In recent years law enforcement agents of the U.S. government have traveled to nations in conflict in support of the military and nation rebuilding and stabilization efforts. This new mission has proven extremely dangerous and even deadly.
The world has changed greatly in the years following the infamous 9/11 attacks and with it the duties and geographical jurisdiction of federal law enforcement agencies in the United States.
While special agents in federal law enforcement agencies have a long history of working abroad to protect the American public from global drug cartels, weapons and human traffickers, intelligence agencies from hostile nations (Iran, North Korea, Russia, China, etc.) and terrorism; their post 9/11 duties and the continued fight against terrorism now requires them to expand their presence abroad.
To that end, the tactical teams of several federal agencies have been dispatched overseas to some of the world’s most deadly hot spots or conflict zones.
The exploits of the military in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq are well-known to the public, thanks largely in part to a 24-hour a day news cycle that has well documented the operations and even personal lives and concerns of soldiers.
However, while front line troops of the military have received the bulk of the media’s attention, civilian law enforcement tactical teams from various federal agencies have quietly toiled away in those same war zones.
A member of the Drug Enforcement Administration's specialized tactical unit known as the "FAST team" searches for additional suspects, weapons, narcotics and other contraband during a raid on a residence in Afghanistan.
Screen capture - ABC News
So quietly, in fact, that most Americans and even military troops serving overseas do not realize that these paramilitary global cops are also present in those conflicted nations.
Supervisory officials in federal law enforcement, The Pentagon and military special operations teams (Navy Seals, Green Berets, etc) are often the most aware of these specialized law enforcement teams working in war zones largely because they coordinate efforts with each other.
Performing operations in non-permissible environments (war zones, hostile nations, etc.) has been the province of the U.S. military, especially special operations teams whom traditionally have taken great pride in being able to not just survive but thrive in any environment and location in the world.
However, federal law enforcement tactical teams are now carrying out the type of operations that were once the exclusive province of military special operations troops.
The types of operations carried out by these teams are usually of a national security nature.
Federal law enforcement tactical teams operating overseas are not exactly a new phenomenon. Since the 80’s these specialized teams have performed missions throughout the world, though these missions have largely been defensive in nature and involved protecting American officials visiting foreign nations. Offensive operations like those of capturing terrorist fugitives overseas were relatively rare.
The world today is a very different place and so is the nature of law enforcement.
Washington officials as well as the leadership of numerous federal law enforcement agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration, strongly believe that it is now necessary and vital to the safety of the American public to take the fight directly to terrorists, drug cartels and other criminals abroad.
The amount of operations federal tactical teams are engaging in overseas have increased markedly with counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics actions becoming more frequent.
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of the special agents serving in tactical law enforcement teams are not all former special operations and Special Forces soldiers. Most have actually never served a day in the military, having lived their entire lives as civilians.
However, it should also be noted that the number of special agents with prior military experience who are serving on these specialized teams has never been higher than it currently is.
In fact, tactical teams with some federal law enforcement agencies have actively attempted to recruit former military special operations personnel into their ranks.
Carrying out a SWAT operation on a fortified and booby-trapped crack house infested with violent felons and automatic weapons on the streets of an inner-city neighborhood in America is extremely dangerous. However, chasing down terrorists or drug cartel traffickers in an unfriendly nation or carrying out operations in a foreign war zone is a danger of an entirely different nature.
Such operations are amongst the most hardcore and dangerous of any mission for a civilian law enforcement tactical unit.
The 2009 deaths of three Drug Enforcement Administration agents during an operation in Afghanistan highlights the inherent dangers of being a civilian law enforcement agent serving in a war zone, even with specialized training and weaponry.
Not all federal law enforcement agents heading overseas to war zones are a part of specialized heavy weapons tactical teams. A significant number of FBI special agents that been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan have been standard agents and forensic investigators.
Unlike their heavy-weapons tactical counterparts in the Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), the FBI’s elite counter-terrorism strike force, regular special agents and forensic investigators volunteer to be sent overseas to war zones. For HRT, being capable and willing to perform operations throughout the world, including in war zones, is a mandatory requirement of anyone who joins that elite team.
In the past few years, the FBI has sent its agents to Iraq and Afghanistan to question terrorists and insurgents that have been captured by U.S. troops on possible terror plots against the U.S. mainland as well as allied nations.
The Department of Defense has also personally requested the assistance of FBI specialists in forensic science and techniques when conducting crime scene investigations and document evidence in attacks on U.S. troops by terrorists or insurgents.
While regular FBI agents, forensic technicians and other staff of that agency receive specialized warfare training to preparing them for the dangers of working in an overseas war zone, they are usually protected by the agents in FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team or soldiers.
FBI special agents undergo "Pre-Deployment Training" to prepare them for overseas duty in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. The training takes place in the mountains of Utah and lasts two weeks. The agents that receive this type of training are regular FBI investigative agents and forensic technicians. The agents of the FBI's elite counter-terror force, Hostage Rescue Team, recieve far more specialized training with military special operations teams.
Screen capture - Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Though several federal agencies have dispatched personnel abroad, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is the most notable here as it is the most active when it comes to operating abroad, particularly in regard to carrying out offensive operations against criminal entities that include everything from violent drug cartels in Latin America to insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan.
The global expansion of offensive policing operations by federal law enforcement agencies has not been devoid of controversy.
The bulk of the controversy stems from the DEA which made international news this summer after a paramilitary squad of its agents were linked to a series of fatal shootings during drug raids in the Latin American nation of Honduras.
Nevertheless - controversy notwithstanding - these tactical teams continue to carryout aggressive police actions abroad in the defense of American interests, including the safety of its citizenry and way of life.
A Long Way From Home – The DEA’s Experience Abroad in Afghanistan
Over the past decade, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been by far the most active U.S. federal law enforcement agency operating overseas, especially in regards to offensive operations.
The most notable of the DEA’s international operations as of late has included its work in Afghanistan with the newly created Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Teams or FAST teams.
Special Agents with a Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Teams (FAST team) burns a hashish field in Afghanistan after a joint raid on the location with NATO troops in 2008. The DEA is in Afghanistan supporting nation-building efforts by the U.S. government and military as well as targeting the hashish and opium crops that are believed to generate hundreds of millions in funds for the Taliban and al-Qaida annually.
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
The FAST teams were created under the administration of George W. Bush and are staffed by special agents of the DEA.
Unlike other tactical law enforcement teams of the federal government, FAST has an overwhelming military flavor to it with most of its member being former special operations soldiers in the U.S. military.
There are five FAST teams, each staffed with ten agents that undergo extensive specialized training of a military nature to prepare them for counter-narcotics operations in war zones.
According to World Politics Review, the FAST teams have trained with such elite elements of the U.S. military as the Navy Seals, Delta Force and Army Rangers.
The FAST teams target heavily-armed insurgents that traffic drugs in war zones, a duty that no other entity in the DEA is capable of safely performing.
Michael A. Braun, a former head of operations for the DEA and one of the architects of the FAST program, told The New York Times, “You have got to have special skills and equipment to be able to operate effectively and safely in environments like this.”
The inception of the FAST teams date back to 2005 with the original mandate of investigating and disrupting the operations of Taliban-linked drug traffickers in Afghanistan.
The FAST program is made up of five teams, with 10 agents each. The head of the FAST program is Richard Dobrich, a former Navy Seal.
These specialized law enforcement squads of the DEA receive most of their equipment and training from the Pentagon.
A DEA FAST team prepares to raid a residence in Afghanistan in search of opium. Opium can be processed into heroin, a highly addictive narcotic, which can then be shipped out of the country by the Taliban or al-Qaida to the streets of European cities. Proceeds recieved by the Taliban or al-Qaida from the trafficked heroin may be used to fuel the insurgency against the U.S. and coalition troops or fund future acts of terrorism.
Screen capture - ABC News
The ultimate goal of the FAST teams is to cripple the Afghan narcotics networks by driving up the costs of the opium trade.
While this commando-like force was created under the administration of George W. Bush, its level of activity has increased dramatically under the Obama administration.
Beginning in 2009, president Obama authorized a surge of 30,000 troops to the Afghan state and allocated hundreds of those troops to directly target drug traffickers, while personally assigning the DEA with the responsibility of spearheading this effort.
DEA FAST team members in Afghanistan arrest a farmer for cultivating opium poppies during a raid on his residence.
Screen capture - ABC News
The DEA handles the bulk of America’s fight against drug traffickers in Afghanistan which has unparalleled expertise in targeting drug networks. U.S. soldiers are primarily concerned with the more high-profile job duties of serving in the Afghanistan, namely gaining war experience through firefights with Taliban insurgents.
The drug enforcement work conducted by the DEA in the Afghan state is often viewed by young infantry troops as mundane and not as high-profile and glamorous as, say, a raid and shootout at a Taliban safe house.
Whereas fighting the Afghan drug trade is seen as a sideshow by most troops, it is the main event for the DEA which takes its duty to staunch the drug flow there very seriously.
The members of the FAST team tend to be slightly older (average age of a DEA agent ranges from early 30’s to mid-40’s) and of a more mature personality than the young troops that tend to staff infantry divisions. FAST team members have a level of discipline that is on par with their military special operations counterparts.
FAST teams have worked closely with Navy Seal teams who have occasionally assisted the paramilitary agents in raiding opium fields. However, the FAST teams typically work alone, using only DEA resources and no assistance from the military (though the military is available in a backup or support function in the event a raid goes bad).
For much of the Bush administration there were only a dozen DEA agents operating in Afghanistan. That number has soared to between 80 and 100 under the Obama administration.
While the vast majority of the agents in Afghanistan are FAST team members, a sizable number are counter-narcotics analysts as well as pilots belonging to the DEA’s Aviation Division. The pilots of the DEA’s Aviation Division are tasked with transporting the FAST team via planes or helicopters to any point within Afghanistan during raids on drug traffickers and opium farmers.
Though the DEA’s primary focus has historically been on counter-narcotics rather than counter-terrorism, its current efforts to disrupt the global opium trade at it's source has made it a heavy-hitter and integral element in America’s fight against international terrorism.
As much as 90% of the world’s opium – the main ingredient from which heroin is cultivated - comes from Afghanistan.
The United Nations Office on Drug Control and Crimes estimates that an annual amount of funding ranging from $125 to $500 million from the heroin trade flows to Taliban fighters, local warlords, transnational organized criminal groups and possibly even terrorist organizations like those of al-Qaida.
According to the UN, globally there are an estimated 15 to 21 million people aged 15 to 64 that are heroin addicts.
In actuality, very little of the heroin synthesized in Afghanistan actually makes its way to drug addicts on the streets of the U.S. mainland.
Europe and Russia are the primary distribution markets for Afghan heroin.
While American addicts have been largely spared from the adverse life-altering effects of Afghan-based heroin, millions of drug users in European nations and Russia have become enslaved to a lifetime of addiction, which has left the U.S. government deeply concerned.
Financing from the heroin trade is viewed as the backbone of the Afghan insurgency and al-Qaida’s international campaign of terrorism.
The Opium Poppy. The white, milky latex being exuded in this image is raw opium. The active ingredient in opium is morphine, a very addictive substance. Raw opium is refined into morphine base in crude field laboratories. Morphine base is a sticky, brown paste which can either be smoked or processed into heroin. Once processed into heroin, the drug is usually shipped out to nations throughout the world.
Terrorist groups in neighboring Pakistan have also reportedly trafficked in heroin to fund attacks and an ongoing insurgency against the government of that nation.
In a way, the DEA has taken on the lead role as protector of the populations of Europe and Russia from the ravages of heroin addiction if only to prevent the proceeds from illicit drug sales from ending up in the coffers of the Taliban, and even worse, al-Qaida.
A fighter with al-Qaida in a propaganda video produced by the terrorist organization. Al-Qaida is strongly suspected by U.S. officials of trafficking heroin to European cities from Afghanistan to fund it's terrorist activities. As an added bonus, in addition to garnering drug profits the terror group gets to harm and destroy the lives of countless thousands of "infidel" European citizens through heroin addiction.
Performing police operations in a war zone obviously has its inherent risks as the DEA discovered for itself in a autumn 2009 incident that easily went down as one of the darkest days in the history of that agency.
In October 2009, the DEA experienced the loss of three of its agents in a U.S. military helicopter crash in western Afghanistan.
Two of the three agents killed were FAST team members. It is unclear in what capacity the third deceased agent served the DEA.
Seven U.S. troops aboard the helicopter were also killed in the crash.
The three agents and the troops were a part of a larger team returning back to base after a successful raid on an opium field.
Immediately after the incident, U.S. officials released a statement vehemently denying the helicopter’s crash to be the result of gunfire and claimed mechanical difficulty to be the culprit in the accident. However, a Taliban spokesman released a statement shortly after the crash in which they claimed to have shot down the aircraft, though this claim has never been independently verified.
The three agents were said to be veterans of the agency who lived and worked on DEA assignments in Washington, D.C. when they were not in Afghanistan.
The deaths of the three agents were the first and thus far only deaths experienced by the DEA in Afghanistan.
The deaths of the three agents in the line of duty also marked one of the darkest days in the history of that law enforcement agency.
However, the war marches on, and with it, the agents of the FAST teams who remain active in their efforts to disrupt the heart of the global opium trade.
While Afghanistan is the FAST teams most high-profile assignment, these commando-like agents have operated in several other nations.
The New York Times informs that the DEA’s FAST teams have also performed extensive counter-narcotics operations throughout the Western Hampshire, particularly in the countries of Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, Haiti, and Dominican Republic.
The Tactical Elite: Specialized Units of U.S. Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Operating Abroad
While the DEA toils away in Afghanistan, other specialized tactical teams of the federal government have also seen a stark increase in the number of operations they have performed abroad since the events of 9/11.
These teams are often regarded as the very best in American civilian law enforcement. They are the cutting edge standard of their profession by which most local police SWAT teams in the U.S. measure themselves against.
Though they will never actually exceed the skill level and capability of military special operations teams, many specially trained soldiers readily admit to being caught off guard and impressed with the training, resources and capabilities of their civilian law enforcement counterparts while also acknowledging that the civilians are good enough to give them a run for their money.
Equipped with the best gear and training, each of these teams are capable of waging war against the military of a small nation.
These are the only such teams in U.S. law enforcement that are capable of operating effectively overseas:
Hostage Rescue Team (Federal Bureau of Investigation): the Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the premier tactical unit in American civilian law enforcement and is very much considered to be the gold standard.
Since the events of 9/11, HRTs tactical tempo has increased to an all-time high. Officials within the FBI say that the unit has never been as busy as it currently is. HRT is being called upon by FBI officials more frequently to carry out counter-terrorism operations on the U.S. mainland. Though many of their missions are not publicized or are considered confidential, one notable operation included assisting the FBI-NYPD Joint Terrorism Task Force in September 2009 with the apprehension of suicide bombing suspects in the New York City borough of Queens. Najibullah Zazi, a Pakistani Muslim who had received training from al-Qaida while in Afghanistan along with three other men, had plotted to carryout simultaneous suicide bombings aboard trains in the NYC subway system during rush hour. The attack was to be similar in nature to al-Qaida’s Madrid train bombings and the London transport bombings.
Zazi and his three cohorts were convicted of the plot and sentenced to life-term sentences in federal prison.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation Hostage Rescue Team (FBI HRT) patch and emblem. The eagle on the patch represents the HRT operative while the chain in its talons represent the bondage of fear, anxiety, emotional distress and psychological oppression and paralysis that terrorism causes to society. Note that the chain is severed with one section of it in each of the eagle's talons. At the bottom of the patch reads:"Servare Vitas" which when translated from Latin to English means "To Save Lives
HRT also targets conventional though heavily armed and dangerous criminals with a reputation for violence that may pose a very high threat risk to the public or FBI agents and other law enforcement officials seeking to effect arrests. Over the past several years, HRT has conducted numerous operations targeted at arresting street gang members and other violent criminals in the American cities of Detroit and San Juan – two cities that are easily amongst the nation’s most dangerous top ten.
Perhaps the most notable change in HRTs duties has been an increase in tactical counter-terrorism operations that have taken it beyond the borders of the U.S. to some of the hottest (dangerous and conflict-ridden) spots on Earth.
At the height of the U.S. occupation in Iraq, HRT reportedly carried out operations against terrorists and insurgents. It has also carried out numerous operations against insurgents in Afghanistan. Because of it’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, HRT is the only tactical team in American law enforcement with the ability and knowledge to fight against an insurgency.
The overseas operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have only added to the already prestigious and sterling reputation of HRT.
HRT was originally created with a mandate of rescuing Americans taken hostage or abducted by terrorists anywhere in the world and apprehending terrorist fugitives responsible for attacks on the American mainland or U.S. citizens and property (embassies, consulates, etc.) overseas. HRT is also tasked with providing protection to other FBI agents conducting investigations and forensic evidence collection in conflict-ridden foreign nations for the purposes of prosecuting perpetrators of crimes against Americans or pursuing war criminals.
Federal Bureau of Investigation's Hostage Rescue Team (FBI HRT) conducting hostage rescue and tactical counter-terrorism training.
Screengrab - Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Federal Bureau of Investigation's Hostage Rescue Team (FBI HRT) conducting hostage rescue and counter-terrorism training.
Screengrab - Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
The team trains frequently and has a very close relationship with both of America’s top military counter-terrorist teams: U.S. Navy Seal Team Six and the U.S. Army’s super secretive Delta Force.
HRT also trains with military and law enforcement counter-terrorism teams from foreign nations.
The team usually works in a support function to U.S. military special operations teams while overseas but also has the capability to carry out some operations without any military support. The fact, that HRT can carry out its own operations in a hostile nation overseas without any hand-holding from a military special operations unit is a testament to the its skill and how far the capabilities of civilian law enforcement tactical teams have progressed since first being introduced to the world in the 70’s.
FBI HRT conducting cold weather training.
Screengrab - Federal Bureau of Investigation
No other civilian tactical unit works as closely with military special operations teams abroad as does HRT, which says a lot about the confidence specialized military teams have in HRT’s abilities.
While HRT does occasionally operate overseas, such missions are a rarity for the elite unit as the majority of its operations take place within the continental United States and its territories.
It may come as a surprise to many but according to HRT, most of the members of that team are civilians who have never served in the military.
In fact, every HRT member has a four-year undergraduate degree or Bachelors degree (HRT members are FBI special agents and one of the requirements to be a FBI special agent is to have a Bachelors degree. In truth, a Bachelors degree is a requirement to be employed in any federal law enforcement agency not just the FBI). True to the FBI’s historic reputation of being a brainy entity, some HRT members even have Master’s degrees in academic fields ranging from criminal justice and social work, to education, journalism, accounting and other areas of study.
Though much of HRT is comprised of civilians, the specialized outfit is actively seeking former military special operations troops (including Navy Seals) to serve on the team. HRT believes that having such highly-skilled persons on the team will enhance its abilities and give it an edge over its tactical counterparts in law enforcement as well as the enemy, namely terrorists and violent criminals.
However, former military special operations troops seeking to join the HRT would also have to meet the minimum requirements to become a special agent which includes a Bachelors degree. The requirements to become an FBI special agent are stringent and non-negotiable.
Special Operations Group (United States Marshals Service): this specialized tactical team is tasked with hunting down dangerous fugitives wanted by the federal government, transporting high-risk prisoners to federal prisons, protecting federal witnesses and providing heavy weapons protection to federal courthouses and court officials during trials involving drug cartels or members of terrorist organizations. SOG is also tasked with performing counter-terrorism and hostage rescue operations within the continental United States and its territories. It responds to incidents of large-scale civil disorder or rioting in American cities and works with military police to quell demonstrations on military facilities.
SOG has engaged in some very high-profile operations during its history.
Members of the U.S. Marshals Service Special Operations Group before carrying out a raid that lead to the successful apprehension of a hitman wanted by authorities in France in 1985.
United States Marshals Service
In 1981, the team traveled overseas to assist local authorities in Jonestown, Guyana with the grim duty of searching through more than 900 corpses to confirm the identities of American citizens in the tragedy so that they could be shipped back to the U.S. for burial by their families.
On 9/11, SOG was dispatched to form a protective cordon around the Pentagon to thwart any follow-up terror attacks on that institution and to protect the hundreds of firefighters, paramedics, journalists and other officials at the scene. SOG was also responsible for preserving the crime scene and evidence for investigators from the FBI.
During the summer 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans, SOG was deployed to that city to assist other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies establish law and order.
Though SOG's primary focus is largely to respond to terrorist incidents and emergencies that may have an adverse impact at a national level within the continental U.S. and its territories, the team has occasionally been called upon to function abroad.
During stabilization and reconstruction efforts in Iraq after the invasion and overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein, SOG was sent to that nation and assigned the task of training security forces on how to protect the court system.
As a symbol of the American-backed Iraqi government, courthouses and facilities in that nation were considered high-value targets for al-Qaida and other terrorists or insurgent groups.
Courthouses could also be tempting targets for terrorists, insurgents and even heavily armed criminal groups seeking to free a fellow comrade-in-arms who may be standing trial for crimes committed against the state.
SOG trained Iraqi court security forces on how to defend a courthouse, judges and other courthouse staff. The elite team also taught court security on tactics that could be employed to repel attacks by hostile and heavily armed groups.
The training from SOG is being utilized today by security forces in courthouses throughout Iraq.
Members of the U.S. Marshals Service Special Operations Group (SOG) conduct counter-terrorism training while using an armored car known as "The Peacekeeper."
BORTAC (United States Border Patrol – Department of Homeland Security): BORTAC is an initialism for the United States "Border Patrol Tactical Unit".
According to the Department of Homeland Security, the mission of BORTAC is "to respond to terrorist threats of all types anywhere in the world in order to protect our nation’s homeland."
BORTAC also prevents the entry of illegal weapons, drugs and violent criminals from Mexico into the United States via the border.
BORTAC specializes in the following areas: intelligence/reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities, foreign internal defense training, airmobile operations, maritime operations, tactical counter-terrorism and hostage rescue.
The specialized unit has an impressive record of performing law enforcement operations in service to the U.S. throughout the world, including operations in Iraq during the occupation of that nation by American and coalition forces.
In the past, the team has worked alongside the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team in targeting violent and heavily armed drug smugglers in the desert along the U.S.-Mexican border.
During the 80’s and 90’s, the special unit has assisted the DEA by conducting operations against drug cartels and fugitives hiding deep in the jungles of South American nations.
BORTAC has conducted training and operations with numerous law enforcement and military units both from the U.S. and from foreign nations.
Elite BORTAC (Border Patrol Tactical Unit) agents of the U.S. Border Patrol practice shooting techniques.
Screengrab - KGBT-Action 4 News
While BORTAC could be called upon to respond to any terrorism-based emergency in the U.S., its main duties are supporting Border Patrol agents patrolling the border.
On the night of December 2010, BORTAC suffered its very first line of duty death when agent Brian A. Terry, 40, was killed in a shootout with drug smugglers.
At 11 p.m. in a remote area near the U.S. town of Rio Rico, Terry and his BORTAC team engaged in a shootout with five heavily armed drug smugglers attempting to sneak into the country. During the gunfight, Terry was struck with gunfire from a smuggler’s AK-47 assault rifle.
Four of the smugglers were captured in a massive manhunt launched by the Border Patrol while the fifth remains at large. One of the captured smugglers was treated for a gunshot wound sustained during the shootout with Terry’s team. The FBI is running the investigation and the search for the fifth suspect.
As if Terry’s death alone were not shocking enough, an added element of controversy emerged when an investigation by FBI agents revealed that two AK-47 rifles confiscated from the captured smugglers actually belonged to the Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), a federal law enforcement agency.
The two AK-47 rifles were used in the highly controversial Operation Fast and Furious, a botched project by the ATF that lasted from 2009 to 2011 and was designed to target the Mexican drug cartels. The ATF’s Operation Fast and Furious went horribly wrong when it lost track of hundreds of automatic assault weapons that later ended up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels and criminals who used the high-powered guns to perpetrate massacres in Mexico and attack Border Patrol agents, including agent Terry.
The botched operation has proven to be a major headache for Attorney General Eric Holder and the entire Obama administration.
Further compounding the controversy surrounding Terry’s death was a memo released several months prior to the agent's death from Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano that severely handicapped the elite unit in gunfights. The memo by secretary Napolitano orders BORTAC to first use bean bag rounds and other less-than-lethal means of force during a gunfight before finally resorting to the use of live ammunition.
It is believed that since Terry’s death this memo has been rescinded, though Napolitano has publicly denied that such a memo even existed.
Counter-Assault Team (United States Secret Service): formed after the 1981 assassination attempt on former U.S. president Ronald Regan, the Counter Assault Team (CAT) is the tactical unit of the U.S. Secret Service. However, unlike other tactical units, CAT does not serve warrants on violent fugitives, handle hostage situations or respond to terrorism incidents. CAT has only one purpose: to protect the President of the United States of America and his family with a secondary focus on the Vice President and his family.
Agents in the close protection detail (the standard bodyguards in the suits with the ear pieces) are responsible for protecting the president from most threats. However, in the event of a coordinated attack involving heavy weaponry by hostile forces, the CAT team would spring into action and engage the threat while the close protection detail rushes away with the president to a safe location.
Agents of the U.S. Secret Service's Counter-Assault Team (CAT) trains at the Secret Service facility in Beltsville, Maryland. The CAT team is training to fend off assaults on a presidential motorcade.
Screengrab - National Geographic: Inside The U.S. Secret Service
The close protection detail is defensive in nature while CAT is offensive. It is the purpose of CAT to stand and fight against any and all threats while the president is rushed to safety.
CAT trains in barricade, hostage rescue and counter-terrorism tactics. However, these and any other skills learned by the team are put into service exclusively for the safety and well-being of the president, vice president and their families. CAT's training and focus is not on protecting the public. Other federal tactical teams like those of HRT, SOG and BORTAC focus on protection of the general public and responding to terror events.
Basically, the agents of CAT are the elite presidential guards.
CAT numbers anywhere from 12 to 18 men divided into six man teams. At least one of these six man teams is within five minutes of less of the president and his close protection detail no matter where in the nation or world he currently is.
If you see the president in public you can rest assured that the CAT team is not very far behind. You may not actually see them but that certainly does not mean they are not there.
As the president travels continuously throughout the continental United States and the world, so does the CAT team. When the president is at home with his family inside of The White House, CAT works with the close protection detail to secure the interior of that structure while other agents along with officers from the U.S. Secret Service’s Uniformed Division Emergency Response Team (ERT) protect the exterior.
CAT is said to be prepared for any and every attack on the President. It has been alleged in the past that the team occasionally travels with a Stinger surface-to-air missile launcher to fend off any air assault against the President.
For many years it was one of only two law enforcement tactical teams in the U.S. to use the UZI, the popular Israeli machine gun. The other team was that of the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s Emergency Response Team.
CAT frequently trains with the D.C. metropolitan police ERT and other tactical law enforcement units globally.
The team also trains with and works very closely with the sharpshooters of the Counter-Sniper Team of the Secret Service’s Uniformed Division. Members of that team travel throughout the U.S. to assist CAT and other officials in the protection of the president and vice president and have been referred to as the best sharpshooters – be it civilian law enforcement or military - in the world, even surpassing the storied skill of the legendary Delta Force.
Despite the extreme nature of CATs duties, it has never had to fire it's weapons in defense of the president, vice president or their families.
However, while CAT appears to be a highly-disciplined and elite presidential guard force on the surface, the specialized outfit is in fact deeply troubled with some insiders referring to it as an absolute mess.
This past April, during a summit that was attended by president Barrack Obama in Cartagena, Colombia, nearly a dozen agents of the Secret Service became embroiled in a prostitution scandal that caused severe damage to the reputation and integrity of agency.
Many of the agents involved in that scandal were members of CAT.
CAT agents were engaged in a whiskey and cocaine fueled romp with as many as 20 hookers at a posh hotel in Cartagena.
And some officials have speculated that the incident in Cartagena may not have been the first occasion in which the elite agents took part in alcohol and drug fueled parties while on presidential protection duty overseas.
At least 11 Secret Service agents, including several members of CAT, were fired from the agency. Though the names of the agents involved in the scandal were never made public, officials did reveal that most were married.
Another nine U.S. servicemen were also at the party and implicated in the scandal – including six Army Special Forces (Green Berets) soldiers belonging to the 7th Special Forces Group, two Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal technicians, two Marine dog handlers and an Air Force airman. At least one of the servicemen was said to have worked on Air Force One.
The servicemen were punished by the Department of Defense for their unprofessional conduct.
It is not clear if the servicemen were assisting with presidential security.
While an investigation by the Secret Service determined that all of the prostitutes were over the age of 18, were not criminals or terrorists or part of any human trafficking network, the U.S. federal government prohibits its employees from having relations with prostitutes.
There were also concerns that the reckless and unprofessional conduct of the CAT team members in Cartagena endangered the president.
Senator Susan Collins (R – Maine) in a public statement expressed outrage over the incident:
"Who were these women? Could they have been members of groups hostile to the United States? Could they have planted bugs, disabled weapons, or in any other (ways) jeopardized security of the president or our country?"
Collins is also the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Dania Londono Suarez, one of the prostitutes involved in the scandal later told W Radio, that she did not see any confidential information pertaining to Obama's visit. Though she did say that she could have stolen sensitive material given the circumstance that the agent she spent the night with fell asleep.
About having access to the sensitive material, she was quoted as having said:
“If I was a terrorist I would have been able to do a thousand things.”
The reputation and prestige of CAT has been greatly tarnished by this scandal and is only now beginning to slowly recover.
However, that scandal may be the latest sign of what some insiders say is an ongoing crisis within CAT.
Insiders within the agency have sounded the alarm over concerns about the readiness and quality of the team. According to a 2010 book written by award winning journalist Ronald Kessler, In the President's Secret Service, over the past decade the team has been plagued by a plummet in morale and manpower shortages. Kessler, who had unprecedented access to the Secret Service in writing the book, also notes that the once cutting edge level of training and skill of CAT has degraded to dangerously low levels.
Mobile Security Division (U.S. Department of State): this team is the tactical unit of the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) of the State Department. DSS is responsible for providing protective services to the Secretary of State and foreign dignitaries visiting the U.S., especially during the annual United Nations General Assembly gathering in New York City.
DSS is also responsible for the protection of U.S. Diplomatic Missions, Embassies and Consulates throughout the world as well as the staff and visitors to those facilities.
The MSD is a force of 100 members broken down into teams that could range in number from six to eleven men.
The security that the DSS and it’s tactical unit MSD provide to the Secretary of State, U.S. ambassadors and visiting foreign dignitaries is very similar to that of the U.S. Secret Service.
A close protection detail made up of DSS agents (the standard bodyguards in the suits with the ear pieces) provide the initial protection for the principal (the Secretary of State, ambassador, foreign dignitary or any other protectee) while the MSD provides the heavy weapons backup and support.
In the event there is an armed and coordinated attack, the close protection detail will evacuate the principal to safety while the MSD engage the threat. The goal of the MSD in battle is to neutralize the threat or at the very least buy enough time for the agents in the close protection detail to evacuate the principal to safety.
Agents of the U.S. State Department Mobile Security Division fending off a terrorist attack on a dignitary during training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia.
No matter where in the world the Secretary of State travels an MSD team follows.
MSD agents were active in Iraq during the recent U.S. occupation of that nation. The agents of this specialized outfit conducted limited patrols and trained Iraqis in law enforcement methods as well as protection duties for those that would serve as bodyguards to politicians of the new Iraqi government.
The team also travels throughout the world providing protection to U.S. ambassadors that have received a credible threat against their lives as well as defending U.S. embassies and staff in conflict zones.
DSS works closely with the FBI in protecting embassies and investigating threats against ambassadors.
MSD trains a great deal of the personnel responsible for guarding the embassies and works with the U.S. Marines in emergencies where embassy staff and American citizens need to be evacuated from a foreign country. In the past, MSD has worked with U.S. Marines to evacuate embassy staff and American citizens from nations in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, a collapse of governmental law and order, civil wars and coups.
A small fleet of Counter Assault Team, or CAT (heavily modified Chevy Suburbans) vehicles are the primary mode of land transportation for MSD. However, while performing their duties in Iraq, MSD agents used armored Humvees with rotating turrets that had heavy caliber machine guns attached to them.
Agents with the U.S. State Department's Mobile Security Division engaging terrorists during a mock attack on a dignitary during training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia.
Concerns and Controversy
The expansion of duties and operations globally by America’s federal law enforcement agencies has not come without controversy.
Whereas an assignment to perform operations in a war zone abroad may inspire a sense of excitement and adventure or be looked upon as a source of prestige for law enforcement tactical teams, they are often dreaded and viewed as a source of punishment for regular agents in the DEA.
Regular DEA agents who do not serve in a specialized tactical unit (namely the FAST team) are often less than enthusiastic about being sent to an overseas war zone. These agents tend not to share the sense of excitement and adventure that their hardcore counterparts in the FAST teams do when it comes to serving in Afghanistan. In fact, some DEA agents view an assignment to Afghanistan as a form of punishment from superiors in that agency.
In particular, it has been the special agent pilots of the DEA’s Aviation Division, an elite entity within that agency, who have protested the most about being sent into the Middle Eastern war zone.
As many as a dozen DEA pilots speaking confidentially to McClatchy, informed the media entity that many of the pilots now serving in Afghanistan have been sent to that war-torn nation as punishment for bucking their superiors.
While the Aviation Division has a long and storied history for its service in South American countries wracked by drug violence during the 80’s and 90’s, they note that Afghanistan qualifies as a combat zone and that service there should be voluntary because they are not military personnel.
Some of the pilots have even gone as far as to hire lawyers in a bid to avoid service in the war zone. Lawyers for some of the pilots contend that the DEA is actually violating a 2008 federal law that prohibits supervision from forcing subordinate personnel in a federal civilian law enforcement agency from serving in a foreign war zone unless they have volunteered for such duty.
The pilots fear demotion for refusing to serve if ordered to Afghanistan but also fear being killed or horribly maimed if they do serve.
In response to the allegations that DEA supervision is forcing some of its pilots to serve in a war zone, Garrison Courtney, a DEA spokesman, told McClatchy that the agency was not violating any guidelines or laws. Courtney was also quoted as having said pilots "are expected to support the DEA's global mission."
Courtney also sought to downplay demotion fears by pilots who refuse to serve in Afghanistan. In yet another statement, he explained to the news service that the pilots are not demoted, because even if they lose their pilot position, the salary is the same.
Interestingly, there is a sizable number of agents and agent-pilots who actually do want to serve in Afghanistan and have volunteered their names for assignment in that nation but these agents say that their requests to serve are often denied, further reinforcing a popular belief within the DEA that supervisors reserve service in Afghanistan as a form of punishment for some agents.
One agent speaking under the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal from superiors, told McClatchy that he had volunteered to serve in Afghanistan but his request was denied without explanation. The agent said he knew plenty of agents that were willing to Afghanistan.
"With some people, if you want to go, they won't send you," the agent said. "They use Afghanistan as punishment for agents they don't like."
The Aviation Division plays an instrumental role in the operations of the FAST team by ferrying the team to and from target locations in the Afghan state. Without the pilots, the FAST team would be reliant on the military for air support which may not always be available at critical moments depending on the need for such aircraft by Army and Marine ground troops. The Aviation Division affords the FAST team with the ability to be self-supporting and enjoy near total independence from the military in all of its operations in Afghanistan.
Domestically, the Aviation Division provides air support during DEA operations which can range from conducting surveillance on a structure or individual suspected of illicit drug activity, transporting agents to the scene of a location that is to be raided and pursuing suspects who attempt to flee via land-based vehicle, sea vessel or aircraft.
The Aviation Division has a global scope though much of its operations focus on the United States and South America. This elite division of the DEA has an air fleet of 106 airplanes of various models. This does not include the numerous helicopters (most of which are Bell Jet Ranger and Blackhawk models) this specialized air corps also operates.
DEA FAST team members practice firearms training at a desert location in Afghanistan.
Screen capture - ABC News
Another item of intrigue and controversy in U.S. federal law enforcement’s expanding global mission once again involves the DEA. This time around the spotlight is on the FAST team and its counter-narcotics operations in the South American nation of Honduras including its involvement in two separate fatal shootings of drug smuggling suspects during enforcement actions just a few months apart from each other earlier this year.
The latest incident occurred shortly after midnight on July 3, near the Honduran city of Catacamas where a small aircraft suspected of transporting drugs crashed.
Several helicopters carrying Honduran heavily-armed police and agents of a DEA FAST team descended upon the location in a commando-style raid.
The Honduran police found two pilots within the aircraft, one of which was immediately arrested. However, the second pilot suddenly appeared in the doorway of the aircraft at which time he was ordered to surrender by agents of the DEA FAST team. When he made what was deemed to be a threatening gesture towards the agents, the FAST team opened fire and severely wounded the man who later died from his injuries at a hospital. The other pilot was also taken to a hospital where he was treated for wounds incurred in the crash. He is believed to have survived.
According to The New York Times, officials recovered 900 kilograms of cocaine from the aircraft.
A few months prior to that incident the FAST team was involved in yet another shooting in Honduras.
The New York Times reports that in the early morning hours of June 24, a DEA surveillance aircraft spotted some 40 people unloading cargo from a suspected smuggling plane after it landed at an airstrip south of the village of Brus Laguna on an early Saturday morning.
A FAST team along with Honduran police traveled in four helicopters piloted by agents with the U.S. State Department to launch a surprise raid on the aircraft, the airstrip and the suspected smugglers.
During the raid on the airstrip, the FAST team encountered a drug smuggler and ordered him to surrender. The man reached for a holstered firearm, prompting the team to shoot him. The still unidentified offender died instantly.
Officials seized 360 kilograms of cocaine in the raid.
While ranking officials in the DEA and State Department deemed the shootings by the FAST team to be justified and in self-defense, controversy over this elite paramilitary team’s police activities has been steadily mounting in light of recent reports that say the FAST team has been present at a dozen other shootings over the course of the past 15 months throughout Honduras.
Though Honduran police, not the DEA, were responsible for the discharge of firearms in all of the other shootings that occurred in the past 15 months, the mere fact that the DEA was present at all of the shootings has raised eyebrows. In a shooting incident this past May, Honduran police killed four innocent people, including two pregnant women during a raid. Some residents in cities throughout that nation blame the DEA for the shootings and have organized mass protests, demanding that the DEA leave the country.
The New York Times informs that earlier this year Mexican authorities turned down a request by the DEA to have a FAST team operate in that country in light of the shooting controversy plaguing the elite team in Honduras.
A DEA FAST team has spent much of the past two years in Honduras training the National Police Tactical Response Team in counter-narcotics tactics. The FAST team has also been working closely with that elite Honduran police unit, carrying out joint drug raids.
The National Police Tactical Response Team of Honduras has a feared reputation and is well known for its brutality in that nation. It is also suspected of being responsible for many of the controversial shootings that have occurred during its joint drug raids with the DEA in the past 15 months.
The DEA’s ultimate goal in that nation is to improve the counter-narcotics abilities of law enforcement agencies in Honduras as well as to stem the flow of cocaine into the U.S.
DEA FAST team member standing watch over opium seized during a raid on a residence in Afghanistan.
Screen capture - ABC News
Closer to home, there have also been some otherwise general concerns about the blurring of the lines between the duties of civilian law enforcement and the military. While this concern has been long standing and dates back to the 90’s, it has become an even more prevalent issue amongst civil rights advocates in the post 9/11 era.
In the past decade, law enforcement in the U.S. has taken on a much more military hue. This is likely due in part to the relationship between both law enforcement and the military which has never been as close as it is now. The relationship permeates all levels of civilian law enforcement, including: federal, state and municipal.
Though law enforcement has always been paramilitary in nature, the fervent embrace of military culture into the civilian public safety profession since the events of 9/11 is something unusually different.
Interestingly, the increase in federal law enforcement tactical teams performing military-type special operations in foreign war zones coincides with growing concerns about a notable rise in activities by the military on the U.S. mainland in the post-9/11 era.