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The most secret of secret units

March 22, 2013, at 7:38 PM

With the spotlight shining brightly on the Joint Special Operations Command, several of its component units have receded further into the shadows. As secretive as the Army and Navy special missions units are — here I'm talking about the units popularly known as SEAL Team Six and Delta Force — they are relatively easy to write about compared to their cousin, known informally as The Activity.  As ABC News reports, The Activity's missions will now be told in comic book form:

In the panels of the comic "The Activity," writer Nathan Edmondson and artist Mitch Gerads create a cell-shaded version of the ISA's world in which the plot is fictional, but much of the rest rings true, even to those few familiar with the comic's real-life counterpart.

One former member of the special operations community, who requested anonymity to speak about the ISA, told ABC News that while the comic clearly condenses intelligence-gathering timelines and significantly expands the ISA's duties for the sake of dramatic story telling, he was surprised at its overall accuracy.

"There's a lot more gunplay [in the comic] and a lot less of the mundane day-to-day intelligence collection," he said. "[But] the mission profiles, the types of missions are accurate... They [the writers] actually do know the unit to which they're referring."

So what's The Activity, really? It was formed after the Iranian hostage crisis to give Army special operations forces an indigenous, dedicated intelligence capability. Now, it is a self-contained special missions unit of its own, based in Ft. Belvoir, Va., and three other locations worldwide. It owns property in Alexandria, Va., Bethesda, Md., Rome, N.Y., and in four other cities nationwide.

It provides the entire special operations community with actionable intelligence ahead of discrete missions. With the exception of its new cyber squadron, its charter and structure is largely the same as when it was last disclosed: there's a signals intelligence division, a human intelligence detachment (spies and analysts), a communications squadron, an aviation squadron (pilots fly AC-130 gunships and RC-12 Guardrails), and an administrative support division. When The Activity provides its people to a joint special operations task force, it's known as "Orange." When its case officers, some of them women, recruit sources and sneak into countries to operationally prepare the battlefield, it is known by whatever nickname is given to the mission. Some old-timers refer it by a classified trigraph, OMS; it made an appearance in Bob Woodward's account of the early hunt for al Qaeda in Afghanistan as "Gray Fox." Gray Fox was the deployment name for The Activity in Afghanistan. 

Its budget — about $80 million — is classified. And its intelligence missions are not subject to oversight by the Congressional intelligence committees because virtually all Activity activity supports active or planned military missions. A few people on the Armed Services Committees have some familiarity with the Activity, but its visibility is kept low. This isn't to shield it from Congress necessarily. The Department of Defense (and the president) have, with The Activity, an intelligence service about which so little is known that even the enemy doesn't think to wonder whether their spies are in country. The Activity frequently works in conjunction with the  Technical Operations Support Activity, which does classified airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions for the Special Operations Command. 

Recruiting for The Activity is done by the United States Army Skills Evaluation Detachment, which describes its classified mission in this way. USASED:

is seeking the Army's best 35Gs, 35Ls, 35Ms, 35Ns, 35Ps, and 35Ts. Both male and female Soldiers in the ranks of SPC(P) through SFC are eligible. These individuals are required to be mentally and physically sound, mature, competent, and willing to go the extra mile on every task. These jobs are very demanding, challenging, and rewarding in many different aspects. All applicants must score a minimum of 250 points on the APFT, not less than 80 points in each category. Applicants must volunteer, already be Airborne qualified, or be willing to attend Airborne training. If the applicant meets all criteria, he/she will be required to complete a rigorous screening and selection process. Upon completion of this process, you will be stabilized for a minimum of three (3) years in the MDW area. Soldiers who are interested in this unique program should call (703) 325-9755 or email usased.rec@us.army.mil.

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