Spec-Ops troops study to be part-spy, part-gumshoe

January 4, 2012 - 4:29 AM
Special Operations Intelligence Schools

In this photo taken Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011, a role-playing man, center, is interrogated during a mock exercise at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center & School at Fort Bragg, N.C. A scene of stomach-clenching gore confronted the special operations troops: The shredded remains of a suicide bomber, scattered around the checkpoint. But the blood and body are fake, like the Hollywood-style explosion that began a classroom exercise designed to teach these students to look past the grisly mess for the evidence that could lead to those who built the bomb. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — The raid to grab Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan took just under 40 minutes — roughly 10 to get to bin Laden.

Special operators spent much of the rest of the time gathering evidence: computer files, written notes and thumb drives that pointed to new al-Qaida plots and previously secret operatives around the globe.

That science is what special operators of all types are learning at Fort Bragg's Special Warfare Center, with real-life scenarios meant to shock — and teach.

In one exercise, a Hollywood-style explosion leaves the remains of a fake suicide bomber scattered around a checkpoint.

The students must look past the grisly mess for the evidence that could lead to those who built the bomb.

Forging lessons painfully learned in the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the formal curriculum is intended to help elite military units track militants across international boundaries and work alongside sometimes competing U.S. agencies.

The coursework is similar to the CIA's legendary spycraft training center called The Farm, and is at the brainchild of Green Beret Maj. Gen. Bennet Sacolick, a veteran of elite special operations units and a long stint on loan to the CIA.

Among the students at the CIA-approved Fort Bragg course are Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs and Marine Corps special operators. As in the Navy SEAL raid that killed bin Laden, everything from computers to fingerprints can be retrieved from a raid site and quickly analyzed. In some cases the analysis is so fast it can lead to several new targets in a single night.

The school is also an illustration of how special operations and intelligence forces have reached a less-contentious coexistence after early clashes in which CIA officers accused the military operators of ineptly trying to run their own spy rings overseas without State Department or CIA knowledge.

"As my guys go to Afghanistan and interface with CIA base and station chiefs, they can do it with more credibility than in the past," Sacolick told The Associated Press in a rare interview.

While many in the public may not be aware that the military is allowed to gather information, and even run its own spy networks, special operations forces have been authorized to do just that since the disastrous Desert One raid meant to rescue the U.S. hostages held in Iran in 1979.

The raid went awry because of a helicopter crash, not an intelligence foul-up. But before the raid, military planners had been frustrated that CIA employees working inside the country were unable to provide the tactical intelligence needed to insert a covert force — even basic information like which way the streets ran outside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where the hostages were held.

That's why almost a third of every class at the CIA's Farm has been military, a former senior intelligence official said.

The Fort Bragg school means special operators now can get much of that CIA-style training at their home facility.

Sacolick said he was shocked at how piecemeal intelligence gathering and sharing was up until a couple of years ago. Special operations units would know their area but had no established way to pass it on, he said, or any means for reaching out to the CIA to fill in information gaps.

"The CIA will satisfy any information requirement we have," the agency veteran said.

"All we have to do is ask the right person. So that's what we are creating" among the special operations teams training at Fort Bragg, Sacolick said, pointing out troops who "have the vocabulary, have the contacts, know the questions to ask and who to ask."

The CIA also helped Sacolick design the course to teach special operators the spy-related tradecraft they need for the counterterror fight outside known war zones, such as in Somalia or Southeast Asia. They learn skills like how to evade surveillance by terrorists or a target country's intelligence service.

The elite teams' piecemeal training in those areas, often done previously by contractors rather than at the agency's Farm, was part of what caused the near-revolt of CIA station chiefs just after Sept. 11, when the Pentagon sent scores of such troops overseas. With their short haircuts, obvious military bearing and uneven training in tradecraft, they caused more than a few uncomfortable incidents for U.S. ambassadors and CIA chiefs, who sometimes were not even told they were there.

That led to congressional alarm and a clash between the Pentagon, the spies and the diplomats over who should be able to operate where.

The White House eventually created an information exchange to allow elite military troops to gather intelligence, while keeping State and the CIA in the loop.

To make sure spy did not stumble over spy, the Pentagon's top intelligence official, Stephen Cambone, and the CIA's then-top clandestine representative, Jose Rodriguez, created a mechanism that exists to this day to let each network know who was working for whom.

The next step was to find common ground among those competing tribes of intelligence and military operators — a step embraced by now-retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Then heading the military's Joint Special Operations Command, McChrystal embraced the "hostage swap" of JSOC troops and CIA officers, deploying them to each other's command centers and forcing collaboration through proximity.

But he upgraded the practice, sending his best people, instead of following the unwritten custom of sending one's least-valuable employee to get them out of the home office.

McChrystal used to lecture his people, Sacolick among them, to forge their own networks of one-on-one relationships in other agencies to counter the enemy network.

That's how Sacolick ended up at the CIA, and why he patterned his school on lessons the agency helped teach him.

The idea is to pass on the skills learned in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, where special operators have had more intelligence backup and logistical support from the regular military than they will in the remote places where they usually operate, Sacolick said.

"I need to prepare a 12-man team to go anywhere on this planet," he said. "They need to be every bit as good as they are in Afghanistan, in the middle of Africa somewhere" or wherever the next conflict takes them.