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Seal of the Central Intelligence Agency

The Special Activities Division (SAD) is a division in the United States Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) National Clandestine Service (NCS) responsible for covert operations known as "special activities". Within SAD there are two separate groups, SAD/SOG for tactical paramilitary operations and SAD/PAG for covert political action.[1]

Special Operations Group (SOG) SOG is the department within SAD responsible for operations that include the collection of intelligence in hostile countries and regions, and all high threat military or intelligence operations with which the U.S. government does not wish to be overtly associated.[2] As such, members of the unit (called Paramilitary Operations Officers and Specialized Skills Officers) normally do not carry any objects or clothing (e.g., military uniforms) that would associate them with the United States government.[3] If they are compromised during a mission, the government of the United States may deny all knowledge.[4]

SOG is generally considered the most secretive special operations force in the United States. The group selects operatives from other tier one special mission units such as Delta Force, DEVGRU, and ISA, as well as other United States special operations forces, such as USNSWC, MARSOC, USASF, and 24th STS.

SOG Paramilitary Operations Officers account for a majority of Distinguished Intelligence Cross and Intelligence Star recipients during any given conflict or incident which elicits CIA involvement. An award bestowing either of these citations represents the highest honors awarded within the CIA organization in recognition of distinguished valor and excellence in the line of duty. SAD/SOG operatives also account for the majority of the names displayed on the Memorial Wall at CIA headquarters indicating that the agent died while on active duty.[5]

Political Action Group (PAG) PAG is responsible for covert activities related to political influence, psychological operations and economic warfare. The rapid development of technology has added cyberwarfare to their mission. Tactical units within SAD are also capable of carrying out covert political action while deployed in hostile and austere environments. A large covert operation usually has components that involve many, or all, of these categories, as well as paramilitary operations. Political and Influence covert operations are used to support U.S. foreign policy. Often overt support for one element of an insurgency would be counter-productive due to impression it would have on the local population. In this case, covert assistance allows the U.S. to assist without damaging these elements in the process. Many of the other activities (such as propaganda, economic and cyber) support the overall political effort. There has been issues in the past with attempts to influence the US media such as in Operation Mockingbird. However, these activities are now subject to the same oversight as all covert action operations.[6]


SAD provides the President of the United States with an option when overt military and/or diplomatic actions are not viable or politically feasible. SAD can be directly tasked by the President of the United States or the National Security Council at the President's direction. This is unlike any other U.S. special mission force. However, SAD/SOG has far fewer members than most of the other special missions units, such as the U.S. Army's 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (Delta Force) or Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DevGru) .[7][8][9]

As the action arm of the NCS, SAD/SOG conducts direct action missions such as raids, ambushes, sabotage, targeted killings[10][11][12] and unconventional warfare (e.g., training and leading guerrilla and military units of other countries in combat). SAD/SOG also conducts special reconnaissance, that can be either military or intelligence driven, but is carried out by Paramilitary Officers (also called Paramilitary Operatives) when in "non-permissive environments". Paramilitary Operations Officers are also fully trained case officers (i.e. "spies") and as such conduct clandestine human intelligence (HUMINT) operations throughout the world.[13] SAD/SOG officers are selected from the most elite U.S. military units.[9]

The political action group within SAD conducts the deniable psychological operations, also known as black propaganda, as well as "Covert Influence" to effect political change as an important part of any Administration's foreign policy.[1] Covert intervention in a foreign election is the most significant form of political action. This could involve financial support for favored candidates, media guidance, technical support for public relations, get-out-the-vote or political organizing efforts, legal expertise, advertising campaigns, assistance with poll-watching, and other means of direct action. Policy decisions could be influenced by assets, such as subversion of officials of the country, to make decisions in their official capacity that are in the furtherance of U.S. policy aims. In addition, mechanisms for forming and developing opinions involve the covert use of propaganda.[14]

Propaganda includes leaflets, newspapers, magazines, books, radio, and television, all of which are geared to convey the U.S. message appropriate to the region. These techniques have expanded to cover the internet as well. They may employ officers to work as journalists, recruit agents of influence, operate media platforms, plant certain stories or information in places it is hoped it will come to public attention, or seek to deny and/or discredit information that is public knowledge. In all such propaganda efforts, "black" operations denote those in which the audience is to be kept ignorant of the source; "white" efforts are those in which the originator openly acknowledges himself; and "gray" operations are those in which the source is partly but not fully acknowledged.[14][15]

Some examples of political action programs were the prevention of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) from winning elections between 1948 and the late 1960s; overthrowing the governments of Iran in 1953, and Guatemala in 1954; arming rebels in Indonesia in 1957; and providing funds and support to the trade union federation Solidarity following the imposition of martial law in Poland after 1981.[16]

SAD's existence became better known as a result of the "Global War on Terror". Beginning in autumn of 2001, SAD/SOG paramilitary teams arrived in Afghanistan to hunt down al-Qaeda leaders, facilitate the entry of U.S. Army Special Forces and lead the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan against the ruling Taliban. SAD/SOG units also defeated Ansar al-Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003[17][18] and trained, equipped, organized and led the Kurdish peshmerga forces to defeat the Iraqi army in northern Iraq.[13][17] Despite being the most covert unit in U.S. Special Operations, numerous books have been published on the exploits of CIA paramilitary officers, including Conboy and Morrison's Feet to the Fire: CIA Covert Operations in Indonesia,[19] and Warner's Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America's Clandestine War in Laos.[20] Most experts consider SAD/SOG the premiere force for unconventional warfare (UW), whether that warfare consists of either creating or combating an insurgency in a foreign country.[7][21][22]


There remains some conflict between the National Clandestine Service and the more clandestine parts of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM),[23] such as the Joint Special Operations Command. This is usually confined to the civilian/political heads of the respective Department/Agency. The combination of SAD and USSOCOM units has resulted in some of the most notable successes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to include the locating and killing of Osama bin Laden.[22][24] SAD/SOG has several missions. One of these missions is the recruiting, training, and leading of indigenous forces in combat operations.[22] SAD/SOG and its successors have been used when it was considered desirable to have plausible deniability about U.S. support (this is called a covert operation or "covert action").[13] Unlike other special missions units, SAD/SOG operatives combine special operations and clandestine intelligence capabilities in one individual.[9] These individuals can operate in any environment (sea, air or ground) with limited to no support.[7]

Covert action

Under U.S. law, the CIA is authorized to collect intelligence, conduct counterintelligence and to conduct covert action by the National Security Act of 1947.[1] President Ronald Reagan issued Executive Order 12333 titled "United States Intelligence Activities" in 1984. This order defined covert action as "special activities," both political and military, that the U.S. government would deny, granting such operations exclusively to the CIA. The CIA was also designated as the sole authority under the 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act and mirrored in Title 50 of the United States Code Section 413(e).[1][22] The CIA must have a presidential finding issued by the President of the United States in order to conduct these activities under the Hughes-Ryan amendment to the 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act.[25] These findings are then monitored by the oversight committees in both the U.S. Senate, called the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and the U.S. House of Representatives, called the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI).[26]

Every U.S. President since George Washington has used covert action as a part of their broader foreign policy, whether Republican or Democratic, liberal or conservative.[27] The majority of these covert action operations were successful.[28] Most of the operations that were not successful were directed by the President over the objections of the CIA.[28] Some of the most controversial "covert action" programs, such as the Iran-Contra affair, were not primarily the work of the CIA.[29] Covert action programs are also much less expensive than overt political or military actions.[1] The Pentagon commissioned a study to determine whether the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) should conduct covert action paramilitary operations. Their study determined that the CIA should maintain this capability and be the "sole government agency conducting covert action." The DoD found that, even under U.S. law, it does not have the legal authority to conduct covert action, nor the operational agility to carry out these types of missions.[30] The operation in May 2011 that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden was a covert action under the authority of the CIA.[24][31]

Selection and training

Emblem of the Joint Special Operations Command

SAD/SOG has several hundred officers, mostly former members of special operations forces (SOF) and a majority from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).[32] The CIA has also recruited individuals within the agency.[33] The CIA's formal position for these individuals is "Paramilitary Operations Officers" and "Specialized Skills Officers." Paramilitary Operations Officers attend the Clandestine Service Trainee (CST) program, which trains them as clandestine intelligence operatives (i.e. "spies"; known as "Core Collectors" within the Agency). The primary strengths of SAD/SOG Paramilitary Officers are operational agility, adaptability, and deniability. They often operate in small teams, typically made up of six operators (with some operations being carried out by a single officer), all with extensive military special operations expertise and a set of specialized skills that does not exist in any other unit.[9] As fully trained intelligence case officers (i.e. spies), Paramilitary Operations Officers possess all the clandestine skills to collect human intelligence—and most importantly—to recruit assets from among the indigenous troops receiving their training. These officers often operate in remote locations behind enemy lines to carry out direct action (including raids and sabotage), counter-intelligence, guerrilla/ unconventional warfare, counter-terrorism, and hostage rescue missions, in addition to being able to conduct espionage via HUMINT assets.

There are four principal elements within SAD's Special Operations Group: the Air Branch, the Maritime Branch, the Ground Branch, and the Armor and Special Programs Branch. The Armor and Special Programs Branch is charged with development, testing, and covert procurement of new personnel and vehicular armor and maintenance of stockpiles of ordnance and weapons systems used by SOG, almost all of which must be obtained from clandestine sources abroad, in order to provide SOG operatives and their foreign trainees with plausible deniability in accordance with U.S. Congressional directives.

Together, SAD/SOG contains a complete combined arms covert military. Paramilitary Operations Officers are the core of each branch and routinely move between the branches to gain expertise in all aspects of SOG.[33] As such, Paramilitary Operations Officers are trained to operate in a multitude of environments. Because these officers are taken from the most highly trained units in the U.S. military and then provided with extensive additional training to become CIA clandestine intelligence officers, many U.S. security experts assess them as the most elite of the U.S. special missions units.[34]

SAD, like most of the CIA, requires a bachelor's degree to be considered for employment. Many have advanced degrees such as Master's and law degrees.[35] Many candidates come from notable schools, many from Ivy League institutions and United States Service Academies, but the majority of recruits today come from middle-class backgrounds.[36] SAD officers are trained at Camp Peary, Virginia (also known as "The Farm") and at privately owned training centers around the United States. They also train its personnel at "The Point" (Harvey Point), a facility outside of North Carolina, North Carolina.[37][38] In addition to the eighteen months of training in the Clandestine Service Trainee (CST) Program[39] required to become a clandestine intelligence officer, Paramilitary Operations Officers are trained to a high level of proficiency in the use and tactical employment of an unusually wide degree of modern weaponry, explosive devices and firearms (foreign and domestic), hand to hand combat, high performance/tactical driving (on and off road), apprehension avoidance (including picking handcuffs and escaping from confinement), improvised explosive devices, cyberwarfare, covert channels, Military Free Fall parachuting, combat and commercial SCUBA and closed circuit diving, proficiency in foreign languages, surreptitious entry operations (picking or otherwise bypassing locks), vehicle hot-wiring, Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE), extreme survival and wilderness training, combat EMS medical training, tactical communications, and tracking.[citation needed]


World War II

William Joseph Donovan

While the World War II Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was technically a military agency under the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in practice it was fairly autonomous of military control and enjoyed direct access to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Major General William Joseph Donovan was the head of the OSS. Donovan was a soldier and Medal of Honor recipient from World War I. He was also a lawyer and former classmate of FDR at Columbia Law School.[40] Like its successor, the CIA, OSS included both human intelligence functions and special operations paramilitary functions. Its Secret Intelligence division was responsible for espionage, while its Jedburgh teams, a joint U.S.-UK-French unit, were forerunners of groups that create guerrilla units, such as the U.S. Army Special Forces and the CIA. OSS' Operational Groups were larger U.S. units that carried out direct action behind enemy lines. Even during World War II, the idea of intelligence and special operations units not under strict military control was controversial. OSS operated primarily in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) and to some extent in the China-Burma-India Theater, while General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was extremely reluctant to have any OSS personnel within his area of operations.

From 1943 to 1945, the OSS also played a major role in training Kuomintang troops in China and Burma, and recruited other indigenous irregular forces for sabotage as well as guides for Allied forces in Burma fighting the Japanese army. OSS also helped arm, train and supply resistance movements, including Mao Zedong's People's Liberation Army in China and the Viet Minh in French Indochina, in areas occupied by the Axis powers. Other functions of the OSS included the use of propaganda, espionage, subversion, and post-war planning.

One of the OSS' greatest accomplishments during World War II was its penetration of Nazi Germany by OSS operatives. The OSS was responsible for training German and Austrian commandos for missions inside Nazi Germany. Some of these agents included exiled communists and socialist party members, labor activists, anti-Nazi POWs, and German and Jewish refugees. At the height of its influence during World War II, the OSS employed almost 24,000 people.[41]

OSS Paramilitary Officers parachuted into many countries then behind enemy lines, including France, Norway, Greece and The Netherlands. In Crete, OSS paramilitary officers linked up with, equipped and fought alongside Greek resistance forces against the Axis occupation.

OSS was disbanded shortly after World War II, with its intelligence analysis functions moving temporarily into the U.S. Department of State. Espionage and counterintelligence went into military units, while paramilitary and related functions went into an assortment of 'ad hoc' groups, such as the Office of Policy Coordination. Between the original creation of the CIA by the National Security Act of 1947 and various mergers and reorganizations through 1952, the wartime OSS functions generally went into CIA. The mission of training and leading guerrillas generally stayed in the United States Army Special Forces, but those missions required to remain covert were folded into the paramilitary arm of the CIA. The direct descendant of the OSS' Special Operations is the CIA's Special Activities Division.


14th Dalai Lama

After the Chinese reunification of Tibet in October 1950, the CIA inserted SAD paramilitary teams into Tibet to train and lead Tibetan resistance fighters against the People's Liberation Army of China. These teams selected and then trained Tibetan soldiers in the Rocky Mountains of the United States;[42] training occurred at Camp Hale.[43][44] The SAD teams then advised and led these commandos against the Chinese, both from Nepal and India. In addition, SAD Paramilitary Officers were responsible for the Dalai Lama's clandestine escape to India, narrowly escaping capture and certain execution by the Chinese government.[42]

According to a book by retired CIA officer John Kenneth Knaus, entitled Orphans Of The Cold War: America And The Tibetan Struggle For Survival, Gyalo Thondup, the older brother of the 14th (and current) Dalai Lama, sent the CIA five Tibetan recruits. These recruits were then trained in paramilitary tactics on the island of Saipan in the Northern Marianas.[45] Shortly thereafter, the five men were covertly returned to Tibet “to assess and organize the resistance” and selected another 300 Tibetans for training. U.S. assistance to the Tibetan resistance ceased after the 1972 Nixon visit to China, after which the United States and China normalized relations.[46]


Battle of Incheon

The CIA sponsored a variety of activities during the Korean War. These activities included maritime operations behind North Korean lines. Yong Do Island, connected by a rugged isthmus to Pusan, served as the base for those operations. These operations were carried out by well-trained Korean guerrillas. The four principal U.S. advisers responsible for the training and operational planning of those special missions were Dutch Kramer, Tom Curtis, George Atcheson and Joe Pagnella. All of these Paramilitary Operations Officers operated through a CIA front organization called the Joint Advisory Commission, Korea (JACK), headquartered at Tongnae, a village near Pusan, on the peninsula's southeast coast.[47] These paramilitary teams were responsible for numerous maritime raids and ambushes behind North Korean lines, as well as prisoner of war rescue operations. These were the first maritime unconventional warfare units that trained indigenous forces as surrogates. They also provided a model, along with the other CIA-sponsored ground based paramilitary Korean operations, for the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) activities conducted by the U.S. military and the CIA/SAD in Vietnam.[7][47] In addition, CIA paramilitary ground-based teams worked directly for U.S. military commanders, specifically with the 8th Army, on the "White Tiger" initiative. This initiative included inserting South Korean commandos and CIA Paramilitary Operations Officers prior to the two major amphibious assaults on North Korea, including the landing at Inchon.[7]

Cuba (1961)

Map showing the location of the Bay of Pigs

The Bay of Pigs Invasion (known as "La Batalla de Girón", or "Playa Girón" in Cuba), was an unsuccessful attempt by a U.S.-trained force of Cuban exiles, with support from U.S. government armed forces, to invade southern Cuba and overthrow the Cuban government of Fidel Castro. The plan was launched in April 1961, less than three months after John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency of the United States. The Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces, trained and equipped by Eastern Bloc nations, defeated the exile-combatants in three days.

The sea-borne invasion force landed on April 17, and fighting lasted until April 19, 1961. CIA Paramilitary Operations Officers Grayston Lynch and William "Rip" Robertson led the first assault on the beaches, and supervised the amphibious landings.[48] Four American aircrew instructors from Alabama Air National Guard were killed while flying attack sorties.[48] Various sources estimate Cuban Army casualties (killed or injured) to be in the thousands (between 2,000 and 5,000).[49] This invasion followed the successful overthrow by the CIA of the Mosaddeq government in Iran in 1953[50] and Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954,[51] but was a failure both militarily and politically.[52] Deteriorating Cuban-American relations were made worse by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.


Che Guevara

The National Liberation Army of Bolivia (ELN-Ejército de Liberación Nacional de Bolivia) was a communist guerrilla force that operated from the remote Ñancahuazú region against the pro-U.S. Bolivian government. They were joined by Che Guevara in the mid-1960s.[53][54] The ELN was well equipped and scored a number of early successes against the Bolivian army in the difficult terrain of the mountainous Camiri region.[55] In the late 1960s, the CIA deployed teams of SAD Paramilitary Operations Officers to Bolivia to train the Bolivian army in order to counter the ELN.[55] These SAD teams linked up with U.S. Army Special Forces and Bolivian Special Forces to track down and capture Guevara, who was a special prize because of his leading role in the Cuban Revolution.[55] On October 9, 1967, Guevara was executed by Bolivian soldiers on the orders of CIA paramilitary operative Félix Rodríguez shortly after being captured, according to CIA documents.[56] In his book titled "Shadow Warrior: The CIA Hero of a Hundred Unknown Battles", Rodriguez claims that Guevara was executed over his objections by the Bolivian military on orders from their higher command.[55]

Vietnam and Laos

South Vietnam, Military Regions, 1967

The original OSS mission in Vietnam under Major Archimedes Patti was to work with Ho Chi Minh in order to prepare his forces to assist the United States and their Allies in fighting the Japanese. After the end of World War II, the United States ignored the attempts of Ho Chi Minh to maintain a friendly relationship. Instead, in 1945 the US agreed at Potsdam to turn Vietnam back to their previous French colonizers, and in 1950 the US began providing military aid to the French.[57] This angered Vietnamese groups.[58]

CIA Paramilitary Operations Officers trained and led Hmong tribesmen in Laos and Vietnam, and their actions of these officers were not known for several years. Air America was the air component of the CIA's paramilitary mission in Southeast Asia and was responsible for all combat, logistics and search and rescue operations in Laos and certain sections of Vietnam.[59] The ethnic minority forces numbered in the tens of thousands and they conducted direct actions mission, led by Paramilitary Operations Officers, against the communist Pathet Lao forces and their North Vietnamese allies.[7]

Elements of SAD were seen in the CIA's Phoenix Program. One component of the Phoenix Program was involved in the capture and killing of suspected Viet Cong (National Liberation Front – NLF) members.[60] Between 1968 and 1972, the Phoenix Program captured 81,740 National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF or Viet Cong) members, of whom 26,369 were killed. This was a large proportion of U.S. killings between 1969 and 1971. The program was also successful in destroying their infrastructure. By 1970, communist plans repeatedly emphasized attacking the government's "pacification" program and specifically targeted Phoenix agents. The NLF also imposed quotas. In 1970, for example, communist officials near Da Nang in northern South Vietnam instructed their agents to "kill 400 persons" deemed to be government "tyrant[s]" and to “annihilate” anyone involved with the "pacification" program. Several North Vietnamese officials have made statements about the effectiveness of Phoenix.[61][62]

MAC-V SOG (Studies and Observations Group) (which was originally named the Special Operations Group, but was changed for cover purposes), was created and active during the Vietnam War. While CIA was just one part of MAC-V SOG, it did have operational control of some of the programs. Many of the military members of MAC-V SOG joined the CIA after their military service. The legacy of MAC-V SOG continues within SAD's Special Operations Group.[63]

Maritime activities against the USSR

In 1973, SAD/SOG and the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology built and deployed the USNS Glomar Explorer (T-AG-193), a large deep-sea salvage ship, on a secret operation. This operation was called Project Azorian (erroneously called Project Jennifer by the press).[64] Its mission was to recover a sunken Soviet submarine, K-129, which had been lost in April 1968.[65][66] A mechanical failure caused two-thirds of the submarine to break off during recovery,[64] but SAD recovered two nuclear-tipped torpedoes, cryptographic machines and the bodies of six Soviet submariners.[67] An alternative theory claims that all of K-129 was recovered[68] and that the official account was an "elaborate cover-up".[69]

Also in the 1970s, the U.S. Navy, the National Security Agency (NSA) and SAD/SOG [70] conducted Operation Ivy Bells and a series of other missions to place wire taps on Soviet underwater communications cables. These operations were covered in detail in the 1998 book Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage.[71] In the 1985 edition of "Studies in Intelligence", the CIA's in-house journal that outsiders rarely get to see, the CIA describes the "staggering expense and improbable engineering feats" that culminated in the August 1974 mission.[72]


In 1979, the U.S.-backed Anastasio Somoza Debayle dictatorship in Nicaragua fell to the socialist Sandinistas. Once in power, the Sandinistas disbanded the Nicaraguan National Guard, who had committed many human rights abuses, and arrested and executed some of its members. Other former National Guard members helped to form the backbone of the Nicaraguan Counterrevolution or Contra. SAD/SOG paramilitary teams were deployed to train and lead these forces against the Sandinista government. These paramilitary activities were based in Honduras and Costa Rica. Direct military aid by the United States was eventually forbidden by the Boland Amendment of the Defense Appropriations Act of 1983. The Boland Amendment was extended in October 1984 to forbid action by not only the Defense Department, but also to include the Central Intelligence Agency.[73][74]

The Boland Amendment was a compromise because the U.S. Democratic Party did not have enough votes for a comprehensive ban on military aid. It covered only appropriated funds spent by intelligence agencies. Some of Reagan's national security officials used non-appropriated money of the National Security Council (NSC) to circumvent the Amendment. NSC officials sought to arrange funding by third-parties. These efforts resulted in the Iran-Contra Affair of 1987, which concerned Contra funding through the proceeds of arms sales to the Islamic Republic of Iran. No court ever made a determination whether Boland covered the NSC and on the grounds that it was a prohibition rather than a criminal statute, no one was indicted for violating it. Congress later resumed aid to the Contras, totaling over $300 million. The Contra war ended when the Sandinistas were voted out of power by a war-weary populace in 1990.[74][75] Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega was re-elected as President of Nicaragua in 2006 and took office again on January 10, 2007.

El Salvador

CIA personnel were also involved in the Salvadoran civil war.[76] Some allege that the techniques used to interrogate prisoners in El Salvador foreshadowed those later used in Iraq and Afghanistan.[77] In fact, when a similar counter-insurgency program was proposed in Iraq, it was referred to as "the Salvador Option".[78]


Location of Somalia

SAD sent in teams of Paramilitary Operations Officers into Somalia prior to the U.S. intervention in 1992. On December 23, 1992, Paramilitary Officer Larry Freedman became the first casualty of the conflict in Somalia. Freedman was a former Army Delta Force operator who had served in every conflict that the U.S. was involved in, both officially and unofficially, since Vietnam.[79] Freedman was killed while conducting special reconnaissance in advance of the entry of U.S. military forces. His mission was completely voluntary, as it required entry into a very hostile area without any support. Freedman was awarded the Intelligence Star on January 5, 1993 for his "extraordinary heroism".[80]

SAD/SOG teams were key in working with JSOC and tracking high value targets (HVT), known as "Tier One Personalities". Their efforts, working under extremely dangerous conditions with little to no support, led to several very successful joint JSOC/CIA operations.[81] In one specific operation, a CIA case officer, Michael Shanklin[82] and codenamed "Condor", working with a CIA Technical Operations Officer from the Directorate of Science and Technology, managed to get a cane with a beacon in it to Osman Ato, a wealthy businessman, arms importer, and Mohammed Aideed, a money man whose name was right below Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s on the Tier One list.

Once Condor confirmed that Ato was in a vehicle, JSOC's Delta Force launched a capture operation.

a Little Bird helicopter dropped out of the sky and a sniper leaned out and fired three shots into the car’s engine block. The car ground to a halt as commandos roped down from hovering Blackhawks [sic], surrounded the car and handcuffed Ato. It was the first known helicopter takedown of suspects in a moving car. The next time Jones saw the magic cane, an hour later, Garrison had it in his hand. "I like this cane," Jones remembers the general exclaiming, a big grin on his face. "Let’s use this again." Finally, a tier one personality was in custody.[81]

President Bill Clinton withdrew U.S. forces on May 4, 1994.[83]

In June 2006, the Islamic Courts Union seized control of southern Somalia, including the country's capital Mogadishu, prompting the Ethiopian government to send in troops to try to protect the transitional government. In December, the Islamic Courts warned Ethiopia they would declare war if Ethiopia did not remove all its troops from Somalia. Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, leader of the Islamic Courts, called for a jihad, or holy war, against Ethiopia and encouraged foreign Muslim fighters to come to Somalia. At that time, the United States accused the group of being controlled by al-Qaeda, but the Islamic Courts denied that charge.[84]

In 2009, U.S. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) reported that al-Qaeda had been training terrorists in Somalia for years. Until December 2006, Somalia's government had no power outside of the town of Baidoa, 150 miles (240 km) from the capital. The countryside and the capital were run by warlords and militia groups who could be paid to protect terrorist groups.[84]

CIA officers kept close tabs on the country and paid a group of Somali warlords to help hunt down members of al-Qaeda according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy to al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, issued a message calling for all Muslims to go to Somalia.[84] On January 9, 2007, a U.S. official said that ten militants were killed in one airstrike.[85]

On September 14, 2009, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a senior al-Qaeda leader in East Africa as well as a senior leader in Shabaab, al Qaeda's surrogate in Somalia, was killed by elements of U.S. Special Operations. According to a witness, at least two AH-6 Little Bird attack helicopters strafed a two-car convoy. Navy SEALs then seized the body of Nabhan and took two other wounded fighters captive.[86][87] JSOC and the CIA had been trying to kill Nabhan for some time including back in January 2007, when an AC-130 Gunship was called in on one attempt. A U.S. intelligence source stated that CIA paramilitary teams are directly embedded with Ethiopian forces in Somalia, allowing for the tactical intelligence to launch these operations.[88] Nabhan was wanted for his involvement in the 1998 United States embassy bombings, as well as leading the cell behind the 2002 Mombasa attacks.[86]

From 2010 to 2013, the CIA set up the Somalia National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) by providing training, funding and diplomatic access. In the same time period, the EU and UN has spent millions of dollars for the military training of the Somali National Army (SNA). NISA is considered a professional Somali security force that can be relied upon to neutralize the terrorist threat.[89] This force responded to the complex al-Shabaab attack on the Banadir Regional Courthouse in Mogadishu which killed 25 civilians. NISA's response however saved 100s and resulted in the death of all the al-Shabaab guerrillas involved.[90]

Significant events during this timeframe included the targeted drone strikes against British al-Qaida operative Bilal el-Berjawi [91] and Moroccan al-Qaida operative Abu Ibrahim.[92] It also included the rescue of US citizen Jessica Buchanan by US Navy SEALs.[93] All likely aided by intelligence collection efforts in Somalia.[94]


Hamid Karzai with Special Forces and CIA Paramilitary in late 2001.

During the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Paramilitary Operations Officers were instrumental in equipping Mujaheddin forces against the Red Army. Although the CIA in general, and a Texas congressman named Charlie Wilson in particular, have received most of the attention, the key architect of this strategy was Michael G. Vickers. Vickers was a young Paramilitary Operations Officer from SAD/SOG. The CIA's efforts have been given credit for assisting in ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.[95]

SAD paramilitary teams were active in Afghanistan in the 1990s in clandestine operations to locate and kill or capture Osama Bin Laden. These teams planned several operations, but did not receive the order to execute from President Bill Clinton because the available intelligence did not guarantee a successful outcome weighed against the extraordinary risk to the SAD/SOG teams that would execute the mission.[13] These efforts did however build many of the relationships that would prove essential in the 2001 U.S. Invasion of Afghanistan.[13]

In 2001, SAD units were the first U.S. forces to enter Afghanistan. Their efforts organized the Afghan Northern Alliance for the subsequent arrival of USSOCOM forces. The plan for the invasion of Afghanistan was developed by the CIA, the first time in United States history that such a large-scale military operation was planned by the CIA.[96] SAD, U.S. Army Special Forces and the Northern Alliance combined to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan with minimal loss of U.S. lives. They did this without the need for U.S. military conventional ground forces.[13][97][98][99]

The Washington Post stated in an editorial by John Lehman in 2006:

"What made the Afghan campaign a landmark in the U.S. Military's history is that it was prosecuted by Special Operations forces from all the services, along with Navy and Air Force tactical power, operations by the Afghan Northern Alliance and the CIA were equally important and fully integrated. No large Army or Marine force was employed".[100]

In a 2008 New York Times book review of Horse Soldiers, a book by Doug Stanton about the invasion of Afghanistan, Bruce Barcott wrote:

"The valor exhibited by Afghan and American soldiers, fighting to free Afghanistan from a horribly cruel regime, will inspire even the most jaded reader. The stunning victory of the horse soldiers – 350 Special Forces soldiers, 100 C.I.A. officers and 15,000 Northern Alliance fighters routing a Taliban army 50,000 strong – deserves a hallowed place in American military history".[101]

Small and highly agile paramilitary mobile teams spread out over the countryside to meet with locals and gather information about the Taliban and al-Qa’ida. During that time, one of the teams was approached in a village and asked by a young man for help in retrieving his teenage sister. He explained that a senior Taliban official had taken her as a wife and had sharply restricted the time she could spend with her family. The team gave the man a small hand-held tracking device to pass along to his sister, with instructions for her to activate it when the Taliban leader returned home. The team responded to her emergency signal, capturing the senior Taliban official and rescuing the sister. The siblings’ tearful reunion left the team at a loss for words—a rarity for the normally loud warriors of CIA’s Special Activities Division.[102]

Tora Bora

In December 2001, SAD/SOG and the Army's Delta Force tracked down Osama bin Ladin in the rugged mountains near the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan.[103] Former CIA station chief Gary Berntsen as well as a subsequent Senate investigation claimed that the combined American special operations task force was largely outnumbered by al-Qaeda forces and that they were denied additional US troops by higher command.[104] The task force also requested munitions to block the avenues of egress of bin Laden, but that request was also denied.[105] The team allegedly uncovered evidence in the subsequent site exploration that bin Laden's ultimate aim was to obtain and detonate a nuclear device in a terrorist attack.[96] According to other press reports, SAD were ineffectual and "Bin Laden and bodyguards walked unmolested out of Tora Bora and disappeared into Pakistan's unregulated tribal area."[106]


In September 2009, the CIA planned on "deploying teams of spies, analysts and paramilitary operatives to Afghanistan, part of a broad intelligence 'surge' ordered by President Obama. This will make its station there among the largest in the agency's history."[107] This presence is expected to surpass the size of the stations in Iraq and Vietnam at the height of those wars.[107] The station is located at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and is led "by a veteran with an extensive background in paramilitary operations".[108] The majority of the CIA's workforce is located among secret bases and military special operations posts throughout the country.[108][109]

Also in 2009, General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, planned to request an increase in teams of CIA operatives, including their elite paramilitary officers, to join with U.S. military special operations forces. This combination worked well in Iraq and is largely credited with the success of that surge.[108][110] There have been basically three options described in the media: McChrystal's increased counterinsurgency campaign; a counter-terror campaign using special operations raids and drone strikes; and withdrawal. The most successful combination in both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has been the linking up of SAD and military special forces to fight along side highly trained indigenous units. One thing all of these options have in common is a requirement for greater CIA participation.[110]

The End Game

According to the current and former intelligence officials, General McChrystal also had his own preferred candidate for the Chief of Station (COS) job, a good friend and decorated CIA paramilitary officer.[111] The officer had extensive experience in war zones, including two previous tours in Afghanistan with one as the Chief of Station, as well as tours in the Balkans, Baghdad and Yemen. He is well known in CIA lore as "the man who saved Hamid Karzai's life when the CIA led the effort to oust the Taliban from power in 2001". President Karzai is said to be greatly indebted to this officer and was pleased when the officer was named chief of station again. According to interviews with several senior officials, this officer "was uniformly well-liked and admired. A career paramilitary officer, he came to the CIA after several years in an elite Marine unit".[112][113]

General McChrystal's strategy included the lash up of special operations forces from the U.S. Military and from SAD/SOG to duplicate the initial success and the defeat of the Taliban in 2001[114] and the success of the "Surge" in Iraq in 2007.[115] This strategy proved highly successful and worked very well in Afghanistan with SAD/SOG and JSOC forces conducting raids nearly every night having "superb results" against the enemy.[116]

In 2001, the CIA's SAD/SOG began creating what would come to be called Counter-terrorism Pursuit Teams (CTPT).[117][118] These units grew to include over 3,000 operatives by 2010 and have been involved in sustained heavy fighting against the enemy. It is considered the "best Afghan fighting force".

Located at 7,800 feet (2,400 m) above sea level, Firebase Lilley in Shkin serves as a "nerve center for the covert war".[118] This covert war includes being a hub for these CTPT operations with Firebase Lilley being just one in a constellation of CIA bases across Afghanistan.[118] These units have not only been highly effective in combat operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, but have also been used to engage with the tribes in areas with no other official government presence.[119]

This covert war also includes a large SOG/CTPT expansion into Pakistan to target senior al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA).[120] CTPT units are the main effort in both the "Counterterrorism plus" and the full "Counterinsurgency" options being discussed by the Obama administration in the December 2010 review.[121] SOG/CTPT are also key to any exit strategy for the U.S. government to leave Afghanistan, while still being able to deny al-Qaeda and other trans-national extremists groups a safehaven both in Afghanistan and in the FATA of Pakistan.[122]

In January 2013, a CIA drone strike killed Mullah Nazir a senior Taliban commander in the South Waziristan area of Pakistan believed responsible for carrying out the insurgent effort against the US military in Afghanistan. Nazir's death degraded the Taliban.[123]

The US has decided to lean heavily on CIA in general and SAD specifically in their efforts to withdrawal from Afghanistan as it did in Iraq.[124] There are plans being considered to have several US Military special operations elements assigned to CIA after the withdrawal.[125]


On November 5, 2002, a missile launched from a CIA-controlled Predator drone killed al-Qaeda members traveling in a remote area in Yemen. SAD/SOG paramilitary teams had been on the ground tracking their movements for months and called in this air strike.[126] One of those in the car was Ali Qaed Senyan al-Harthi, al-Qaeda's chief operative in Yemen and a suspect in the October 2000 bombing of the destroyer USS Cole. Five other people, believed to be low-level al-Qaeda members, were also killed to include an American named Kamal Derwish.[127][128] Former Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz called it "a very successful tactical operation" and said "such strikes are useful not only in killing terrorists but in forcing al-Qaeda to change its tactics".[127]

"It's an important step that has been taken in that it has eliminated another level of experienced leadership from al-Qaeda," said Vince Cannistraro, former head of counter-terrorism for the CIA and current ABC News consultant. "It will help weaken the organization and make it much less effective."[129][130] Harithi was on the run, pursued by several security forces who were looking for him and Muhammad Hamdi al-Ahdal, another suspect in the USS Cole bombing case.[131]

In 2009, the Obama administration authorized continued lethal operations in Yemen by the CIA.[132] As a result, the SAD/SOG and JSOC have joined together to aggressively target al-Qaeda operatives in that country, both through leading Yemenese special forces and intelligence driven drone strikes.[132] A major target of these operations is Imam Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American citizen with ties to both Nidal Hassan, the alleged Fort Hood attacker, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas 2009 attempted bomber of Northwest Airline flight 253.[133] Imam al-Aulaki was killed on September 30, 2011 by an air attack carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command.[134]


SAD paramilitary teams entered Iraq before the 2003 invasion. Once on the ground they prepared the battle space for the subsequent arrival of U.S. military forces. SAD teams then combined with U.S. Army special forces (on a team called the Northern Iraq Liaison Element or NILE).[17] This team organized the Kurdish Peshmerga for the subsequent U.S. led invasion. This joint team combined in Operation Viking Hammer to defeat Ansar al-Islam, an Islamist group allied to al-Qaeda, which several battle-hardened fighters from Afghanistan had joined after the fall of the Taliban, in a battle for control over the northeast of Iraq – a battle that turned out being one of the "most intense battles of Special Forces since Vietnam".[135] This battle was for an entire territory that was completely occupied by Ansar al-Islam and was executed prior to the invasion in February 2003. If this battle had not been as successful as it was, there would have been a considerable hostile force in the rear of the U.S./secular Kurdish force in the subsequent assault on the Iraqi army to the south. The U.S. side was represented by paramilitary operations officers from SAD/SOG and the army's 10th Special Forces Group (10th SFG). 10th SFG soldiers were awarded three Silver Stars and six Bronze Stars with V for valor for this battle alone [136] and several [paramilitary officers were awarded the [Intelligence Star]] for valor in combat.[137] This battle was a significant direct attack and victory on a key U.S. opponent. It resulted in the deaths of a substantial number of militants and the uncovering of a crude laboratory that had traces of poisons and information on chemical weapons at Sargat.[17][138] The team found foreign identity cards, visas, and passports on the enemy bodies. They had come from a wide variety of Middle Eastern and north African countries including Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Tunisia, Morocco, and Iran.[136] Sargat was also the only facility that had traces of chemical weapons discovered in the Iraq war.[18][137][139]

The village of Biyara and Base of Ansar al-Islam 2001–2003

In a 2004 US News and World Report article, "A firefight in the mountains", the author states:

"Viking Hammer would go down in the annals of Special Forces history—a battle fought on foot, under sustained fire from an enemy lodged in the mountains, and with minimal artillery and air support."[136]

SAD/SOG teams also conducted high risk special reconnaissance missions behind Iraqi lines to identify senior leadership targets. These missions led to the initial assassination attempts against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his key generals. Although the initial air strike against Hussein was unsuccessful in killing the dictator, it was successful in effectively ending his ability to command and control his forces. Other strikes against key generals were successful and significantly degraded the command's ability to react to and maneuver against the U.S.-led invasion force.[17][140] SAD operations officers were also successful in convincing key Iraqi army officers to surrender their units once the fighting started and/or not to oppose the invasion force.[18]

NATO member Turkey refused to allow its territory to be used by the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division for the invasion. As a result, the SAD/SOG, U.S. Army special forces joint teams, the Kurdish Peshmerga and the 173d Airborne Brigade were the entire northern force against the Iraqi army during the invasion. Their efforts kept the 13 divisions of the Iraqi Army in place to defend against the Kurds rather allowing them to contest the coalition force coming from the south.[135] This combined U.S. special operations and Kurdish force defeated the Iraqi Army.[17] Four members of the SAD/SOG team received CIA's rare Intelligence Star for "extraordinary heroism".[18]

The mission that captured Saddam Hussein was called "Operation Red Dawn". It was planned and carried out by JSOC's Delta Force and SAD/SOG teams (together called Task Force 121). The operation eventually included around 600 soldiers from the 1st Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division.[141][142] Special operations troops probably numbered around 40. Much of the publicity and credit for the capture went to the 4th Infantry Division soldiers, but CIA and JSOC were the driving force. "Task Force 121 were actually the ones who pulled Saddam out of the hole" said Robert Andrews, former deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. "They can't be denied a role anymore."[141]

CIA paramilitary units continued to team up with the JSOC in Iraq and in 2007 the combination created a lethal force many credit with having a major impact in the success of "the Surge". They did this by killing or capturing many of the key al-Qaeda leaders in Iraq.[143][144] In a CBS 60 Minutes interview, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bob Woodward described a new special operations capability that allowed for this success. This capability was developed by the joint teams of CIA and JSOC.[145] Several senior U.S. officials stated that the "joint efforts of JSOC and CIA paramilitary units was the most significant contributor to the defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq".[143][146]

On October 26, 2008, SAD/SOG and JSOC conducted an operation in Syria targeting the "foreign fighter logistics network" bringing al-Qaeda operatives into Iraq (See 2008 Abu Kamal raid).[147] A U.S. source told CBS News that "the leader of the foreign fighters, an al-Qaeda officer, was the target of Sunday's cross-border raid." He said the attack was successful, but did not say whether or not the al-Qaeda officer was killed.[148] Fox News later reported that Abu Ghadiya, "al-Qa'ida's senior coordinator operating in Syria", was killed in the attack.[149] The New York Times reported that during the raid U.S. forces killed several armed males who "posed a threat".[150]


SAD/SOG has been very active "on the ground" inside Pakistan targeting al-Qaeda operatives for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Predator strikes and along with USSOCOM elements they have been training Pakistani Special Service Group Commandos.[151] Before leaving office, President George W. Bush authorized SAD's successful killing of eight senior al-Qaeda operatives via targeted air strikes.[152] Among those killed were the mastermind of a 2006 plot to detonate explosives aboard planes flying across the Atlantic Rashid Rauf and the man thought to have planned the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing on September 20, 2008 that killed 53 people.[153][154] The CIA Director authorized the continuation of these operations and on January 23, SAD/SOG performed non-judicial killings of 20 individuals in northwestern Pakistan that they claim were terrorists. Some experts assess that the CIA Director - at that time Leon Panetta - has been more aggressive in conducting paramilitary operations in Pakistan than his predecessor.[155] A Pakistani security official stated that other strikes killed at least 10 insurgents, including five foreign nationals and possibly “a high-value target” such as a senior al-Qaeda or Taliban official.[156] On February 14, the CIA drone killed 27 taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in a missile strike in south Waziristan, a militant stronghold near the Afghan border where al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri were believed to be hiding.[157]

MQ-9 Reaper

In a National Public Radio (NPR) report dated February 3, 2008, a senior official stated that al-Qaeda has been "decimated" by SAD/SOG's air and ground operations. This senior U.S. counter-terrorism official goes on to say, "The enemy is really, really struggling. These attacks have produced the broadest, deepest and most rapid reduction in al-Qaida senior leadership that we've seen in several years."[158] President Obama's CIA Director Leon Panetta stated that SAD/SOG's efforts in Pakistan have been "the most effective weapon" against senior al-Qaeda leadership.[159][160]

These covert attacks have increased significantly under President Obama, with as many at 50 al-Qaeda militants being killed in the month of May 2009 alone.[161][162][163] In June 2009, sixty Taliban fighters were killed while at a funeral to bury fighters that had been killed in previous CIA attacks.[164] On July 22, 2009, National Public Radio reported that U.S. officials believe Saad bin Laden, a son of Osama bin Laden, was killed by a CIA strike in Pakistan. Saad bin Laden spent years under house arrest in Iran before traveling last year to Pakistan, according to former National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell. It's believed he was killed sometime this year. A senior U.S. counter-terrorism said U.S. intelligence agencies are "80 to 85 percent" certain that Saad bin Laden is dead.[165]

On August 6, 2009, the CIA announced that Baitullah Mehsud was killed by a SAD/SOG drone strike in Pakistan.[166] The New York Times said, "Although President Obama has distanced himself from many of the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism policies, he has embraced and even expanded the C.I.A.’s covert campaign in Pakistan using Predator and Reaper drones".[166] The biggest loss may be to "Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida". For the past eight years, al-Qaeda had depended on Mehsud for protection after Mullah Mohammed Omar fled Afghanistan in late 2001. "Mehsud's death means the tent sheltering Al Qaeda has collapsed," an Afghan Taliban intelligence officer who had met Mehsud many times told Newsweek. "Without a doubt he was Al Qaeda's No. 1 guy in Pakistan," adds Mahmood Shah, a retired Pakistani Army brigadier and a former chief of the Federally Administered Tribal Area, or FATA, Mehsud's base.[167]

Airstrikes from CIA drones struck targets in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan on September 8, 2009. Reports stated that seven to ten militants were killed to include one top al-Qaida leaders. He was Mustafa al-Jaziri, an Algerian national described as an "important and effective" leader and senior military commander for al-Qaida. The success of these operations are believed to have caused senior Taliban leaders to significantly alter their operations and cancel key planning meetings.[168][169]

The CIA is also increasing its campaign using Predator missile strikes on al-Qaeda in Pakistan. The number of strikes in 2009 exceeded the 2008 total, according to data compiled by the Long War Journal, which tracks strikes in Pakistan.[108] In December 2009, the New York Times reported that President Obama ordered an expansion of the drone program with senior officials describing the program as "a resounding success, eliminating key terrorists and throwing their operations into disarray".[170] The article also cites a Pakistani official who stated that about 80 missile attacks in less than two years have killed “more than 400” enemy fighters, a number lower than most estimates but in the same range. His account of collateral damage was strikingly lower than many unofficial counts: “We believe the number of civilian casualties is just over 20, and those were people who were either at the side of major terrorists or were at facilities used by terrorists.”[170]

On December 6, 2009, a senior al-Qaeda operative, Saleh al-Somali, was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan. He was responsible for their operations outside of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and formed part of the senior leadership. Al-Somali was engaged in plotting terrorist acts around the world and "given his central role, this probably included plotting attacks against the United States and Europe".[171][172] On December 31, 2009, senior Taliban leader and strong Haqqani ally Haji Omar Khan, brother of Arif Khan, was killed in the strike along with the son of local tribal leader Karim Khan.[173]

In January 2010, al-Qaeda in Pakistan announced that Lashkar al-Zil leader Abdullah Said al Libi was killed in a drone missile strike. Neither al-Qaeda nor the US has revealed the date of the attack that killed Libi.[174] On January 14, 2010, subsequent to the suicide attack at Camp Chapman, the CIA located and killed the senior Taliban leader in Pakistan, Hakimullah Mehsud. Mehsud had claimed responsibility in a video he made with the suicide bomber Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi.[175]

On February 5, 2010, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and CIA's SAD/SOG conducted a joint raid and apprehended Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Baradar was the most significant Taliban figure to be detained since the beginning of the Afghan War more than eight years ago until that date. He ranked second to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s founder and was known to be a close associate of Osama bin Laden. Mullah Baradar was interrogated by CIA and ISI officers for several days before news of his capture was released.[176] This capture sent the message that the Taliban leadership is not safe in Afghanistan or Pakistan.[177] "The seizure of the Afghan Taliban's top military leader in Pakistan represents a turning point in the U.S.-led war against the militants", U.S. officials and analysts said.[178] Per Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik, several raids in Karachi in early February netted dozens of suspected Afghan militants.[178] In other joint raids that occurred around the same time, Afghan officials said that the Taliban “shadow governors” for two provinces in northern Afghanistan had also been detained. Mullah Abdul Salam, the Taliban’s leader in Kunduz, and Mullah Mir Mohammed of Baghlan were captured in Akora Khattack.[179]

On February 20, Muhammad Haqqani, son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, was one of four people killed in the drone strike in Pakistan's tribal region in North Waziristan, according to two Pakistani intelligence sources.[180]

On May 31, 2010, the New York Times reported that Mustafa Abu al Yazid (AKA Saeed al Masri), a senior operational leader for Al Qaeda, was killed in an American missile strike in Pakistan’s tribal areas.[181]

From July to December 2010, predator strikes killed 535 suspected militants in the FATA to include Sheikh Fateh Al Misri, Al-Qaeda's new third in command on September 25.[182] Al Misri was planning a major terrorist attack in Europe by recruiting British Muslims who would then go on a shooting rampage similar to what transpired in Mumbai in November 2008.[183]

Operation Neptune Spear

President Obama's address (Text)

On May 1, 2011, President Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed earlier that day in Abbottabad, Pakistan by "a small team of Americans" acting under his direct orders during a CIA operation under Director Leon Panetta.[24][31][184] The heliborne raid was executed from a CIA forward base in Afghanistan by elements of the U.S. Navy's NSWDG (assigned to the CIA) and by CIA paramilitary operatives.[185] [186][187]

The operation in the Bilal military cantonment area in the city of Abbottabad resulted in the acquisition of extensive intelligence on the future attack plans of al-Qaeda.[188][189][190] The body of bin Laden was flown to Afghanistan to be identified and then out to the USS Carl Vinson for a burial at sea.[191] DNA from bin Laden's body, compared with DNA samples on record from his dead sister, confirmed his identity.

The operation was a result of years of intelligence work that included the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the CIA, the DSS, and the Delta Force's, apprehension and interrogation of Khalid Sheik Mohammad (KSM),[192][193][194] the discovery of the real name of the courier disclosed by KSM, the tracking, via signal intelligence, of the courier to the Abbottobad compound by paramilitary operatives and the establishment of a CIA safe house that provided critical advance intelligence for the operation.[195][196][197][197]

The material discovered in the raid indicated that bin Laden was still in charge of his Al-Qaeda organization and was developing plans and issuing orders at the time of his death. There is considerable controversy over claims that elements of the Pakistani government, particularly the ISI, may have been concealing the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.[198][199][200] Bin Laden's death has been labeled a "game changer" and a fatal blow to Al-Qaeda, by senior U.S. officials.[201]


In the early 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency and Britain's Secret Intelligence Service were ordered to overthrow the government of Iran, Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq, and re-install deposed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.[202] This event was called Operation Ajax.[203][204] The senior CIA officer was Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., the grandson of American president Theodore Roosevelt. The operation utilized all of SAD's components to include political action, covert influence and paramilitary operations. The paramilitary component included training anti-Communist guerrillas to fight the Tudeh Party if they seized power in the chaos of Operation Ajax.[205] Although a significant tactical/operational success, Operation Ajax is considered very controversial with many critics.[206]

In November 1979, a group of Islamist students and militants took over the American embassy in support of the Iranian Revolution.[207] Operation Eagle Claw was the unsuccessful United States military operation that attempted to rescue the 52 hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran on April 24, 1980. Several SAD/SOG teams infiltrated into Tehran to support this operation.[208]

On July 7, 2008, Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist and author Seymour Hersh wrote an article in the New Yorker stating that the Bush Administration had signed a Presidential Finding authorizing the CIA to begin cross border paramilitary operations from Iraq and Afghanistan into Iran. These operations would be against Quds Force, the commando arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, public and private sector strategic targets, and “high-value targets” in the war on terror. Also enrolled to support CIA objectives were the Jundallah, Mujahideen-e-Khalq, known in the West as the M.E.K.,and the Baluchis insurgents.[209] “The Finding was focused on undermining Iran’s nuclear ambitions and trying to undermine the government through regime change,” a person familiar with its contents said, and involved “working with opposition groups and passing money.”[209] Any significant effort against Iran by the Obama Administration would likely come directly from SAD.[210] and in July 2010, Director Panetta chose a former chief of SAD as the new NCS Director.[211]


After the Arab Spring movements overthrew the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, its neighbours to the west and east respectively, Libya had a major revolt beginning in February 2011.[212][213] In response, the Obama administration sent in SAD paramilitary operatives to assess the situation and gather information on the opposition forces.[214] [215] Experts speculated that these teams could be determining the capability of these forces to defeat the Muammar Gaddafi regime and whether Al-Qaeda had a presence in these rebel elements. [216] One example was the deployment of Jamie Smith to the region on an "information gathering mission". Smith, a known former CIA Officer who worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan for CIA through Blackwater on paramilitary projects in early 2002-4, was then sent to Syria in December 2011 and into 2012.[217]

U.S. officials had made it clear that no U.S. troops would be "on the ground", making the use of covert paramilitary operatives the only alternative.[218] During the early phases of the Libyan offensive of U.S. led air strikes, paramilitary operatives assisted in the recovery of a U.S. Air Force pilot who had crashed due to mechanical problems. [219] [220] There was speculation that President Obama issued a covert action finding in March 2011 that authorizes the CIA to carry out a clandestine effort to provide arms and support to the Libyan opposition.[221]


CIA paramilitary teams have been deployed to Syria to report on the uprising, to access the rebel groups, leadership and to potentially train, equip and lead one of those rebel groups against the Bashar al-Assad regime.[222] In early September 2013, President Obama told U.S. Senators that the CIA had trained the first 50-man insurgent element and that they had been inserted into Syria.[223] The deployment of this unit and the supplying of weapons may be the first tangible measure of support since the U.S. stated they would begin providing assistance to the opposition.[224][225]

Worldwide mission

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after his capture

The CIA has always had a Special Activities Division, which secretly carries out special operations mission. However, since September 11, 2001 the US government has relied much more on SAD/SOG because fighting terrorists does not usually involve fighting other armies. Rather, it involves secretly moving in and out of countries like Pakistan, Iran and Somalia where the American military is not legally allowed to operate.[226] If there are missions in these countries that are denied to U.S. military special operations forces, SAD/SOG units are the primary national special missions units to execute those operations.[227]

In the War on Terror, SAD has the lead in the covert war being waged against al Qaeda.[11][228] SAD/SOG paramilitary teams have apprehended many of the senior leaders. These include: Abu Zubaydah,[229] the chief of operations for al-Qaeda; Ramzi bin al-Shibh,[230] the so called the "20th hijacker";[231] Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.;[232] Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, alleged to be the mastermind of the USS Cole bombing and leader of al Qaeda operations in the Persian Gulf prior to his capture in November 2002;[233] Abu Faraj al-Libi, al Qaeda's "field general" believed to have taken the role of No. 3 in al Qaeda following the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan;[234] and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the number two taliban commander and the highest level taliban commander apprehended in the Afghan War.[235] Prior to the beginning of the "War on Terror", SAD/SOG located and captured many notable militants and international criminals, including Abimael Guzman and Carlos the Jackal. These were just three of the over 50 caught by SAD/SOG just between 1983 and 1995.[236]

In 2002, the George W. Bush Administration prepared a list of "terrorist leaders" the CIA is authorized to kill in a targeted killing, if capture is impractical and civilian casualties can be kept to an acceptable number. The list includes key al Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden (deceased) and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as well as other principal figures from al Qaeda and affiliated groups. This list is called the "high value target list".[237] The U.S. president is not legally required to approve each name added to the list, nor is the CIA required to obtain presidential approval for specific attacks, although the president is kept well informed about operations.[237]

SAD/SOG teams have been dispatched to the country of Georgia, where dozens of al Qaeda fugitives from Afghanistan are believed to have taken refuge with Chechen separatists and thousands of refugees in the Pankisi Gorge. Their efforts have already resulted in 15 Arab militants linked to al Qaeda being captured.[126]

The SAD/SOG teams have also been active in the Philippines, where 1,200 U.S. military advisers helped to train local soldiers in "counter-terrorist operations" against Abu Sayyaf, a radical Islamist group suspected of ties with al Qaeda. Little is known about this U.S. covert action program, but some analysts believe that "the CIA’s paramilitary wing, the Special Activities Division (SAD), has been allowed to pursue terrorist suspects in the Philippines on the basis that its actions will never be acknowledged".[126]

On July 14, 2009, several newspapers reported that DCIA Leon Panetta was briefed on a CIA program that had not been briefed to the oversight committees in Congress. Panetta cancelled the initiative and reported its existence to Congress and the President. The program consisted of teams of SAD paramilitary officers organized to execute targeted killing operations against al Qaeda operatives around the world in any country. According to the Los Angeles Times, DCIA Panetta "has not ruled out reviving the program".[11] There is some question as to whether former Vice President Dick Cheney instructed the CIA not to inform Congress.[238] Per senior intelligence officers, this program was an attempt to avoid the civilian casualties that can occur during predator drone stikes using hellfire missiles.[239][240]

According to many experts, the Obama administration has relied on the CIA and their paramilitary capabilities, even more than they have on U.S. military forces, to maintain the fight against terrorists in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region, as well as places like Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.[241][242][243] Ronald Kessler states in his book The CIA at War: Inside the Secret War Against Terror, that although paramilitary operations are a strain on resources, they’re winning war against terrorism.[241][244]

SAD/SOG paramilitary officers executed the clandestine evacuation of U.S. citizens and diplomatic personnel in Somalia, Iraq (during the Persian Gulf War) and Liberia during periods of hostility, as well as the insertion of Paramilitary Operations Officers prior to the entry of U.S. military forces in every conflict since World War II.[245] SAD officers have operated covertly since 1947 in places such as North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Libya, Iraq, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Chile, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Pakistan.[246]

Innovations in special operations

The Fulton system in use

The Fulton surface-to-air recovery system (STARS) is a system developed in the early 1950s by CIA paramilitary officers for retrieving persons on the ground from a MC-130E Combat Talon I aircraft. It uses a harness and a self-inflating balloon that carries an attached lift line. An MC-130E engages the line with its V-shaped yoke and the individual is reeled on board.[247] Project COLDFEET was a very successful mission in 1962 in which two military officers parachuted into a remote abandoned Soviet site in the Arctic. The two were subsequently extracted by the Fulton sky hook. The team gathered evidence of advanced research on acoustical systems to detect under-ice US submarines and efforts to develop Arctic anti-submarine warfare techniques.[248]

Sergeant Major (SGM) Billy Waugh was a Special Forces soldier attached to CIA in the 1960s. During his time at MACV-SOG in Vietnam, he developed and conducted the first combat High Altitude-Low Opening (HALO) jump, "In October 1970, my team made a practice Combat Infiltration into the NVA owned War Zone D, in South Vietnam, for reassembly training, etc. This was the first one in a combat zone."[249] HALO is a method of delivering personnel, equipment, and supplies from a transport aircraft at a high altitude via free-fall parachute insertion. HALO and HAHO (High Altitude-High Opening) are also known as Military Free Fall (MFF). In the HALO technique, the parachutist opens his parachute at a low altitude after free-falling for a period of time to avoid detection by the enemy. Waugh also led the last combat special reconnaissance parachute insertion into enemy territory occupied by communist North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops on June 22, 1971.[250]

Famous paramilitary officers

  • Morris "Moe" Berg was a famous Paramilitary Officer from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. He was a Major League Baseball player before he joined the OSS. He was better known for being "the brainiest guy in baseball"[251] than for anything he accomplished in the game. Casey Stengel once described Berg as "the strangest man ever to play baseball".[252] A graduate of Princeton University and Columbia Law School, Berg spoke several languages and regularly read 10 newspapers a day. As an OSS officer, Berg was parachuted into Yugoslavia to gather intelligence on resistance groups the U.S. government was considering supporting. He was then sent on a mission to Italy, where he interviewed various physicists concerning the German nuclear program to assess whether they should be killed. After World War II, Berg worked for the OSS's successor, the Central Intelligence Agency.
  • William Francis Buckley. Colonel Buckley enlisted in the US Army as a military policeman after completing high school in 1947 and fought in the Korean War. Following Korean service, Buckley undertook his first 2-year rotational assignment with CIA Special Operations Division, where his assignment is unknown. Buckley left the Army to attend Boston University and subsequently completed Army Officer Candidate School and was commissioned. He returned to CIA for another rotational assignment circa 1960-1963 and probably served as a Paramilitary Officer in Laos. Returning to the Army, he joined the 11th Airborne Division, followed by service in Army Special Forces assigned to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam/Studies and Observation Group (MACV/SOG). While a Green Beret, Buckley commanded both an A Detachment and B Detachment in Vietnam. He joined CIA as a civilian staff Case Officer following Vietnam service in 1969, and served tours in Zaire (1970–1972), Cambodia (1972), Egypt (1972–1978), and Pakistan (1978–1979). In 1983, Buckley volunteered to become Chief of Station (COS) in war-torn Beirut. He was kidnapped by operatives of Hezbollah in 1984 and underwent 15 months of brutal torture before expiring of a heart attack, probably on June 3, 1985. Hezbollah announced Buckley's death in October 1985. Bill Buckley was one of the most highly decorated officers ever to have served in Special Activities Division. His Agency decorations include The Intelligence Star, The Exceptional Service Award and he is one of only about 18 officers to be awarded the Distinguished Intelligence Cross in the 65-year history of the Agency. Buckley's military decorations include the Silver Star, Bronze Star with "V", Purple Heart (2), Meritorious Service Medal, the Combat Infantryman's Badge, the Parachutist Badge and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. Colonel Buckley's remains were repatriated in 1987 and he was buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. Buckley is honored at CIA with a Gold Star on the Wall of Honor in the foyer of the Original Headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia.
  • William Colby was another famous OSS Paramilitary Officer—although Colby never served in SAD/SOG as a PMOO. Colby parachuted behind enemy lines into France and Norway during World War II. He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions. After the war, Colby went to Columbia Law School and practiced law in William Donovan's law firm. He became bored quickly and accepted a position with the CIA, where he ended up serving in many important positions culminating in his becoming the Director of Central Intelligence in 1973. Colby died in 1996 in a boating accident. The circumstances surrounding his death were viewed as suspicious by many.[253][254][255][256]
  • Douglas Mackiernan was the first of over 80 officers of the CIA to be killed in the line of duty. Publicly working under diplomatic cover as a State Department employee, he worked as a covert intelligence officer for the CIA in its earliest days after its creation in 1947. His assignment in Tihwa, Sinkiang included the collection of intelligence about Russian nuclear activities in Western China and Chinese intentions on the Korean Peninsula. Mackiernan was killed in April, 1950 accidentally by Tibetan outposts as he was trying to flee into Tibet with information on these intentions.[257]
  • John Downey and Richard Fecteau were 25 year-old Agency Paramilitary Officers assigned to China operations and based in Japan when the Civil Air Transport (CAT) C-47 in which they were working was shot down by the Communist Chinese in November 1952. Downey and Fecteau were en route to retrieve an agent inside China at the time of the incident. Both officers survived the crash but the CAT pilot and co-pilot Norman Shwartz and Robert Snoddy perished. The C-47 was equipped with a "cow catcher" rigged to the nose designed to snare a cable attached by harness to the agent on the ground and sent aloft by a small inflated balloon. Once the aircraft snagged the cable, the agent would be lifted into the air and the cable would be cranked up by Downey and Fecteau to retrieve the agent into the cargo bay of the C-47. Unbeknownst to the CIA, the agent network had been compromised by the Chinese, who laid a trap for the retrieval team. Downey had trained this particular agent and had a personal interest in the rescue mission. Downey and Fecteau were presumed dead until 1954, when Red China publicly announced that the two had been captured and convicted of espionage. Downey received a life sentence, while Fecteau was sentenced to 20 years. Despite protests from Washington that Downey and Fecteau were "Department of the Army civilian employees," both endured brutal interrogation and years of solitary confinement. In 1971, following President Richard Nixon's overtures to establish diplomatic relations with China, Nixon acknowledged the CIA affiliation of both men and Fecteau was released. Two years later, John Downey walked across the Wo-Lu Bridge from China into British Hong Kong. During their two decades of imprisonment, CIA placed their salaries in escrow accounts, with interest, granted both men periodic promotions on schedule with their Agency peers, maintained their life and health insurance and assigned Case Officers to look after the welfare of their families. Downey and Fecteau were awarded medals in a ceremony at Langley years after their release. Richard Fecteau became the Athletic Director at Boston University, his alma mater, retiring in 1989. John Downey entered the Connecticut Bar and became a judge. The New Haven Connecticut court house is named in his honor.
  • Anthony Poshepny (a.k.a. Tony Poe) was a former World War II U.S. Marine who fought on Iwo Jima and a legendary Paramilitary Operations Officer during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s in Asia. Poe was involved in training indigenous forces from Tibet in the early 1950s, landed by sea in Sumatra in 1955 with equally legendary SAD officer Tom Fosmire to command rebel Indonesian troops. He went to Laos in the early 1960s, where he served with distinction, including several years at a remote mountain post near the Chinese border. He is sometimes labeled as the model for the character Colonel Kurtz in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now.[19][258] Poe was awarded the Intelligence Star twice, a very rare occurrence. In a post-war on-record and unclassified interview of James "Bill" Lair and Lloyd "Pat" Landry — who were Poshepny's superior officers during his assignment to Laos — both officers stated that they realized early on that Poshepny's Marine Corps background and insistence on strict military discipline made him unsuited to the work of training Hmong tribesmen. This, and Poe's creeping alcoholism and often outrageous behavior, prompted senior Agency officials to transfer Poshepny far away from the main theater of operations in the Plain of Jars region of north-central Laos to a remote base in northwestern Laos close to the Chinese border. There Poshepny successfully organized a tribe of non-Hmong hill fighters to harass the Vietnamese and Pathet Lao while keeping watch on Chinese Army road building projects in northern Laos. It was in this remote stronghold just miles from the Chinese frontier where Poshepny became infamous for collecting the ears of enemy combatants, and for placing the severed heads of his enemies on poles outside his hootch. A considerable number of accounts of Poshepny's life and work for CIA in Laos blow the "Colonel Kurtz" image out of proportion. While it was true that Poshepny shaved his head and that he had married a Laotian royal princess, no individual ever behaved more like an uncouth enlisted non-commissioned officer than Tony Poe. No poetry-writing philosopher-warrior was Tony Poe. On the contrary, his drinking and brawling caused ugly scenes in Vientiane and at the Air America Bar at Udorn. He once seriously insulted a senior female US State Department official who was making an official inspection visit to Vientiane. On another occasion, while in a drunken condition, Poe pulled out his USMC-issue K-Bar combat knife and assaulted an Air America pilot in the Udorn Air America club. Onlookers watched in horror as Poe held the pilot's head in a grip with one hand and proceeded to try to slice the man's jugular vein with the K-Bar in his other hand. Had onlookers not pulled Poe away, he may well have committed murder. Sadly, as Poshepny increasingly fell into the bottle, he was no longer effective but Agency officials were reluctant to bring Poe back to the United States, considering him to have gone completely "Asiatic." In 1968, when Poe earned his second Intelligence Star, the Agency arranged to have him closely escorted back to Headquarters in Washington DC by a couple of burly Security Officers. Upon arrival at National Airport, Poe was placed in a car, driven to Langley, brought up to the 7th floor where he was awarded the medal, then removed from the building immediately and hustled back to the airport. There he was rather unceremoniously placed on an airplane and flown back to Laos. After Vientiane fell to the Communists in 1975, Poe spent the rest of his days with his Lao wife and children living in northeast Thailand. He continued to take occasional contract work as a private bodyguard well into the 1980s. Toward the end of his life, Poe returned to his home town of San Francisco and allowed a rare press interview that was widely distributed. He entered a VA hospital in San Francisco and died there. REFERENCE: "The CIA in Laos," an interview with Bill Lair and Pat Landry, University of Texas at Dallas Library.[259] Poe gained the respect of the Hmong forces with practices that were barbaric even by native standards. The Hmong fighters brought him the ears of dead enemy soldiers, and he mailed the ears to the U.S. embassy in Vientiane to prove the body counts. He dropped severed heads onto enemy locations twice in a grisly form of psy-ops. He was also wounded several times in combat and is still held in very high esteem by the Hmong community in the United States.[260]
  • James (Jim) Glerum. James Glerum was among the second generation of Agency Paramilitary Case Officers and he played an integral role in paramilitary operations in China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Laos. Widely respected by subordinates and superiors alike, he rose to become the Chief of the Special Activities Division and was a key figure in the division's post-Vietnam era professional development and modernization. Mr. Glerum continued to act in a consulting capacity following his retirement and was also involved in a successful program to collect and organize an enormous body of files and records documenting the 60 plus year history of the Special Activities Division.
  • Wilbur "Will" Green. A former Army Special Forces Sergeant from a small rural town in South Carolina, African-American Will Green went to Laos as a CIA Paramilitary Case Officer in the 1960s and served with distinction. Known by his callsign "Black Lion," Green remained in the most dangerous forward Hmong outposts even when ordered to evacuate. From there he directed Hmong troops in heavy combat and was wounded more than once. Ironically, while visiting his home in South Carolina on home-leave, Green became seriously ill and succumbed to a liver fluke contracted while serving multiple tours in Laos. "Black Lion" was a highly respected SAD officer, known for his quiet leadership and personal bravery under fire. In 2008, Green was recognized for his outstanding leadership as a Paramilitary Case Officer by the officers of the Special Activities Division during a ceremony at CIA Headquarters as part of a Black History Month commemoration.
  • Tom Fosmire. Fosmire joined SOG in the 1950s and was given responsibility (along with Tony Poe) in training Tibetan tribesmen to fight against the Chinese Communists in the early part of his career. The training occurred first at a base on Saipan in the Marianas islands but was later moved to a colder mountainous climate at Camp Hale, Colorado. One battalion was trained at the Farm, near Williamsburg, Virginia. After the Tibetan operation concludes, Fosmire llanded with Tony Poe in Sumatra, Indonesia to supply and train mutinous forces there in an effort by the Eisenhower administration to destabilize the communist-leaning regime of Sukarno. He and Poe were evacuated from Sumatra by US Navy submarine when the troops they were training fled to the mountains. In the 1980s, Fosmire served in El Salvador and Honduras, training Nicaraguan rebel troops opposed to the Sandanista government.
  • Howard Freeman. In 1972, Freeman was assigned to command a remote outpost at Phu Pa Thi (Site 85) north of the CIA base at Long Tieng, Laos where the US Air Force had installed a strategic radar system to enable US bombers to launch more accurate raids on North Vietnam. When the Vietnamese overran the 3,000-foot (910 m) mountain outpost, Freeman and a small security detachment of Hmong rushed to the top of the mountain where they engaged in close combat with the enemy, resulting in Freeman's wounding. Freeman was carrying only a sawed-off shotgun and a side arm when he was hit in the back of the leg. Unable by that time to rescue any of the Air Force personnel, Freeman, and his Hmong team were ordered off the mountain. In his later career, Freeman served with distinction in the Agency's Counterterrorism Center, where he handled some of the CTC's most dangerous assignments.
  • Richard (Dick) Holm. After serving an initial two-year tour upcountry in Laos, former US Army intelligence officer Holm was assigned to the Congo. Flying as back-seat observer in an agency T-28, he was seriously wounded when the aircraft crash-landed in a remote location hundreds of miles from any large population center. Holm, who sustained 3rd degree burns over his face and much of his upper torso, survived and was evacuated after almost a month in the care of local natives. After a lengthy recovery of several years, Holm went on to a distinguished career as a CIA Case Officer, finishing his career as Chief of Station in a Western European country.
  • James William "Bill" Lair. Bill Lair was among the most distinguished officers ever to have served in SOG. In 1952 he was sent to Bangkok to work with the Thai Government in development of a counter-insurgency program. Lair developed, trained and led the Thai Parachute Reinforcement Units (PARU), a highly effective and elite force, which later served as training cadre for the CIA program in Laos, and which also later engaged in direct combat operations there. After some 8 years, Lair was reassigned as Chief of Operations in Laos and almost single-handedly developed the Hmong indigenous forces there to combat the Communist Pathet Lao and the two main-force Vietnamese infantry divisions supporting them. With fellow officers like Lloyd "Pat" Landry, Vint Lawrence and Tony Poe, Will Green and several others, the Hmong forces developed into an effective army that kept the Pathet Lao from seizing Vientianne and tied up the two Vietnamese divisions for 12 years—departing country only after the US military evacuated South Vietnam. Lair was appointed Chief of Operations in Laos in 1960 and was soon joined by fellow SAD/SOG officer Lloyd C. "Pat" Landry. The two made an effective team. When the Agency proposed to split them up in order to have Landry take charge of operations in the Laotian panhandle, Landry objected and opted to remain as Lair's Deputy Chief of Operations in north-central Laos, where operations focused on control of the Plain of Jars. Prior to joining CIA, Lair had served in the US Army 3rd Armored Division in France and Germany during World War Two.
  • Lloyd C. "Pat" Landry. Pat Landry joined CIA in the early 1950s following combat service in the US Army in World War Two. Sent to Laos in 1961, Landry became Deputy Chief of Operations under Bill Lair. Known as a strict disciplinarian, Landry was rarely without his British-style swagger stick, and he used to enjoy walking up behind someone and slapping it down on their desk. When the war in Laos escalated in 1968, command and control of SOG operations was split between the north-central theater centered on operations for control of the Plain of Jars and operations in the southern Laos Panhandle, aimed at controlling the Bolovens Plateau in order to maintain pressure on Vietnamese logistics along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The command center was relocated from Vientiane to Udorn Air Base in northern Thailand. Agency officials wanted Lair to remain in command at Udorn and for Landry to remain in Vientiane to command the southern operations group. Landry refused the promotion in order to remain Lair's deputy at Udorn. The move to Udorn made sense because that large base was capable of supporting an enormous Air Branch flight and maintenance program, as well as serving as the center of Agency theater photo-reconnaissance and photo-analysis efforts in support of SOG special operations in the Laos theater of operations. Udorn housed a large contingent of Air American platforms as well as US Air Force combat resources. In later years, Landry owned and operated several "watering holes" in Thailand, including the Cowboy Bar in Bangkok.
  • Gar Thorsrud. Thorsrud was a Montana pilot and smoke jumper who was initially contracted by CIA to fly aircraft for the Tibetan insertion operation, encrypted STBARNUM, in the early 1950s, He was subsequently offered a staff position in SOG and, together with Major (later Brigadier General) Heinie Aderholt—who had been seconded to the Agency from the US Air Force—stood up a separate paramilitary air wing—later formalized as Air Branch. SOG/Air Branch (and Thorsrud) subsequently played a major role in virtually every Agency covert action in the Third World during the cold war and beyond. In 1956, Thorsrud established an air operations base carved out of the jungle in a western pacific location and from there he oversaw air delivery of men and supplies to support President Eisenhower's program to de-stabilize the Sukarno regime in Indonesia. When the Soviets abandoned an arctic weather and listening station in the mid-1960s, after the ice pack it was built on broke adrift, Thorsrud organized the air assets for OPERATION COLD FEET, a remarkable joint CIA-US Navy operation that put 2 officers on the floating ice flow to recover a treasure trove of documents, instruments and equipment abandoned there by the Soviets. Thorsrud then successfully extracted the two officers by means of a "cow catcher" attached to a converted B-17 bomber that snagged a line attached to an inflated balloon and connected to the men by harness. This incredible feat in the arctic slowly leaked out and became the basis for the spy thriller film "Ice Station Zebra." During the early years of China operations, Air Branch assumed control of several private Asian cargo airlines and turned them into CIA proprietary companies. These included Civil Air Transport (CAT), purchased from its founder General Claire Chennaul, as well as Air America, and lesser known air props such as Bird Air, and Southern Air Transport.
  • George Bacon. After serving several tours in Laos as a PMOO, Bacon left the Agency and went to Angola, where he was killed in action while working as an independent contractor.
  • Grayston "Gray" Lynch. Lynch and William "Rip" Robertson led the CIA-trained Cuban exile brigade at the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Lynch had been a career Army infantry officer prior to joining the Agency. He and Robertson were the only Americans who actually went ashore with their charges; both were ordered off the beach and watched in desperation as the Kennedy administration refused to provide air cover for the Cuban brigade ashore. Lynch's memoirs provide one of the few true ground-truth account of the Bay of Pigs operation.
  • William "Rip" Robertson. A former US Marine, Rip Robertson had served in SOG for some 10 years before being fired after a sabotage operation he was in charge of in Nicaragua went wrong, resulting in the accidental sinking of a British vessel. Undeterred, Robertson went into private business in Nicaragua, and when the CIA was looking for remote bases to train the Cuban exile 2506 brigade for an invasion of Cuba, Robertson was quietly brought back on board at Langley to engage in training the Cubans at some of his Nicaraguan locations. On D-Day, Robertson and Grayston Lynch went ashore with the Cuban 2506 Brigade and were engaged in close combat with Castro's forces. Both were ordered off the beach and watched, frustrated, as Castro's Air Force—unfettered by President Kennedy's fatal decision to cease air support for the 2506 Brigade—moved in and destroyed the 2506 Brigade and several of its support vessels at the Bay of Pigs.
  • Felix Rodriguez. Cuban-born, US-educated Felix Rodriguez was recruited as an intelligence asset by the Cuban Task Force of CIA's Latin America Division to conduct espionage missions in Cuba in advance of the 2506 Brigade's abortive invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Following the Bay of Pigs, he was employed in an assortment of espionage and sabotage missions against the Castro regime, rising from recruited asset to Contract Agent by the mid-1960s. In 1967, he was assigned to assist La Paz Station with the task of setting up and training a Bolivian Army Special forces unit and then serving as primary US liaison officer with that unit in a major effort to locate Ernesto "Che" Guevarra, who (with his East German common-law wife and several other Communist agents) were operating from remote mountain bases in Bolivia after failing to incite a Communist insurgency in the country. Rodriguez accompanied the Bolivians on forays into the mountains in pursuit of the elusive Che. The operation received a major boost when it was discovered that a stranger was making occasional visits to a mountain village, where he would spend a few days at a time in a hotel. Suspecting this pipe-smoking stranger might be Che or one of his operatives, the Station recruited a member of the hotel staff to report on the stranger's comings and goings. Using a surrepticiously deployed technical system, Rodriguez and his Bolivian Special Forces team were able to track the stranger—a very professionally disguised Che—back to his mountain hideout. Mounting a capture operation, the Bolivians—accompanied by Rodgriguez with orders to take Che alive and interview him—successfully pinpointed the insurgents' mountain hideout. The Bolivians surrounded the camp and Guevarra was taken into Bolivian custody without incident. The Bolivian troops handled Che roughly and repeatedly threatened him. Finally, they announced to Che that he would be executed. Rodriguez, desperate to prevent this execution, began negotiating with the Bolivians to buy time and also reported this development by radio to his superiors. Senior authorities ordered Rodriguez to do all in his power to prevent the execution and to convince the Bolivians to bring Che in alive. Rodriguez later reported that he interviewed Che several times in between his heated negotiations with the Bolivian Army sergeant in charge of the team. At the last interview, Che told Rodriguez that he knew he was to be executed by the Bolivians, thanked Rodriguez for his kindness and civility, and gave Rodriguez his wrist watch as a gift for his consideration and efforts on his behalf. Against Rodriguez's strong protest, the Bolivian Army Sergeant in charge of the team shot and killed Che. The body was then beheaded and his hands were severed in order to provide physical proof of his capture and death. In 1969, Rodriguez joined the US Army and subsequently became a US Citizen. After leaving the Army he rejoined CIA as a paramilitary officer in the Special Operations (later Special Activities) Division and served tours in Vietnam and Africa. Even later he served as a paramilitary advisor training indigenous counterinsurgency forces in Central America during the 1980s. In later years, he has enjoyed telling his war stories and has frequently held court in Little Havana, Miami, where he is treated as a hero and celebrity by the Cuban-American community. In 1989, he published his very readable autobiography, "Shadow Warrior." In 2004, Rodriguez became President of the Brigade 2506 Veterans Association.
  • William Billy Waugh, Sergeant Major, U.S. Army-Retired (born December, 1929), is a highly decorated American Special Forces soldier and Central Intelligence Agency Paramilitary Operations Officer who served in the United States military and CIA special operations for more than fifty years. Billy Waugh was a Special Forces soldier and served in the Korean War. When the Vietnam War began Waugh was a member of 5th Special Forces Group and joined the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG). While working for US ARMY MACV-SOG (not to be confused with SAD/SOG), Waugh helped train Vietnamese and Cambodian forces in unconventional warfare tactics primarily directed against the North Vietnamese Army operating along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He received a Silver Star, four Bronze Stars for Valor and eight Purple Hearts. Waugh joined the CIA as a low-level and limited duty employee in 1961, however when the Agency re-tooled SAD in the early 1970s to require all Paramilitary staff to either take training as formal Case Officers or lose their employment, Waugh never received his professional certification as a Core Collector and left the Agency along with some 300 similar employees at the end of the Vietnam War. His later work for the Agency in the 1980s was as a surveillance team member for CTC—a low-level para-professional position that also included dozens of ex-cops, Army officers, house wives and veterans of assorted other common occupations.. The most significant of these surveillance operations was in Sudan and included spotting Carlos the Jackal and Osama bin Laden. At the age of 71, Waugh asked to be assigned to one of the later SAD/SOG Jawbreaker teams to enter Afghanistan, but he was accepted only with great reluctance by both SAD and CTC due not only to his age but also due to his lack of Case Officer training and certification. In his self-serving autobiography, Waugh admits that he was unable to withstand both the rigors and the climate of Afghanistan and he himself requested to be sent home well short of tour.[261][262]
  • Ernest "Chick" Tsikerdanos. A veteran of OSS, 82nd Airborne Sergeant Chick Tsikerdanos served with Chiang Kai Shek in Kunming, China and later in Burma with the famous OSS Detachment 101. Tsikerdanos had a close relationship with General and Madame Chiang and was held in high esteem by them and other Chinese Nationalist leaders. On the last day of the war, August 9, 1945, Tsikerdanos was wounded in the right eye by a Japanese mortar shell fragment when his battalion of Burmese irregulars were ambushed while moving across a valley. After leaving the service, Tsikerdanos joined CIA and was assigned to Taiwan where he ran cross-channel reconnaissance and harassment operations into Red China from Nationalist-held islands. A legend in his own lifetime, he later served multiple tours in Greece, and later was entrusted with the difficult assignment of cleaning up the large mess of internal "dirt" files collected over twenty-five years by the paranoid former CI Chief—James Jesus Angleton—after Angleton's forced retirement. After his own retirement, Tsikerdanos returned to CIA as a Contract Case Officer, working with distinction in the Agency's Counterterrorism Center for several years. He was personally engaged against some of the most dangerous terrorist suspects in Europe. Ernie Tsikerdanos is warmly remembered for his outrageous sense of humor, his integrity and his trade-mark stogie, which he rarely went anywhere without.
  • William (Bill) Young was the son of American missionaries and was born in Thailand and raised there and in Burma. Young's father, Harold, aided CIA with intelligence gathering trips into Southern China during the late 1940s and 1950s. Son Bill followed in his father's footsteps by joining CIA following a hitch in the US Army in the early 1960s. Young's knowledge of the region and command of indigenous languages made him an ideal candidate for service in the CIA's paramilitary wing—then known as the Special Operations Division. Young—along with Bill Lair, Vint Lawrence, Tony Poe, Jim Glerum and others—was a key officer involved in the formation of the guerrilla army of Hhmong (Meo) hill tribesmen and in using that force to mount harassment and interdiction operations against the Communist Pathet Lao forces and their North Vietnamese sponsors. In 1968, Mr. Young strongly objected to proposals to widen the conflict with the introduction of US military resources—including widespread US Air Force carpet bombing in the Plain Des Jarres region of northcentral Laos and along the Bolovens Plateau and the Ho Chi Minh trail in southern Laos. Young's strident objections to this new US strategy resulted in the unfortunate termination of his employment. The loss of Bill Young was a significant blow to the program, for few of his peers possessed such deep insight into the culture of the locals. Mr. Young remained in Thailand for the rest of his life, with the exception of a brief period of a few months when he worked in the corporate world in the United States. He soon returned to Thailand. Serious health problems beset him during his final years and he died by his own hand on April 1, 2011. When Thai Police discovered the body of Mr. Young, they discovered a semiautomatic pistol in his right hand and a Crucifix in his left hand.
  • On October 25, 2003, paramilitary officers Christopher Mueller and William "Chief" Carlson were killed while conducting an operation to kill/capture high level al-Qa'ida leaders near Shkin, Afghanistan. Both these officers were honored with Stars on the CIA Memorial Wall at their Headquarters in Langley, Virginia.[270] "The bravery of these two men cannot be overstated," Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet told a gathering of several hundred Agency employees and family members. "Chris and Chief put the lives of others ahead of their own. That is heroism defined." Mueller, a former US Navy SEAL and Carlson, a former Army Special Forces soldier, Delta Force operator, and member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, died while on this covert operation. Both officers saved the lives of others, including Afghan soldiers, during the engagement with al-Qa'ida forces.[270][271][272] In Oliver North's book American Heroes in Special Operations, a chapter is devoted to their story.[273]

Famous political action officers

  • Virginia Hall Goillot started as the only female paramilitary officer in the OSS. She shot herself in the leg while hunting in Turkey in 1932, which was then amputated below the knee. She parachuted into France to organize the resistance with her prosthesis strapped to her body. She was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. She married an OSS officer named Paul Goillot and the two joined the CIA as paramilitary operations officers in SAD. Once aboard, Mrs. Goillot made her mark as a political action officer playing significant roles in the Guatemala and Guyana operations. These operations involved the covert removal of the governments of these two countries, as directed by the President of the United States.[274]
  • E. Howard Hunt (October 9, 1918 – January 23, 2007) was an Ivy league educated Naval officer who joined the CIA in 1949 after serving with the OSS in World War II. Hunt was a political action officer in what came to be called their Special Activities Division.[275] He became station chief in Mexico City in 1950, and supervised William F. Buckley, Jr., (Not to be confused with a famous SAD Paramilitary Officer of the same name) who worked for the CIA in Mexico during the period 1951–1952. Buckley, another SAD political action specialist, only served briefly in the CIA and went on to be considered the father of the modern American conservative movement. Buckley and Hunt remained lifelong friends.[276] Hunt ran Operation PBSUCCESS, which overthrew the government in Guatemala in 1954, was heavily involved in the Bay of Pigs Invasion operation, frequently mentioned in the JFK assassination, and was one of the operatives in the Watergate scandal.[277] Hunt was also a well-known author with over 50 books to his credit. These books were published under several alias names and several were made into motion pictures.[278]
  • David Atlee Phillips Perhaps the most famous propaganda officer ever to serve in CIA, Phillips began his career as a journalist and amateur actor in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He joined the Agency in the 1950s and was one of the chief architects of the operation to overthrow Communist president Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. He was later heavily engaged as a principal member of the Bay of Pigs Task Force at Langley, and in subsequent anti-Castro operations throughout the 1960s. He founded the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) after successfully contesting a libel suit against him.

CIA Memorial Wall

The CIA Memorial Wall is located at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It honors CIA employees who died in the line of duty.[279] As of August 6, 2012, there were 103 stars carved into the marble wall,[280] each one representing an officer. A majority of these were paramilitary officers.[279] A black book, called the "Book of Honor", lies beneath the stars and is encased in an inch-thick plate of glass.[280] Inside this book are stars, arranged by year of death, and the names of 77 employees who died in CIA service alongside them.[279][280] The other names remain secret, even in death.[279]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Daugherty (2004)
  2. Robberson, Tod (October 27, 2002). "CIA commandos remain covert". Dallas Morning News. 
  3. Woodward, Bob (November 18, 2001). "Secret CIA Units Playing Central Combat Role". Washington Post. 
  4. Special Operations Forces (SOF) and CIA Paramilitary Operations: Issues for Congress, CRS-2
  5. Gup, Ted (2000). The Book of Honor: Cover Lives and Classified Deaths at the CIA.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Southworth (2002)
  8. "Joint Publication 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms" (PDF). United States Department of Defense. October 17, 2008. p. 512. Retrieved November 29, 2008. [dead link]
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Waller, Douglas (February 3, 2003). "The CIA's Secret Army". TIME (Time Inc).,9171,1004145-1,00.html.
  10. Mazzetti, Mark; Helene Cooper (February 26, 2009). "CIA Pakistan Campaign is Working Director Say". New York Times. p. A15. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Miller, Greg (July 14, 2009). "CIA Secret Program: PM Teams Targeting Al Qaeda". Los Angeles Times. p. A1. 
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Further reading

  • Air America and The Ravens- by Chris Robbins — Both are the history of CIA/IAD's war in Laos, providing biographies and details on such legendary CIA PMCOs as Wil Green, Tony Poe, Jerry Daniels, Howie Freeman, Bill Lair, and the pilots, ground crew and support personnel managed by IAD/SOG/AIR BRANCH under the proprietaries Bird Air, Southern Air Transport, China Air Transport and Air America—and the U.S. Air Force forward air controllers (RAVENS) who were brought in under CIA/IAD command and control as "civilians" to support secret combat ops in Laos.
  • Raiders of the China Coast by Frank Holober — History of CIA/IAD paramilitary operations in the Taiwan Straits, 1947–1955, with details on such PMCOs as Ernie Tskikerdanos.
  • Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, Bowden, Mark (1999), Atlantic Monthly Press. Berkeley, California (USA). ISBN 0-87113-738-0 about operation Gothic Serpent
  • Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw, Bowden, Mark (2001), ISBN 0-87113-783-6 about the hunt for Pablo Escobar
  • Bush at War by Bob Woodward, 2001, detailing the initial invasion of Afghanistan and the role of SAD.
  • First In: An Insiders Account of how the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan by Gary Schroen, 2005.
  • Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and AL Qaeda: A personal account by the CIA's field Commander by Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzulla, 2005.
  • Kill bin Laden, by Dalton Fury, St. Martin's Press, October 2008.
  • Wild Bill Donovan: The Last Hero, by Anthony Cave Brown, New York: Times Books, 1982.
  • Safe For Democracy: The Secret Wars Of The CIA, John Prados, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 2006.
  • Inside Delta Force, Haney, Eric L. (2002), New York: Delacorte Press, 325. ISBN 978-0-385-33603-1.
  • Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda, Naylor, Sean (2005), Penguin Group, New York about Operation Anaconda; details, among other things, the actions of SAD Paramilitary officers during this chaotic 2002 battle in Afghanistan.
  • Preparing the Battlefield: The Bush Administration steps up its secret moves against Iran, Seymour M. Hersh, July 7, 2008. <>
  • Orphans Of The Cold War: America And The Tibetan Struggle For Survival, John Kenneth Knaus, 1999 IBN 1891620851.
  • Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of U.S. Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, Doug Stanton, 2009.
  • Masters of Chaos: The Secret History of the Special Forces, Linda Robinson, 2004.
  • The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11, Ron Suskind, Simon and Schuster, 2006.
  • ''National Geographic: CIA Confidential, Afghanistan and Pakistan, <[9][dead link]


External links

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