Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What Are Special Operations and Paramilitary Operations?

The U.S. strategy in pursuing the war on international terrorism involves a variety of
missions conducted by military and civilian intelligence personnel characterized as
“special operations” or paramilitary operations. The separate roles of the Department of
Defense (DOD) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are not always clearly reflected in
media accounts and at times there has been considerable operational overlap. Proposals such as
those made by the 9/11 Commission to change organizational relationships will, however, be
evaluated on the basis of separate roles and missions, operating practices, and relevant statutory

DOD defines special operations as “operations conducted in hostile, denied, or politically
sensitive environments to achieve military, diplomatic, informational, and/or economic objectives
employing military capabilities for which there is no broad conventional force requirement.”1

DOD defines paramilitary forces as “forces or groups distinct from the regular armed forces of
any country, but resembling them in organization, equipment, training or mission.” In this report,
the term “paramilitary operations” will be used for operations conducted by the CIA whose
officers and employees are not part of the armed forces of the United States. (In practice, military
personnel may be temporarily assigned to the CIA and CIA personnel may temporarily serve
directly under a military commander.)

In general, special operations are distinguishable from regular military operations by degree of
physical and political risk, operational techniques, and mode of employment among other factors.
DOD special operations are frequently clandestine—designed in such a way as to ensure
concealment; they are not necessarily covert, that is, concealing the identity of the sponsor is not
a priority. The CIA, however, conducts covert and clandestine operations to avoid directly
implicating the U.S. Government.


1 Definitions are from Joint Publication 1-02, “Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms,” Apr. 12, 2001, as amended through Oct. 7, 2004.

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