It was early one afternoon on a chilly day in the late fall and I was running a training (evaluation) exercise for our new candidates for the Hard Targets team in Directorate of Operations.
They were from a few different agencies within the Intelligence Community’s Operations Directorates (and one was even from an outside agency).
The fictitious mission was a night navigation from a remote drop off, through thick terrain, with the end goal of successfully gaining surreptitious entry into a secured facility and culminating in the theft of a high value intelligence document from the facility.
Additionally, they were tasked with placing several low-observable audio and video collection devices in specific offices of the targeted facility. While these exercises are a lot of fun, they are also very dangerous, high risk and high-energy activities.
Local law enforcement is NOT notified. If someone gets spotted or caught, they fail. Or, perhaps get shot. The only pre-arranged and safeguarded aspects are that the Manager of the facility is briefed in advance and is complicit.
They do not notify their armed security officers, do not disable any alarms, intrusion detections technology or leave any doors unlocked. He does however, leave a fake Top Secret document in his office safe.
We started with a mission briefing detailing the specific tasking orders, risks and very clear descriptions of the operational acts they would have to accomplish for the Op to be successful.
I also made very clear that anyone or any activity discovered or any evidence of the operation would mean failure for all of them. They knew this was their one shot at getting on the team.
Next, we began the mission planning phase. I lead them as we conducted a full security and threat assessment and engaged in team discussions on how to best answer the tasking directives while preserving the clandestine nature of the operation.
They resolved to satisfy the Tasking Order by each of them fulfilling one of the intelligence requirements listed in the Tasking Order.
Then, they set about to determine the equipment, tools, transportation, communications, egress, emergency egress and fail-safe egress plans, reviewed the maps, satellite imagery, building layout and expected security features they would have to defeat.
We were about 20 hours into the planning and preparation phase of the exercise when one of the candidates asked if they could take a break to get a bite to eat and maybe take a few minutes to rest.
As you may suspect, these training exercises are in fact mostly evaluations and assessments.
Instead of testing against an artificial standard (as if there are any “standards” in the espionage business) we use peer-to-peer comparisons along with our innate ability to judge the character and constitution of candidates for our esoteric composition of skills.
This candidate did not do himself any favors by asking for a break. In fact, it incentivized me to push them harder and longer. I and my teammates needed to know if this individual posed a weak link.
We had started the exercise in the early afternoon the day before. I wanted them to assume that the night op would be that night – none of them expected to be there 24 hours before the actual exercise even began. Our training and evals are not games.
I and all of my colleagues have conducted high intensity missions lasting well in excess of 36 hours. On real-world ops, an operative must remain diligently cognitive, mission-focused, alert and attentive and be 100% situationally aware.
Espionage will never be a 9-5 job. And spies cannot succumb to physiological comforts like sleep, eating, keeping warm or dry, etc.
While we get ample training to extend our range of physical tolerances, nothing is as effective as a determined spirit, absolute self-control, and unwavering commitment to your teammates and the mission.
So, when it was about 24 hours after we had launched the exercise with the mission briefing the day before, I said “OK, let’s roll”. “What! NOW?” the same candidate asked with a tone of disbelief and disapproval. When I responded “Yup”, he murmured and complained just loud enough for me to hear.
My disappointment with this candidate was not that he was tired and hungry, but that his negative attitude could infect other team members and denigrate the team’s effectiveness and increase the risk of mistakes.
Believe me, we all feel that way, but we tamp it way down and only express optimistic and productive comments. In the real-world, giving into the need for creature comforts can mean, death, torture or life in prison.
But, it served our training purposes by allowing him to remain and continue the evaluation with the rest of the ad-hoc team. We could learn if any others would be influenced by his attitude.
This exercise was designed to measure their stamina, attention to details, abilities to work as an integrated member of a team, while retaining that certain spark of individualism.
It was also crafted to appraise their individual preparedness levels. They had already been trained on Ops Bags (or what civilians call their EDC gear) and now was the time to see what each of them had selected.
They knew their Ops Bag would serve as their core gear and that those small but critical tools would make it possible for them to adapt and overcome situations and problems outside the normal scope of the planned Op.
There is no “perfect” gear set that will work for everyone. In fact, as soon as you try to develop a one-size-fits-all “kit”, you get a weak and ineffectual generic collection of nominally useful items.
Not only would this exercise test their ability to assemble the most advantageous Ops bag for them individually, but it would help them refine their Ops Bags before they went down range on real-world ops where their lives and US national security would depend on who they are and what they have.
As you assemble your own Ops Bag and RTB (Return to Base bag or as civilians call them, “Get Home Bag”) be hyper cognizant of these key factors: Make sure it’s the right bag for the environment and the mission and that every item in your bag has multiple utility and will be a solution-multiplier for you individually.
Every item must be robust, reliable and capable of operating in extreme environments; everything from artic cold, to sandy deserts and from submerged to high altitude conditions.
This exercise/evaluation tested far more than their individual resilience, their “tool bags”, or their ability to play well with others.
We needed to expose their true character and see what emerged under great pressure, impossible time constraints and subtle, embedded opportunities for them to cheat or misrepresent (exaggerate, minimize or falsify) the facts and details in their post-mission reports.
One of the tools we employed to convey critical and time-sensitive information to field commanders, ambassadors, or even National Command Authorities was a product know as Preliminary Mission Summaries or “PREMS”.
These mission summaries were short and only contained the most high-value intelligence or events of our mission. Each PREMS had to be sent by secure means within two hours of an operator or team of operators arriving at a safe site.
The only exception to that rule was that if we discovered an imminent threat to US persons, a pending attack on the US or an ally, that an American Interest was the target of potentially fatal or extremely violent hostile actions and a few other classified events.
In those cases, we had just minutes from the time we discovered the event to report it to US national-level authorities. Threats of such magnitude did not require the time or logistic burdens of secure communications. The intelligence was to be reported by any means necessary.
When we hit the first phase of the field work, the team had to work together to climb a chain-link fence about 15 feet tall. Doing this climb at night, in heavy winds and freezing rain, while hungry, exhausted and rushed is very tough.
Their challenge was amplified by their need to get their sensitive gear and special “objects” safely over the obstacle while leaving no trace or evidence (especially identifiable, such as biomatter, or materials) of their presence in the mud, on the fence or anywhere along their route of ingress.
They all made it over and across the fields to their next obstacle. They had several more tasks that became increasingly physically, mentally, and intellectually arduous as they closed in on their target.
By about 36 hours into the mission, they were no more than 150 yards from the facility, but they did not realize it. They could only see about 50 yards ahead due to natural and engineered obstructions.
They could see that they had some difficult terrain to navigate and would need to defeat the protective measures of a security post manned with armed guards and several observation cameras equipped with night vision and passive infra-red motion detection.
As they stopped to plan on how they could overcome these challenges, the same candidate came to me and said “look, this is ridiculous, can’t we call it a day and come back tomorrow and finish the exercise”?
I said “Well, it has been a very long, cold experience and I don’t think any of you have had anything to eat in at least 30 hours. Well, what do the rest of you think?”
You could tell by the way he scanned his fellow candidates that he was expecting support for his suggestion. No one said anything, but one of them looked down at her compass and counted her Ranger beads and headed off to the Tasked Target.
The others followed. I told him he could go home now and get a hot meal, shower and a good night’s sleep. He insisted on continuing on with his fellow cohorts.
I explained to him that his shot at a position with the Agency’s Hard Targets team was over and that he would not be invited back.
The rest of the team successfully gained surreptitious entry into the secure facility. They employed virtually all of their recently acquired special skills training, lock and security defeating technology and a solid plan.
They each managed to perform their “OA” or Operational Act with finesse and precision. While we had to teach them the unique method of how to write a PREMS and full Post-Op report for this class of espionage, they all triumphed and were extended an invitation to join the Hard Targets Unit.
However, after getting an insight into the nature and danger of this work, only one woman accepted the invite and went on to the full training course.
The others returned to their respective organizations with a sense of great accomplishment and a more comprehensive understanding of price paid by operatives when gathering intelligence worthy of the President’s Daily Brief – and yes, I have had some of my operations in the PDB.
You really do have the best, brightest, most courageous and driven men and women protecting your liberties, your families and your way of life.