The CIA has created a paramilitary unit to deal specifically with terrorists overseas, U.S. officials said Monday.
The unit "is taking the fight to terrorists in sanctuaries such as Afghanistan," one official said, declining to identify what other countries it is operating in.
The official said the unit is drawing personnel from the CIA's existing paramilitary force, which is a part of the agency's Special Activities Division, which conducts covert operations. Johnny "Mike" Spann, the CIA officer killed in November in Afghanistan, was a member of that force.
The size of the new unit is classified. The operatives work under the command of the CIA's counterterrorism center, where intelligence, military and law enforcement officials coordinate activities.
The CIA's existing paramilitary force, like the Army's Green Berets, trains and supplies weapons and support to local dissident groups and friendly governments. They are capable of more direct action as well, including close-quarters combat and breaking into secure buildings to steal information.
Unlike the Green Berets, these officers can operate without uniform or identification as officers of the U.S. government. If any are caught or killed, the government can plausibly deny their use. Unlike most military special operations forces, there are women among the CIA's paramilitary ranks.
In recent decades, the paramilitary force has seen heavy use in Central America, Angola and Afghanistan. In Nicaragua, they mined the harbors and armed the Contra rebels during the Reagan administration. In Afghanistan, they helped the mujahedeen fight the Soviet invasion. During the Vietnam War, they ran "Air America" — the CIA's covert effort in Laos.
The unit can only be put into action under secret authorization by the U.S. president. Certain top congressional officials also must be informed.