The Dallas Morning News October 27, 2002
BY TOD ROBBERSON
KABUL, Afghanistan – They don’t play by the normal rules because they don’t have to. That’s a big reason why the United States increasingly prefers to deploy CIA paramilitary troops whenever it prepares to enter global hot spots such as Afghanistan or Iraq.
U.S. military officials and other analysts say the CIA has a long history of sending highly trained commandos to some of the world’s most dangerous places, sometimes well in advance of conventional fighting forces but often right alongside them.
The commandos’ job is to gather intelligence, work as forward observers and perform covert operations that mainstream U.S. forces legally are not allowed to do or cannot do because of their more public, high-profile status.
“The CIA gets a bad rap. People tend to think that if the CIA is involved, there must be some kind of nefarious intent,” said Lt. Col. Kevin M. McDonnell, commander of the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group. His troops spent much of the past six months working alongside CIA agents and paramilitary units in operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban guerrillas in isolated areas of Afghanistan. “They complement our mission. But the experience in our ranks complements their mission as well. They could not do what they do without us, and we could not do what we do without them,” he explained.
Allende and the Shah
The CIA’s reputation for nefarious behavior flourished in the 1970s and ’80s, when the agency became linked to military coups, such as the one that overthrew Chilean socialist leader Salvador Allende in 1973; political assassinations; and support of dictators such as Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran.
The agency maintained such a guarded silence about its activities that it wasn’t until 1997 that the CIA officially acknowledged its military role in the Bay of Pigs attack in Cuba in 1961.
At the insistence of Congress, the CIA has undergone multiple reforms that made its activities seem more palatable to the public.
Analysts say the agency today is trying to polish its image by acknowledging a role in the early military campaign in Afghanistan – a rare admission that tries, in part, to offset the bad publicity surrounding intelligence failures that led to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
When American bombs started to fall on Afghanistan one year ago, military analysts said, CIA paramilitary units on the ground were already determining where U.S. attacks should be focused, where the enemy’s defenses were vulnerable, and how best to deploy conventional ground forces. They interrogated prisoners on the spot to glean crucial battlefield intelligence.
With the United States moving closer to military confrontation with Iraq, the CIA’s paramilitary force, known as the Special Activities Division, is making ready, said Charles Heyman, editor of London-based Jane’s World Armies.
“These units have been in Iraq for quite some time,” Mr. Heyman said. “It would be inconceivable for them not to be,” given the magnitude of preparations by the Bush administration for a possible attack.
The CIA declined to comment. A spokesman said the intelligence agency does not discuss any such operations.
At Bagram Air Force Base outside Kabul, where the bulk of U.S. military forces are based, officials make no attempt to hide the presence of CIA paramilitary units in their midst – or the fact that they deploy regularly with conventional forces on combat missions.
Col. Roger King, the chief spokesman for U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, typically responds to questions about the CIA’s military role by acknowledging the presence on missions of “personnel from other U.S. government entities.” He appears to take pains not to use the word “agency.”
Journalists are advised not to photograph the CIA agents or attempt to interview them. There have been times when American men in military combat uniform, but without military insignia, have threatened to shoot reporters or photographers who encountered them during operations. One confrontation erupted in northern Afghanistan in November, shortly before CIA paramilitary agent Johnny “Mike” Spann was killed during a battle with al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners.
Col. King said the Pentagon had wanted to send reporters on military missions with U.S. special forces units throughout the American deployment in Afghanistan. But the presence of “personnel from another entity” on those missions frequently made it impossible, he said.
“At the end of the day, the most important aspect of these operations is that no one knows about them,” Mr. Heyman explained, adding that the CIA will go to extraordinary lengths to protect the identities and activities of its paramilitary agents.
“One of the great worries is that one of these guys is going to get killed. No man is irreplaceable, but these guys almost are. They are almost the jewel in the crown,” he said. “They are so out of the ordinary, so valuable, that losing one or two of them can be an absolute disaster.”
Lt. Col. McDonnell said that, in many cases, the CIA selects its Special Activities Division agents from the ranks of retired special-operations personnel – experienced members of the Army’s Special Forces, the Marines’ Delta Force or the Navy Seals.
“These are not supermen. It would probably surprise you how normal and mundane they really are,” he explained.
“The common thread they have is that they are an unusually patriotic group. They don’t do this so they can participate in a parade or so they can have stories to tell their families,” he added. “They do it so they can serve something bigger than themselves.”
Col. King insisted that there was no redundancy in having a CIA special operations force on hand to perform functions that might be handled by non-clandestine military units. But he acknowledged that, early in the Afghan campaign last year, there was a lack of coordination between the two groups.
“There is a maturing process that goes on in any theater of operations. There was no central command early on,” he said. Today, “we have pretty good cooperation and coordination” between the CIA and the U.S. military in Afghanistan. “We have a specific group that does nothing but coordinate” between the two groups.
Friend or foe?
Other analysts say the competition is fierce between the CIA and other military units.
“The turf wars between these organizations are horrendous. They all loathe each other,” said one analyst, asking not to be identified. “But they have to coordinate. Otherwise, they might well end up performing the same operation or, worse, shooting at each other.”
Competition grew so bitter between the Pentagon and CIA in the 1990s that the U.S. government seriously considered absorbing the CIA’s paramilitary wing into the Pentagon’s special operations branch, arguing that there was no need for the CIA to operate its own army.
Former CIA analyst John A. Gentry disagreed in a 1995 paper about reforming the intelligence agency. “The military cannot handle the job. And there are major diplomatic and domestic political risks associated with use of uniformed military personnel in such activities” as those performed by the CIA units.
“It is important to be able to maintain plausible deniability. Use of American citizen-soldiers, poorly able or untrained in concealing their national heritage, sharply reduces our ability to conceal involvement,” Mr. Gentry wrote.
Today, given the widely acknowledged success of the CIA’s paramilitary activities in Afghanistan, the opposite is being proposed: deactivating some military special operations personnel to enable them to work temporarily undercover with the CIA. Analysts say there are many advantages.
The CIA faces far fewer accountability problems with Congress than does the Pentagon, said John Pike, director of the Washington-based nonprofit policy group GlobalSecurity.org.
“The CIA’s capabilities and activities are intended to be unacknowledged. They are employed in countries where the fact of an American military presence would be damaging,” he said.
Mr. Heyman concurred: “It’s terribly political. It means the secretary of defense or the president can stand up before Congress and declare, ‘We do not have any military forces in this area.’ The CIA can do what it has to do in isolation.”
In addition to the rigorous training and psychological preparation received by all special operations personnel, members of the Special Activities Division receive specialized training at the Defense Department’s Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity, outside Hertford, N.C.
In his book, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, former CIA agent Bob Baer describes demolition training he received at Harvey Point using plastic and other types of explosives, along with four months of paramilitary training that began shortly after his recruitment in 1976.
Mr. Pike said the CIA’s paramilitary history dates to the agency’s creation through the National Security Act of 1947 and even before, when paramilitary intelligence units formed the backbone of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II.
In Stephen E. Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers, Sgt. Robert “Burr” Smith alludes to service in the CIA after his service fighting with E Company, 101st Airborne Division in World War II. In a 1979 letter, he said his World War II experience “led me to a new career with a government agency, which in turn led to eight years in Laos as a civilian adviser to a large, irregular force.”
Even in Afghanistan, the CIA’s dealings with irregular forces have created problems. In the southeastern city of Khost last month, leaders of two rival militias complained that someone from the United States was paying off both sides to win their cooperation in the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Instead, the militias used the money to purchase weapons, which they then turned against each other.
Col. King denied that the U.S. military had anything to do with such payments. He said the denial did not necessarily extend to “other U.S. government entities.”
Reports also have been published linking U.S. government entities to militias involved in the opium trade in Afghanistan. Drug smugglers often can obtain information regarding arms purchases and guerrilla activities, Col. King acknowledged. But he said the U.S. military has a strict policy mandating that there be no dealings with any militia involved in the drug trade.
Asked if the policy extended to the CIA, he responded, “I don’t speak for them.”