Intelligence Support Activity ( ISA )
Perhaps the least known, and most classified unit within the realm of US special operations is the Intelligence Support Activity, a small, highly trained and capable intelligence unit. The amount of accurate and up-to-date information about the ISA is very small, due to the extremely high secrecy surrounding the unit, but over the years, various books and reports have gleamed some information about the ISA.
The ISA's origins are in the Foreign Operating Group (FOG), whose origin in turn is in the 1979 overthrow of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. The rapidly deteriorating situation in the country prompted the United States to create a small Special Forces unit with the purpose of surveying the US embassy. Operators from the unit entered Nicaragua using false passports, and proceeded to photograph the embassy from every angle, record the types of locks on all doors, inside and outside, record the number of exits and windows, and finally drew up the internal layout of the building. The survey was successful, which led defense officials to create ad hoc Special Forces units to survey US embassies in hotspots around the world. Ironically, the embassy in Iran was on their itinerary, but, history intervened, and it was overrun by a mob who took the larger part of the staff hostage.
When the first rescue attempt of the hostages in Iran failed, a second attempt, code-named Honey Badger, immediately started. One problem that plagued the first attempt was the lack of valuable intelligence. The CIA proved unable to provide the critical intelligence Delta Force needed, such as the number of guards, the type of weapons they were using and what kinds of locks were on the doors. The second rescue force was not going to be affected by the same problem, and the FOG was established in July of 1980, under the control of Colonel Jerry King. In the summer of 1980, FOG agents were infiltrated into Teheran to report back on the hostages' whereabouts, movements of the Iranians, as well as to recruit local agents. Unfortunately, the hostages were dispersed throughout the country, and the chance never came for a second attempt, but the seeds were planted for the Intelligence Support Activity.
The government realized the importance of the FOG. With it, they had a unit of military spies able to covertly infiltrate a country and provide hands-on, critical intelligence, as well as to raise logistical support for counter-terrorist commandos in case of a crisis. The FOG was re-named the Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), and given an initial budged of $7 million. The unit would be immediately deployed to any country where a terrorist act against the United States had taken place, and would start providing critical intelligence, as well as setting up landing zones and infiltration routes for the counter-terrorist force. Colonel Jerry King retained his position as the head of the group, now 100-strong and headquartered in a nondescript building in Arlington, Virginia. ISA was highly classified. It was provided with a cover name, Tactical Concept Activity, and would never be acknowledged by the Pentagon. Its budget would be carefully concealed so that it never made a paper trail, and only a dozen officials would know the names and locations of all of ISA's agents and safehouses. ISA would operate under a host of cover names to confuse anyone without the need to know. Royal Cape, Granite Rock and Powder Keg were some, Centra Spike and Torn Victor being other possible cover names.
ISA was divided into branches of signals intelligence (SIGINT) specialists, human intelligence (HUMINT) specialists, and a highly compartmentalized direct action element, the "shooters." Candidates pulled from computer records, or by word of mouth were required to pass a tough selection course, physical and psychological tests. One selection exercise involved dropping a candidate off in the desert without food, water or means of communication. He would be given instructions and equipment along the way, and was required to perform certain assignments, for example, setting up a SATCOM system. Immediately after, he would be dropped off in a city, and asked to perform clandestine activities. If successful, the candidate would then continue training within ISA in such skills as parachuting, survival, weapons and intelligence gathering.
In 1981, the CIA, along with a covert helicopter unit, Seaspray, was involved in the secret transport of Lebanese Christian leader Bashir Gemayel back to Beirut after a round of secret talks with the President Reagan. The plan involved flying feet above the turbulent Mediterranean Sea, at night, through hostile airspace. An ISA technician with a SATCOM was provided for the operation to aid in the tracking. It was discovered that he was tape-recording the operation, prompting fears that ISA head Jerry King might use the tape as leverage in case the op went bad. The ISA agent was ordered to stop the recording, an order to which he complied.
On December 17, 1981, Colonel James Dozier, the highest ranking American army officer in the NATO southern European Command was kidnapped by members of the Red Brigade terrorist faction. Under Operation Winter Harvest, a small team of Delta Force technicians was dispatched to Italy to provide assistance with the search for Dozier. After a massive effort, including "remote viewers" from the United States, turned up nothing, a team of ISA signals intelligence specialists was also sent over to Italy to provide any assistance they could, along with sophisticated equipment and specially outfitted helicopters. The ISA technicians were instrumental in the tracking and capture of a number of Red Brigades terrorists, and most probably the location of the kidnapped Dozier himself.
In late 1981, ISA agents were involved in the attempt to acquire a Soviet T-72 tank, which had obsessed intelligence analysts. The operation, code-named Great Falcon, made a deal with the Iraqi government for a T-72, in exchange for 175mm cannons. The negotiations were going so well that Iraq decided to throw in a Mil Mi-24 Hind D helicopter and a MiG-25 fighter-interceptor. ISA was close to making the exchange, but the deal fell through at the last minute.
ISA's existence became public in 1982 as a result of a scandal involving US POWs in Vietnam. Reconnaissance overflights revealed a possible location where POWs, still believed to be held by the Vietnamese early in the year. An operation was planned for their rescue, with Seaspray, Delta Force and the ISA all playing a role. But, ISA also sponsored a private rescue mission by Vietnam War veteran Bo Gritz, providing him with thousands of dollars worth of communications equipment, cameras, along with plane tickets and intelligence photos. When government officials found out, they were horrified, they seemed to have a rogue agency within its ranks. A Congressional hearing was held, and the media revealed the existence of a "classified military intelligence unit." As a result, ISA was almost disbanded, but Army officials succeeded in ensuring its survival, albeit on a much tighter leash.
In 1982, ISA SIGINT specialists took part in Operation Queens Hunter, a Seaspray operation in the skies above El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. The specialists, nicknamed "knob turners" operated sophisticated electronic eavesdropping equipment located in the back cabin of specially-outfitted Seaspray Beechcraft 100 airplanes. The aim of the operation was to monitor cross-border raids and movements of Sandinista forces and rebels in El Salvador. ISA operators were said to be so skilled that they could tell whether a tank needed a tune-up from background noise of transmissions. Along with Queens Hunter, ISA was involved in many operations across Central America, in Panama, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. One of their major tasks was to create "pathfinders." They marked secret infiltration routes and bases American forces could use if they were ever sent into the country.
Also in 1982, an ISA team was sent to Sudan to provide protection to Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiry and his vice president. Intelligence picked up reports that the two, along with other Sudanese officials were the targets of Libyan-sponsored terrorist assassinations. ISA intelligence specialists, K9 units, security experts and demolition experts were sent to the country undercover as military advisers. They set up protection for the president and installed a security system. Later that same year, Delta Force and ISA operators were sent to Saudi Arabia to help organize and train a Special Purpose Detachment of the Saudi National Guard. They also provided protection for numerous Arabian princes, and established good contacts while down there.
During the 1983 American invasion of Grenada, special forces units were plagued by lack of useful and up-to-date intelligence. It was the type of mission ISA was designed for, but no agents were sent in. Most officials disliked the unit's head, Jerry King, and thus, JSOC did not send the unit in.
In 1983, a five-man ISA unit led by Lt. Col. William Cowan was dispatched to Beirut, Lebanon to deal with the increasing threat to American interests in the area. Cowan and another ISA agent managed to drive through every sector of Beirut, even the Shiite suburb, a dangerous practice at the time. They acquainted themselves with the layout and landmarks of the city for future reference. ISA members conducted extensive interviews with Special Forces members in the country, Lebanese Army and CIA and embassy officials. They discovered there was no co-ordination between them, and vital information regarding terrorist attacks was not being shared. The team put together a detailed critique and proposed changes to the organization of the forces, but the document was ignored by the higher officials insisting that security was adequate. On October 23, 1983, a truck bomb slammed into the US Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Americans, and injuring scores more. Almost simultaneously, another truck bomb exploded in the French barracks, killing 56. The decision was made to deploy another ISA unit.
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Cowan put together another five-man team, but their deployment was stalled for three weeks. This time around, travel through the city was a very dangerous endeavour, with roadblocks everywhere. Along with reviewing the security and organization again, ISA was also tasked with formulating plans for reprisals against the Syrians who had shot down two US fighters. The agents prepared contingency plans for a commando force to enter Beirut clandestinely, and to strike at Hizbollah and Syrian targets. Cowan traveled the Lebanese countryside pinpointing the locations of Syrian anti-aircraft emplacements. While driving through northern Lebanon, Cowan and his mates suffered several close calls with Syrian roadblocks and patrols. Landing zones were established, Lebanese militias contacted for help, and plans formulated for a commando force. ISA agents even managed to obtain Lebanese license plates, which would allow Delta to be parachuted in with their own cars, then "legitimized" with the plates. The ISA team left Beirut in January 1984. Sadly, the team's evaluation did not serve to upgrade American security standards, and a truck bomb exploded from within 40 feet of the embassy entrance later that year.
In 1984, political instability swept through the Seychelles, a group of islands off the coast of Africa. The situation quickly worsened, until officials in the US embassy were in genuine concern for their lives, so much that the ambassador cabled for immediate help. ISA was asked to develop a plan of action. The strategists decided the best option would be to send an ISA team in to provide accurate intelligence on the situation, and to prepare to secure landing zones for a Delta rescue force. Political bickering stalled the deployment of the agents, and finally, the operation was approved. By the time though, the situation had begun to subside.
When TWA Flight 847 was hijacked on June 14, 1985, America's counter-terrorist forces went on full alert. Delta Force and SEAL Team Six were scrambled in preparation to liberate the hostages if needed, as the airplane hopped back and forth from Beirut to Algiers. Delta's deployment was stalled by bureaucratic dealings, so ISA mobilized its most compartmentalized unit, the direct action element, the shooters. They began forming their own plan for storming the airplane and liberating the hostages. ISA operators would infiltrate either Beirut or Algiers on commercial flights to avoid tipping off the terrorists or the authorities. Delta was finally given the go-ahead and flew to Sicily and Cyprus along with Task Force 160 and Seaspray helicopters, thus ending the need for ISA's help. Things became more complicated though, as the airplane took on more terrorists and weapons on one of its hops to Beirut, and Algerian authorities refused Delta permission to mount a rescue on their soil. ISA was asked to form an Algerian-based plan and a Beirut-based one for rescue. ISA recommended covert deployment of its operatives to both airports to secure landing zones and infiltration routes. Approval was given for ISA's deployment, and operators flew to Frankfurt, where some stayed in case the airliner, now back in Beirut, flew back to Algiers. The other half flew to Cyprus to join the rest of the rescue force. Electronic specialists and SIGINT operators comprised part of the force. An ISA agent was secretly infiltrated into Beirut where he provided real-time intelligence on the location of the hostages. The situation looked dire. Hostages were dispersed around Beirut and those with Jewish sounding names were being isolated. Bickering between the CIA and JSOC further complicated matters. Officials developed a contingency plan for the new situation: ISA operators were to infiltrate the city and confirm the locations of the hostages, as well as make contact with the Lebanese Christian militia. Then, Delta and SEAL Team 6 operators would make their way into the city in small groups and wait at safe-houses until the time was right. A simultaneous raid on the targets was to be made. The order never came; a secret arms-for-hostages deal was cut by the American government.
Apparently, ISA's direct action element was also put on alert during the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship, Achille Lauro. They were never used. In 1989, during Operation Just Cause, the American invasion of Panama, ISA proposed to deploy a team of its intelligence agents to track Manuel Noriega, but the offer was declined. The ISA wasn't popular within JSOC.
Also in 1989, ISA was rumoured to have taken part in the hunt for the richest drug trafficker in the world, Pablo Escobar, operating under the code-name Centra Spike. An investigation by journalist Mark Bowden (author of Blackhawk Down) revealed that in 1989, the Colombian government asked for US help in tracking down Escobar. A top-secret "Army electronic surveillance team," was sent to aid the Colombians in August of 1989, as a part of Operation Heavy Shadow. Centra Spike was known to operate under several cover names, including Torn Victor, Cemetery Wind, Capacity Gear and Robin Court, and closely matched ISA's description. Stationed in the fifth floor of the American embassy, and operating from specially outfitted Beechcraft 300 and 350 aircraft, Centra Spike tracked Escobar around the country. Its skills "perfected during missions over El Salvador," Centra Spike honed in on Escobar's cellular phone calls and relayed the information back to Colombian police forces. Unfortunately, the police were either heavily corrupted or unwilling to arrest Escobar, and the intelligence went to waste. When Escobar surrendered in 1991, Centra Spike was pulled out, only to return a year later, when Escobar escaped from his comfortable prison. Deployed together with a small Delta Force contingent, Centra Spike flew over Colombia in their airplanes and continued to track Escobar. The Beechcrafts were made to appear normal from the outside, save for a wingspan six inches longer. This extra length concealed the main eavesdropping antennas, while others could be lowered from the belly while in flight. Once inside, Centra Spike agents would plug in laptops into the airplane's power and could simultaneously track four frequencies. This time, the manhunt for Escobar was being led by Col. Hugo Martinez, who did not intend to let Escobar get away, and who operated with ruthless efficiency, aided by Centra Spike's intelligence. During the operation, a rivalry developed between Centra Spike, and a CIA intelligence unit named Majestic Eagle. Both were doing the same thing in Colombia, except Centra Spike was doing a better job, at a much lower cost. When the CIA took credit for Centra Spike's work, the Army became furious and a competition was arranged between the two units. Tracking dummy targets over Medellin, Centra Spike managed to pinpoint their locations within 200 meters, while Majestic Eagle came no closer than four miles. It was settled, and Majestic Eagle withdrew from the operation. Centra Spike was withdrawn in 1993 for a temporary assignment in Somalia to aid US special forces there, but resumed the hunt later in the year. By November 1993, the noose was tightening around Escobar, and Centra Spike managed to track him down to a suburb of Medellin called Los Olivos. On December 2, 1993, with help from Centra Spike and a mobile Colombian surveillance team, Escobar's hideout was pinpointed, and Colombian police moved in. Escobar was shot as he was trying to escape from the roof of his house. The manhunt was over.
Some of ISA's most recent deployments was in 1993 in Somalia. ISA was allegedly co-operating with Task Force Ranger, and was responsible for tracking down Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Adid, through electronic surveillance and Somalian informants.
ISA was also rumoured to be operating in Bosnia in the last few years under the code-name Torn Victor. Part of a Delta-DEVGRU task force, ISA provided intelligence on the whereabouts of Bosnian Serb war crimes suspects. The operation was codenamed Amber Star, and was a joint US-British-French-Dutch effort to apprehend the suspects. A much more classified component was a solely-US effort codenamed Green Light, focusing specifically on former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. The intelligence gathering part was named "Buckeye" and consisted of CIA, NSA and Torn Victor operatives. US News & World Report describes Torn Victor as "trained as high-risk intelligence gatherers," a title fitting the ISA. Units in Sarajevo tracked Karadzic electronically, while other agents were on the ground in Pale, Karadzic's home. In one particular situation, Delta and Torn Victor agents supposedly donned French uniforms (Pale is in the French sector of the UN zone) and traveled to Pale hoping to conduct closer surveillance of his whereabouts. The raid was cancelled over fears that the French and Italians tipped Karadzic off.
Currently, ISA is believed to be under control of JSOC, and published accounts have it organized into administration, training, SIGINT, HUMINT and direct action elements. The force is supposedly around 250-275 operators, who excel in intelligence gathering, languages and electronic surveillance. The direct action element reportedly trains with Delta Force and DEVGRU to maintain their skills.
*Note* All information used in this article has been obtained from publicly available, open source documents.