What Separates the Special Activities Division from other American Special Forces Groups?
The Special Operations Group (SOG) is considered the most secretive elite unit in the United States. They are part of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division and not the military.
You can find SOGs on many US military bases outside of the United States (Doha, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan…) where they often work together with US Army Special Forces (SF) and other special operations units.
Their operations include tracking down terrorists and war criminals, arresting (or abducting) them, but also a lot of intelligence gathering missions in dangerous terrain where military force is needed.
Unlike other CIA operatives (who mainly operate from US embassies), SOG members are based in military installations and are usually very difficult to distinguish from other US special operations forces.
So what separates them from regular Special Forces?
As individuals…not much. Guys like Michael Spann (killed at the beginning of the Afghan invasion) was a USMC officer before he joined CIA and William “Chief” Carlson was a US Army “special operations forces” veteran before he joined. So tactically speaking, they use the same weapons, skills, and small unit tactics.
Operationally, the SAD and US Arm Special Forces provide similar missions sets with regards to being able to do direct action raids, strategic surveillance, and most importantly, training up proxy forces to conduct operations on behalf of the US government and its allies.
The big difference is “authorities.” The US military operate under Title 10 authorities. CIA operates under Title 50 authorities. There are whole boat load of legal implications to that but the most basic, easiest to understand is where they can operate.
Title 10 forces are limited to areas of hostilities. Title 50 forces can go anywhere. This is why for the UBL raid, the military unit that conducted the raid was “chopped” to CIA. Under Title 10, the US military could not go into Pakistan because it is not a declared area of hostilities. Under Title 50, CIA and their allocated forces could go into Pakistan or anywhere else (short of the USA).
Whether they would be treated as POWs or not is slightly exaggerated. In a combat zone, they would still have all the protections of POWs as afforded by the Geneva Conventions. (These apply to insurgents as well.) The big issue is whether they are lawful combatants or not. If they are wearing a uniform (something that distinguishes them from the civilian population) and they carry their weapons openly, whether they are military or not will not matter. If they are wearing civilian clothing and concealing their weapons, they could be considered unlawful combatants and any actions they take could be used for war crimes or even just regular criminal charges.
In Pakistan, for example, the assault force would NOT have been considered POWs because we are not in a state of declared hostilities with Pakistan. They would be held as criminals and tried as such.
Beyond that is the issue of oversight. Once a war has been declared (to include via AUMF), the military is free to conduct the war as necessary subject the Laws of Armed Conflict, the relevant conventions, and the strategic guidance of the National Command Authority. But each operation (with very limited examples) does not need to be approved by the President or Congress.
The opposite tends to be true for Title 50 forces. This is where the need for a “presidential finding” comes into play.
the Hughes-Ryan Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. This amendment addressed the question of CIA covert actions and prohibited the use of appropriated funds for their conduct unless and until the President “finds” that each such operation is important to the national security and submits this Finding to the appropriate Congressional committees — a total of six committees. (This grew to eight committees after the House and Senate intelligence committees were established.)
In theory, this means that every covert operation (which would include “targeted killings”) must be approved by the President and submitted to Congressional committee. Congress doesn’t necessary “approve” of the operations but they must be made aware of them. In practice, this has become more “streamlined” shall we say with regards to how designated targets are engaged.
Following the September 11th attacks, the President issued a finding directing the CIA to covertly attack al Qaeda anywhere in the world.The exact process for how the list was executed has largely been kept a secret. When President Obama took office, he modified the process and this was reported on by a number of media outlets.
Not specifically addressed in the above graphic, there are lawyers involved in the process in both the DoD and the CIA as well as additional recommendations from the Department of Justice.However, there involvement should not be mistaken for “due process” as there is no defense attorney, nor are the requirements for evidence the same as they would be in a criminal trial. The lawyers are there to ensure the actions correspond with the relevant laws to include international treaties, law of armed conflict, and US laws.
Why is there a difference? Because the individual is not being targeted as a criminal to be executed but “the elimination of a particular enemy officer in the field as an act of war.”In other words, they are enemy combatants who could be legally engaged by the US military in a designated theater of war but because they are outside of that theater, they are being engaged by Title 50 forces instead. They are still legitimate targets for all of the same reasons they would be in Afghanistan but they are not going to be allowed to escape simply because they were able to slip across the border.
This is not a kid’s game of being on “base” and therefore safe from being “tagged.” As long as they present a threat to the United States (and that’s where the lawyers come in, to confirm that they represent a threat in accordance with the applicable AUMF), then they are “enemy combatants” and their targeting is not a form of execution but a “an act of war” no different than if they were shot by a sniper in Nanghar province or killed by a JDAM in Helmand province. Geography dictates the means of attack not the characterization of the target.
To that end, it would be illegal for the CIA to use the above referenced presidential finding to target a Russian supporting separatists in Ukraine or a drug dealer in Mexico. Not because Mexico or Ukraine are off-limits but because they do not represent legitimate targets under the standing authority associated with that presidential finding. CIA efforts to target bin Ladin prior to 9/11 ran into this problem on at least two occasions which allowed him to live to direct 9/11. Neither had to do with bin Ladin as a legal target but did have to do with situation under which he was being targeted and the implications that went along with that.
So yes, the CIA can kill people. No they cannot commit assassinations. There is a legal review process in confirming the targets are valid enemy combatants subject to a given authority (such as an AUMF) but they are not afforded any further legal protections because of citizenship or geographic location.
with contributions from BK Price