Intelligence Support Activity

The United States Army Intelligence Support Activity (USAISA), frequently shortened to Intelligence Support Activity (ISA), also known at various times as Mission Support Activity (MSA), Office of Military Support (OMS), Field Operations Group (FOG), Studies and Analysis Activity (SAA), Tactical Concept Activity, Tactical Support Team, and Tactical Coordination Detachment,[1] and also nicknamed "The Activity" and the Army of Northern Virginia,[2] is a United States Army Special Operations unit which serves as the intelligence gathering component of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).[3][4][5] Within JSOC, the unit is often referred to as Task Force Orange.[6][7][8] Originally subordinated to the US Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM), it is one of the least known intelligence components of the United States military,[6] tasked with clandestine HUMINT operations and collecting actionable intelligence during or prior to JSOC missions.[9]

Intelligence Support Activity
ISA Emblem
Country United States of America
Branch United States Army
TypeSpecial operations force
Special mission unit
Part of United States Special Operations Command
Joint Special Operations Command
United States Army Special Operations Command
HeadquartersFort Belvoir, Virginia
Nickname(s)"The Activity", "The Army of Northern Virginia"
Motto(s)"Send Me" or Veritas Omnia Vincula Vincit ("Truth Overcomes All Bonds")
EngagementsOperation Winter Harvest
Operation Desert Storm
Operation Gothic Serpent
Operation Joint Endeavor
Operation Enduring Freedom
Operation Iraqi Freedom
Operation Prime Chance
Operation Inherent Resolve
DecorationsPresidential Unit Citation
Joint Meritorious Unit Award
Jerry King
Michael K. Nagata
Richard E. Angle

The Activity and its counterparts 1st SFOD-D, DEVGRU, and the 24th Special Tactics Squadron, are the U.S. military's premier Tier 1 Special Mission Units, performing the most complex, classified, and dangerous missions as directed by the National Command Authority.[6]

The unit is known by many names. USAISA was the official name of the unit from 1981 to 1989. It has also gone by a number of two-word Special Access Program names, including OPTIMIZE TALENT, ROYAL CAPE, CENTRA SPIKE, CAPACITY GEAR, GRANTOR SHADOW, TORN VICTOR, QUIET ENABLE, OPAQUE LEAF, CEMETERY WIND, GRAY FOX, TITRANT RANGER, and INTREPID SPEAR.[1][2][10][11]

History edit

Field Operations Group edit

The Field Operations Group (FOG) was created in the summer of 1980 in order to take part in a second attempt to rescue the U.S. hostages held in the Tehran embassy after the failure of the Operation Eagle Claw. That operation had highlighted the U.S. shortfall in intelligence gathering.[12][13]

The Field Operations Group was under command of Colonel Jerry King and operated in Iran, accomplishing various covert intelligence-gathering missions. The work accomplished by the FOG was successful, however the second attempt (called Operation Credible Sport) never took place because the air assets needed were not available.[11][14]

After the cancellation of Operation Credible Sport, the FOG was not disbanded but enlarged. The administration saw ground intelligence contingencies as needing improvement if future special operations were to be successful, as the CIA did not always provide all the information needed. So, on 3 March 1981, the FOG was established as a permanent unit and renamed US Army Intelligence Support Activity (USAISA).[11] This ISA should not be confused with a later unit known as the Ground Intelligence Support Activity (GISA), which was subordinated to the Army G2.

Badge and insignia edit

The current badge depicts an American bald eagle grasping a claymore, surrounded by a kilt belt, inscribed with the Latin phrase "Veritas Omnia Vincula Vincit" ("Truth Overcomes All Bonds"). In the original crest, the claymore was wrapped in a chain with one of the links broken as a reminder of those killed during the failed Operation Eagle Claw. This symbol of failure was later deemed no longer appropriate.

The badge was deliberately designed by Jerry King and other founding members of the unit because of their shared Scottish heritage. The claymore is a greatsword originating from the Scottish Highlands, and the belt surrounding the badge is seen on Scottish clan badges (the belt signifies that the wearer is a member rather than the chief of the clan - the chief wears the badge without a belt surround).

U.S. Army Intelligence Support Activity edit

Build-up edit

In 1981 the Intelligence Support Activity began to immediately select new operators, growing from the FOG's original 50 members to about 100. The ISA remained extremely secret; all of its records were classified under a Special Access Program initially named OPTIMIZE TALENT. The ISA was given its classified budget of $7 million, a secret headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, and cover name, the Tactical Concept Activity.[11] ISA included three main operations branches (Command, SIGINT and Operations) and an analysis branch, whose name changed over the years (e.g. Directorate of Intelligence, Directorate of Intelligence and Security).[15][16] Colonel Jerry King became the ISA's first commander.[11][17][18]

The ISA's mission was to support Special Operations Forces (primarily 1st SFOD-D and DEVGRU) in counter-terrorist operations and other special operations units. The ISA would provide actionable intelligence collection, pathfinding, and operational support. The ISA performed several operations mainly in Latin America and the Middle East during the 1980s, but also in East Africa, South-East Asia, and Europe.[11] The current organization of ISA is classified but does contain at least three squadrons (Operations, SIGINT and Mission Support/Communications).[15]

First missions edit

The ISA conducted various missions, including giving protection to the Lebanese leader Bachir Gemayel and attempting to buy a Soviet T-72 tank from Iraq (a deal that was finally stopped by the Iraqis).[11][19]

Dozier kidnapping, Operation Winter Harvest edit

On 17 December 1981, the senior U.S. Army officer in NATO Land Forces Southern European Command, Brigadier General James L. Dozier, was kidnapped from his apartment in Verona, Italy, by Italian Red Brigades terrorists. The search for General Dozier saw a massive deployment of Italian and U.S. forces, including thousands of Italian national police, the Carabinieri. The search also featured some unconventional participants, including "remote viewers" from Project Stargate and an international cast of psychics, largely orchestrated by General Albert Stubblebine, then-Commander of U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command INSCOM, and a great believer in the use of unconventional intelligence-gathering methods. An ISA SIGINT team was sent to Italy as part of Operation Winter Harvest and in conjunction with other Army SIGINT and counter-intelligence units, employed aerial and ground-based SIGINT systems to monitor and geo-locate terrorist communications. ISA and the other Army elements provided useful intelligence, helping Italian police to arrest several Red Brigades terrorists in mid-January 1982. The Italian police and intelligence agencies have never officially disclosed how they located General Dozier in late January 1982. However, U.S. Army participants in the operation have hinted that the mid-January arrests, the interrogation of those arrested, and follow-on investigations led to the eventual location of the Red Brigades hideout where Dozier was being held, in an apartment over a store in Padova. There is little doubt that the successful outcome resulted in part from the contributions of ISA's SIGINT specialists and the other supporting Army intelligence elements. General Dozier was freed unharmed by NOCS operators, also known as "The Leatherheads" for their unique headgear, on 28 January 1982.[11]

Operation Queens Hunter edit

In early 1982, the ISA was needed to support a SIGINT mission in El Salvador, a mission that the CIA, the NSA, and INSCOM were not able to accomplish. The task was submitted to the U.S. Army Special Operations Division (SOD), which started Operation Queens Hunter. Operating from a Beechcraft model 100 King Air flown by SEASPRAY (a clandestine military aviation unit) based in Honduras, ISA SIGINT specialists monitored communications from Salvadoran leftist guerrillas and fascist death squads, providing intelligence which helped the Salvadoran Army defend against guerrilla attacks. The success was such that the operation, planned to last a month, ran for more than three years. More aircraft were deployed, and eventually included eavesdropping on Honduran guerrillas too, as well as Nicaraguan Army units fighting against the Contras.[11]

The POW/MIA affair edit

The ISA has also conducted an operation to search for US MIAs (soldiers reported as Missing In Action) allegedly held in South-East Asia in secret POWs camps in the 1980s. In 1979, U.S. intelligence thought it had located a POW camp in Laos using aerial and satellite photographs. A ground reconnaissance was needed to determine if people seen on photographs were really American POWs. At the same time, former Special Forces Major James G. "Bo" Gritz planned a private rescue mission with other S.F. veterans. Having informed the U.S. government officials about the mission, Gritz was first told to abort his "mission," but was eventually approached by the ISA. Nonetheless, Gritz was not believed to be doing serious work, and Pentagon officials ordered the ISA to terminate their relationship with him when they discovered that ISA had provided him with money and equipment.[11]

In 1989, the then USAISA commander John G. Lackey sent a telex "terminating" the USAISA term and his special access program GRANTOR SHADOW. Colonel John Lackey served as unit commander from 1986 to 1989.[20] However, the unit continued under a series of different Top Secret codenames which are changed every two years. Known codenames included CAPACITY GEAR, CENTRA SPIKE, TORN VICTOR, QUIET ENABLE, CEMETERY WIND, and GRAY FOX.[2]

Gray Fox edit

Gray Fox was the codename used by the ISA at the beginning of the War in Afghanistan. Its members often worked closely with Joint Special Operations Command and the Central Intelligence Agency.[21]

In 2002, Gray Fox operators served alongside Delta Force and DEVGRU in the mountains of Afghanistan.[22] Gray Fox intercepted enemy communications and trekked to observation posts with special operations units. Their efforts may have saved more than a hundred 10th Mountain Division and 101st Airborne Division soldiers fighting near Takur Ghar in Afghanistan's Shahikot Valley during Operation Anaconda.[citation needed]

The unit helped spearhead the search for Saddam Hussein and his family after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Gray Fox operatives sometimes work under the broader umbrella of "Joint Special Operations Task Force 20", which also included DEVGRU, the Army's Delta Force, and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Saddam Hussein was eventually captured during Operation Red Dawn.[21] Under the command of Colonel Michael K. Nagata from 2005 to 2008, Gray Fox continued to operate in Iraq and Afghanistan alongside US Special Operations Forces.

Under Joint Special Operations Command edit

In 2003, the Intelligence Support Activity was transferred from the Army INSCOM to Joint Special Operations Command, where it was renamed the Mission Support Activity.[21]

Since 2005 onward, the ISA has not always operated under a two-worded Special Access Program (SAP) name (GRAY FOX, CENTRA SPIKE, etc.). In 2009, the unit was referred to as INTREPID SPEAR, until this was revealed to have been leaked in an email to the Pentagon.[21] In 2010 it was referred to as the United States Army Studies and Analysis Activity.[21]

Elements of the former ISA assisted in intelligence collection and analysis operations prior to and during the 2 May 2011 U.S. Special Operations Forces mission which resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Elements of DEVGRU, along with the ISA, members of the CIA Special Activities Division, DIA,[23] and the NSA combined to execute a raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, which ultimately killed bin Laden and resulted in the deaths of several family members and associates.

Recruitment, training, and organization edit

According to Sean Naylor in Not a Good Day to Die, most (but certainly not all) Activity operatives come from United States Army Special Forces, due to their self-reliance and specialized skill-set.[22] Candidates also come from the other military branches. Most candidates assigned to the Operations, Communications, and/or SIGINT squadrons go through an assessment and selection course, as well as a lengthy background investigation and psychological testing. Once admitted, they receive further training in a specialized Training Course. Like all units, the Intelligence Support Activity contains operational detachments as well as support detachments such as intelligence analysis, medical, logistics.[16]


Foreign language skills, although highly desired, are not a prerequisite to becoming a member of the ISA, though to be a SIGINT/HUMINT operator in the field with other Special Mission Units, working clandestine operations in non-permissive environments, knowing a minimum of several languages is usually indispensable (e.g. Persian, Arabic, Pashto, Lebanese etc.).

Some of the disciplines focused on in the training course are infiltration techniques, advanced air operations, professional driving (offensive and off-road), personal defensive measures, use of state-of-the-art communications equipment, deep surveillance, tradecraft, weapons handling, hand-to-hand combat, signals intelligence, etc.

In popular culture edit

  • Steven Emerson (1988). Secret Warriors: Inside the Covert Military Operations of the Reagan Era.
  • Mark Bowden (2001). Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw.
  • Michael Smith (2006). Killer Elite: The Inside Story of America's Most Secret Special Operations Team.
  • Scott Barnes with Melva Libb Hardback (1987). Bohica A True Account of One Man’s Battle to Expose the Most Heinous Cover-Up of the Vietnam Saga (U.S. P.O.W.s in SE Asia)!
  • Monika Jensen-Stevenson, William Stevenson (2014). Kiss the Boys Goodbye: How the United States Betrayed Its Own POWs in Vietnam.
  • In Dale Brown's Patrick McLanahan novels, the ISA operates on the high seas in support of McLanahan's operations.
  • In Daniel Suarez's (2012) novel Kill Decision.
  • Robert Littell's (1991) novel An Agent in Place.
  • W. E. B. Griffin's The Presidential Agent series, especially its first book, By Order of the President, features "Gray Fox" in a major role.
Video game
  • There are multiple references to "the Activity" in Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands.
  • A single reference, "ISA cell phone snipers", is present in the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
  • ISA are a playable faction in Call of Duty: Black Ops II's multiplayer mode.
  • In the television series Person of Interest, the ISA is mentioned as "an obscure U.S. Army unit that does black ops so dark, technically they don't exist".
Comic book

See also edit

Other Intelligence-based special operations units:

Bibliography edit

General citations edit

  • Bowden, Mark (2001). Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 978-0-87113-783-8.
  • Emerson, Steven (1988). Secret Warriors: Inside the Covert Military Operations of the Reagan Era. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. ISBN 978-0-399-13360-2.
  • Richelson, Jeffrey T. (1999). "Truth Conquers All Chains: The U.S. Army Intelligence Support Activity, 1981–1989". International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. 12 (2): 168–200. doi:10.1080/088506099305133. ISSN 0885-0607 – via InformaWorld.
  • Smith, Michael (2006). Killer Elite: The Inside Story of America's Most Secret Special Operations Team. New York: St Martin's Press. ISBN 978-1-250-00647-9. (Several editions from 2006 to 2011 with additional material.)
  • Jeffrey T. Richelson, 23 May 2001, "The Pentagon's Spies: Documents Detail Histories of Once Secret Spy Units", electronic book by on the National Security Archive website (Archived). The article collects copies of declassified documents about covert US military intelligence units, including the ISA:
    • Memorandum for Director, Defense Intelligence Agency, by Lt. Gen. Philip C. Gast, USAF, 10 December 1980
    • Memorandum to the Deputy Under Secretary for Policy, by Frank Carlucci, 26 May 1982
    • Charter of U.S. Army Intelligence Support Activity, circa mid-1983
    • After Action Report for Operation CANVAS SHIELD, by 902nd Military Intelligence Group, 30 July 1985
    • Brief History of Unit (ISA), circa mid-1986 (presumed)
    • United States Army Intelligence Support Activity 1986 Historical Report
    • United States Army Intelligence Support Activity 1987 Historical Report
    • Termination of USAISA and "GRANTOR SHADOW", by Commander, USAISA, 31 March 1989
  • Update - now 1st Capabilities Integration Group[24]

References edit

  1. ^ a b Gray, Warren (20 June 2020). "The Guns of Delta Force". Gunpowder Magazine. Archived from the original on 21 June 2022. Retrieved 24 August 2022.
  2. ^ a b c Naylor, Sean (2016). Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. ISBN 978-1250105479.
  3. ^ "Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)". Archived from the original on 18 July 2022. Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  4. ^ Neville, Leigh (2008). Special Operations, Forces in Afghanistan. Library Genesis. Oxford; New York: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84603-310-0.
  5. ^ Gellman, Barton (23 January 2005). "Secret Unit Expands Rumsfeld's Domain". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 24 July 2008. Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  6. ^ a b c Ambinder, Marc (22 March 2013). "The Most Secret of Secret Units". The Week. Archived from the original on 3 August 2022. Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  7. ^ Naylor, Sean D. (1 May 2015). "Meet the Shadow Warrior Leading the Fight Against the Islamic State". Foreign Policy. Archived from the original on 6 September 2015. Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  8. ^ Hand IV, George (18 December 2019). "Task Force Orange: Supporting Delta Force". SOFREP. Archived from the original on 19 August 2022. Retrieved 28 February 2021.
  9. ^ "Prepared Statement to be Given by MG William E. Odom, Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Department of Army Before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on 8 June 1982" (PDF). 8 June 1982. Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 September 2021. Retrieved 24 August 2022.
  10. ^ Richelson, Jeffrey T. (23 May 2001). "The Pentagon's Spies". National Security Archive. Archived from the original on 31 January 2022. Retrieved 24 August 2022.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Richelson, Jeffrey (1 June 1999). "'Truth Conquers All Chains': The U.S. Army Intelligence Support Activity, 1981–1989". International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence. 12 (2): 168–200. doi:10.1080/088506099305133. ISSN 0885-0607.
  12. ^ "Memorandum for Director, Defense Intelligence Agency" (PDF). 10 December 1980. Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 June 2021.
  13. ^ Clancy, Tom (2001). Special Forces. New York: Berkley Books. ISBN 978-0-425-17268-1.
  14. ^ "Brief History of Unit" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 October 2021.
  15. ^ a b "United States Army Intelligence Support Activity 1986 Historical Report" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 November 2001.
  16. ^ a b "United States Army Intelligence Support Activity 1987 Historical Report" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 11 November 2001.
  17. ^ "COLONEL JERRY M. KING" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 July 2017. Retrieved 17 July 2017.
  18. ^ Wilson, George C. (23 August 1983). "Secret Army Intelligence Unit Lived On After 1980 Iran Mission". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 9 June 2022. Retrieved 24 August 2022.
  19. ^ Hersh, Seymour M. (22 November 1987). "Who's In Charge Here?". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 28 December 2021. Retrieved 24 August 2022.
  20. ^ "COLONEL JOHN G. LACKEY III" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 December 2016. Retrieved 27 December 2016.
  21. ^ a b c d e Ambinder, Marc; Grady, D. B. (2012). The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-118-34672-3. OCLC 778339638.
  22. ^ a b Naylor, Sean (2005). Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda. New York: Berkley Books. ISBN 978-0-425-19609-0. OCLC 56592513..
  23. ^ "Army Regulation 690–950–4 Military Intelligence Civilian Excepted Career Program" (PDF). Headquarters, Department of the Army. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 August 2022.
  24. ^ "The Military's Own Covert Army". 3 January 2022. Retrieved 28 December 2022.;