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NBC News
updated 10/24/2003 10:34:28 AM ET 2003-10-24T14:34:28

Confirmation of the death of CIA operative Johnny “Mike” Spann in the Mazar-e-Sharif prison uprising raises the profile of the agency’s Special Activities Division, which has been deployed in the campaign in Afghanistan since late September, U.S. officials say.

THE SPECIAL ACTIVITIES agents are trained in killing and military arts. One U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while the CIA has not engaged in assassinations for decades, it does train its operatives, or spies, in paramilitary skills.

All recruits on the agency’s 5,000-person spy staff are given a training and orientation course in basic military skills. The same official said, however, that there are operatives “in certain branches [including SA] who are more militaristic ... who can slit your throat in 12 different ways and would be only too willing to do so.” Most of the training takes place at Camp Peary, an Army camp near Williamsburg, Va., that serves as the CIA’s Special Training Center, and Harvey Point, N.C., a facility where operatives train for amphibious operations.

“They have been slogging in the mud like the special operations guys,” said another official.

Why does the CIA offer such training if it doesn’t engage in assassination? “Self-defense,” said one official, noting that the U.S. ban on assassination covers only the killing of political leaders during peacetime, not terrorists or other combatants. Among the operations the S.A. teams are trained in: sabotage, personnel and material recovery, kidnapping, bomb damage assessment, counterterrorist operations and hostage rescues overseas.

MANY MISSIONS

Intelligence historian Jeffrey T. Richelson says the S.A. has covered a variety of missions. The group, which recently was reorganized, has had about 200 officers, divided among several groups: the Special Operations Group; the Foreign Training Group, which trains foreign police and intelligence officers; the Propaganda and Political Action Group, which handles disinformation; the Computer Operations Group, which handles information warfare; and the Proprietary Management Staff, which manages whatever companies the CIA sets up as covers for the S.A.

Many of the operatives are recruited from the ranks of retired military officers, including Delta Force and SEAL Team personnel, some of whom worked previously with the S.A. on overseas missions.

Despite the broad training the agents receive, Richelson says, S.A. agents are not rogue operatives a la James Bond. “That would be stretching it quite a bit,” he said, noting the CIA puts a significant number of restrictions on its officers.

Robert Windrem is an NBC investigative producer based in New York.

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