Book Review: Killer Elite: Completely Revised and Updated: The Inside Story of America's Most Secret Special Operations Team


by Michael Smith

New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2011. Pp. ix, 384. Illus, gloss., notes, biblio., index.. $15.99 paper. ISBN: 1250006473

First published in 2006, Killer Elite has been extensively updated by Michael Smith, to include new material about more recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hunt for Bin Laden.   It is the killing of Osama Bin Laden that underscores one of the most important military developments of recent times, namely the vast improvement in America’s special operations forces that began following the abortive “Desert One” attempt to rescue the hostages from Iran in 1980.  That improvement was the result of many changes in organization, equipment, intelligence, training, and much more besides.  It is with these developments that Killer Elite is concerned, and Smith, a journalist for Britain’s The Sunday Times, a veteran of British Army intelligence, and the author of The Bletchley Park Codebreakers,  MI6: The Real James Bonds 1909-1939, and other works on intelligence and covert operations, does an excellent job.

Killer Elite tells the story, to the extent that security will allow it be told, of a highly secret military intelligence unit set up in the aftermath of the disaster at Desert One.  Originally called the “Intelligence Support Activity”, this organization has undergone various name changes, but is usually just referred to as “the Activity”, though sometimes called the “Secret Army of Northern Virginia” in reference to the location of its headquarters.  The Activity was set up to gather intelligence needed to help plan and conduct special operations, so unlike the CIA, which basically serves the President, the Activity’s chief “customer” is the military, especially the special operations forces.

But as Smith shows, the Activity’s contributions weren’t always welcomed in the Pentagon.  For much of its history, the Activity fought a two front war, one against America’s enemies abroad, the other against bureaucratic enemies who wanted it shut down.  The addition of another intelligence unit to an already crowded field excited fear and jealousy among other agencies, which intent on protecting their turf.  In addition, during the early ‘80s there was still a good deal of hostility to secret intelligence in general and human intelligence in particular by those who feared a repeat of the CIA scandals of the previous decade. 

In fact, the Activity was several times close to being disbanded, most notably after an embarrassing involvement in the Vietnam MIA issue.  The Activity had some dealings with Bo Gritz, a former Special Forces officer who promised to produce evidence of MIAs, but was proven to be a fraud and a huckster.  There were financial scandals as well, which gave the Activity’s enemies further ammunition.  In addition, some conventionally minded senior officers were flatly hostile to special operations in general.  Despite all of this, the Activity persisted, learned from its mistakes, and began to produce impressive results.

To the extent that the Activity had a secret weapon, it was high caliber of the people it took in.  Operators were recruited from among those with special operations experience.  These men were highly trained and motivated professionals with a wide range of useful skills, including language skills.  Operators received further training as well, sometimes from other agencies.  The first time the Activity sent two of its operators to the Farm, the CIA’s training school, they went with orders to graduate first and second in their class - orders which they successfully carried out.   After some initial reluctance, the Activity also began to employ female operators as well, who proved their worth in the field.

Smith has done some impressive research for this book, and it pays off.  He obviously relied a great deal on interviews with former Activity members, and the footnotes, which are extensive, often simply say “Information provided to the Author in confidence.”  It should be noted that Smith isn’t a reporter with an axe to grind, relying solely on unnamed sources, intent on leaking as much classified information as possible.  Note too that Smith’s sources were not disgruntled bureaucrats, but loyal and patriotic special operators, who still have friends and colleagues in harm’s way.  Operational details are vaguer and more circumspect than one would get from, say, Bob Woodward or Seymour Hersh, or the average
book about the CIA.

Killer Elite tells, within the limits of security, how the Activity participated in the search for General James Dozier when he was kidnaped by the Red Brigades in Italy.  The Activity also operated against jihadists, Communist guerillas, narcotraffickers, and Balkan war criminals.  Activity operators have gathered information about the location of American hostages being held in Lebanon in the 1980s, and helped develop rescue plans, though the Reagan Administration decided not to risk a rescue attempt.  Reading Killer Elite, one wonders what might have happened if they had.  Some of the Activity’s operations were technical in nature, others involved operators working undercover in hazardous situations.

A rare and detailed look at a little known, but vital part of America’s special operations forces.

Military history buff and veteran wargamer Burke G Sheppard previously reviewed Ministry of Defeat: The British in Iraq 2003-2009  for StrategyPage.

Reviewer: Burke G Sheppard   

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