"Teams of my paramilitary operations officers, trained not just to observe conditions but if need be to change them, were among the first on the ground in Afghanistan," Pavitts said. Indeed, the first U.S. casualty, Johnny "Mike" Spann, who was killed in the prison uprising at Mazar-e-Sharif on Nov. 25, was one of those officers. Spann was part of an elite and super-secretive unit, the CIA's Special Activities Division, which serves as the knifepoint of the agency's cloak and dagger contributions to national security. With personnel drawn from other commando units like the Navy SEALs and the Army Special Forces, the unit is skilled in the dark arts of paramilitary warfare: assassination, advanced demolitions, high-tech surveillance and behind-enemy-lines combat.
"In those few days that it took us to get there after that terrible, terrible attack" on Sept. 11, Pavitts continued, "my officers stood on Afghan soil, side by side with Afghan friends that we had developed over a long period of time, and we launched America's war against al-Qaeda."
Pavitts offered few details, saying he could share "just a bit" of what the CIA has been up to lately. Among the matters he did not discuss was North Carolina's crucial but behind-the-scenes role in the CIA's paramilitary program.
Officials have maintained strict silence about that role for more than four decades. In fact, no serving CIA officer has ever uttered the words "Harvey Point" in public. That's because the Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity, a high-security compound tucked into a quiet corner of marshland near Hertford, N.C., and officially owned by the Defense Department, has served as the spy agency's secret demolitions training base since 1961. It's where CIA operatives like the ones who infiltrated Afghanistan--and the ones who will likely lead the way in the next battles of the war against terrorism, starting with Iraq--learn the rough stuff.
The CIA's covert warriors train as secretly as they spy and fight. So at Harvey Point, the boom! boom! is very hush-hush.
t's late one Friday afternoon in May, and downtown Hertford is basking in 75-degree sunlight and coastal breezes carrying the smell of barbecue. The town is staging its annual "Pig Out on the Green." After paying $5 a plate, a hundred or so citizens are chowing down over checkered tablecloths in front of the Perquimans County Courthouse. A local cover band plays light Southern rock from the front of the building, which is flanked by two monuments: one to the area's Confederate Civil War dead, the other to Hertford's most famous native son, baseball great Jim "Catfish" Hunter.
Hertford Mayor Sid Eley, who also serves as director of the Perquimans County Chamber of Commerce, is wearing a floppy fishing hat and manning a giant barbecue bucket. He ladles out hearty servings of pork while other town workers pile on potatoes and coleslaw. "When you're done with that, make sure you head across the street to Woodmere's Pharmacy for some of that good ice cream," he says as he passes a plate.
Hertford, the population of which has remained steady at about 2,000 for the last 50 years, is surrounded by marshy inlets and sparsely populated farms where corn, cotton and soybeans are grown. Looking up and down the stretch of Church Street where the courthouse sits, there are roughly 20 businesses, and just one, the corner Amoco, is a chain store. Only the modern offices of a local Internet service provider seem out of place.
On this lazy afternoon, it's a postcard-perfect scene from small-town America. But Mayor Eley, like most other locals, knows that this is no ordinary backwater community. Beneath the quiet veneer lies an explosive secret: The citizens of Hertford live a few miles up the road from a classified facility that exists to help the government break things and kill people--and do so in secret.
Unlike most locals, Eley has actually been there. A few years ago, the director of the base at Harvey Point, which is fenced in and doesn't allow in visitors, invited a group of about 25 local officials to come have a look around.
During the unprecedented visit, Eley was told that the base is used by all branches of the armed services, along with other federal entities, for testing explosives. "They took us out there and showed us basically what they do," Eley remembers. "We were in a bunker and they gave us a display. They started with a hand-grenade--I had never seen an actual hand-grenade go off. Then they worked their way up to bigger stuff and eventually they blew up a car. The top of it flew way back over our heads."
Such tests, Eley was told, are intended to help the authorities detect and contain terrorist bombs. For instance, Harvey Point personnel said they had staged re-enactments of the bombing that took place at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, trying to determine precisely what sort of device had been used.
After a short briefing, a lengthy bombing display and a good meal at the base cafeteria, the visit was over. Grateful for the peek inside the secret facility, some of the civic officials sent a thank-you note to Harvey Point's director: "When we hear an explosion from that general direction or feel the ground shake due to the same, we will, from our experience, know, in some degree, what it is for. We will now be able to explain to our people why we have the Base and what it is doing for our Nation."
But those explanations are still necessarily incomplete, because, as Eley and other local leaders readily admit, they still don't know the details about who trains at Harvey Point, and to what ends.
And most of the base's neighbors, it seems, are content not to know. "This CIA crap, it's all just speculation," says Charles Skinner, a retiree who serves as the town's resident local historian, about the widely reported accounts concerning the base. "I don't know what they're doing. They might be playing with Roman candles down there. It's very obviously explosives, because you can feel the vibrations. But I'm not that concerned, so I don't pay any attention to it, no more than thunder."
"Everybody's just satisfied that we're up here and they're down there," says Susan R. Harris, editor and publisher of the Perquimans Weekly, explaining why her newspaper rarely reports on the base.
For anyone who does want to know, getting the facts from the government can prove to be a frustrating endeavor. Because of the shroud of secrecy over Harvey Point, military and intelligence spokespeople have difficulty being candid about it, and they can't quite get the cover story straight. The Independent started by calling the Navy, which acquired the property during World War II and later announced it was setting up an off-limits testing center there. A spokesman for the Navy's Mid-Atlantic Region Command in Norfolk, Va., which oversees operations in the area, checked with the Defense Department and then referred questions to the CIA. A CIA public affairs officer, in turn, refused to discuss the base and suggested contacting the Defense Department.
Eventually, a Pentagon spokesman, Maj. Mike Halbig, agreed to field questions about Harvey Point. "The Department of Defense took over the facility in 1961," he says. "The primary mission is to test and evaluate conventional explosives, ordnance and ballistic materials."
And what of the stories that it's a major center for CIA special warfare training? "It is a Department of Defense facility that serves the military services and it serves the special needs of other U.S. government departments," is all Halbig will say. Base personnel cannot speak to reporters, he says, nor can visits be arranged. "The projects and materials that they test there are highly classified, and for that reason we do not allow public access," he says.
It's true that the CIA hasn't been the only government entity to make use of Harvey Point. According to press reports and government documents, over the years, several military units and police squads have trained there, along with personnel from the DEA, FBI, Secret Service and other agencies. A recent Treasury Department report, for example, says that the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Defense Department have established a joint program at Harvey Point for devising methods of stopping drug runners.
Despite the CIA's best efforts to keep its role at Harvey Point under wraps, there is a mounting body of public information about the base's secret history. The latest example: In his newly published memoir, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism, former CIA officer Bob Baer describes the "two weeks of nonstop demolition training" he received in North Carolina as a young recruit in the early 1970s:
"We spent two days crimping blasting caps to make sure we understood that if you crimped them too high, they'd explode and take your hand off. After we'd mastered that, we crimped them in the dark, by feel. Then we started blowing things up: cars, buses, diesel generators, fences, bunkers. We made a school bus disappear with about 20 pounds of U.S. C-4. For comparison's sake, we tried Czech Semtex and a few other foreign plastic explosives.
"Not that you really needed anything fancy. We blew up one bus using three sacks of fertilizer and fuel oil, a mixture called ANFO (ammonium nitrate fuel oil), that did more damage than the C-4 had. The biggest piece left was a part of the chassis, which flew in an arc, hundreds of yards away. We learned to mix up a potent cocktail called methyl nitrate. If you hit a small drop of it with a hammer, it split the hammer. Honest. We were also taught some of the really esoteric stuff like E-cell times, improvising pressurized airplane bombs using a condom and aluminum foil, and smuggling a pistol on an airplane concealed in a mixture of epoxy and graphite. By the end of the training, we could have taught an advanced terrorism course."
ong before the CIA arrived to practice blowing things up, Harvey Point was a storied and mysterious place. A small peninsula that pokes into the north side of the Albemarle Sound, in the early 1700s it served as the stomping ground of the infamous pirate Blackbeard. Around the same time, North Carolina's first native-born governor, Thomas Harvey, lived here, as did his grandson, John Harvey, one of the key local leaders to conspire against English authorities and launch the Revolutionary War.
Several members of the Harvey family are buried at Harvey Point. But the public can't visit the historic gravesite, which features some of the oldest known tombstones in North Carolina. Today those stones sit within the classified confines of Harvey Point.
The Navy bought the 1,200-acre peninsula in November 1942, paying five land-owners a total of $41,751 for the property and quickly setting up an air station to help fight World War II. After the war, the site served as a blimp base, but remained relatively quiet until another big project came along.
In 1958, the Navy chose Harvey Point to house an experimental long-range bomber, the "Martin P6M Seamaster." The size of a B-52, the plane took off from and landed in the waters near Harvey Point, but as a viable weapon, it never really got off the ground. It crashed and burned too often for the Navy to sustain the project, and just one year later, in August 1959, the fleet of six Seamasters was mothballed.
The closing of the base hit Hertford hard. Local merchants were counting on revenues from Naval aviators and their support staff. Charles Skinner remembers one businessman, in particular, who was devastated. The man had opened The Seamaster Tavern, a short-lived beer garden. "When they pulled out the seaplane, he had to close up," Skinner says.
Rep. Herbert Bonner, a Democrat who then represented the area in Congress, met with the Secretary of the Navy and pleaded that a new use for the facility be found. Shortly thereafter, his request was granted, and this time, Harvey Point would be getting a lot more than a half-dozen sea planes: The CIA was about to open an outpost in North Carolina.
The agency has never disclosed its reasons for setting up an undercover bomb school at Harvey Point. But the timing and the context, along with scattered press reports, offer indications of the base's original purpose. Fidel Castro, it seems, was the impetus--and the target of the first commandos to train at Harvey Point.
The story begins in 1959, when Castro led a revolutionary government to power in Cuba. At first, White House officials hoped to topple him quickly. In March of 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the CIA to create a force of anti-Castro, Cuban exile fighters, and John F. Kennedy, who succeeded Eisenhower in 1961, authorized the operation to go forward.
In mid-April of that year, the CIA staged its most ambitious and disastrous paramilitary operation: the Bay of Pigs invasion. It took Castro's military and militia just three days to rout the agency's force of 1,300 Cuban exiles. The debacle was viewed as an abject failure by the CIA's paramilitary wing.
Harvey Point had played a supporting role in the disaster, press reports would later reveal. The CIA quietly amassed weapons for the operation at the base, which was secretly on its way to becoming a full-blown training facility.
In June of 1961, two months after the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Navy announced it was officially opening a new facility at the old Seamaster base. A spokesman said that all four branches of the military would conduct "testing and evaluation of various classified materials and equipment" at the site. He added that training "now being done at Camp Perry, Va., will be transferred to Harvey Point."
At the time, Camp Perry, which is located next to Williamsburg, was officially a military base. But since then, reporters and CIA veterans have written about the camp's true role: It is the agency's training compound for new spy officers. Code-named ISOLATION, the 12,000-acre Camp Perry is referred to in the intelligence community as "the Farm," and to this day it serves as the CIA's main spy school. But in 1961, the agency moved its most dangerous and sensitive training--in demolitions and unconventional weaponry--to Harvey Point.
Following the Bay of Pigs, Harvey Point is one place where the CIA hoped to continue efforts to undermine Castro. JFK wanted the job done right, and he appointed his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to oversee the new operations, which mainly consisted of hit-and-run sabotage raids. "Bobby wanted boom and bang all over the island," Sam Halpern, a high-ranking officer on the CIA's Cuba desk, told a historian years later.
The "boom and bang" the Kennedy brothers pressed for would be taught at Harvey Point. The base was code-named ISOLATION TROPIC, but most of the operatives who trained there came to call it "the Point." Over the years, it has carved out a unique space in paramilitary history as a clandestine landmark, of sorts. Veterans who have passed through it share an intimate knowledge of how covert action plays a central role in U.S. foreign policy. Over the years, U.S. and foreign commandos who trained at "the Point" have fought in shadowy conflicts around the globe, from Cuba to the Congo, from Nicaragua to Vietnam, and lately, in Afghanistan.
For its first decade or so of operations, the base managed to maintain the covert character the CIA was looking for. But slowly, parts of the real story began to filter out. (See "The Truth About Harvey Point," p. 22.) A major, but still only partial, disclosure appeared in the April 1967 edition of Ramparts, a once popular and now defunct leftist magazine. The issue carried a testimonial from a CIA officer who had recently resigned after passing through the agency's demolitions course.
The former officer, who kept his name out of print, did not specify the location of his training. But now it's clear that the place he wrote about, the place where he ultimately soured on the CIA, was Harvey Point:
"The stated purpose of the paramilitary school was to train and equip us to become instructors for village peasants who wanted to defend themselves against guerrillas. I could believe in that.
"Some of the training was conventional: But then we moved to the CIA's demolition training headquarters. It was here that Cubans had been, and still were, being trained in conventional and underwater demolitions. And it was here that we received training in tactics which hardly conform to the Geneva Convention.
"The array of outlawed weaponry with which we were familiarized included bullets that explode on impact, silencer-equipped machine guns, home-made explosives and self-made napalm for stickier and hotter Molotov cocktails. We were taught demolition techniques, practicing on late-model cars, railroad trucks, and gas storage tanks. And we were shown a quick method for saturating a confined area with flour or fertilizer, causing an explosion like in a dustbin or granary.
"And then there was a diabolical invention that might be called a mini-cannon. It was constructed of a concave piece of steel fitted into the top of a #10 can filled with a plastic explosive. When the device was detonated, the tremendous heat of friction of the steel turning inside out made the steel piece a white-hot projectile. There were a number of uses for the mini-cannon, one of which was demonstrated to us using an old Army school bus. It was fastened to the gasoline tank in such a fashion that the incendiary projectile would rupture the tank and fling flaming gasoline the length of the bus interior, incinerating anyone inside. It was my lot to show the rest of the class how easily it could be done. I stood there watching the flames consume the bus. It was, I guess, the moment of truth. What did a busload of burning people have to do with freedom? What right did I have, in the name of democracy and the CIA, to decide that random victims should die? The intellectual game was over. I had to leave."
f course most officers stayed in the spy agency, and the operations that benefited from such training were many and varied. In 1978, Outside magazine published a detailed account of a madcap mission involving Harvey Point. According to the magazine, in 1964, the CIA brought a small group of amateur mountain climbers to the base for demolitions training. The climbers later infiltrated an isolated mountain range in India in an attempt to place listening devices for monitoring Chinese nuclear tests. The mission failed, but at Harvey Point, the climbers did learn how to blow a hole in a glacier where the devices were supposed to be placed.
Those who trained at Harvey Point certainly learned how to do some damage, and some continued to use their deadly skills after they quit working for the CIA. The Cuban exiles were perhaps the most prodigious bomb experts to pass through the facility. Not only did they set off a sizable wave of terrorism against Cuba, some of them went freelance after their CIA ties were cut, and helped make Miami the car-bomb capital of the world during the 1970s. In addition, Cuban exile operatives, some of whom had received CIA training, staged two audacious acts of terrorism in 1976: They bombed a Cuban airliner, killing 73 people, and participated in the assassination of Chilean exile leader Orlando Letelier and his assistant, Ronni Moffitt, who were killed by a car bomb as they drove up Embassy Row in Washington, D.C.
In the 1980s, Harvey Point played a role in some of the CIA's most controversial covert operations. In 1983, a team of agency operatives mined Nicaraguan harbors--while floating the cover story that Nicaraguan contra guerrillas had placed the mines. The attack prompted quick rebukes from Congress, which moved to halt funding of such sabotage operations. According to a 1999 article in Jane's Intelligence Weekly, which detailed the CIA's modern paramilitary capabilities, the team that mined the harbors trained at Harvey Point.
About the same time, the agency used the base to train three Lebanese operatives for a most-sensitive mission: They would lead a special, CIA-sponsored squad for rescuing U.S. hostages and combating Islamic extremists. The operation is detailed in two books, Bob Woodward's Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987, and Amir Taheri's Nest of Spies: America's Journey to Disaster in Iran. In March 1985, the squad staged a disastrous assassination attempt against a prominent holy warrior in Beirut. They missed their target, but managed to kill an estimated 80 civilians when their car bomb crashed into the wrong building. As a result, the CIA cut its ties to the group.
Even then, the CIA continued to instruct foreign operatives, along with its own personnel, in North Carolina. In 1998, The New York Times reported that Harvey Point's most recent guests included members of the security detail for Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
oday, Harvey Point may be playing its most important role ever. The CIA's Special Activities Division--its paramilitary force--did indeed lead the way in Afghanistan, according to a recent report in the Boston Globe. The article, citing officials in the White House and CIA, revealed that an agency force of 50 paramilitary officers infiltrated Afghanistan on Sept. 27, 2001. Another 100 followed soon thereafter.
Inside Taliban territory, the operatives, working in small teams, spread out and laid the groundwork for the coming combat. They passed cash to Northern Alliance leaders and earned their allegiance. They acquired safe houses and conducted surveillance for the Army's Special Forces, which would be soon arriving by the hundreds to do the bulk of the fighting. Later, the CIA's commandos identified targets for the agency's pilot-less Predator drones, which fired down laser-targeted missiles on al-Qaeda leaders.
Such operations were the opening salvo in the war against terrorism, and a sign that the CIA is in the midst of its biggest expansion of paramilitary operations since the Reagan era, according to press reports and intelligence experts. In February, the Associated Press reported the basic details of the Bush administration's funding request for the CIA during the next fiscal year. The agency's overall budget will increase from roughly $3.5 billion to almost $5 billion.
A good portion of that spending will be focused on bulking up the CIA's commando force, says John Pike, director of Global Security.org, a defense and intelligence policy research group in Washington, D.C. "Most of it will have to be going toward counterterrorism, toward the kinds of things they do at Harvey Point more than the kinds of things they do at Camp Perry," where traditional espionage is taught. The CIA, he says, is "hiring a lot of muscle."
The Bush administration's plans to continue a global war against terrorism could portend still more CIA paramilitary operations, Pike says. The next target is Iraq, and if some Bush advisors get their way, the agency will lead the way in an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein. One faction within the administration is reported to be arguing that "the Afghanistan scenario"--carefully crafted covert operations, along with airstrikes and coordinated attacks by opposition groups--could do the job, sparing the United States from a major military commitment.
Another faction argues that Hussein is too entrenched to be toppled as easily as was the Taliban. Pike agrees. "I don't think the CIA can get rid of Saddam Hussein," he says. "The joke going around is that this is the 'Bay of Goats' plan--it's probably just enough to get a lot of people killed and not enough to remove Hussein." But both President Bush and CIA Director George Tenet are fans of the CIA's paramilitary performance in Afghanistan, according to recent press reports, and both may soon order similar operations in Iraq, if they haven't already.
hatever covert operations are in the works, the secretive yet noisy training at Harvey Point continues. In Hertford, the echo of bombs is business as usual--and nobody's business. Despite all the intrigue emanating from their community, most people living near Harvey Point have gotten used to the boom and bang.
"They're good neighbors," says a woman standing in the doorway of her home on Harvey Point Road. "They don't bother us and we don't bother them." The woman, who has shared a property line with the base for 20 years, asks that her name not be printed and says she's not precisely sure what goes on behind the facility's fenced perimeter.
"It's for testing explosives, and that's all I know," she says. "A lot of different looking things go by here," she adds, pointing to the road that runs past her house to Harvey Point's high-security gateway. "Like busses that you can't see through the windows of, and a lot of old cars and trucks that they blow up. When you see an 18-wheeler going in at midnight, you wonder what they're carrying in there."
The noise isn't usually a bother, but "every once in a blue moon, they let off a good one," she says. "When they do one of the big ones, it jars everything, shakes everything for a few seconds."
Several times a month, the sound of the bomb blasts is strong enough to carry two miles to the east, to Holiday Island, a spot popular with boaters that cruise the waters off of Harvey Point. April Ghose, 17, has lived there for nine years.
"I heard it was FBI or CIA training, one of them," she says. "When I first moved down here, I didn't know what it was. My house started trembling and I said, 'Granma, what was that?' And she was like, 'It's just Harvey Point.' Now it's not a really big deal, I'm so used to it." But Ghose's great-grandmother, she says, can't get used to it: "She just turned 87. She has really bad Alzheimer's, so when it comes she doesn't know what's happening."
Phillip Jackson, a 15-year-old friend of Ghose's who lives in Hertford, says that the main thing he knows about Harvey Point is that he's not supposed to go anywhere near it. "My stepdad, he's heard of people going down there too close in boats, and looking in there with binoculars, and they get shot," Jackson says. "The law around here is, if you get a hundred feet from the fence they can shoot you."
Other locals say there have been no such shootings, but that boaters who stray too close are told to back off by Harvey Point security guards.
In fact, most of the community's experience with Harvey Point has been good, according to Perquimans County Manager Paul Gregory Jr. "I'm not aware of any danger in the past or in the present," he says, and besides, the base is at least a small economic boon. Twenty or so local civilians, he estimates, work at the base as mechanics, janitors and cafeteria staff. "For us, that's a lot of jobs, anytime you get over 10 or 15 jobs. That's a big positive for Perquimans County."
Gregory goes so far as to say that "we've not had any negative impacts whatsoever from them being there." But local officials have no oversight authority for Harvey Point, because it is a federal facility. "They've provided good jobs, but they haven't provided a whole lot of information about what they say and do in there," he says.
County officials do not know, for example, what environmental damage, if any, has resulted from four decades of bomb testing. The base at Harvey Point does have a full-time environmental coordinator, Dr. Wade Jordan, but when The Independent contacted him recently on the telephone, he said he is not permitted to talk to the press.
Publicly available federal records do indicate that an environmental cleanup company, Potomac-Hudson Engineering Inc., did work at Harvey Point in 1996. According to a company-written summary of the job, the Defense Department paid $250,000 for "remediation of PCB and VOC contaminated soils at explosives test range and waste asbestos."
Gregory says that the county has a more pressing concern than Harvey Point--another national security project that could potentially disrupt the good life in Hertford. The Navy is seeking landing sites for a new fleet of F/A-18 "Super Hornets," an exceedingly noisy jet that will be based in Norfolk, Va. A spot five miles north of Hertford is on the Navy's short list, and in response, Perquimans officials have joined several neighboring counties to lobby against locating an airstrip in their neck of the woods.
"We are patriotic, but we've got agriculture, we've got tourism and we're a popular place for retirement--that's all we've got going for us," Gregory says. "If the noise comes, there goes the tourism, there go the retirees, who aren't going to want to live here." The Navy is slated to name its Super Hornet landing sites later this year.
Whatever happens with the Navy's jets, it seems like the CIA's bomb school is here to stay. Last year's defense appropriations bill authorized the Navy to purchase an additional 200 acres in Perquimans County, "To provide a buffer zone for the Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity." And if the Bush administration decides to try the "Afghanistan scenario" in Iraq--using the CIA's troops as a vanguard--then the tempo of the training may well increase.
Bob and Thelma Brannock, two retired postal workers who live across the Perquimans River from Harvey Point, say they're content to let the government's secret warriors do their thing--whatever it is. Through the windows in their living room, they can see the mini marina the CIA built around the concrete ramps that the Navy Seamaster planes once used to get to their hangars. They can see the mouth of the clearing that leads to the base's airstrip.
Since nothing but a few acres of trees surrounding the base and a mile-and-half of open water stand between their house and Harvey Point, the Brannocks don't just have the best view--they also hear the bombs more than most folks do. The loudest blasts "sound like the fireworks on the fourth of July," according to Bob. "Sometimes I actually thought they were right here in the yard," Thelma says. "But it hasn't done any damage to our house. Now I have heard some people say it knocks the pictures off the wall."
"It doesn't bother us," Thelma says as Bob nods. "I know roughly what it is, and to me, we need some security someplace. Everybody shouldn't know everything, as long as they're protecting us. We can't know everything or else all the other countries will know everything. It kind of makes me mad when I hear people say they don't want it around, because the noise bothers them. They've got to train somewhere."
Bob thinks for a minute, then says cryptically: "I think you don't wanna know. My theory is that there's a lot going on over there."