The Special Activities Division (SAD) is a division in the United States Central Intelligence Agency responsible for covert operations known as "special activities". Within SAD, there are two separate groups: SAD/SOG for tactical paramilitary operations and SAD/PAG for covert political action.
Special Operations Group (SOG) is the department within SAD responsible for operations that include high threat military or covert operations with which the U.S. government does not wish to be overtly associated. As such, members of the unit do not carry any objects or clothing that would associate them with the United States government. If they are compromised during a mission, the United States government may deny all knowledge.
SOG is generally considered the most secretive special operations force in the United States. The group selects operatives from other special mission units such as Delta Force, Naval Special Warfare Development Group, Intelligence Support Activity and 24th Special Tactics Squadron, as well as other United States special operations forces, such as Naval Special Warfare Command, Marine Critical Skills Operators, Army Green Berets, SEALs, Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen, Force Recon, Combat Controllers, Pararescue and the 75th Ranger Regiment.
SOG Paramilitary Operations Officers account for a majority of Distinguished Intelligence Cross and Intelligence Star recipients during conflicts or incidents which elicited CIA involvement. An award bestowing either of these citations represents the highest honors awarded within the CIA in recognition of distinguished valor and excellence in the line of duty. SAD/SOG operatives also account for the majority of the stars displayed on the Memorial Wall at CIA headquarters indicating that the agent died while on active duty.
Political Action Group (PAG) is responsible for covert activities related to political influence, psychological operations and economic warfare. The rapid development of technology has added cyber warfare to their mission. Tactical units within SAD are also capable of carrying out covert political action while deployed in hostile and austere environments. A large covert operation usually has components that involve many, or all, of these categories, as well as paramilitary operations.
SAD provides the President of the United States with an option when overt military operations and/or diplomatic actions are not viable or politically feasible. SAD can be directly tasked by the president or the National Security Council at the president's direction, unlike other U.S. special mission forces. SAD/SOG has far fewer members than most of the other special missions units, such as the U.S. Army's 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (Delta Force) or Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU).
As the action arm of the CIA's Directorate of Operations, SAD/SOG conducts direct action missions such as raids, ambushes, sabotage, targeted killings and unconventional warfare (e.g., training and leading guerrilla and military units of other countries in combat). SAD/SOG also conducts special reconnaissance that can be either military- or intelligence-driven, but is carried out by Paramilitary Officers (also called Paramilitary Operatives or Paramilitary Operations Officers) when in "non-permissive environments". Paramilitary Operations Officers are also fully trained case officers (i.e., "spy handlers") and as such conduct clandestine human intelligence (HUMINT) operations throughout the world.
The political action group within SAD conducts the deniable psychological operations, also known as black propaganda, as well as "Covert Influence" to effect political change in other countries as part of United States foreign policy. Covert intervention in foreign election is the most significant form of SAD's political action. This involves financial support for favored candidates, media guidance, technical support for public relations, get-out-the-vote or political organizing efforts, legal expertise, advertising campaigns, assistance with poll-watching, and other means of direct action. Policy decisions are influenced by agents, such as subverted officials of the country, to make decisions in their official capacity that are in the furtherance of U.S. policy aims. In addition, mechanisms for forming and developing opinions involve the covert use of propaganda.
Propaganda includes leaflets, newspapers, magazines, books, radio, and television, all of which are geared to convey the U.S. message appropriate to the region. These techniques have expanded to cover the internet as well. They may employ officers to work as journalists, recruit agents of influence, operate media platforms, plant certain stories or information in places it is hoped it will come to public attention, or seek to deny and/or discredit information that is public knowledge. In all such propaganda efforts, "black" operations denote those in which the audience is to be kept ignorant of the source; "white" efforts are those in which the originator openly acknowledges themselves; and "gray" operations are those in which the source is partly but not fully acknowledged.
Some examples of political action programs were the prevention of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) from winning elections between 1948 and the late 1960s; overthrowing the governments of Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954; arming rebels in Indonesia in 1957; and providing funds and support to the trade union federation Solidarity following the imposition of martial law in Poland after 1981.
SAD's existence became better known as a result of the "War on Terror". Beginning in autumn of 2001, SAD/SOG paramilitary teams arrived in Afghanistan to hunt down al-Qaeda leaders, facilitate the entry of U.S. Army Special Forces and lead the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan against the ruling Taliban. SAD/SOG units also defeated Ansar al-Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and trained, equipped, organized and led the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to defeat the Iraqi Army in northern Iraq. Despite being the most covert unit in US Special Operations, numerous books have been published on the exploits of CIA paramilitary officers, including Conboy and Morrison's Feet to the Fire: CIA Covert Operations in Indonesia, and Warner's Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America's Clandestine War in Laos. Most experts consider SAD/SOG the premier force for unconventional warfare (UW), whether that warfare consists of either creating or combating an insurgency in a foreign country.
There remains some conflict between the National Clandestine Service and the more clandestine parts of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), such as the Joint Special Operations Command. This is usually confined to the civilian/political heads of the respective Department/Agency. The combination of SAD and USSOCOM units has resulted in some of the more prominent actions of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the locating and killing of Osama bin Laden. SAD/SOG has several missions. One of these missions is the recruiting, training, and leading of indigenous forces in combat operations. SAD/SOG and its successors have been used when it was considered desirable to have plausible deniability about U.S. support (this is called a covert operation or "covert action"). Unlike other special missions units, SAD/SOG operatives combine special operations and clandestine intelligence capabilities in one individual. These individuals can operate in any environment (sea, air or ground) with limited to no support.
SAD/SOG has several hundred officers, mostly former members of special operations forces (SOF) and a majority from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). The CIA has also recruited individuals from within the agency. The CIA's formal position for these individuals is "Paramilitary Operations Officers" and "Specialized Skills Officers." Paramilitary Operations Officers most likely attend the Clandestine Service Trainee (CST) program, which trains them as clandestine intelligence operatives and an internal paramilitary training course. The primary strengths of SAD/SOG Paramilitary Officers are operational agility, adaptability, and deniability. They often operate in small teams, typically made up of two to eight operatives (with some operations being carried out by a single officer), all usually with extensive military tactical experience and a set of specialized skills that does not exist in any other unit. As fully trained intelligence case officers, Paramilitary Operations Officers possess all the clandestine skills to collect human intelligence—and most importantly—to recruit assets from among the indigenous troops receiving their training. These officers often operate in remote locations behind enemy lines to carry out direct action (including raids and sabotage), counter-intelligence, guerrilla/unconventional warfare, counter-terrorism, and hostage rescue missions, in addition to being able to conduct espionage via HUMINT assets.
There are four principal elements within SAD's Special Operations Group: the Air Branch, the Maritime Branch, the Ground Branch, and the Armor and Special Programs Branch. The Armor and Special Programs Branch is charged with development, testing, and covert procurement of new personnel and vehicular armor and maintenance of stockpiles of ordnance and weapons systems used by SOG, almost all of which must be obtained from clandestine sources abroad, in order to provide SOG operatives and their foreign trainees with plausible deniability in accordance with U.S. Congressional directives.
Together, SAD/SOG contains a complete combined arms covert paramilitary. Paramilitary Operations Officers are the core of each branch and routinely move between the branches to gain expertise in all aspects of SOG. As such, Paramilitary Operations Officers are trained to operate in a multitude of environments. Because these officers are taken from the most highly trained units in the U.S. military and then provided with extensive additional training to become CIA clandestine intelligence officers, many U.S. security experts assess them as the most elite of the U.S. special missions units.
SAD, like most of the CIA, requires a bachelor's degree to be considered for employment. Many have advanced degrees such as Master's and law degrees. Many candidates come from notable schools, many from Ivy League institutions and United States Service Academies, but the majority of recruits today come from middle-class backgrounds. SAD officers are trained at Camp Peary, Virginia (also known as "The Farm") and at privately owned training centers around the United States. They also train its personnel at "The Point" (Harvey Point), a facility outside of Hertford, North Carolina. In addition to the eighteen months of training in the Clandestine Service Trainee (CST) Program required to become a clandestine intelligence officer, Paramilitary Operations Officers are trained to a high level of proficiency in the use and tactical employment of an unusually wide degree of modern weaponry, explosive devices and firearms (foreign and domestic), hand to hand combat, high performance/tactical driving (on and off road), apprehension avoidance (including picking handcuffs and escaping from confinement), improvised explosive devices, cyber warfare, covert channels, HAHO/HALO parachuting, combat and commercial SCUBA and closed circuit diving, proficiency in foreign languages, surreptitious entry operations (picking or otherwise bypassing locks), vehicle hot-wiring, Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE), extreme survival and wilderness training, combat EMS medical training, tactical communications, and tracking.