HUEYTOWN, Ala. - Frank Camper still speaks in the camouflaged language that punctuated his years of running a school for mercenaries in the woods of north Alabama.
Tales of intrigue and military acronyms roll out with ease. But Camper hedges on providing details of the time he spent in covert government roles that were kept under wraps for years.
"There are things that are in the public record, and I cannot deviate from that," he explains between sips of coffee.
Camper's life as a self-styled soldier of fortune gained him notoriety a decade ago, when he drilled Rambo wannabes and real-life soldiers on subjects like torture at The Mercenary School - all the while feeding information to agencies like the FBI and Army Intelligence.
"He certainly did provide very useful information in the mid-'80s," says Cecil Moses, the retired head of the Birmingham FBI office. "He was loyal enough to share information with the government, sometimes at great risk."
The intrigue ended in 1986 when Camper was jailed in a California bombing plot. Two years later, his role as a secret government operative was confirmed during an appearance before Congress. Camper contends his 5 1/2 years in prison was a frame-up meant to take him out of circulation after years of sensitive work for the government. Prosecutors deny the claim.
Now sells computers
Whatever occurred, Camper is free on parole today and back home in suburban Birmingham.
His storefront business, ABC Computers, has replaced the world of guns and fatigues.
"I chose (that name) strictly to be generic. I didn't want anything that sounded exotic," says the 48-year-old Camper, his once-lean physique given over to middle-age spread.
The bearded Vietnam veteran has written books published in Japan and the United States about his adventures, which took him from Europe to the Middle East to Central America. A movie is in the works.
But the terms of Camper's release from prison mandated that he stay clear of paramilitary operations, and he promises to play by the rules. The one-time arms dealer now sells computer equipment, and he's gotten an international patent on a cash-handling machine.
"This is all very generic, civilian stuff," Camper says. "I've retired."
But Camper had quite a run before he settled into the workaday world.
Career began in Vietnam
He began a four-year stint in Vietnam in 1965, serving as part of a long-range reconnaissance patrol unit in the Special Forces. It was in Vietnam that Camper learned to live by his wits, which the former FBI agent describes as considerable.
"He's very intelligent," says Moses, now police chief in the north Alabama town of Madison.
Upon returning home, Camper started work as an FBI operative in 1970, trying to penetrate a branch of the Communist Party.
Camper said he eventually began posing as a military adviser to terrorist groups, including the Alabama Black Liberation Front.
Camper established The Mercenary School in 1980 on the banks of the Warrior River.
The idea was to take the training he received in the military, improve on it, and charge people $350 each for a two-week session that included live-firing exercises and survival training. Information on students was secretly provided to the government.
"I invented it. I opened it," Camper says. "From that day forward we were part of an intelligence operation."
The camp was advertised in Soldier of Fortune magazine, and applications came in at a steady pace. "It was a net for crazies," he says.
Camper's best-known students showed up in late 1984.
A small band of Sikh rebels from India came to Camper seeking training in military tactics, and Camper tipped off U.S. authorities. Moses says Camper became a key figure in an undercover operation that foiled a 1985 plot to kill Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, later assassinated in 1991.
One of the Sikhs, Gurpurtap Sing Birk, was acquitted in New York in 1986 of plotting an attempt on Gandhi's life. But he was convicted of planning guerrilla attacks in India.
"He was very, very helpful to our government in that operation," Moses says. "He was also doing some other intelligence work I can't comment on."
That same year, Camper and two part-time instructors from The Mercenary School were accused of conspiring with two California women who owned private schools to blow up the cars of disgruntled employees.
Camper was convicted in 1987 on weapons and conspiracy charges. A judge sentenced him to 14 years in prison.
Claims Iran-contra link
Camper was prosecuted about the time the Reagan administration was being battered by revelations of the sale of U.S. arms to Iran and the illegal diversion of profits to the Nicaraguan rebels.
Camper says he was involved in an early attempt to procure Chinese Red Arrow missiles for the deal, and he now claims the criminal case against him was the government's way of covering up those efforts.
A government prosecutor denies there was any plot to keep Camper quiet.
"He was not prosecuted because of any desire to silence him. He was prosecuted because of the crimes he committed," said Richard Drooyan, head of the criminal division in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.
Moses doesn't believe the conspiracy theory, but he did write a letter on behalf of Camper when the one-time mercenary came up for parole. Camper was freed in December 1991.
Moses is melancholy in discussing the loss of Camper's services to the government.
"A guy like Camper is a gold mine to law enforcement," Moses says. "He was valuable as long as he stayed on the right side."