Special Operations: Soldiers As Spies


February 27, 2012:  Over the last three years SOCOM (Special Operations Command) and the CIA have convinced Congress to allow the two organizations to merge some of their operations and share personnel and other resources. This is a process that started during World War II and, despite some political ups and downs, never completely stopped. By the time September 11, 2001 rolled around the CIA was routinely requesting Special Forces operators to work directly for them, a custom that goes back to the early days (1950s) of the U.S. Army Special Forces.

In the last decade SOCOM (which controls the Special Forces as well as U.S. Navy SEALs and U.S. Air Force special operations aircraft) increasingly found that they could compete with the CIA in producing quality intelligence. The Department of Defense now allows Special Forces troops to be trained for plain clothes, and uniformed, espionage work in foreign countries. The Special Forces have unofficially been doing this sort of thing for decades, sometimes at the request of the CIA. In 1986, the Special Forces even established an "intelligence operations" school to train a small number of Special Forces troops in the tradecraft of running espionage operations in a foreign country. In practical terms, this means recruiting locals to provide information and supervising these spies, agents, and informants.

By law the CIA controls all overseas espionage operations. But the CIA and Special Forces were both founded by men who had served with the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) during World War II and the relationship continued after the OSS veterans retired from their CIA and Special Forces careers.

The army wants to more aggressively use Special Forces troops for espionage so that the "battlefield can be prepared" more quickly. This is seen as necessary in order to effectively run down fast moving terrorist organizations. Currently, the Special Forces depend on the CIA to do the espionage work in advance of Special Forces A-Teams arriving. In practice, some Special Forces troops are often there, along with CIA personnel, doing the advance work of finding exactly who is who, what is where and, in particular, who can be depended on to help American efforts. The CIA has not made a big stink about this Department of Defense effort, if only because the CIA is short of people and is still aggressively recruiting people for anti-terrorism operations. Besides, a prime source of new CIA agents has long been former, or retired, Special Forces operators. With the new espionage training Special Forces troops are getting, the CIA will be able to hire these guys later and put them to work without having to train them in a lot of espionage techniques. SOCOM is also believed to be hiring retired CIA personnel to help run SOCOM intel operations.

In 1998, the CIA revived an organizational name they originally created in the early 1960s: the Special Operations Group. The original SOG (which eventually had its name changed to "Studies and Observation Group" for security reasons) used CIA personnel, Special Forces troops, and local tribesmen to run intelligence patrols into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam during the early days of the Vietnam war. Actually, the CIA was doing this since the late 1950s. But once SOG was set up the CIA handed it over to the Special Forces but continued to run their own SOG missions in other parts of the world until bad publicity and Congressional hostility pretty much brought the organization to a halt in 1990.

So, as the Cold War ended the CIA was getting out of the daredevil field work business. The 1998 SOG was created to do what the original SOG did, go into hostile territory and get the information any way you can and do something with it. The new SOG has only a few hundred agents. Most of them are former military, with preference given to Special Forces, SEALs, Air Force paracommandos, and marines with interesting service records. Some of the SOGs are retired military, with at least twenty years of experience. The minimum requirement is five years military experience. The starting pay was about $50,000 a year and you have to get through a one year training course first.

But while the CIA was recruiting military people for field operations the Department of Defense was setting up its own espionage service that duplicated a lot of what the CIA does. Part of this is driven by dissatisfaction with the inability of the CIA to provide the military with timely intelligence. These lapses have frequently come to light after the fact and the generals have not forgotten. When SOCOM was set up in the 1980s, a major capability it acquired was the thousands of Special Forces troops who spent several months to a year overseas working with foreign armies. This was always seen as an excellent way to collect quality intelligence and even the CIA depended on the Special Forces reports to keep current. This was one reason the CIA revived its SOG. While this growing duplication seems inefficient it also provides competition. If the president doesn't like what he's getting from the CIA he can ask SOCOM to take a look. This keeps everyone on their toes. Competition in the shadows, so to speak. The new law, if passed, would simply formally recognize a lot of the cooperation that has been going on for over half a century.



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