The Army's supersecret Delta Force had a vital mission last October: fly to the Mediterranean and prepare to rescue the hostages aboard the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. But there was an unusual last-minute hitch. An undisclosed number of the elite counterterrorist troops were under investigation for in effect cheating on their expense accounts, and had to get a special dispensation from the Pentagon to leave their home base at Fort Bragg, N.C.
That awkward incident was only one result of a review of some $150 million in expenditures by the Army's Special Operations Forces and its Delta Force on covert operations between 1981 and 1983. Investigators for both the Army and the Justice Department suspect that a small number of the Delta Force troops may have diverted as much as $500,000 to personal use and that a Special Operations colonel and perhaps three of his colleagues stole at least $60,000, mainly by double-billing the Government for claimed expenses.
The officer, Lieut. Colonel Dale Duncan, 39, was indicted on seven counts last week by a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va. He was charged with submitting vouchers for $56,230 for the purchase of electronic equipment in August 1982, even though an Army intelligence agency had already paid for the same gear. Duncan also allegedly submitted a bill for $8,400, to charter a private aircraft, that had already been almost entirely paid for. The indictment claims as well that Duncan charged the Army $796 for a four-flight airline ticket that he got free through a frequent-flyer program. Duncan, who has sued the Army for violating his privacy by trying to obtain his American Express Card records, denied any wrongdoing. "He's not a Rambo," said his lawyer, John Dowd. "He's a quiet, intelligent guy."
The Delta Force soldiers are accused of accepting cash advances for trips abroad, then routinely inflating claims of what they had spent and pocketing the difference. Fewer than 100 soldiers are under investigation by the Army.
The deceptive practices had gone undetected, former Army officers say, mainly because of loose controls over how "black" funds are spent. Still, such undercover operations face practical accounting problems. Units are often dispatched in a hurry, requiring large cash advances. If requisitions and paper procedures are elaborate, too many people could learn about a mission, compromising both its secrecy and speed. "That's the penalty you pay," said a retired Army general, "when you permit an organization to report only to God." Since the Army will not admit publicly that Delta Force even exists, proving that its members pocketed money that was also carefully concealed may not be easy.