Soldier of Fortune’s Robert K. Brown
The following article was published in CovertAction in 1984, and is Ward Churchill's "exposé" of Soldier of Fortune magazine and its publisher.
There is a law in the United States (Title 18 U.S.C. Sec. 959) popularly known as “The Neutrality Act.” It reads in part: “Whoever, within the United States… retains another …to go beyond the jurisdiction of the United States to be enlisted in the service of any foreign prince, state, colony, district or people as a soldier or a marine…shall be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned not more than 3 years of both.”
Robert K. Brown, editor and publisher of a publication entitled Soldier of Fortune: The Journal of Professional Adventurers, based Boulder, Colorado, says he is not in violation of this law, nor of others such as 22 U.S.C. Sec. 611, et seq., “The Foreign Agents Registration Act.” It holds that individuals within the United States who directly represent the interests of other governments must clearly and officially acknowledge the fact through a formalized public recording process.
In combination, the body of legislation represented by the two acts was designed to preclude private actions-aw well as the advocacy and organization of such actions - by individuals or organizations in the United States which would tend to undermine or supplant formal foreign policy mechanisms such as the State Department and Congress. In practical effect, one of the things the legislation is intended to prevent is what is commonly referred to as “mercenarism” by U.S. nationals and others falling under U.S. jurisdiction.
Yet, since 1975, Brown has been running classified advertisements in his magazine such as the following:
EX ARMY VET, Viet 65-66, 2/7 Cav., 37 years old, seeks job as merc or security. Combat experience. Good physical condition. Will travel worldwide. You pay expenses.
He has also run full-page display ads (outside rear-cover, prime placement) featuring color reproductions of official Rhodesian National Army recruitment posters on a gratis basis and interviews with individuals like Major Nick Lamprecht, former Rhodesian National Army recruitment Officer. Earlier, he financed the start-up of his magazine through the selling of “overseas employment opportunity packets”- consisting of enlistment materials for the armies of Rhodesia and Oman - through classified ads run in periodicals such as Shotgun News.
Despite the apparent conflict with official U.S. policy inherent in such activities-the United States was supposedly engaged in a formal sanctioning of Rhodesia at the very time Brown was most busily promoting military service there-he has suffered no adverse consequences as a result of his conduct. In part, this may be due to a wide-spread public impression that the man is more buffoon than menace.
Bob Brown in Person
Leaning back in a desk chair beneath a poster captioned “Kill ‘em all: Let God sort ‘em out,” and wearing a tee-shirt stenciled with a death’s head and the legend “Kill a Commie for Mommie, “ an obviously aging Bob Brown struggles valiantly to hide the facts. Spitting out a cud of Skoal, He arranged his sagging features into a best-effort imitation of Clint Eastwood’s celluloid scowl, forces a near-glint into the fading blue eyes peering owlishly from behind coke-bottle lenses and “explains” the situation.
“I do not recruit. I market information. If somebody goes there because they get an information packet...” Allowing the thought to dangle, Brown breaks into a self-congratulatory smile and continues, “…some State Department official stated something to the effect that Mr. Brown was staying within the bounds of the law, but not the spirit of it. Well, that’s tough shit. I didn’t do anything illegal.”
The aura of Soldier of Fortune’s proprietor is, on its face, so absurd as to virtually command dismissal by the serious-minded. The notion of a middle-aged man with a congenital back defect and a hearing impairment scurrying about the streets of Boulder - the veritable buckle of the granola belt - wearing the latest in camouflage fatigues (to blend in with all the brick and tinsel?) and military berets is immediately laughable. Similarly, his propensity to posture at every given opportunity, sporting esoteric looking armaments, has tended to be treated as little more than a sick joke – especially when the weapons have been manufactured by Replica Arms, as has turned out from time to time.
The magazine itself bears the indelible stamp of its owner’s eccentricity. Long on blood-and-guts color photography and short on the real meat-and-potatoes information which would allow anyone to stay alive in irregular combat situation, Solider of Fortune might rightly be viewed as the stuff of armchair rather than active warriors. As one highly decorated veteran of Korea and Vietnam recently put it, “ I don’t read the thing. Who needs a picture of a half-naked woman wearing tiger fatigues to sell an obsolete machine-gun?”
But there is another aspect to Brown and his enterprise which tends to be overlooked when he is dismissed as an objectionable, though thoroughly frivolous, phenomenon. For starters, two of Solider of Fortune’s staff editors have been killed while performing what can only be regarded as outright mercenary activities in the field. George W. Bacon III, the magazine’s underwater combat editor, died in a 1976 ambush, an unabashed combatant fighting for Holden Roberto’s CIA sponsored FNLA in Angola. Michael Echanis, martial arts director, was killed in a bomb blast aboard an aircraft in Nicaragua while serving as military advisor to Anastasio Somoza – and as tactical commander of the dictator’s infamous National Guard in late 1978.
Shortly after Bacon was killed, and while the State Department was still denying that U.S. citizens were serving as mercenaries in that country, another American was captured by the winning MPLA forces. Daniel Gearhart was tried by the new Angolan government under Organization of African Unity anti-mercenary covenants, convicted, and executed. He had secured his employment through an ad placed in Soldier of Fortune during the summer of 1975.
The Sandinista bomb which claimed Echanis also killed his assistant, a U.S. national named Charles Sanders, and a Vietnamese on U.S green card alien status, euphemistically known as “Nguyen Van Nguyen” (approximately the equivalent of “Smith, John Smith”). Nicknamed “Bobby,” he had long worked for the CIA and Special Forces, and had accompanied Echanis and Sanders to Nicaragua to work with the other person killed by the blast, National Guard commander Brigadier General Jose Ivan Allegrett Perez.
Around Solider of Fortune they showed copies of a cable from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to Echanis asking that he be careful to spare noncombatants in the course of performing his duties. Echanis’s reply, if any, is unknown.
This combination of circumstance was enough to lead Colorado Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder and others to call for an investigation into the activities of Brown and those associated with his publications, all subsidiaries of another Brown-headed company, Omega Group, Ltd. It is apparently named after the anti-Castro Cuban terrorists’ group, Omega Seven, which shared responsibility for the assassination of Allende-era Chilean diplomat, Orland Letelier, and his colleague Ronnie Moffitt, in Washington, D.C.
Brown and Omega Group, including Robert Himber, onetime Army Intelligence operative attached to the CIA’s Phoenix assassination program in Vietnam, ran feature articles on the deaths of Bacon and Echanis in the magazine.
Schroeder’s investigation’s demands, made in 1976 and again in 1979, have met with a rather curious response from the U.S. Department of Justice. In effect, Justice informed Schroeder that Brown and his cohorts had indeed been placed under investigation, and that the investigation would continue until the activities being investigated stopped. Details of any ongoing criminal investigation could not, of course, be divulged. Hence, the net result of Schroeder’s attempts to bring the doings of the Omega Group into the light of day has been to clamp the mantle of official secrecy tightly about the individuals and organizations involved. This situation has prevailed consistently under both the Carter and the Reagan administrations, despite the supposed ideological “changing of the guard” that the switch in executives entailed.
It goes without saying that such a leak-free, Catch-22 environment at this level of government is not typical. Such a rigid application of the supposed safeguards of citizens’ rights to privacy has historically been reserved only for domestic covert intelligence operations and operatives (e.g. the FBI’s COINTELPRO and its successor, COMTEL) and the more internationally oriented clandestine activities of Military Intelligence, the National Security Agency, the CIA, and so forth.
Links to the CIA
Brown is particularly touchy on this subject, branding it “pure bullshit” and often terminating conversations when questions drift toward possible associations between his organization and the CIA.
When Brown is denying a CIA connection, it helps that he numbers among his longtime personal friends such prominent “liberals” as Paul Danish, a member of the Boulder City Council and former advisor to top administrators at the University of Colorado. Danish was an early (but unlisted) member of the Soldier of Fortune editorial board.
A long-time Boulder anti-mercenary activist says, “There is more than one level to what is going on at Solider of Fortune. These guys go out of their way to come across as clowns to people who might otherwise tend to oppose them. It’s a tactic designed to defuse the potential of effective criticism.
“Meanwhile, there’s a very effective gray propaganda operation being conducted right under our very noses. A whole range of the American public is now being conditioned to accept the notion that mercenaries and small, contained, privately fought ‘brushfire wars’ are not only okay, but somehow glamorous. Solider of Fortune did that. It’s not that they’re managing to get large numbers of people to run off and be mercenaries – although they are attracting some, and that factor shouldn’t be underestimated – but they are managing to convince an ever increasing number of people that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong when others do.
“In the post-Vietnam era, when the commitment of any sort of official U.S. advisory, never mind combat presence is apt to draw so much domestic heat – as it is in El Salvador – that’s it’s simply not viable, having a small but effective ‘private’ army of mercenaries who are accepted by the public is a very important paramilitary counter for any administration to possess.
“Of course, it’s all highly illegal under U.S. law, but what else is new? When you get to the level of the reality of foreign policy things cannot really be considered in terms of their legality, but rather in terms of their packaging (as with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of the Grenada invasion) or their deniability (as with the Cambodia/Laos bombing or current operations in Honduras).
“The mercenary activities revolving around Solider of Fortune and the Omega Group are being handled both ways, packaged and hidden. It’s a very sophisticated operation in its way, and you just don’t get this sort of finesse from a bunch of apparent rum-dums in the private sector. The whole thing smacks of a CIA operation, although admittedly a very weird one.”
To be sure, both the intelligence community and Brown vehemently deny that any linkage between them exists, or has existed in the past. The record, however, shows something rather different. For example, a 1962 letter written by Brown and recently obtained from the archives of an archconservative California-based institution reveals that he spent the period from 1954 to 1957 as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s highly selective and very secretive Counterintelligence Corps. Not to be confused with the larger and more diversified Military Intelligence units, Counterintelligence has always had extremely close linkages (indeed, major overlaps) with the CIA.
Much of Brown’s life was spent drifting from job to job – Brink’s truck guard, timber cutter, and ranch hand – mostly in and around Boulder. He has boasted of setting up connections in the international arms traffic, and occasionally he dabbles in South African diamonds and precious metals.
After this first stint in the Army, Brown undertook a master’s degree program in political science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His studies led him – naturally, if you accept his version of events – to a deep and abiding sympathy for the cause of Fidel Castro’s July 26 Movement. In any event, he trekked to Cuba to do research on a thesis which eventually was c9ompleted under the title “Communist Penetration and Takeover of the Cuban Labor Movement,” attempting to hook up with the guerrilla commanders Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos in the Sierra Maestra once there.
Evidently, the guerrilla leadership held certain doubts as to the student’s bona fides, avoiding infiltration by denying him access to their ranks. (A number of U.S. journalists were allowed into the mountains at the same time Brown was being shut out.) Their precautions turned out to be rather well founded, as Brown surfaced again shortly after the revolution, engaged in training Batistaite groups in the Florida Everglades to conduct raids against their former homeland.
Although he did not participate in any of the exile actions against Cuba underwritten by the CIA during the early 1960s – he always managed to be sick or otherwise disposed when the missions departed – he was already engaged in investigating possibilities for the application of other sorts of covert U.S. force to sensitive areas of the world, both at home and abroad.
Brown’s 1962 letter was written to Marvin Leibman, then head of the New York based “American Committee for Aid to Katanga Freedom Fighters,” a CIA front group engaged in drumming up sympathy and organizing material support for the so-called “5 Commando” of Eropean mercenaries active during the Congo Civil War. In credentialing himself to Leibman, Brown revealed that he had been a domestic undercover operative, infiltrating “Fair Play for Cuba” committees for the notorious Chicago Police Subversive Squad. He then inquired as to whether Leibman had information concerning how American nationals might circumvent the provisions of the Neutrality Act in order to become mercenary combatants in places like the Congo.
Brown re-entered the Army during the second half of the 1960s as a Special Forces captain. Posted to the Pleiku region of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, he headed a detachment supporting a Special Forces CIA joint venture code-named “Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Studies and Observations Group.” Actually, MACVSOG – or “the sog,” as it was called – stood for “Special Operations Group.” The unit was responsible for direct intelligence gathering, and ran highly secret missions into Cambodia, Laos, North Vietnam, and – some say – southern China, during the Vietnam War.
Brown’s detachment was also involved in NLF/NVA political cadre identification for liquidation by the assassins of the CIA’s “ Operation Phoenix.” The captain himself, of course, was responsible for liaison with CIA personnel, given his unit’s operational capacity.
In the early 1970s, having mustered out of the Army for the second time – he was “retired” due to physical infirmities including scoliosis (a congenital spinal disease) and deafness in one ear for which he claims to have been awarded the Purple Heart – Brown set out to establish his mercenary clearing house operation and accompanying trade journal. One of the steps he took along the way was to resume a career as publisher he had undertaken in partnership with a Coloradan named Peder Lund before his last military enlistment.
Together, Brown and Lund had founded a company called “Panther Press.” The purpose of this venture was to reprint army weapons and field manuals (obtainable free of charge from appropriate government agencies at the time) for sale to the public. Involvement in Panther Press resulted in one of the few times Bob Brown was brought to court by the government, but not for the act of “borrowing” government publication in this fashion. Rather, the government was concerned that – because of its name – the enterprise was an undertaking of the Black Panther Party. Once it was firmly established that the press was a rightwing rather than leftwing activity, the case was quietly dismissed.
In any event, according to various versions of events he has told, either publicly or privately, Brown then proceeded to sell his share of Panther Press (renamed Paladin Press); market his Oman/Rhodesia “employment packets,” and/or obtain a loan from his mother in order to actualize Solider of Fortune. By his account, Brown founded the credibility of his new endeavor upon the active involvement of a number of former “super soldiers.” Again, the facts belied his claim.
For example, editor George Bacon, before his death consistently portrayed as a former Green Beret, turned out actually to have been a member of the CIA field station is Laos and winner of the country’s highest clandestine decoration, the Intelligence Star.
Similarly, Mike Echanis was never a member of Special Forces, albeit as a civilian be provided martial arts instruction to elite units such as the Ranger Groups, SEAL Teams and Green Berets. Rather, during his period as an editor of the magazine, he was a CIA contract employee. According to the CBS television program 60 Minutes and other sources, he was involved in Edwin Wilson’s ill-fated CIA mission in Libya before going to Nicaragua.
David Bufkin, a self-proclaimed mercenary recruiter who, although no an official member of the Solider of Fortune/Omega Group circle, is a close friend of Brown, and who “handled” the Americans killed Angola, claims to have been a CIA employee for long time now.
Another, more circumstantial link between brown and the most secretive elements of U.S. officialdom has been his treatment by the Army since he went on reserve status. It is axiomatic that a criminal investigation, or an investigation centering upon tangible conflict with U.S. foreign policy, spells the effective end of an Army officer’s career. The case of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur is perhaps the most famous of this principle in practice.
Yet Brown, who left the Army a mere captain, has been promoted not once, but twice – first to major, then to lieutenant colonel – since coming under investigation for violation of the Neutrality Act. Further, rather than being shunned by the military establishment, as have officers such Lt. Colonel Anthony Herbert (whose “crime” was blowing the whistle on atrocities committed by the military in Vietnam), Brown has been selected repeatedly to receive the honor of addressing the Army’s prestigious War College. His subject has been mercenaries and their implication for U.S. irregular warfare doctrine.
Since the rebuff of Schroeder’s inquiries by the Justice Department effectively proved that domestic criticism can be contained, and that the potential for prosecution under U.S. statues (a la Edwin Wilson) can be forestalled, Brown and Omega Group have become increasingly brazen. For instance, the magazine has featured an article by former managing editor Bob Poos recounting how a team of Solider of Fortune “journalists” ran a full combat patrol – “to kill a last few terrs” – in Zimbabwe the very night before the election marking transition from white minority to black majority rule in that country.
There have also been a spate of “I was there” stories by U.S. nationals who served in the Rhodesian National Army, despite ongoing and “official” State Department denials that evidence has been obtained that American citizens were involved in the fighting in Zimbabwe. Several of these individuals – Major Mike Williams and Captain John Early, among others – have now been added to the Soldier of Fortune roster.
In 1980, the magazine began to sponsor a series of annual conventions, bringing together the faithful a thousand at a time. Staged in Columbia, Missouri, the first convention presented a “Bull Simons Freedom Award” to Vang Pao, former head of the CIA’s clandestine Hmong guerrilla army in Laos during the late 1960s. The late Arthur D. “Bull” Simons headed the first CIA-sponsored Special Forces mission into that country, later worked as a SOG commander and led the unsuccessful Special Forces raid on North Vietnam’s Son Tay POW camp in 1970. (Promoting the quest for the return of mythical “live POWs” by the Vietnamese is another activity Soldier of Fortune excels at.)
Says Illinois left activist, Bob Sipe, who attended the first conference, “It was what I always thought sitting in on an SS reunion would be like, except the people were younger at this one. It was amazing. Some of these guys were even wearing the totenkopf (SS death’s head insignia) on their berets.”
Another indication of the magazine’s new freedom of action has been a virtual rash of Soldier of Fortune clones across the face of American periodical literature. Omega Group has launched a new glossy monthly entitled Survive. And then there is Gung Ho!, edited and published (and, reputedly, almost entirely written) by former Soldier of Fortune editor Jim Shultz. Other recently added magazine titles in this genre include New Breed, Eagle, Combat Illustrated, Special Weapons and Tactics and Combat Ready.
Omega Group retains an active interest and presence in southern Africa. For example, editor Jim Graves was in contact with the two American participants - Charles William Dukes (formerly of the Rhodesian National Army’s elite Special Air Service) and Barry Francis Briggon (formerly of the Rhodesian Light Infantry) – in the abortive 1981 attempt by a mercenary force to stage a coup in the Seychelles Islands. (See CAIB Number 16.) The strike force, led by Colonel Mike Hoare (commander of 5 Commando in the Congo twenty years earlier), was launched from South Africa, where Graves just happened to be visiting at the time. He later acknowledged that he had been aware of the planned coup attempt a month before it materialized.
Central America and Grenada
The organization has also demonstrated a lively interest and involvement in Afghanistan, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, but it’s real nuts-and-bolts focus has clearly shifted to Central America over the past two years. In 1983 for example. Omega Group sent a team to El Salvador on two separate occasions. Ostensibly led by Brown, the composition of the group was as follows:
· Colonel Alexander McGoll: former SOG member and CIA liaison officer.
· Captain John Early: former Special Forces A Team commander and self-described mercenary in Rhodesia and Eritrea.
· Ben Jones: former mercenary in the Rhodesian African Rifles.
· Captain Cliff Albright: former Republic Airlines DC-9 pilot and also a former DC-3 and C-47 pilot of for the CIA’s Air America Company, according to Soldier of Fortune’s Jim Graves. Albright was also part of the Civilian Military Assistance mission to Hondruas when two of its members were killed in Nicaragua on September 1 (see below).
· John Donovan: former SOG member, SWAT Team trainer (by contract) and owner of Donovan’s Demolitions, a company in southern Illinois specializing in blowing buildings and clearing logjams.
· “John Doe”: believed to be John Crawford of Nederland, Colorado. If true, he is another former mercenary in Rhodesia and claims to have been one in the old Transjordanian Camel Corps.
· Peter G. Kokalis: former member of U.S. Army Intelligence, now believed to be employed by the CIA.
· Ralph G. Edens: an old friend of Brown’s from the Everglades days; Eden’s main claim to fame seems to lie in having not been prosecuted for having undertaken a private bombing raid in Haiti, using a Constellation passenger aircraft and homemade napalm in 55 gallon drums, in 1964. A number of Port au Prince’s slum dwellers were burned to death in Eden’s “boyish” escapade.
· John Padgett: former SOG medic.
· Philip Gonzalez: former Special Forces medic.
· Thomas D. Reisinger: no real background, reputed to be Brown’s CIA control officer.
The purpose of the visits was to assess the potential for an American “private sector” deployment of troops in El Salvador, and to provide training for the rabble of that country’s exceptionally brutal Atlacatl Regiment. Instruction included the tactics of ambush and patrol, proper utilization of the U.S. light weapons issued to Salvadoran troops as standard gear, and principles of airmobile operations.
Considering these pilot efforts a success, Brown has now publicly offered to replace the hotly contested advisory presence of U.S. Army personnel in El Salvador with professional cadres of his own choosing. Salvadoran fascist leader Roberto d’ Aubuisson has accepted the offer in an equally public fashion. Both parties agree that the financial underwriting of such a venture presents no particular problems. Money will be put up, no doubt, by the Salvadoran right, and also in all probability by the same sorts of U.S. rightwing financiers exposed by Ken Lawrence in his 1981 articles, “Behind the Klan’s Karibbean Koup Attempt.” (See CAIB Numbers 13 and 16.) However, the overall scope of the envisioned intervention clearly implies support on a grand scale, the sort historically provided by the CIA.
There is another bit of evidence of the extraordinary coziness which exists between Omega Group and the U.S. intelligence community. It is well known that the American press was barred – ostensibly for its own safety – from the October 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada until the fifth day of military operation on the island.
By then, most resistance had been crushed by Rangers and Marines, the nature of combat unobserved by independent journalists. Perhaps of more importance, the key members of Grenada’s government had been arrested, whisked away to an interview-free environment of close confinement, when they were not being paraded, blindfolded and in shackles, through the streets of their capital city. Similarly, intelligence units had gained ample time in which to conduct a thorough survey of the situation, declaring certain buildings and their contents – for reasons of “sensitivity” and “security” – off limits to all but certified “spooks.”
While constitutional controversy understandably swirls around this latest abridgement of the First Amendment by the executive branch of government, Soldier of Fortune editor Jim Graves announced that his publication was the sole exception to the press ban. In a rather drunken but very well witnessed exchange in a Boulder, Colorado, restaurant/bar (“The Hungry Farmer”) Graves shot from the lip, contending his magazine’s “people” were allowed in on the first day, “with the assault troops.”
This, of course, could be chalked up merely to sodden stupidity (we all tend to exaggerate from time to time) were it not for the fact that Graves also mentioned that this head start had allowed Soldier of Fortune to stake out and examine the New jewel Movement’s Central Committee Headquarters.
This, he said, had resulted in the magazine obtaining governmental and party documents marked “secret,” not available to the rest of the press.
Certain of the documents have now been published, authenticating at least a portion of Grave’s inebriated contentions.” Further, it turns out the U.S. intelligence had the military bar not only the press, but also a Congressional Investigating Committee, from the very same New Jewel Movement headquarters facility to which Soldier of Fortune was obviously allowed access. Congressman Ron Dellums (D-Cal.), a member of the committee, was reportedly “stunned” by the implications of the situation. For its part, Soldier of Fortune has stated that its cache of documents show that Dellums and several members of Congress are essentially in league with “the communists” (Joe McCarthy’s ears must certainly have perked up on that note), although the magazine has yet to print anything illustrating its claims.
Finally, there is the connection of Soldier of Fortune to “Civilian Military Assistance,” two mercenaries from which recently died in Nicaragua. (See sidebar.)
All in all, given the whole context of circumstances surrounding them, it seems evident that the supposedly “private sector” activities of Robert K. Brown and Omega Group are something else altogether. To the contrary, it is a near certainty that the whole operation is an integral, if little considered, aspect of the covert means through which the United States government and its transnational corporate allies plan to continue to assert their hegemony over much of the globe.
Treating Bob Brown as merely a pathetically aging adolescent who never quite outgrew is flirtation with toy soldiers is, in the end, not quite fair. He is that, to be sure, but he is not all posture and pretension. At the very least, he has fashioned a lucrative career out of sending other people off to kill. And to die. The fundamental reality of Omega Group is perhaps best summed up by a poster hanging on the wall of Boulder’s Soldier of Fortune office complex: featuring a picture of vulture awaiting its chance to descend upon its prey, the poster reads, “Killing is our business, and business is good.”
There is nothing abstract in that honest statement. And the number of corpses strewn like litter across the landscapes of Asia, Africa, and Latin America can attest to the accuracy of its meaning.