MOUNT AIRY, N.C. — Bill Cowan is starting to savor the country life in rural Surry County, but he’s not out to pasture, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
Cowan, soon to be 71, is a retired Marine Corps officer with immense experience in combat (Vietnam) and military intelligence (the Middle East).
Since 2001 Cowan has been a no-holds-barred, willing-to-step-on-toes commentator on Fox News. He’s been on as recently as Friday, discussing the circumstances surrounding the downing of Malaysia Flight 17 in the Ukraine.
He’s been married for two years to Velvet Shelton, who is active in conservative political circles and who comes from Surry County. They have bounced back and forth between homes in Washington, D.C., and Surry County, but now they’ve decided to put down roots here permanently.
“We met at a Michele Bachman rally,” Cowan said, speaking of the time he met his wife-to-be. Bachman, a well-known Minnesota congresswoman, founded the Tea Party Caucus in the U.S. House and briefly ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
Shelton “was up there and I spotted her in the crowd,” Cowan said. “I came down here because she is from down here and who wouldn’t want to move to Mount Airy? We were always in conflict about what we wanted to do, but the ultimate idea was to come down here. It gives me the ability to get away, get down here and live on a quiet country road and get some time to think. I’m working on a book for the first time.”
On this day, Cowan wore a button supporting Mark Walker, who was locked in a primary runoff with Phil Berger Jr. for the GOP nomination in the 6th Congressional District.
“I like Mark Walker because he doesn’t represent the establishment,” Cowan said just days before Walker earned the nomination with 60 percent of the vote. “I respect Phil Berger Jr.’s experience, but he represents the establishment.”
Cowan said he’s been bucking the establishment policies on Iraq and the Middle East for a long time, and not just as a critic of President Barack Obama.
Although Fox has the reputation of being a right-leaning news outlet, Cowan is quick to point out that he blasted the administration of former President George W. Bush, too.
“I am going to be critical of Obama, but I was equally critical of Bush,” he said. “People say, ‘Here is one of those guys on Fox.’ Never once did anybody on Fox call me and say (concerning Bush), ‘Tone it down, Bill.’”
Cowan was born in California, but because his father was in the military he grew up “all over,” he said.
“I was in high school in Alaska and that was probably my formative years,” Cowan said. “I learned the woods, survival skills and all that stuff. “
Cowan enlisted in the Navy in 1961when he was 17. It was the day after his high school graduation. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy. He spent 20 years in the Marines and was deployed to Vietnam on combat assignments as a Marine Corps officer. He was a platoon commander at the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968, considered by many to be the longest, deadliest and most controversial of the Vietnam War.
Later he was an adviser in military intelligence operations using North Vietnamese who had defected in finding enemy forces in a jungle area south of Saigon.
Jack Wright, who became Cowan’s friend when they were both in the Marines in Vietnam in the 1960s, was able to discover what Cowan was like from a front-row seat.
“Bill was a big risk-taker,” Wright said. “He always was. He was extremely well-schooled in tactics and all the military subjects that you need to be expert in if you wanted to lead troops in combat. In his last night in the field on his first tour, he asked me to go out on ambush with him. Which I did. That’s the kind of Marine he was. He wanted one last crack at the enemy before going on. In the warrior culture, that is the highest compliment you can pay someone.”
Cowan said one spark to his interest in undercover operations came when he saw “The Counterfeit Traitor,” a 1962 movie starring William Holden, about a man who becomes a spy in Nazi Germany.
“It was this Swedish guy who had spied — it always stuck with me,” Cowan said. “I always had an interest in intelligence. I always enjoyed excitement and adventure.”
Wright and Cowan went in different directions after the war.
Wright is now a top officer in a Texas oil and gas company. The men have stayed closed friends. Wright said he saw Cowan’s career shift from more conventional military operations to the field of military intelligence.
“I was around Bill when he made that call,” Wright said. “I think it was because he enjoyed the independence of action as an intelligence operations guy. It is less structured. Bill works very well in unstructured environments.”
And what could be more unstructured than the Middle East?
‘Old-fashioned honorable guy’
The 1980s found Cowan active in counter-terrorism in the Middle East.
He was one of the first members — and the only Marine — in the Pentagon’s Intelligence Support Activity. He was a senior military operations officer and field operative on secret missions to the Middle East.
Cowan said he was part of the team that worked on finding those who had bombed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut on Oct. 23, 1983, killing almost 300 people. Cowan said he and his team identified many of those responsible and developed a plan for retaliation that was never carried out.
After his retirement from the Marines in 1985, Cowan joined the staff of U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., and was Rudman’s primary staffer during the Iran-Contra hearings.
From 1989 to 1994, Cowan was involved in a number of hostage rescues: From Iraq-occupied Kuwait in 1990 and from Beirut around the same time. Cowan also organized and participated in the rescue of children kidnapped from the U.S. by foreign-born parents.
Cowan has a lot of stories from those years, but says he just can’t tell them.
“In that community you simply don’t talk,” Cowan said.
The work did involve disguises of a sort, he said.
“I went in one time with a full beard,” Cowan said. “It was in 1986 or ’87. The U.S. embassy in Lebanon was gone. I was still going over there. When you do something and there is a U.S. embassy, you can at least go to the embassy. There was no U.S. presence in Lebanon.
“I was working on (freeing) the western hostages. You take a boat from Cyprus. Myself and my partner would be the only westerners on board, so we naturally drew some attention.”
As he went through immigration, he might say he was from Canada and was there on business. He might say he is selling cell phones and might even have some brochures he had picked up somewhere. Cowan isn’t fluent in Arabic, but that was no problem and actually helped: If he were fluent, someone would wonder why.
“It is how you look. How you carry yourself. What your demeanor is,” Cowan said. “You are talking and laughing. Anytime you show fear or apprehension, you are setting yourself up.”
After five days in Lebanon, Cowan said, he shaved his beard and left through the same port, unrecognized by the very people who had seen him come in earlier with the beard.
Former U.S. Ambassador Richard Carlson, who has been a friend of Cowan’s for about 10 years — they met on a radio show — said Cowan is modest about his accomplishments.
“He is a mysterious guy in some ways, but he doesn’t do anything to gin up the mystery,” Carlson said. “He is an old-fashioned honorable guy. He is very honest, very direct and very tough.”
Carlson and Cowan do a radio show together in the Washington area on which they talk about foreign policy with invited guests. Carlson said that Cowan, with his expertise in carrying out intelligence operations, has been able to smoothly switch to looking at the big picture in foreign affairs.
“He is an operational guy,” Carlson said. “I have to say that I see him on Fox and he is very good on the big picture. He is good at explaining Syria and what they were doing. I’m not surprised. He is very smart.”
‘Our enemies don’t fear us’
Looking at the Middle East today, Cowan sees ISIS — an Islamic state declared by Sunni jihadists with territorial claims that include Syria and Iraq — as America’s biggest threat.
And its sudden emergence, he went on to say, is an intelligence failure that stems from the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
“How in the world could an entity like ISIS steamroll Iraq and nobody knew it was coming?” Cowan asked. “We could have left 10,000 people there, not to conduct operations, but to show the Iraqis our commitment. It would have also allowed us to leave some of our intelligence infrastructure there. We had very good human intelligence with our guys in the military, and when we pulled out the U.S. — for all practical purposes — had no eyes on the ground.”
Cowan said the group is dangerous because it is so up to date in its methods.
“It is a threat unlike anything we have ever seen,” Cowan said. “They have so many people among them who have foreign passports, including Americans. They are extremely effective on their social-media campaign, recruiting people. They are going to continue to recruit thousands of jihadis from around the world, including the United States.”
It’s not like Cowan was gung-ho on the Iraq war. While he supported the troops once they went in, he thought the Bush administration was wrong to go. Saddam Hussein, then the president of Iraq, wasn’t a threat to the U.S., Cowan said. And toppling the Iraqi government only left Iran stronger when the U.S. did finally pull out of Iraq, he said.
Cowan sees Obama as “an absolute failure.”
“Our enemies don’t fear us and our friends don’t trust us,” Cowan said. “We can’t look to the Obama administration and find one foreign policy success. They have not shown resolve. They haven’t shown leadership.”
Cowan does give Obama credit for ordering the raid that took out Osama bin Laden.
When he’s not offering commentary on the Middle East, Cowan may be tinkering around with one of his old cars. He has a 1949 MG TC that is a right-hand drive. He also has a 1963 Morgan convertible.
Cowan is a Civil War buff and has a belt buckle and captain’s bars from his great-great-grandfather, who was a captain in the Ohio volunteer militia. Cowan has a spear from Afghanistan and an old British rifle that some soldier must have left behind when the British troops pulled out of Afghanistan.
Carlson said he and Cowan also share an interest in motorcycles. Carlson said he is convinced that Cowan is still doing secret missions for the government, but Cowan denies that. Cowan said he “did my last government-related trip last year.”
“I spent a lot of time overseas, and people I was meeting with would have no idea I was working for the U.S. government,” Cowan said. “After many years of coming to the Middle East, I always had to have some kind of cover — what I was doing and why I was there, that kind of stuff.”
Now on his third marriage — he had four children with his first wife and three with his second — Cowan said he’s ready to stop traveling overseas. He said that if the government called and asked him to do another mission, though, he wouldn’t hesitate.
Preparation for such a trip is “a psychological process,” he said.
“You start thinking through the various scenarios and what you are going to have to deal with,” he said. “It is like going on a big roller coaster for the first time.”