When the CIA sent a team of four operators on a spy mission targeting China, none of them returned, after Tropical Storm Higos blew in from the Pacific causing havoc in the South China Sea.
At the time, Stephen Stanek, a covert CIA operative, faced a decision. It was time to either cancel the operation he was running or go forward with it. The storm was barreling through the Philippines but was then projected to veer north and miss their area of operation.
Stanek’s partner for the operation, a younger man named Michael Perich, had recently graduated from the Merchant Marine Academy.
A football player at the academy, Perich was now at the beginning of his career in paramilitary operations and had just recently been trained as a scuba diver.
Two other men were aboard their 40-foot vessel, Jamie McCormick and Daniel Meeks, both in supporting roles. Stanek, a retired Navy ordnance disposal diver, was highly experienced but had only recently attained his license to be a ship captain, according to those who knew him.
The crew had spent the last several days sailing up the coast of the Philippines after departing Malaysia in what was to be the maiden voyage of their ship, which was secretly owned by the CIA’s Maritime Branch.
Their cover story for the mission was that a client in Japan had bought the vessel, and the crew had been hired to transport it there from Malaysia. They had paperwork and documentation to back up the story if questioned.
Their actual target was a small piece of land to the north of Luzon, the Philippines’ largest island. The CIA believed the Chinese military was occupying this small island in an area that has been hotly disputed.
The USA in recent years has closely watched China’s military moves in the South China Sea, particularly as Beijing has built up artificial islands on reefs and atolls that were once barely visible at low tide in order to extend its territorial claims.
Stanek and Perich planned to dive on the island using commercial scuba gear that would be deniable in the event they were captured, whether by the Chinese or anyone else. There were to be no U.S. government fingerprints on any of their activities.
Deployed from the small ship, the two divers would place a “pod” disguised as a rock and stuffed with classified technology just beneath the surface of the waves. It would then passively monitor electronic signals of Chinese naval ships.
U.S. military personnel in the region remained oblivious to the CIA’s failed covert operation and had no part in any recovery efforts.
The CIA coordinated with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to have their ships make some sweeps to find the missing personnel. Nothing was ever found, “not even a floating life jacket,” a former CIA officer recalled.
the families of the deceased, who didn’t even know their husbands and sons had been working for the CIA, had to be informed about what had happened. Internally, the CIA officers blamed the mission failure and deaths of four of their men on Bob Kandra, the SAD chief at the time.
However, the covert operation maintained its cover, even in the aftermath of a catastrophic failure. Death certificates were quietly issued with a lawyer hired by the CIA’s Panama City cover company filing the paperwork.
More than a decade after the operation, many in the CIA felt that Kandra, who has since retired, was never held to account for the deaths. Eventually he was removed from SAD and sent to a low-pressure job in Vienna, Austria.
But he was pulled from that station as well over what one former CIA operations officer described as Kandra’s “chaos as a leadership style.”
In the meantime, a new Cold War has continued to played out in the South China Sea. In 2016, the Chinese Navy plucked an American-made undersea drone out of the ocean that appeared to have been monitoring one of their ships 50 miles off the coast of the Philippines.
This may indicate that, much like the CIA’s drone program over Pakistan, and elsewhere, the undersea espionage taking place in the South China Sea has been automated, conducted with robots that limit the risk to human life.
The Pentagon asked for the drone back, claiming it was an unclassified system used to gather oceanographic data. The Chinese obliged and turned it over to the U.S. Navy in international waters four days later. Even if that particular mission ended in capture by the Chinese, no one died.
Yahoo / ABC Flash Point News 2020.