Spec-Ops Troops Study To Be Part-Spy, Part-Gumshoe

Associated Press SHARE

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — 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.

[See the latest political cartoons.]

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.

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, now available on iPad.]

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.