The Operators – Who Are They – How Are They Chosen


Many have asked over the years how we plan and train for Covert or BlackOps missions. Is it like on TV or the Movies? Do you get your missions over phones and in self destruct recording devices? Are your teams always the same? How are you selected for a mission? How long is the planning process? Who pays for all this? Do you mix CIA, Military, and others in Ops?

These are all valid Questions. I will attempt to give some answers and examples in this short but descriptive article.

First, here is a little about the beast and its history. It is important to understand the structure and law concerning Covert Ops.

In general use, covert ops usually refers to operations that the government generally hopes to keep secret for at least a time but that other individuals may know about, such as members of Congressional Intelligence committees, etc.

Black ops refer to highly secret and possibly illegal operations where almost no one knows about the authorization and the government will deny all knowledge of the operation if uncovered. Black Ops usually violate the government’s own laws or could be considered as a more condemnatory action if revealed. A black operation is a covert operation by a government, a government agency, or a military organization. This can include activities by private companies.

OK that said, here are some well known examples and further explanations of activities by the CIA as applied to the Military.

At the time of the Extortion 17 crash, the SEALs were working for the Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan, not the CIA. However, they were rotating who they were employed by from one deployment to the next. On the previous deployment they had been with Omega and they would have been with that program again on their next deployment had they survived.

Who is Omega?

Omega consists of small teams conducting sensitive operations. Back in those days, JSOC detached operators to the program for the duration of their deployment overseas. When they got back, no after-action reviews were conducted, no questions were asked. The military didn’t even want to know what the CIA had those guys doing. In some cases, Omega operations were known to get out of control and one team, dubbed Omega-80, came to be disbanded for unspecified reasons.

When the Gold Squadron SEALs were killed in Extortion 17, the loss of that many JSOC operators had a detrimental effect on the Omega program for quite a while as it was now short on personnel, forcing them to make adjustments to keep things running.
In the 1980’s the ugly little proxy wars in Central America between the Soviet Union and the United States were in full swing.

With the CIA having lost some of their toys due to the Church Committee hearings among other disclosures and America reluctant to deploy military forces en mass after the Vietnam War, creative solutions had to be found in order to prevent communist regimes from sprouting up in America’s back yard. The answer was to take active duty Special Forces soldiers and places them on the financial rolls of the Central Intelligence Agency, deploying them as national para-military contractors.

One such individual was WO2 James West, an active duty Warrant Officer in 7th Special Forces Group. While the White House had limited the number of actual soldiers who were allowed to deploy to Honduras as trainers for the Contras, this did not apply to “CIA personnel” like West and his team mates. They manned the RMTC Regional Military Training Center among other training sites. This also provided the White House with plausible deniability, allowing the President to go on television and say that we did not have troops in countries X, Y, and Z.

It is a game as old as time. The military holds Title 10 authorities related to war-time deployments while the CIA holds Title 50 authorities which allow for covert operations. Combining the two authorities by “sheep dipping” active duty military personnel allows for the best of both worlds. Granted, it exploits a legal loophole and circumvents the intent of the law but this gray area is something that politicians, the military, and the CIA are all rather comfortable with.

The modern-day program of this nature was OMEGA, an obsolete code name no longer used, first started in Afghanistan. In some ways similar to MACV-SOG in the Vietnam War, Omega is a joint program between the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command. Including elements of Delta Force, Dev Group, and the 75th Ranger Regiment, Omega uses Special Operations soldiers to do the heavy lifting while the CIA provides targeting intelligence. (Delta Force had been deemed secret, its members signing legally-binding agreements that subjected them to prison if they spoke about “The Unit” Known as a “Tier 1” special operations unit, Delta, along with SEAL Team 6, are supposed to remain “black” and unknown to the public.)
Even when they’re killed in battle, the Army refuses to disclose their true unit.

The Omega program has not only been active in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but across the globe. Yemen is certainly one country where blended JSOC/CIA teams have operated and other locations could be speculated upon as we notice interesting signatures in certain parts of Africa. Currently teams are deployed to countries such as Honduras, Colombia, and Venezuela,

Joint Special Operations Command

JSOC is comprised of soldiers/operators from the most badass and elite military units:
1. Delta Force – Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D).
2. SEAL Team Six – Navy’s DEVGRU
3. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment: Reconnaissance Company
4. Army’s 160th SOAR
5. Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron

To many Americans, a program like Omega confirms their deepest fears, fears that Special Operations soldiers are being used as “CIA assassins” but the reality is that most Omega missions are not that different from any other Special Operations mission. Capturing and killing High Value Targets, conducting vehicle interdictions, and intelligence gathering is something that the CIA and JSOC can do independently of one another, but rather than having these two bureaucracies competing for the same missions, it is much more profitable to work in a joint environment.

That said, such a program is hardly without precedent. Studies and Observations Group (SOG) was a joint CIA/Special Forces program during the Vietnam War. In the 1980’s, a program called “Quail Shooter” was implemented in Central America to counter the influence of communist insurgents by placing active duty Special Forces soldiers on the CIA roster. Today, another program deploys Special Forces soldiers to a country in the Middle East to train the Free Syrian Army (FSA), all under the auspices of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Omega program was revealed many years ago by the New York Times and Wired Magazine, although neither seems to fully understand what it is.

Today the Special Operations Group (SOG) is a department within SAD responsible for operations that include high-threat military or covert operations with which the US government does not wish to be overtly associated. As such, unit members, called Paramilitary Operations Officers and Specialized Skills Officers, do not typically carry any objects or clothing, e.g., military uniforms that would associate them with the United States government.

If they are compromised during a mission, the United States government may deny all knowledge. SOG is generally considered the most secretive special operations force in the United States. The group selects operatives from other special mission units such as Delta Force, DEVGRU, ISA, and 24th STS, as well as other United States special operations forces.

So the Special Activities Division (SAD) is a division of the United States Central Intelligence Agency responsible for covert operations. Within SAD there are two separate groups: SAD/SOG for tactical paramilitary operations and SAD/PAG for covert political action. SAD’s name changed to Special Activities Center as a result of the modernization and reorganization of the CIA in 2016.

The Political Action Group (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 typically has components that involve many or all of these categories as well as paramilitary operations.

Political and “influence” covert operations are used to support US foreign policy. Overt support for one element of an insurgency would often be counterproductive due to the impression it would potentially exert on the local population. In such cases covert assistance allows the US to assist without damaging these elements in the process.
In the early and mid-1990s, even as the US Department of Defense worked to reduce its Cold War-size budgets, it found its military forces becoming embroiled in numerous “low-intensity conflicts” around the world. New threats had emerged that posed new challenges for the Intelligence Community (IC). Accordingly, the IC has employed several recent innovations to meet these new tasks. One such innovation that has proven to be invaluable during recent US military operations is the National Intelligence Support Team (NIST).

The New Order of Things.

In A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement, President Clinton describes the new dangers to our nation’s security as being more varied than ever before. He would know, as he was responsible for the closure of training facilities set up by the Bush Administration to keep the warring tribes in the Middle East busy and happy. The tribes were trained in weapons handling, marksmanship, explosive training and various combat techniques. They received monthly stipends from the CIA. The training facilities were incorporated with family living. However, the Clinton administration quickly found that this training was inappropriate behavior for our military and the CIA, thus ordering the immediate closure of all training facilities. Leaving the tribes abandoned, they sought other means of support. The tribal members were highly trained and well weaponized. Tribal leaders began forming alliances and planning various methods of funding their tribes and families.

The emerging threats to US security he addresses include regional aggression; the spread of weapons of mass destruction; ethnic, religious, and national rivalries; international terrorism; transnational drug trafficking; and international organized crime. His strategy for responding to these threats states that, in order to advance its national objectives, the United States must continue to be engaged in the world through its leadership, and its national security strategy must be based “on enlarging the world community of secure, democratic, and free market nations.” The military is one foreign policy tool available to achieve the administration’s national objectives.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the likelihood that the United States will be engaged in a full-scale conflict has decreased to the extent that few leaders in the US Government believe that, other than on the Korean Peninsula or in the Middle East, US forces will be required to fight a war in the next 15 to 20 years. The possibility of the US military becoming involved in other crises abroad, however, has risen significantly as the nation seeks to advance its interests through the policies of engagement and enlargement.
The unique unconventional nature of these new threats compels the commander to rely more heavily on his intelligence officer than he may deem necessary in more conventional combat operations. With this increased reliance on intelligence, the intelligence officers at the theater and tactical levels have looked to the national IC for support to fill the commander’s information shortfalls. Consequently, the IC has sought to provide support to the tactical commander with historically unprecedented vigor. One means of providing timely, tailored national intelligence support to deployed forces is through a NIST.

Background, Mission, and Functions
“Based on the lessons learned from Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM, all national-level agencies combined their separate deployed intelligence support cells into one NIST.” A NIST normally is composed of personnel from DIA, NSA, NIMA, and the CIA who are deployed upon request by the military commander to facilitate the flow of timely all-source intelligence between a Joint Task Force (JTF) and Washington, DC, during crises or contingency operations. Teams are specifically configured to meet the needs of the deployed commander. Since their inception, NISTs have provided intelligence support to Operations PROVIDE RELIEF (Kenya), SOUTHERN WATCH (Saudi Arabia), RESTORE HOPE (Somalia), DENY FLIGHT and PROVIDE PROMISE (the Balkans), UPHOLD DEMOCRACY (Haiti), JOINT ENDEAVOR (Bosnia), GUARDIAN ASSISTANCE and GUARDIAN RETRIEVAL (Zaire), JOINT GUARD and JOINT FORGE (Bosnia), SHINING PRESENCE (Israel), JOINT GUARDIAN (Kosovo), and NOBLE ANVIL (Albania).

The NIST concept is designed to create a dynamic flow of intelligence to and from the JTF operational area. A NIST is able to provide unique intelligence support to a JTF commander in several ways. First, and most frequently, the NIST provides “reach-back” to national IC agencies and a thorough knowledge of each agency’s resources and capabilities that normally does not exist at the JTF level. Team members provide a direct agency liaison for the JTF, and they have an excellent understanding of where to go in their parent agency to obtain the best support for the commanders’ priority intelligence requirements. This reach-back capability usually is accomplished informally, with team members either requesting encyclopedic intelligence or querying analytic resources with quick questions that do not require new tasking of national assets.
The NISTs can also facilitate the flow of information to and from the Area of Responsibility via e-mail or video teleconference (VTC).
In addition, once the production focus began to shift and tactical intelligence requirements gained attention, NIST-Tuzla coordinated with theater and national intelligence organizations, various US Army (Europe) units, and the other NISTs in-theater to host weekly analyst-to-analyst VTC chats to answer common questions and have analysts at all levels interact in an informal setting. As a testament to its value, the “Balkans analysts’ VTC” as it became known, has taken place on a weekly basis since January 1996 and is hosted by the Director of Central Intelligence’s Balkan Task Force.

NIST enables a JTF commander to submit RFIs that require an answer from the national IC within 24 hours or less. Elements of the NIST accomplish this by communicating either with the National Military Joint Intelligence Center, which is located with the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon and is the national clearing house for all RFIs, or with each element’s parent organization. In those instances when direct connectivity to national agencies is essential, the NIST will coordinate with the intelligence center of the supported theater to avoid duplication of effort and ensure that national assets are not tasked when the theater could have answered the JTF’s RFI.

In theory this system is the perfect solution, But the reality is, none of the intelligence agencies trusts the other enough for full disclosure, therefore leaving a team with flawed intelligence.

A common communications path is an area in which NIST performance has improved during the last several deployments. Previously, when NISTs deployed, teams were unable to use the same communications path. For security reasons, some agencies hesitated to use the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS), the TOP SECRET compartmented secure intelligence network managed by DIA. Now, however, the capability exists for information on this system to be double encrypted as it moves through the JWICS. This allows all the teams of the NIST to use one common communications platform, thereby reducing the scope of the NIST’s deployable equipment by thousands of pounds and reducing the number of personnel needed to operate the various communications systems from each agency.

With the access to somewhat actionable intelligence we are now ready to build our teams. Where do they come from?

Selection and training
SAD/SOG has several hundred officers, mostly former members of special operations forces (SOF) and a majority from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). The CIA has also recruited individuals from within the agency. The CIA’s formal position for these individuals is “Paramilitary Operations Officers” and “Specialized Skills Officers.” Paramilitary Operations Officers most likely attend the Clandestine Service Trainee (CST) program, which trains them as clandestine intelligence operatives and an internal paramilitary training course. The primary strengths of SAD/SOG Paramilitary Officers are operational agility, adaptability, and deniability. They often operate in small teams, typically made up of two to eight operatives (with some operations being carried out by a single officer), all usually with extensive military tactical experience and a set of specialized skills that does not exist in any other unit. As fully trained intelligence case officers, 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.

SOG comprises a complete combined arms covert paramilitary force. Paramilitary Operations Officers are the core of each branch and routinely move between the branches to gain expertise in all aspects of SOG. 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.

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. Many candidates come from notable schools, many from Ivy League institutions and United States Service Academies, and the majority of recruits today come from middle-class backgrounds. 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 Hertford, North Carolina. In addition to the eighteen months of training in the Clandestine Service Trainee (CST) Program 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, cyber warfare, covert channels, HAHO/HALO 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.

As a team leader receives a tasking, he begins the process of planning for the mission. If not yet formed the Team leader is given access to personnel files of possible team members. On my part I would first receive the evaluation reports of a number of talented operators to evaluate and choose which would fit my needs. Here is an example of one of the portfolios of a Delta Operator.

As you can see this particular operator is a breach specialist. He or She is also expert in explosives including WMD and Nuclear. As I choose my team members, I would look for particular talents of the operators including experience. This is only one page of about 70 that I would have to evaluate before placing this portfolio on the Greet and Meet pile. The face to face interview would be the determining factor as to whether I would include him/her on the team.


So depending on the mission needs I would bring together a team, evaluate each and their ability to work within the parameters of the mission. We would determine, as a team, our logistical and financial needs which would be provided by the agency or entity calling the mission. If all as well we would kick the tires and light the fires!