CIA Special Activities Center: The Third Option

The Special Activities Center (SAC) is a covert action and paramilitary operations division of the CIA, also known as the “Third Option”. The first option is diplomacy and the second option is military action.

1. Tertia Optio

Inside the lobby of the old Central Intelligence Agency headquarters building in Langley, Virginia there are 139 five-pointed stars carved into the marble wall. Each star represents a member of the Agency who died in the line of duty. Of those 139 stars, around half were paramilitary officers. There are no names on the wall, only the words:

“In honor of those members of the Central Intelligence Agency who gave their lives in the service of their country.”

CIA wall of stars representing fallen agents.
Memorial wall in the CIA headquarters. (Source)

Even in death, these agents remain anonymous. It reflects how they chose to serve their country. There are no parades for these men and women, and they wouldn’t have wanted one. Fueled by an extraordinary sense of duty and love of country rather than glory, it is because of them that a third option exists.

Within United States politics there are two primary options at the forefront of an international issue. First, the State Department can solve it diplomatically through its network of ambassadors who rub elbows with foreign diplomats. Second, there is the Pentagon which stands ready to deploy the greatest military fighting force the world has ever seen at the behest of the President or Congress. Then there is the third option.

1.1. The Third Option

It is what you read about in spy novels and see in movies. It is the covert option. Open knowledge of the United States government’s involvement would create a crisis. This is when the CIA’s Special Activities Center is called to action. The SAC was there when the Soviets were slaughtering Afghans in the 1980s. They were the first American fighters in Afghanistan, only 15 days after the World Trade Center fell. The SAC has toppled governments and assassinated enemies of the state. They are America’s third option.

2. Covert vs Clandestine

At first glance, these two words may mean the same thing, but for the CIA they maintain a critical distinction. No matter if an operation is covert or clandestine, it still maintains the utmost secrecy. However, the distinction lies in how the mission is being conducted.

Covert action is codified in Title 50, U.S. Code as an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly. (Source)

Most human intelligence collection operations would be considered clandestine. Operatives would likely enter the target country through conventional means, albeit with a fabricated identity. The foreign government knows that this person is in the country but is unaware of their true intentions. Their cover may be as a diplomat or businessperson, but in reality, their goal is to recruit potential spies. If their cover is blown, they may be arrested or declared persona non grata. However, there is usually little international blowback.

DO emblem.
Directorate of Operations insignia. (Source)

Covert action requires a much higher degree of secrecy because the stakes are significantly higher. Only the President of the United States has the authority to green-light covert action. And the CIA is the only intelligence agency tasked with the organization and implementation of covert action. Within the CIA, the Directorate of Operations (DO) oversees covert action. Within the DO there is one element that conducts covert action: the Special Activities Center.

3. History

The CIA’s Special Activities Center has a lineage older than the Agency itself. Harkening back to the days of OSS paramilitary commandos parachuting behind enemy lines to fight the Nazis. The paramilitary arm of the CIA has a history rife with controversy and Congressional investigations. It has undergone name changes and survived attempts to dissolve it.

“The CIA gets a bad rap. People tend to think that if the CIA is involved, there must be some kind of nefarious intent”

Lt. Col. McDonnell, Commander, U.S. Army, 1st Batt, 3rd SFG, 2002

In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, the Special Activities Center was reinvigorated with a bigger budget and a newfound sense of purpose. Today the Special Activities Center still operates in the shadows. Conducting operations that we will only learn about if they fail, and in some cases even then we will never hear of it.

3.1. Office of Strategic Services

The precursor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services or OSS, was formed to act as the national intelligence centre for the United States during World War 2. Formed less than a year after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, by William “Wild Bill” Donovan. The OSS was tasked with foreign intelligence collection and espionage missions.

Wild Bill Donovan sitting at a desk with papers in front of him.
William “Wild Bill” Donovan. (Source)

By 1944 the OSS had reached its pinnacle, employing over 13,000 men and women. A large percentage of the OSS’s staff came from the various branches of the military. However, the OSS also heavily recruited from the civilian sector. Members of the OSS were recruited from all walks of life: lawyers, accountants, and even movie stars.

OSS emblem.
OSS insignia. (Source)

The paramilitary branch of the OSS was known simply as the Special Operations Branch (SO). During the war the SO was tasked with running guerrilla operations throughout Western Europe and Asia. Given that the OSS and SO were in their infancy, they took a great deal of help from Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE).

3.1.1. Jedburgh Teams

Together the SO and SOE formed Jedburgh teams of paramilitary commandos that parachuted behind enemy lines in France to fight the Nazi occupiers. These Jedburgh teams were comprised of three men in total. One SO officer, one SOE officer, and a radio operator from the Free French Resistance. These three-man teams would coordinate airdrops of weapons and supplies, organize guerilla attacks with the Free French Resistance, conduct sabotage against the Nazis, and assist friendly conventional forces in any way possible.

“Surprise, kill, and vanish.” – Motto of the Jedburgh teams

Plane full of paratroopers waiting to jump.
Jedburgh team preparing to Jump into France (Source)

3.1.2. Detachment 101

Deep behind Japanese lines in Burma, Col. Carl Eifler led a detachment of 120 Americans that managed to recruit 11,000 Kachin tribesmen to spy for them. When the time came for the Allies to invade Burma to fight the Japanese, Detachment 101 swung into action. The detachment inserted deep behind enemy lines to gather military intelligence, conduct psychological operations, sabotage key Japanese installations, rescue pilots that had been shot down and eliminate hidden Japanese positions.

3.1.3. Morale Operations Division (MO)

By 1943 the OSS recognized the need to have a dedicated psychological operations branch and wanted to emulate their British friends more closely. The MO was tasked with the creation of Black Propaganda. Black Propaganda is designed to target enemy civilian populations but also looks like it was created by the enemy government.

3.1.4. The End of the OSS

As the war was ending so was the OSS. The OSS received numerous commendations such as the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation, the unit equivalent to the Medal of Honor. During the war the OSS had seen action in France, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, Burma, Malaya, and China. By 1946 the OSS began to be liquidated with some assets being transferred to the new Strategic Services Unit, then to the Central Intelligence Group. However, when the National Security Act of 1947 was passed the Central Intelligence Agency was formed and the OSS’s paramilitary legacy would live on.

Today the OSS’s legacy can also be seen in the US military’s Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). USSOCOM works closely with the CIA and the Special Activities Center to conduct similar operations to those undergone by the OSS. USSOCOM even shares the same unit emblem with the OSS. (Source) Additionally, during the Global War on Terror (GWOT) the CIA would forge close ties with the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). JSOC is a subordinate command within JSOC that controls the US military’s premier special operations units such as DEVGRU and Delta Force.

SOCOM's emblem.
SOCOM’s emblem. (Source)

3.2. The Central Intelligence Agency

The National Security Act of 1947’s formation of the CIA brought with it a great deal of restructuring. However, the CIA would still conduct paramilitary covert action in foreign countries. Ranging from Asia to South America, the CIA was toppling governments and arming freedom fighters. At this point in time, the CIA’s primary objective was to stop the spread of global communism. By 1962 the CIA’s operational directorate was known as the National Clandestine Service (NCS). The paramilitary branch within the NCS was named the Special Operations Division (SOD).

CIA emblem.
Seal of the CIA. (Source)

3.2.1. MACV-SOG

During this time CIA paramilitary operations officers were being deployed to Vietnam under the guise of advisors. This group was initially called the Special Operations Group. However, the name was changed to Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) to maintain some level of deniability. MACV-SOG was comprised of paramilitary operations officers from the CIA as well as special operations soldiers from throughout the military. Together these teams of highly specialized soldiers would conduct missions deep behind enemy lines and even in Cambodia and China. You can read more about the exploits of MACV-SOG here.

MACV-SOG insignia. (Source)

3.2.2. Political Assassinations and Secret Rebellions

The CIA would come under significant scrutiny in 1961 after the botched Bay of Pigs operation. The goal was to overthrow Fidel Castro’s communist regime in Cuba. The plan was for paramilitary operations officers (PMOO) to train and arm Cuban exiles, and then lead them in an invasion of Cuba. The operation was a failure in large part due to President Kennedy’s decision to withhold air support. In short, the CIA was thrown into the spotlight due to the international crisis that resulted from its failure. (Source

At the same time, members of the NCS were also working in the Belgian Congo to prevent the spread of communism. Larry Devlin was the (in)famous Chief of Station for the Congo in the 1960s and he was responsible for implementing a CIA-backed government. During this time PMOOs worked alongside Belgian soldiers to help squash the rebel factions.

In 1967 CIA PMOOs were in Bolivia helping hunt down and capture Che Guevara. PMOO Felix Rodriguez was largely responsible for his capture. Working undercover as a Bolivian military officer, he helped to coordinate the efforts of US and Bolivian special operations soldiers to hunt down Guevara. When Guevara was apprehended, Rodriguez gave the execution order. (Source)

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the CIA utilized its paramilitary branch to overthrow regimes in places like El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Iran, Guatemala, and Chile. Admittedly, these operations left the countries worse off than they might have been otherwise. A 1976 Senate inquiry showed that the new regimes were more damaging to US foreign policy. However, hindsight is 20/20. By this point, the paramilitary branch’s name had changed once again. Now known as the Special Activities Division (SAD). Don’t worry if the constant name changes are hard to keep track of, that’s the point. (Source)

3.2.3. Cold War Success and Scandal

One of the better-known CIA covert actions from the 1980s was Operation Cyclone. Cyclone was headed by CIA operations officer Gust Avrakatos and Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson. The two worked together alongside paramilitary operations officer Mike Vickers and countless others to arm the Mujahadeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Over the course of nine years, they raised the budget to arm the Mujahadeen from US$700,00 to US$1 billion. Operation Cyclone is one of the most famous and successful missions ever pulled off by the NCS and SAD. However, the celebration wouldn’t last.

At the same time, the Iran-Contra affair was beginning to come to light. The CIA was essentially caught red-handed selling missiles to Iran through intermediaries to fund their South American Contra army. As a result, Congress essentially gutted the CIA and the SAD along with it. Throughout the 1990s the SAD was a hollow shell of what it had been, and the Pentagon fought to take over its responsibilities. (Source) However, by 1992 CIA paramilitary operators were deployed to Somalia to identify high-value targets for the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to kill or capture. During one of the eventual kill-or-capture missions known as Operation Gothic Serpent, the events of the famous book and movie Black Hawk Down transpired.

It would be almost a decade before the CIA’s Special Activities Division would be reinvigorated in terms of budget and purpose. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Special Activities Division had one mission: retaliation.

4. Entry into the GWOT

The Global War on Terror has had some furthest-reaching consequences of any war in the history of the planet. Enemies no longer wear uniforms, and the battlefield can be anywhere. In the wake of 9/11, the United States needed soldiers who could fight on these terms and the CIA answered the call. Within 15 days of the September 11th attacks, the CIA already had paramilitary operations officers on the ground. Armed with US$3 million in cash stuffed into briefcases, radios, and a few AKs they set off to link up with old contacts in the Northern Alliance. (Source)

CIA PMOOs and Green Berets posing for a group photo in Afghanistan.
CIA paramilitary operations officers and US Army Green Berets in Afghanistan. (Source)

In 2015 the National Clandestine Service would restructure itself along with the rest of the Agency. The NCS was now known as the Directorate of Operations (DO). Prior to the 2015 reorganization, the Special Activities Division would rebrand itself the Special Activities Center (SAC). To the best of public knowledge, it is still called the SAC today. However, the CIA is one of the most secretive organizations within the US government. And the DO and SAC are two of the most secretive elements within the CIA.

NCS organizational chart – SAC is located right side, 4th from the bottom. (Source)

In 2015 Archivist Jeffrey Richelson filed a Freedom of Information Act request for an old CIA organizational chart. Although at this point it is an outdated chart, it does look at where SAC used to fall into the organizational structure. (Source)

5. Structure

Within the Special Activities Center, there are four primary elements, each with distinct roles. Three of the elements comprise a combined arms force. Integrating ground, air, and sea attack elements allows paramilitary operations officers full spectrum assault capabilities. There is also an element of the SAC that focuses on covert political action. Paramilitary operations officers often work in incredibly small teams, often even working solo.

CIA PMOO wearing local Afghan clothes with combat gear.
CIA PMOO Darren J. LaBonte in Afghanistan, KIA 2009. Image retrieved via DEVTSIX. (Source)

5.1. Ground Branch

As the name implies Ground Branch is the land-based fighting force of the SAC. Ground Branch primarily recruits from military special operations such as the Green Berets, the 75th Ranger Regiment, and the Combat Applications Group aka Delta Force. However, paramilitary operations officers can also be recruited from within the Agency. Ground Branch has been known to work alongside elements from JSOC. This is likely a passive way in which they recruit new members.

CIA PMOO in full combat gear sitting.
CIA PMOO Darren J. LaBonte. Image retrieved via DEVTSIX. (Source)

5.1.1. Responsibilities

  • Deniable covert operations on foreign soil
  • Sabotage
  • Personnel and material recovery
  • Kidnapping
  • Bomb damage assessment
  • Hostage rescue
  • Counter terrorism
  • Training foreign military elements

Layout of a CIA PMOO's gear.
Ground Branch loadout circa the mid-2000s, note the Desert Tiger Stripe uniform. (Source: SOFREP)

5.1.2. Weapons and Equipment

Ground Branch will often use whatever weapons are most common in the region or what their partner force is using. The goal is not to stick out. However, somewhat ironically, Ground Branch has been known to use a camo known colloquially as Desert Tiger Stripe. A modern take paying homage to their MACV-SOG linage, this camo is almost exclusively used by Ground Branch, The CIA’s Global Response Staff (GRS) and is a dead giveaway. The rest of their kit is typical for what you might expect a special operations soldier to carry. However, the mission will always dictate kit. Some notable small arms include:

  • M4A1
  • M203 Grenade Launcher
  • M320 Grenade Launcher
  • M79 Grenade Launcher
  • HK 416 (10.4in barrel)
  • HK 416 (14.5in barrel)
  • Mk18 Mod 0
  • Mk18 Mod 1
  • M14
  • M249 Squad Automatic Weapon
  • Mk 12 mod 0
  • Mk 12 mod 1
  • Mk 18 mod 0
  • Mk 18 mod 2
  • Mk 46
  • Mk 48
  • Various AKs
  • Glock 17
  • Glock 19
  • Glock 22
  • Glock 26

The list can go on and it is only limited to what is practical, available, and plausibly deniable depending on the mission. Ground Branch’s rifles are typically outfitted with suppressors, optics such as EOTechs or ACOGs, with lights and laser aiming modules for use with night vision.

5.2. Maritime Branch

The maritime Branch acts as the aquatic fighting force of the SAC. Elements from the Maritime Branch are often pulled from special operations elements of the Navy and Marine Corps such as the SEALs and Force Reconnaissance. (Source) Maritime Branch can likely conduct the same missions as the Ground Branch. However, the Maritime Branch has the additional challenge of not drowning while doing so. Outside of shooters, Maritime Branch also employs sailors who can command and maintain the fleet of boats and other aquatic vessels they maintain. However, Maritime Branch has had to justify its existence to an extent. The US Navy already has ships that can conduct the kind of missions that the Maritime Branch fulfils.

In 2008, four members of the Maritime Branch were killed while conducting a covert mission in the South China Seas. The mission was to place an electronic monitoring device disguised as a rock in Chinese coastal waters to monitor their naval activity. Unfortunately, the mission took place while a hurricane was raging through the region which killed the four divers from Maritime Branch. (Source)

The maritime Branch is also known to operate its small-scale naval fleet. Much like Air Branch, Maritime Branch possesses numerous ships to covertly transport cargo across the ocean as well as collect intelligence in a maritime environment.

5.2.1. Responsibilities

  • Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure (VBSS)
  • Underwater demolition
  • Deniable covert operations in foreign waters
  • Sabotage
  • Intelligence collection
  • Covert insertion and extraction of CIA personnel
  • Covert transportation of cargo
  • Personnel and material recovery
  • Kidnapping
  • Hostage rescue
  • Counter-terrorism

5.2.2. Weapons and Equipment

Unsurprisingly, Maritime Branch doesn’t exactly advertise the kit they use. However, one can speculate that it would be similar to gear issued to Navy SEALs. Their kit is likely to be a special maritime kit that sacrifices durability for drain-ability. They likely favour the HK 416 due to its short-stroke gas piston operating system’s ability to handle water much better than standard M16/M4 pattern rifles. They’re less likely to use explosives or light support weapons due to the nature of their mission. Sinking a boat, you are on with grenades is less than ideal.

Soldier with an AK sitting on a ridgeline overlooking a desert.
Ground Branch operator in the field. Image retrieved via DEVTSIX. (Source)

5.3. Air Branch

Air Branch functions as the SAC’s private air force. They fly both fixed and rotary-wing aircraft in both combat and non-combat roles. Air Branch is known for possessing a fleet of jetliners disguised as commercial aircraft and run by front companies. (Source) Air Branch also has a fleet of captured Soviet Bloc aircraft that it uses to maintain plausible deniability when flying in theatres where they wouldn’t appear too unusual. An early instance of this is the Air Branch pilots who were a part of Operation Jawbreaker. They were the first pilots to fly in Afghanistan using night vision and they did so in MI-17 Soviet helicopters.

Mannequin wearing a flight helmet and night vision goggles.
Helmet and night vision used by Air Branch during Jawbreaker. (Source)

5.3.1. Air America

Air America was a clandestine airline owned and operated by the CIA’s Air Branch from 1950 to 1976. Their motto was “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, Professionally”. The Airline helped to secretly support clandestine operations during the Vietnam war. Additionally, they helped to smuggle drugs out of Laos, whether or not the CIA was involved or merely complicit is up for debate. Eventually, the company’s assets were sold off in 1976. No one involved with the company received any accolades or compensation, including those injured or killed during combat operations. (Source)

Three soldiers standing infront of a helicopter with a fourth standing on the roof of the cockpit.
Air Branch with an MI-17 in Afghanistan. (Source)

5.3.2. Responsibilities

  • Covert insertion and extraction of CIA personnel
  • Covert transportation of cargo
  • Airborne surveillance/intelligence gathering
  • Close Air Support

5.3.3. Aircraft and Equipment

  • DHC-6 
  • DCH-8
  • Antonov AN-32
  • Lockheed L-100-30 (Civilian version of the C-130)
  • Boeing 737
  • MQ-1 Predator
  • MQ-9 Reaper
  • Mil MI-8 / MI-17

5.4. Armor and Special Programs Branch

The Armor and Special Programs Branch is thought to be the component of the SAC responsible for providing the other branches with equipment that has plausible deniability. If Air Branch needs a specific helicopter to transport equipment in a hostile region, then Armor and Special Programs Branch must procure it. The branch also likely maintains a stockpile of plausibly deniable weapons, vehicles, and equipment. Lastly, it is likely that the branch is also tasked with procuring enemy technology and equipment in a covert manner. (Source)

Soldier near the wreckage of an aircraft.
CIA personnel near aircraft wreckage. (Source)

5.5. Political Action Group

The Political Action Group (PAG) is one of the least publicized elements of the SAC. Their primary focus is on influencing international politics, waging economic warfare, and conducting psychological operations. It would appear that the Political Action Group carries the legacy of the OSS’s Morale Operations Division. The PAG is staffed by a combination of specialized skills officers who are experts in areas such as psychological operations or hacking and operations officers. 

The PAG is thought to be used to help expand US foreign policy in unstable regions. When one side of a conflict is more likely to be friendly to US interests in the region, the PAG works in the background secretly influencing the outcome of the conflict. The PAG likely helps stage and fund protests in hostile nations as well as wages cyber and economic warfare. (Source)

5.4.1. Responsibilities

  • Cyber warfare
  • Psychological warfare
  • Economic warfare
  • Election interference
  • Covert political action

6. Assessment and Selection

Like all CIA employees, the men and women of the Special Activities Center must apply for their jobs. Even the high-speed door kickers must submit their resumes to the CIA via its website in order to start the screening and employment process.

Most paramilitary operations officers will likely end up working in the SAC, the alternative being the CIA’s Global Response Staff. It is unknown how exactly other elements like operations officers end up working at the SAC. However, it is likely experienced based on an internal screening process. Upon being hired a process known as “sheep dipping” starts. A reference to how sheep are cleaned prior to sheering, potential officers have their military records cleaned and altered. (Source)

6.1. The Farm

All operations officers both paramilitary and regular are required to attend an 18-month-long Clandestine Service Trainee Program. This takes place at “The Farm” in Camp Peary, Virginia. During this program officers are trained and certified to successfully recruit and handle foreign sources who can provide access to vital human intelligence. They also learn the fundamentals of tradecraft. Recruits learn skills like offensive and defensive driving, disguise-making, survival skills, firearms proficiency, and a host of other tradecraft skills. (Source, Source)

Satellite image of the racetracks at camp Peary.
Camp Peary driving courses. (Source)

From there paramilitary operations officers will attend a roughly six-month-long paramilitary course. The course is necessary to establish a baseline between the various PMOO candidates. Candidates are often recruited from various special operations units which often have widely varying tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs).

An important thing to note about the SAC and other special operations units is that although these operational positions are extremely important, they cannot function in a bubble. There are thousands of support personnel working behind the scenes to ensure that the PMOOs have the weapons they need. Some people need to maintain the ships and aircraft for the Air and Maritime branches.

6.1. Paramilitary Operations Officer

Paramilitary operations officers (PMOOs) are the CIA’s go-to officers for combat-related operations. Also “blue badgers” due to the blue-colored CIA identification badge they wear, contrasted by the green badges of contractor personnel. Paramilitary operations officers wear two hats in a sense. Primarily, they serve as trainers for indigenous partner forces. Throughout Vietnam, PMOOs were embedded with Montagnard forces to advise, train, and lead them in the fight against the Vietcong. During the GWOT PMOOs were embedded with the Kurdish Peshmerga to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It is also highly likely that PMOOs are working in Ukraine to assist local forces in the fight against Russia.

When the SAC needs a team of PMOOs for a mission it will quickly assemble a “Pick-up Team”. These Pick-up Teams can also act as a small-scale strike force that conducts direct action raids under Title 50 authority for covert action. This is done when the US government needs complete deniability surrounding the raid. PMOOs also work as covert intelligence gatherers, operating in hostile and austere environments to collect all-source intelligence. However, that is not the sole job of PMOOs. (Source)

Three soldiers with weapons in a large tent.
CIA PMOOs. Image retrieved via Reddit. (Source)

6.1.1. PMOO vs OO

A paramilitary operations officer is also a standard operations officer. PMOOs are trained to recruit and handle foreign intelligence assets clandestinely. Typically, PMOOs will have to rotate from the paramilitary side of their career field into the operations officer side of the CIA. A PMOO must be a “jack of all trades” in the sense that one year they may be living on the side of a mountain and the next they’re rubbing elbows with foreign diplomats over cocktails.

Paramilitary operations officers must be incredibly intelligent with a military background in special operations. However, it is not unheard of for conventional forces to be recruited as PMOOs. Additionally, there is lots of room for lateral movement within the Agency, analysts or operations officers with the right background can become PMOOs. (Source)

6.1.2. Requirements

  • Bachelor’s degree with a 3.0 GPA minimum.
  • Served on active duty with the US Armed Forces in either of the following Military Occupations/Career Fields:
    • Special Operations or Combat Arms
    • Aviation or Aviation related specialities
  • Successful completion of specialized paramilitary training and demonstrates a high level of physical readiness.
  • Willingness to serve in hazardous and austere environments overseas.
  • Personal integrity and the ability to operate with minimal supervision.
  • Strong interpersonal and communication skills (verbal and written).
  • Ability to work effectively as part of a team as well as work independently.
  • Flexibility, adaptability, and commitment to the mission of the CIA and the Directorate of Operations.
  • Ability to meet the minimum requirements for joining the CIA, including U.S. citizenship and a background investigation.

6.1.3. Desired Qualifications

  • Minimum of 8 years of active-duty experience
  • Served in multiple leadership positions generating a proven record of responsibility and critical decision-making in stressful situations
  • Experience serving in combat and conducting combat operations; multiple tours, particularly in leadership positions, is highly desired
  • Currently on active duty or within three years following departure from active duty
  • Applicants on Reserve or National Guard status, more than three years from active duty, are more competitive if they have completed overseas deployments in that timeframe
  • Non-combat overseas deployments with real-world impact
  • Foreign language, foreign travel, and area knowledge
  • Experience in advanced combat skills
  • Experience conducting military/combat diving and underwater operations

6.2. Paramilitary Specialist

Paramilitary specialists are the CIA’s subject matter experts in paramilitary operations. They often have at least 20 years of serving in special operations within the various branches of the US military. Then they are hired as independent contractors or “green badgers” by the Agency and conduct some of the most difficult operations the Agency has to offer. Unlike PMOO, the paramilitary specialists exclusively oversee and execute paramilitary operations. (Source)

Soldier peeking out of an underground tunnel.
alleged CIA PMOO. Image retrieved via DEVTSIX. (Source)

6.3. Operations Officer

Operations Officers are what people typically think of when they picture a CIA agent. Formerly known as Case Officers, they manage and run intelligence assets of all kinds. Operations officers primarily focus on clandestinely spotting, assessing, developing, recruiting, and handling non-U.S. citizens with access to foreign intelligence vital to U.S. foreign policy and national security decision-makers. Typically, OOs have a highly focused region and/or topic that they focus on. (Source)

6.3.1. Minimum Qualifications

  • Bachelor’s degree with a 3.0 GPA minimum.
  • Personal integrity.
  • Strong interpersonal and communication skills (verbal and written).
  • Action- and results-oriented.
  • Ability to work effectively as part of a team and independently.
  • Flexibility, adaptability, and commitment to the mission of the CIA and the Directorate of Operations.
  • Ability to meet the minimum requirements for joining CIA, including U.S. citizenship and a background investigation.

6.3.2. Desired Qualifications

  • Willingness and ability to establish strong personal relationships.
  • Ability to “think on your feet” and develop creative yet practical solutions to anticipated and unanticipated problems.
  • Interest in seeking answers, learning foreign languages, and studying other cultures.
  • Cross-cultural sensitivity and the ability to deal with individuals from all cultures and backgrounds.

6.4. Specialized Skills Officer

Specialized Skills Officers (SSO) utilize the technical skills they have acquired prior to employment with the CIA. Typically either in specialized military fields or have experience in media, communications, marketing, advertising, issue advocacy, crisis management, or technology development. These skills and experiences often include aviation, maritime, psychological operations, civil affairs and information operations. SSOs play a unique role in support of intelligence operations for U.S. policymakers, supporting Covert Action programs at the direction of the President of the United States and facilitating the CIA’s Covert Action infrastructure. (Source)

6.4.1. Minimum Qualifications

  • Bachelor’s degree with a 3.0 GPA minimum.
  • Personal integrity.
  • Strong interpersonal and communication skills (verbal and written).
  • Action- and results-oriented.
  • Ability to work effectively as part of a team as well as work independently.
  • Flexibility, adaptability, and commitment to the mission of the CIA and the Directorate of Operations.
  • Ability to meet the minimum requirements for joining CIA, including U.S. citizenship and a background investigation.

Soldiers gathering around the back of a Soviet helicopter while two men help a third to a vehicle.
CIA Air and Ground Branch in Afghanistan. Image retrieved via Reddit. (Source)

6.4.2. Desired Qualifications

  • Social media, marketing, advertising, public relations, issue advocacy, crisis communication, or technology development.
  • Business, finance, or legal fields.
  • Military psychological operations or civil affairs.
  • Merchant Marine/Commercial Maritime industries or military nautical experience.
  • Commercial or military diving and underwater experience.
  • Military aviation career fields such as:
    • Pilot (fixed wing, rotary wing, manned/unmanned)
    • Navigator
    • Flight engineer
    • Crew chief/mechanic
    • Maintenance
    • Avionics technician
    • Mission sensor operator
    • Forward air controller
    • Para-rescue
    • Aviation foreign internal defence
  • Counterintelligence

7. Notable Engagements During the GWOT

7.1. Operation Jawbreaker

Following the attack on the World Trade Center, President George W. Bush ordered the Special Activities Center operatives to collaborate with foreign intelligence services. Within a week the first CIA paramilitary operators were on the ground in Afghanistan. Pilots from Air Branch flew a crew of Ground Branch operators on a Soviet-made Mi-17 helicopter. From there the Ground Branch team linked up with the Afghan Northern Alliance. Decades prior the CIA had already been hard at work making contacts in Afghanistan while fighting the Soviets. Armed with only a few rifles, squad automatic weapons, radios and US$3 million in cash stuffed into a suitcase the team set off on their mission. They swiftly began bribing Afghan warlords in order to gather intelligence to set the stage for the incoming US invasion and the hunt for Usama bin Laden. (Source)

Three men with weapons in the back of a Soviet helicopter.
The first CIA PMOOs into Afghanistan. (Source)

7.2. Operation Red Dawn

Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country’s president Saddam Hussein went into hiding. This resulted in the formation of Task Force 121, a joint JSOC and SAC effort to hunt him down. There was also a large number from the US Army’s 4th Infantry Brigade involved in the effort. Saddam was eventually found in a hole in the ground with $750,000 and a pistol. He had been utilizing tradecraft to avoid detection. He had grown out his beard and was traveling through the country unaccompanied in a non-descript taxi. (Source)

A soldier pulls Saddam out of his underground hiding spot.
An Iraqi interpreter pulling Saddam Hussein out of his hiding hole. (Source)  

7.3. Abu Kamal Raid

In 2008 President George W. Bush authorized a covert action mission in the Syrian city of Abu Kamal. A pick-up team of CIA PMOOs and JSOC operators was assembled and flown into the city in the early hours of the evening. The team of target was an Al Qaeda logistics network and a high-ranking officer, Abu Ghadiya. The raid was a success however the Syrian government found out about the US crossing into their country. Syria alleges that eight civilians were killed during the raid. However, the US government denies this claiming that everyone who was killed were hostile militants. (Source)

8. Summary

The Special Activities Center is one of the most versatile tools in the President’s toolbox. Due to the CIA’s monopoly on conducting covert action for the US government, the Special Activities Center is often the very tip of the spear. Operators from the various Branches and officers in the Political Action Group have helped achieve US foreign policy objectives across the globe. Each component has its own unique role to play. The result is a miniature combined arms force capable of deploying anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice.

These men and women work in secret and without recognition. They operate in the shadows and behind closed doors. Their roles are incredibly hard to talk about as they are only known when they fail. We will likely never know the full extent to which the Special Activities Center is utilized but they will continue to work quietly in the background as unknown heroes.

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