Mention the name SAS to someone, and it evokes images of elite commandos from the United Kingdom. However, the United States also has its group of highly trained operators known as the Special Activities Staff, which is controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency. Over the years, this unit has gone through several name changes, starting as the Special Activities Division (SAD) and most recently being referred to as the Special Activities Center (SAC). Within SAC, there are two distinct groups: SAC/SOG (Special Operations Group) for tactical paramilitary operations and SAC/PAG (Political Action Group) for covert political action.
The Special Activities Center (SAC) is a lesser-known unit within the CIA’s secretive Directorate of Operations. While not a military unit, the SAC is considered an active Special Missions Unit and is responsible for a range of activities, including long-range surveillance, bomb-damage assessments, prisoner snatches, material recovery, and sabotage. They are tasked with carrying out clandestine or covert operations that the U.S. government does not want to be openly associated with.
The Special Activities Center (SAC) is divided into three branches: ground, maritime, and airborne. The ground branch handles land-based combat activities and land assaults, while the maritime branch is responsible for water operations and assaults. The air branch, which operates a variety of aircraft types in civilian markings, serves the U.S. globally rather than just in Asia. It serves as a modern version of “Air America” and provides transportation for the ground branch to special locations as needed.
The Special Activities Center (SAC) is one of the most secretive covert units operating on behalf of the U.S. Government. It consists of teams ranging in size from one to twelve individuals and is considered among the world’s top special operations units. The SAC’s personnel are highly skilled in counterterrorist and hostage rescue operations and are capable of neutralizing any type of vehicle, aircraft, ship, building, or facility. Despite its reputation, the SAC remains largely unknown to the public.
Selection and training
The SAC is a source of trained personnel for the various divisions within the CIA to draw from and form a Special Operations Group (SOG). SOGs are temporary teams that carry out paramilitary operations such as sabotage, friendly personnel/material recovery, threat personnel/material snatches, bomb damage assessment, counterterrorism operations, raids, hostage rescues, and other activities as directed by the President. They may be called upon to respond to short-term needs and challenges.
Candidates for the SAC are primarily recruited from two sources. The first of these is the U.S. military’s Special Mission Units (SMUs), such as the Army’s Combat Applications Group (CAG), also known as “Delta Force,” and the U.S. Navy’s Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU, formerly known as SEAL Team SIX). Other potential candidates are drawn from former members of elite military units, such as the USMC’s Force Reconnaissance units, the U.S. Army Special Forces, and the Navy’s SEAL teams, or from within the ranks of the CIA itself.
A SOG detachment would be made up of members from one or more of the SAC’s three branches (Ground, Air, and Maritime), depending on the needs of the SOG and its mission tasking. Once organized, a SOG would travel to its designated Area of Operations (AO) and carry out its mission as directed by the DDO through the local Chief of Station or other designated individual.
One successful operation carried out by the SAS took place during Operation Desert Shield. During the operation, a single SAS operative repeatedly penetrated Iraqi defenses in and around Kuwait City to deliver and retrieve intelligence material from the besieged U.S. Embassy. In another operation, SAS operators and U.S. Navy SEALs were involved in the covert mining of Nicaraguan harbors in the 1980s.