In a city that loves award ceremonies, a recent event honoring the developers of America’s first armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was unusual for its secrecy and attendees.
The celebration, on the top floor of a nondescript Vienna office building, was invitation-only and brought together about 70 former spies, Special Forces operators and security business leaders over wine and cheese. Some of them didn’t want their attendance revealed.
The awards, according to the program, “honor individuals and groups which, since 1945, have fought for freedom, participatory government and against fascism, communism, moral relativity, economic corruption and terrorism in all their forms.”
Held annually since 2006, the ceremony was organized by the Honourable Company of Freedom Fighters, a group started by Duane R. “Dewey” Clarridge, an ex-CIA officer who is still in the intelligence and security field. Best known for helping create the anti-communist Contras, a Central American paramilitary force, in the 1980s, Mr. Clarridge became entangled in the Iran-Contra affair in which the Reagan administration sold weapons to Iran and illegally used some of the proceeds to fund the Contras. Mr. Clarridge was charged with perjury for misleading investigators about when he knew that a shipment from Israel to Iran contained missiles instead of oil-drilling spare parts. He was pardoned by later President George H.W. Bush.
Mr. Clarridge said he decided to form Freedom Fighters on a trip in 2005 to Nicaragua to recognize people such as ex-Contra leaders Adolfo Calero and Eden Pastora who, Mr. Clarridge said, had never been honored by the U.S. government for their role in defeating the Sandinistas and forcing them to hold free elections in 1991, which the Sandinistas lost. The leftist group returned to political power in 2006 - for the first time through elections.
“There was never a thank-you or a piece of paper expressing the country’s gratitude,” Mr. Clarridge said.
The awards ceremony started with attendees reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
In keeping with the Cold War flavor, former National Security Council staffer Oliver North, another central figure in Iran-Contra, was honored with a U.S. flag that had flown above the Capitol.
The list of past honorees reads like a parade of heavyweights from the Reagan administration and includes people who remain controversial in the U.S. foreign-policy community.
In the first group awarded the medal in 2006 were 31 Contras, including Mr. Calero.
In 2007, President Reagan’s CIA director, the late William J. Casey, and national security adviser, William P. Clark, were honored. The 2008 honoree was Adolf Tolkachev, who provided the CIA with detailed information about Soviet military systems, which Mr. Clarridge said helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
The main award this year went to an engineering team, led by Louis F. Wise, that developed the Eagle. A cross between a helicopter and an airplane, the Eagle was the forerunner of the Predator and Reaper UAVs that patrol the skies over Afghanistan and Pakistan and swoop down on al Qaeda and Taliban targets. At the ceremony, circular patches were distributed that featured a crudely stitched Eagle and the slogan “Death From Above.”
Mr. Wise and his engineers used commercial off-the-shelf technology, Mr. Clarridge said. For example, a program in the Eagle to trigger it to self-destruct if it crashed in enemy territory was based on garage-door openers.
Work on the UAV began in earnest on April 15, 1986, after American bombers struck Libya in retaliation for the death of a U.S. serviceman in the April 5, 1986, bombing of the Labelle disco in West Berlin.
Mr. Clarridge told Mr. Casey that pilotless aircraft could be loaded with C4 explosives and ball bearings that could be run up among Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s commercial air fleet at night and exploded.
Mr. Casey approved the idea. One year and $8 million later, Mr. Wise and his team developed five prototype UAVs. Mr. Clarridge proudly pointed out that the project, opposed at the time by many in the U.S. military, came in under budget.
Others attending the ceremony included Charles E. Allen, who just retired from the CIA and served as an undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security.
“There are old colleagues and friends, and this is a chance to honor people who have done magical, innovative things to protect the country. Their successes are unheralded, but they are heroes,” Mr. Allen said.
As the ceremonies were wrapping up, Mr. North took the microphone and began reading highlights from Mr. Clarridge’s career. It began to dawn on Mr. Clarridge that he would be getting the last award of the ceremony. “Oh …” he said from the back of the room as Mr. North began to describe a career that took Mr. Clarridge from Nepal to Latin America.
The citation on the medal given to him reads: “In recognition of his long and intrepid service, his bold and gallant leadership and his steadfast devotion to protecting the God-given rights of free people.”