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Time February 3, 2003

The CIA's Secret Army


The U.S. is not yet at war with Saddam Hussein. Not officially. But quietly, over the past few months, some of its savviest warriors have sneaked into his country. They have been secretly prowling the Kurdish-controlled enclave in northern Iraq, trying to organize a guerrilla force that could guide American soldiers invading from the north, hunting for targets that U.S. warplanes might bomb, setting up networks to hide U.S. pilots who might be shot down and mapping out escape routes to get them out. And they are doing the same in southern Iraq with dissident Shi'ites.

But the biggest surprise of all is that they are not even soldiers; they are spies, part of the CIA's rough and ready, supersecret Special Operations Group (SOG). Until fairly recently, the CIA, in an effort to clean up a reputation sullied by botched overseas coups and imperial assassination attempts, had shied away from getting its hands dirty. Until about five years ago, it focused instead on gathering intelligence that could be used by other parts of the government. Before that, traditional CIA officers, often working under cover as U.S. diplomats, got most of their secrets from the embassy cocktail circuit or by bribing foreign officials. Most did not even have weapons training, and they looked down on the few SOG commandos who remained out in the field as knuckle draggers, relics of a bygone era. Now the knuckle draggers are not just back; they are the new hard edge of the CIA, at the forefront of the war on terrorism. And, says a U.S. intelligence official, "they know which end the bullet comes out of."

It was George Tenet who began rebuilding the SOG five years ago when he took charge of the CIA, but the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, accelerated his efforts.

Confronted with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, an enemy that has no army, no fixed assets and no clearly defined territory, the Bush Administration needed an unconventional military force. It wanted combatants who could match al-Qaeda for wiliness, adaptability and, up to a point, ruthlessness. It wanted its own army of James Bonds. So in the past year, hundreds of millions of additional dollars have been pumped into the CIA budget by President George W. Bush, a man who may be predisposed to believe strongly in an agency his father once headed. He has ordered SOG operatives to join forces with foreign intelligence services. He has even authorized the CIA to kidnap terrorists in order to break their cells or kill them.

All of which could make for a more agile, effective intelligence agency. Or it could also mean a CIA that once again steps beyond the realm of collecting secrets to intervening forcibly in the affairs of foreign states. In that area, the agency's history has often been one of blunders and worse, from Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s through the Bay of Pigs fiasco under John F. Kennedy to the Nicaraguan war that led to the Iran-contra debacle in the '80s. Some longtime intelligence watchers are wondering whether a reinvigorated paramilitary wing of the CIA could be a mixed blessing for America once again. And the military itself is not too pleased. It believes its special-ops forces are perfectly equipped to handle these jobs. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has reacted in part by planning his own secret unit, which would function much like the SOG but would answer to him rather than Tenet.

Though tiny by Pentagon standards, the SOG has swelled to several hundred officers. They are planted in Pakistan, Central Asia, North Africa and East Asia. "These are people who are operating every day around the world," Jim Pavitt, the CIA's deputy director of operations, told TIME. "I can insert a team anywhere quickly and clandestinely." The future may bring even more ambitious missions. Last May, Bush signed a top-secret directive authorizing pre-emptive strikes by the Pentagon and the CIA against nations that are close to acquiring nuclear weapons. Administration sources tell TIME that the Department of Energy's nuclear-weapons experts are training SOG operatives on ways to attack enemy nuclear facilities. In the current crisis with North Korea, Washington so far is committed to diplomacy as a means of pressuring Pyongyang to give up its atomic-arms program, but it might well be a SOG team that gets called to action.

The latest debate over the wisdom of expanding CIA powers in this way has been confined mostly to a small group of professionals, escaping the public's notice. That's largely because the evolution of the CIA's mission has proceeded so quietly. Americans did get a glimpse into the world of the CIA paramilitary when American Johnny (Mike) Spann, 32, was killed in Afghanistan in November 2001 after being overpowered by Taliban prisoners he had been interrogating; uncharacteristically, the CIA confirmed that Spann was one of its own, a member of the sog. Another peek into the shadows came last November when it was revealed that the explosion that had carbonized a carful of alleged al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen was caused by a Hellfire missile let loose by a CIA Predator drone.

The outlines of this new mission are not new, but TIME has uncovered enough fresh details to construct the fullest picture yet of the CIA's secret army. It spoke to past and current intelligence officials, including an active member of the sog, as well as to detractors within the Pentagon. Our report:

Officially, the war in Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001, with the first round of U.S. air attacks. For the SOG, however, the battle opened on Sept. 26, just 15 days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That was how "John," one of the SOG's paramilitary officers, unexpectedly found himself peering out the open window of a Soviet-made Mi-17 helicopter that day as it soared over the Anjuman Pass and into the Panjshir Valley, northeast of Kabul. Just ahead on the ground, John spotted a patrol of bearded men in turbans toting AK-47 rifles.

John tugged the sleeve of the pilot from the rebel Northern Alliance, who was aboard to guide the aircraft through the treacherous mountains of northeastern Afghanistan. "They're not ours," the Afghan shouted, letting John know that the helicopter could be fired on from below. The Taliban fighters, however, were so stunned by the appearance of the beastly aircraft roaring above them that they did not have time to shoulder their weapons and shoot before it flew out of range. "Wonderful," the CIA officer shouted to his Afghan comrade. Just a week earlier, John (who talked to TIME on the condition that his real name not be used) had been studying at a language school in Virginia, preparing for an entirely different assignment overseas. (What language and what posting, he would not say.) The agency yanked him out to join the first U.S. team going into Afghanistan. That was typical for a CIA paramilitary officer, who at a moment's notice may be thrown into what John calls a pickup team. John's team included four CIA officers fluent in Farsi or Dari who for years had been sneaking into Afghanistan, recruiting spies for the agency. Their mission now was to hook up with those contacts, collect intelligence for the impending U.S. aerial attack and hunt for bin Laden. Along with the light arms, radios and rations they had packed into the Mi-17 were two suitcases stuffed with $3 million. It was used for bribing Afghan warlords to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Like all the SOG's other paramilitary operatives, John had spent years in the U.S. military before joining the cia; five years is the minimum requirement. CIA recruiters regularly prowl clubs like those at Fort Bragg, N.C., where the Army's Special Operations Command has its headquarters, looking for Green Berets interested in even more unconventional work and higher pay (a starting SOG officer can earn more than $50,000 a year; a sergeant in the Green Berets begins at about $41,000). Special-forces soldiers, Navy seals and Air Force commandos are routinely dispatched to the agency on a temporary basis to provide special military skills that the CIA needs for specific missions. If a soldier is assigned highly clandestine work, his records are changed to make it appear as if he resigned from the military or was given civilian status; the process is called sheep dipping, after the practice of bathing sheep before they are sheared.

Military commandos who join the CIA full time are sent to the "farm," the agency's Camp Peary training center, located on 9,000 heavily wooded acres surrounded by a barbed-wire-topped fence near Williamsburg, Va. There the soldiers go through the yearlong course that all new CIA case officers must take to learn such skills of the trade as infiltrating hostile countries, communicating in codes, retrieving messages from dead drops and recruiting foreign agents to spy for the U.S. The CIA wants its paramilitary officers to be able to steal secrets as well as blow up bridges. John proudly recalls overhearing an Afghan commander tell a comrade, "Yes, I have these Americans with me, and, yes, they have rifles, but I don't think they're soldiers. They spend all their time with laptops." Says John: "We wrote hundreds and hundreds of intelligence reports."

At Camp Peary, new SOG recruits also hone their paramilitary skills, like sharpshooting with various kinds of weapons, setting up landing zones in remote areas for agency aircraft and attacking enemy sites with a small force. Some are sent to Delta Force's secret compound at Fort Bragg to learn highly specialized counterterrorism techniques, such as how to rescue a fellow agent held hostage.

Over the years, the SOG has taken on some of the CIA's most dangerous work. Paramilitary officers account for almost half the 79 stars chiseled into the wall in the main foyer of the agency's Langley, Va., headquarters commemorating all the spies who have died since the cia was founded in 1947. The newest star is dedicated to Spann. But the CIA suffered additional casualties in Afghanistan and some injuries that the agency has not yet publicly acknowledged. A CIA officer was wounded by a bullet in the chest during a fire fight in southern Afghanistan, and one of the U.S. soldiers confirmed killed was working with a CIA team when he was hit in a separate skirmish.

The SOG traces its roots to the days of William (Wild Bill) Donovan, the general in charge of espionage and clandestine operations during World War II, whose Office of Strategic Services sent paramilitary commandos behind enemy lines. The CIA, since its founding after the war, has always had a paramilitary unit, which has carried various names. At the height of the cold war, the agency had hundreds of paramilitary operatives fomenting coups around the world. It was involved in assassination plots against the leaders of Congo, Cuba and Iraq and was linked by a 1976 Senate inquiry to ousters that resulted in the deaths of the leaders of the Dominican Republic, Vietnam and Chile. When Ronald Reagan wanted to roll back communism in the 1980s, the agency organized paramilitary operations in Central America. These adventures had checkered results. The governments that the CIA destabilized in Iran, Guatemala and Chile were replaced by repressive regimes that ended up doing more damage in the long run to U.S. foreign policy.

By 1990 the SOG had practically been disbanded, the victim of domestic and international outrage over the agency's lethal meddling in other countries. Congressional and CIA budget cutters slashed money for the clandestine force, believing that billion-dollar spy satellites collected intelligence more efficiently and without embarrassing the U.S. The pendulum soon began to swing back, however, as intelligence officials realized that technology has its limitations. Satellites, for instance, can't see inside buildings; phone taps can't capture an enemy's every move. When Tenet was installed as CIA director in 1997, he began fielding more human spies and rebuilding the SOG.

During the Balkan conflicts in the mid- and late 1990s, agency paramilitary officers slipped into Bosnia and Kosovo to collect intelligence and hunt for accused war criminals like Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his top general, Ratko Mladic. But the newly formed teams did not have enough manpower for snatches even when they were able to pinpoint Serbian targets. "The CIA," complains a former senior Clinton aide, "didn't have the capability to take down a three- or four-car motorcade with bodyguards."

Today it does, and the sog's capacities are growing. Its maritime branch has speedboats to carry commandos to shore, and the agency can rent cargo ships through its front companies to transport larger equipment. The air arm, which Pentagon officials have nicknamed the Waffen CIA, has small passenger jets on alert to fly paramilitary operatives anywhere in the world on two hours' notice. Other cargo planes, reminiscent of the Air America fleet that the agency had in Vietnam, can drop supplies to replenish teams in remote locations. For areas like Afghanistan and Central Asia, where a Russian-made helicopter stands out less, the agency uses the large inventory of Soviet-era aircraft that the Pentagon captured in previous conflicts or bought on the black market.

The part of the air arm that has received the most publicity lately is the fleet of remote-controlled Predator drones, armed with 5-ft.-long Hellfire missiles, that the agency bought from the Air Force. In November 2001 the CIA deployed the drone to eliminate bin Laden's lieutenant, Mohammed Atef. Last November's Predator hit in Yemen killed an al-Qaeda commander and his entourage of five, though the strike was controversial: one of the dead men turned out to be a U.S. citizen.

There have possibly been other missteps as well. In February 2002 a cia Predator fired at a group of Afghan men gathered around a truck, killing at least three of them. U.S. intelligence insists the men were an al-Qaeda band, but locals say they were nothing more than scrap dealers or smugglers. And as the agency tries to pull together rival Iraqi Kurdish forces into a viable guerrilla force that could take on Saddam, it must confront its sorry history in that territory. In 1995 it attempted to organize a Kurdish rebellion against Saddam, but in the end CIA officers fled their base in northern Iraq, abandoning their Kurdish agents to Iraqi police, who rounded up and executed hundreds. The Clinton Administration, fearing the operation would end in disaster, had pulled the plug.

But perhaps the sog's most notable lapse in the field has been its failure to locate bin Laden. "They're still developing their capability," says a Bush Administration official who has worked with the unit. "It doesn't mean that they won't be a force to be reckoned with. But they're not there yet."

The pentagon is not happy about the SOG's moving aggressively onto its turf. When aides told Rumsfeld in late September 2001 that his Army Green Beret A-Teams couldn't go into Afghanistan until the CIA contingent there had laid the groundwork with the local warlords, he erupted, "I have all these guys under arms, and we've got to wait like a little bird in a nest for the CIA to let us go in?" What's more, Rumsfeld, according to a Pentagon source, does not like the idea that the CIA's paramilitary operatives could start fights his forces might have to finish.

The resentment burns even more because the generals know that when it comes to special-operations soldiers, they have a deeper bench than the spooks at Langley. And in Afghanistan, the Pentagon was regularly asked to supply the CIA with people from that bench. The Defense Department already has 44,000 Army, Navy and Air Force commandos in its U.S. Special Operations Command, who are as skilled in covert guerrilla warfare as the CIA's operatives. In the basement vaults of the command's headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., sit secret contingency plans to send military special-ops teams to any trouble spot in the world, complete with infiltration routes, drop zones, intelligence contacts and assault points.

The CIA ended up having about 100 officers roaming in Afghanistan during the U.S. invasion. But the agency teams were still critically short of key operatives. "I kept signing more and more deployment orders for folks to go to the CIA," recalls Robert Andrews, who at the time was a deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations. "They were looking for any medics, operational soldiers and even intelligence specialists that we had."

Even some old agency hands think the CIA should stick to intelligence and leave the commando work to the military. "Agency operators lack the experience to be effective military operators," says Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer and State Department counterterrorism expert. "They have just enough training to be dangerous to themselves and others." And there is the historic danger that CIA paramilitary operations, cloaked in layers of secrecy, can become rogues. "Everybody has seen this movie before where secret wars have developed into public disasters," warns John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense and intelligence think tank. "We're going to wind up doing things that, when the American people hear of them, they will repudiate."

The CIA responds that its commandos take on the jobs the military can't or won't handle. The SOG prides itself on being small and agile, capable of sending teams of 10 operators or fewer anywhere in the world much faster than the Pentagon can. One reason the agency was the first into Afghanistan was that the Special Ops Command dragged its feet getting its soldiers ready for action. Intelligence sources tell Time that the CIA had requested that commandos from the U.S. Army's elite Delta Force join its first team going into Afghanistan but that the Pentagon refused to send them.

Once deployed, CIA operatives have fewer regulations to hamstring them than their military counterparts do. In Afghanistan, CIA cargo planes were dropping warm-weather clothing, saddles and bales of hay for allied Afghan foot soldiers and cavalry. One cable that officers in the field sent back to Langley read, "Please send boots. The Taliban can hear our flip-flops." Says Kent Harrington, a former CIA station chief in Asia: "If a military special-operations soldier parachuted in with $3 million to buy armies, he'd have to have a C-5 cargo plane flying behind him with all the paperwork he'd need to dispense the money."

The CIA also has far more contacts than the Pentagon among foreign intelligence services that can help with clandestine operations overseas, plus a global network of paid snitches on the ground. The agency "deals with everything from bottom feeders around the world to their governments on a routine basis," says a senior U.S. intelligence official. "Name a country anywhere, and (the CIA) can identify with a couple of telephone calls four or five people who will have a variety of skills to go into that country if it becomes a difficult place." Green Berets can operate covertly in a combat zone, but they would stick out like sore thumbs if they tried to infiltrate a foreign city, because they don't have the intelligence network in place to conceal themselves. "We have the ability to hide in plain sight, get in and get out before anybody figures out who we are," asserts a CIA source.

CIA officials, leery of being sucked into new scandals, insist that their covert operations are now subject to layers of oversight. Before an agency paramilitary team can be launched, the President must sign an intelligence "finding" that broadly outlines the operation to be performed. That finding, along with a more detailed description of the mission, is sent to the congressional intelligence committees. If they object to an operation, they can cut off its funds the next time the agency's budget comes up.

After approving a covert operation, Bush leaves the details of when and how to Tenet and his senior aides. For example, Administration officials say Bush did not specifically order the Predator attack in Yemen. But after Sept. 11 he gave the CIA the green light to use lethal force against al-Qaeda.

Rumsfeld, nevertheless, is intent on building his own covert force. He recently ordered the Special Operations Command to draw up secret plans to launch attacks against al-Qaeda around the world, and he intends to put an extra $1 billion in its budget next year for the job. Elsewhere in the Defense Department, small, clandestine units, coordinating little with the CIA, are busy organizing their own future battles. Several hundred Army agents, with what was originally known as the intelligence support activity, train to infiltrate foreign countries to scout targets. With headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Va., the unit is so secretive, it changes its cover name every six months. Delta Force has a platoon of about 100 intelligence operatives trained to sneak into a foreign country and radio back last-minute intelligence before the force's commandos swoop in for an attack.

The CIA isn't amused. "Don't replicate what you don't need to replicate," argues a senior U.S. intelligence officer. So who referees this dispute? In addition to running the CIA, Tenet, as director of Central Intelligence, is supposed to oversee all intelligence programs in the U.S. government. But the Pentagon, which controls more than 80% of the estimated $35 billion intelligence budget, doesn't want him meddling in its spying.

Ultimately, the man who chooses between them is the President. Both Tenet and Rumsfeld report directly to him. And thus far, Bush has been eager to give Tenet leeway to build up his commando force. With a major conflict looming in Iraq, units from all branches of the military are mobilizing to get a piece of the action. The CIA, at least, will have its own.

From the Feb. 03, 2003 issue of TIME magazine

Copyright 2003 TIME magazine