The Birth of the Field Operations Group (Later Intelligence Support Activity / Secret Army of Northern Virginia)
Part 1 of 3 - Rangers and TF160/SOAR to Follow
The emerging problems our Nation faced in the early 1980s with terrorism, airplane hijacking, and hostage taking, created considerable challenges for the government (USG) to resolve. Key was the requirement to develop a competent counter resolution force.
To this point, the CIA and the DOD followed separate independent paths as defined by statutes contained in Title 10 (DOD authorities) and Title 50 (Intelligence agency authorities). Lawyers for both Titles within the respective DOD and CIA bureaucracies, fought to preserve their interpretations of applications, to prevent one department from intruding into the territory of the other. The separation did not fit real world requirements which was finally recognized in the aftermath of the failed Iran rescue.
Title 10 is the broad statute regarding what DOD is authorized to do. This includes Clandestine operations, but not those which are Covert. To lawyers, this is a distinction with a difference. To operators—not so much. Failed Clandestine operations, usually result in some form of USG explanation. Covert operations are shrouded in plausible deniability. In sum, Uniforms do Clandestine, Civvies do Covert. Parsing one from the other can be quite difficult and largely determined by the location and nature of the target.
World conditions in the early 1980s suggested that some capability was required to address the ambiguous conflicts of each Title authority into some form of credible operational capability.
After the rescue attempt, then CSA Shy Meyer, convened a small group of people within Army DCSOPS to address future SOF/CT structure in the aftermath of the failure, and while still under a POTUS mandate, to be prepared to conduct an In-Extremis rescue within 10 days.
A key driver for the meeting was the recognition that quality operational intelligence was virtually non-existent. The rescue force was forced to launch with sketchy data forcing a worst-case force list. Had the force been aware of the actual hostage location and situation, the force could have continued past Desert One and probably succeeded.
The JTF was largely dependent upon the CIA to provide the vital confirming HUMINT as to the hostage location. This was never forthcoming despite the greatest pressure upon the Agency. Meyer was incensed at the lack of CIA interest/dedication/support to the rescue task and believed that was a major factor in the failure. The "Pakistani cook" piece, delivered as Delta boarded the aircraft, was viewed as an implausible source though subsequent inquiry revealed that the crucial info was available much earlier, but intentionally not shared for several reasons.
Meyer was determined that no future SOF OP with Army forces would be conducted absent credible quality CIA/DOD/NSA and Army intelligence. This was the birth of the Field Operations Group (FOG)-later ISA/Secret Army of Northern Virginia. As with both the establishment of JSOC, TF160/SOAR and Ranger SOF, the task was not easy.
The Chief’s planning element determined that DOD/Army needed to create a Joint Army-CIA force that would both develop quality intelligence abroad, but also provide site support for direct action operations. Exactly who would execute the direct-action operations, would be determined after the intelligence determine the situational necessities.
The planners in DAMO-ODSO were acutely aware of the different legal authorities contained in Title 10 and Title 50 statutes. But, it was also clear that some form of operational melding was essential to effectively address operational requirements. A DOD lawyer was assigned to the development planning, and Col Jerry King (MG Vaught's Chief of Staff for the Iran JTF) became the first head of the FOG.
Gen Meyer, Gen Vaught (DAMO-OD), and LTC Jim Longhofer (DAMO-ODSO), traveled to Langley and met with the new Director and his operational elements director. It was agreed that FOG would be a Joint organization and roles and tasks were developed for each—always mindful of the Title 10/50 issues.
Both Army and the Agency recognized the changed nature of the world and the requirements of the emerging terrorist/hostage issues. Both the CSA and the Director understood that each offered something the other did not and that together, a much better response capability could be generated—a point that POTUS emphasized through the National Security Council to both.
Key to the concept was that there would be a single in-house element (FOG) that either side could use e.g. a Title 10 operation or a Title 50 operation. Both sides would work together on developing the intel, and then a decision would be made regarding a specific operational tasking to avoid statutory conflict.
In short order, Langley provided people, training, and a conduit to its various intelligence and planning aspects. Army did likewise through DAMO-ODSO. Funding was to be a joint undertaking. At the point of execution, the road became bureaucratically bumpy.
The ACSI, LTG Odom, strongly objected to the authority lines for FOG and asked Meyer to switch the Army portion from DCSOPS to the ACSI. His elements were being heavily tasked, and a directed intelligence pipeline was established to FOG.
However, his several interventions and temporary blockage of many initiatives, showed that his primary intent was to arrest the development and contain the capability. Gen Meyer demurred on the request, citing the several parts of the world where Army FOG personnel were actively supporting SOF elements, the Agency, and CINC.
LTG Odom acquiesced but took every opportunity to oppose actions engaging his traditional intelligence elements. ODSO/FOG overcame much of this through replication of capability generously funded and supported by CIA.
On the one occasion where he accompanied DSCOPS representatives to the Hill for a closed classified session regarding FOG activities, he voiced his concern regarding “management,” where the Committee Chairman, in plain, but polite language, told him that the Committee was satisfied with the arrangements. Upon return to the Pentagon, he re-assigned the ACSI POC out of FOG-related issues.
As an ancillary, but crucial action during this period, LTC Bruce Mauldin and I, with the CSA’s concurrence and support, visited the Hill and had several closed-door sessions with appropriate committee Chairs and Ranking Members regarding the unit's establishment, roles and missions, and funding lines.
We provided documents for viewing from both the Agency and DOD lawyers supporting the organization and outlining the rationale. In all cases, the Congressional members voiced support. They also noted the specific funding line and agreed to manage it as a priority classified line absent committee discussion.
On Gen Meyer's departure, his successor, John Wickham, attempted to disband the unit, but Jack Marsh, in his role as ASD SO/LIC prevented it, and required it be retained, and resourced. Wickham did transfer authority to the ACSI with predictable and less than beneficial results.
The unit exists in an altered form today, but it is an example as to how the USG can effectively mix Title 10 and 50 rules to achieve a common end and how conventional bureaucracies can stifle needed imaginative resolutions.