans of the unit.
The military officers who set up the Asheville exercise said they were from Delta Force, according to a local law-enforcement source who spoke to Xpress on the condition that they not be identified. "They explained that they were interested in Asheville because they wanted to train [for] urban warfare [and] because it was a mountainous terrain, somewhat similar to the mountains that they would get in Afghanistan and Pakistan," the source said.
The military has confirmed some of that information. "We were conducting what we call urban-training exercises," Walt Sokalski, a spokesman for the Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, told Xpress shortly after the exercise last August. He wouldn't say which Army units were involved, other than that they included "different elements of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command" (Delta Force is one of those elements).
"We try our best to go to areas outside of the large population density," Sokalski added, "but sometimes there's a building that's just right for the training we're trying to achieve, and the courthouse achieved that."
Originally scheduled for 2003, the exercise was put off for more than a year. An Army officer later explained to local law enforcement that many Delta Force personnel had been busy helping lay the groundwork for the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and then assisting in the operation that tracked and killed Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay. And in May 2004, NBC News reported on other Delta activities in Iraq. Citing "two top U.S. government sources," the network reported that the Pentagon's inspector general had launched an investigation of the commando unit for allegedly torturing Iraqi detainees. "Delta Force soldiers routinely drug prisoners, hold a prisoner under water until he thinks he's drowning, or smother them almost to suffocation," the network said.
The Buncombe County Courthouse appears to have been the epicenter of the Aug. 19 training. From roughly 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., three Army helicopters, including one Black Hawk, circled Asheville at low elevations. During the exercise, commandos rappelled down ropes onto the courthouse roof. Once inside the building, Sokalski said, the soldiers used "breaching charges" to blow open doors and fired "simunition" training rounds -- special ammunition that doesn't travel as far as regular rounds -- into bullet traps. The sounds of the war game echoed in and around downtown.
A few hours before the exercise began, a team of local law-enforcement officers had given some businesses around City/County Plaza a heads-up, telling them not to be alarmed by unusual noises. Nearby residents, however, weren't similarly warned, and no steps were taken to alert the public at large. Sokalski later told Xpress that the Army doesn't alert the public to such exercises for fear that crowds of spectators might disrupt the training.
Behind closed doors
The 20-some attendees at the closed-door meeting held late in 2002, Xpress has learned, included a veritable who's who of local leaders: Mayor Charles Worley, City Manager Jim Westbrook, City Attorney Bob Oast, County Manager Wanda Greene, then Police Chief Will Annarino and some of his subordinates, Sheriff Bobby Medford, Sheriff's Attorney Julie Keppel, Chief Deputy Sheriff George Stewart and Buncombe County Emergency Services Director Jerry VeHaun, among others.
According to one participant, the meeting took place in a conference room inside the Asheville City Building, where the group received a briefing from a Delta Force representative who identified himself as Mike Singleton and said he was a native of Brevard. Using a PowerPoint presentation and a pamphlet -- which the military officers retrieved at the meeting's end -- he summarized the unit's training needs and explained, at least in general terms, what the Army planned to do in Asheville.
Before the local officials left the conference room, however, the Army representatives presented everyone with a one-page "nondisclosure agreement." By signing the secrecy pledge, local leaders were agreeing not to discuss the training exercise for 50 years, according to one person present.
City Manager Westbrook, a Vietnam veteran who rose to the rank of colonel in the Army Reserve, refuses to discuss the meeting, saying, "Any kind of briefing like that I was in -- if I was in one at all -- was classified, and I can't talk to anybody about it." Asked if city government had kept any minutes of the meeting, Westbrook said: "I don't know how I can answer that. I would say probably not; it wasn't a public meeting."
City Attorney Oast also refuses to confirm or deny that he attended the briefing, or whether he signed a secrecy agreement. County Attorney Joe Connolly says he doesn't remember attending the briefing or signing a secrecy agreement.
County Manager Greene told Xpress that she attended the meeting and signed the Army's secrecy agreement. But when asked if she recalled what was in it, she said: "No, I really don't. I could probably pull it out of my file, but even then I couldn't talk to you about it."
Mayor Worley says that he, too, signed the agreement. "I guess I shouldn't even be talking to you, based on that," he told Xpress during a recent interview. "I hate to knowingly violate something like that."
Still, Worley was willing to talk about the briefing, though he said he doesn't remember much about it. "It was relatively inconsequential as a meeting, so there's not a whole lot that stands out in my mind about it." Worley also said he doesn't recall much discussion of public-safety concerns, because he felt it wasn't up to city government to approve training that had been arranged by the Sheriff's Department (which has not responded to repeated requests for comment).
The military, added Worley, "assured us that whatever they did would be perfectly safe, and that it was training that was necessary for homeland-security-type purposes. From a [City] Council standpoint, there wasn't anything required of us. I got the impression [the meeting] was more just coordination than anything else."
Among the issues "coordinated" at the briefing was how to keep the exercise hush-hush, according to the law-enforcement source. Local officials wouldn't need to answer questions about the training from members of the public or the press, the military reps explained, because the Army would handle that. "They said, 'We'll be in charge of PR. Anything that gets out, we'll do the spin on it.'"
Just say no
The approach taken by Asheville and Buncombe County leaders stands in stark contrast to the way top officials in some other cities have responded to similar requests by the military.
In March 1997, a nighttime Army Special Operations exercise in Charlotte spawned panicked calls to 911 and Mayor Pat McCrory, prompting him to cancel two additional days of scheduled training. McCrory, a Republican who's now serving his fifth term as mayor, is also a member of President Bush's Homeland Security Advisory Council. McCrory recently told Xpress that he'd been misled by officers from Fort Bragg, who'd said the Charlotte exercise would be a low-key affair.
"What they said they were going to do is not what they did. It was a much bigger operation than they initially told me," said McCrory. He added that he, too, had signed a secrecy agreement when he was briefed on the Army's plans, but said he considered the agreement invalid when the exercise proved to be disruptive. "When I had about 12 helicopters flying over my city in the dead of night, firing fake ammunition, less than 100 feet above people's homes, there was nothing secret about it. It scared a lot of people."
A Delta Force training in Kingsville, Texas, in February 1999 caused even greater disturbance. According to local and national news reports, a vacant former police station used by the troops caught fire during a nighttime exercise, sustaining heavy damage, and an empty former Exxon office was also damaged by fire. One of the eight helicopters involved in the operation struck a telephone pole, sparking another fire -- this one perilously close to a house. And as in Charlotte, area residents were kept in the dark about the planned exercise, prompting emergency calls to local authorities.
Later that same month, Delta Force staged additional trainings elsewhere in Texas -- but not in San Antonio, one of the few U.S. cities that have publicly refused to host such an exercise. Citing safety concerns, then Mayor Howard Peak suggested that the troops use a military base or a Hollywood set instead. In a memo to the City Council, San Antonio's police chief and city attorney backed the mayor's decision, mentioning previous Delta Force training mishaps -- including one in New Orleans that caused roughly $100,000 worth of damage to private property, and an incident in Miami where a training bullet ricocheted through the window of an all-night restaurant.
"These types of incidents or 'accidents' question the necessity of this type of training in San Antonio," the memo said. "Taking all things into consideration these exercises appear to be highly dangerous and controversial with the potential to cause serious property damage, injury of persons if something goes wrong and certainly an inconvenience to the public."
"Our major concern was the proximity to residential areas," Frank Garza, who was then San Antonio's city attorney, told Xpress recently. "All the locations they briefed us about were near residential locations. ... The other thing was, most of the areas they targeted were lower-income."
The military, says Garza, would not provide answers to key questions that concerned local government. "One answer we could never get is: What happens if there's damage to public property or to citizens? Say someone has a heart attack when they see these people descending with guns? We could never really get a straight answer as to who is responsible for those types of things."
No reports have surfaced of accidents or property damage during the Asheville exercise last August. Buncombe County Physical Facilities Director Greg Israel says the courthouse sustained no damage.
"I went up and toured after everything had happened, just to make sure," he says. "They had made some mock-up wooden doors that they had forced [open]. But as far as actual damage to the courthouse, no, other than a few pieces of rifle brass laying around -- spent shell casings. No broken glass, no holes, no nothing."
From the military's perspective, too, things went smoothly. "We got some great training in Asheville," Army spokesman Sokalski said.
But if there had been an accident, who would have been legally and financially responsible?
The Army, according to County Manager Wanda Greene. "They accept full responsibility for anything that happens during the training," she maintains. But Greene also says she's not sure whether that fact is documented. "I don't think there was a contract -- I'd have to go look through the file, because this has been months back. And I'm glad to do that and look, but I don't believe we have a contract that spells that out. I think they made that clear to us though." (At press time, the county had not provided the requested document.)
City Manager Jim Westbrook says Asheville did have a contract concerning liability in the event of an accident. "The military is responsible for any kind of liability on this, clearly not the city," he told Xpress in a March 31 interview. "Yeah, there is an agreement that the military may come -- not to city property, but to the city every now and then -- to do some exercises."
At the time, Westbrook agreed to provide a copy of the contract. "I'll be glad to give you whatever we have," he said. "I'll just need to give you a call back. I need to get a copy of what we have -- I just don't have it handy." But when Xpress subsequently filed a request for the document under the state open-records law, the city rejected the request.
"We cannot release those documents due to North Carolina law," Public Information Officer Lauren Bradley told Xpress on April 13, citing an exemption for "sensitive public security information." The exemption, added to the public-records law in 2003, says, "Public records ... do not include plans to prevent or respond to terrorist activity."
But the law also plainly states, "Information relating to the general adoption of public security plans and arrangements ... shall be public records."
"It's actually a pretty broad statute," said Bradley.
Will Delta Force be returning to stage similar exercises in Asheville and Buncombe County? According to the local law-enforcement source, another round of training was scheduled for earlier this year, but it's been indefinitely postponed. "It was supposed to be March; March has been canceled. I think they give us maybe 20 days' notice [before staging an exercise] as part of the deal."
Mayor Worley says he's not aware of plans for additional training, though he's not opposed to Asheville hosting more exercises. "I suspect that, as a courtesy, they would notify us. I don't know that they have to."
Greene says essentially the same thing. "I think there's the option for them to [come again], yes," she confirms, though she, too, says she hasn't heard of any plans to do so. "And I think I would know that," she adds.
Meanwhile, some Asheville residents are hoping that if Delta Force does return, there'll be more warning next time. Craig Sloan, who witnessed last year's exercise from his home on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, says that as a veteran, he understands the military's need to train in real-world environments. "Because I'm ex-military, I know they've got to have some privacy in order to do the job," he says. "But they need to make the public a little more aware. I think they should have warned, especially, the more elderly population.
"We've got Mountain Springs retirement home over here, and there are a lot of older ladies over there," he explains. "My fiancee's mother lives over there, and it just shocked those ladies, because we weren't forewarned that this was going to happen."
[Mountain Xpress contributing editor Jon Elliston is based in Asheville.]