Intelligence: The CIA Armed Forces


September 6, 2011: The U.S. CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) is accustomed to operating in the shadows. But for the last decade it has been forced to operate with a lot of media scrutiny on the operations of its new robotic air force. The CIA acquired some Predator UAVs early on (before September 11, 2001), originally for use in Central Asia (and elsewhere).

Moreover, the CIA had no hang-ups (like the U.S. Air Force did at the time) about arming their drones. They figured out how to equip each Predator with two (48.6 kg/107 pound) Hellfire missiles. If the UAV spotted a likely target, it could launch missiles right away. Now this was no different from the old tactic of turning warplanes loose against "targets of opportunity." But UAVs could circle over a piece of land for hours, something most modern aircraft could not do. Most enemy troops expect jet fighter bombers to come by, make a few passes, and depart. The CIA Predators could snoop around for a while, checking out suspects, and then fire on likely targets. Since the Hellfire was a highly accurate missile, they would usually hit what they aimed at. It was the success of the CIA Predators that forced the U.S. Air Force to get with the armed UAV program. And the rest is history. Now the CIA has over 30 Predator and Reaper UAVs, and has killed hundreds of terrorists and dozens of senior terrorist leaders, in the last decade.

Those UAVs are operated by CIA employees and contractors (most of them former military). Normally, the CIA contracts out major military operations like this to SOCOM (Special Operations Command). That still happens, but in the last decade, the CIA has expanded its own force of paramilitary field operatives. The CIA won’t say how many of these it has, but the number could be several thousand at this point. These men, and a few women, usually operate in small groups and rarely use anything heavier than an assault rifle or pistol.

The CIA has long recruited its field operatives from among SOCOM, and other military, retirees, or younger soldiers and marines who had served and not made it a career. Some recruits were not military veterans, and were trained by the CIA. While the CIA and SOCOM sometimes work at cross purposes, there is also a fifty year old tradition of the Special Forces and the CIA cooperating. SOCOM is also now using some of its own operators for espionage work, overlapping on turf previously controlled by the CIA. But the agency isn’t complaining, because they need all the help they can get to avoid being tagged as ineffective at getting leads on terrorist organizations. After the war on terror is over, which may be a decade in the future, the CIA may complain about the competition. But not now. At the moment, SOCOM and the CIA are mainly concerned about holding on to the people they have, and recruiting more of them.

The CIA is a major employer of recently retired Special Forces, SEALs and well qualified police detectives. These men are particularly in demand for work in countries that will not allow Special Forces troops to operate, but will look the other way if CIA employees discreetly snoop around. Pakistan and many Arab nations are a good example of this. The Special Forces retirees know all about operating in a foreign country, and the retired detectives know all about investigative techniques. The CIA provides training for whatever necessary skills the retirees need. What the CIA is mainly interested in is experience, and a track record of dealing with unusual situations. Detectives who have cracked particularly difficult cases are highly prized, especially if they can speak a foreign language or two. While the CIA hires these retirees on short term contracts, the agency has a reputation for taking care of its own, especially if the people involved know how to perform in the field. It wasn’t always this way, but it is now and will remain so for at least the rest of the decade.




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