“The CTPTs (Afghan Counter-Terrorism Pursuit Teams) are getting their motherfu&*ing slay on tonight,” a Ground Branch paramilitary officer said as he watched tracer fire shoot through the night sky near their forward operating base on the Pakistani border.

“GB (Ground Branch) officers constituted the main force at Stone and were selected from among the baddest-ass military units—SEALs, Marine Force Recon, Air Force parajumpers, and the Army’s Combat Applications Group (formerly known as Delta Force). They wore civilian clothes and were equipped with the most advanced light weaponry on the planet,” writes former CIA Case Officer John Smith in his book, “Left of Boom.”

Ground Branch: The CIA's covert alternative to special operations
CIA-trained Afghan forces.

Ground Branch is a part of the CIA’s Special Activities Division, which also includes Air Branch and Maritime Branch. As the author noted, GB paramilitary officers are primarily recruited from the special operations community. At one point known as a sort of good-old-boys network, Ground Branch was once heavily represented by former Marines. Later, GB became heavy with retired Delta Force sergeant majors. These days, things are a bit different, with the CIA preferring to contract younger former sergeants out of Army Special Forces who they can raise up through the ranks of the agency over a longer period of time.

Although most GB officers are competent in their core tasks, one issue that often arises is that the CIA paramilitary operations officers (PMOOs) in charge of these programs are usually on the agency career track, and generally don’t have any military background. This results in some lopsided results, as one can imagine. It sucks for the PMOOs, too, because after a few tours to an active war zone, they have to start doing normal case officer duties around the world. There, they are expected to be Johnny-on-the-spot when it comes to recruiting assets, but they are competing with peers who have been doing the case officer job since day one of their time at the CIA.

John Smith was fortunate: When he arrived at his firebase, he was reunited with a friend from The Farm named Rick G., a former Special Forces soldier who had applied for the CIA and gone through the tradecraft training needed to become a case officer. Rick was in charge of Ground Branch at that location. This seems to be a growing trend as well—PMOOs who are former Green Berets or Marines. Historically, these program managers have been quite a bit younger than the contractors who work for them. While the program managers are full-fledged CIA case officers or staff operations officers, actual Ground Branch officers (or operators if you prefer) are contracted employees. Contrary to popular belief, you do not need a bachelor’s degree in order to join.Ground Branch: The CIA's covert alternative to special operations

When people envision Ground Branch, they tend to picture “Rainbow Six” or “Splinter Cell” black helicopter-type stuff, but the reality is that their mission is essentially the same as the unconventional warfare mission of Army Special Forces (Green Berets). What makes GB unique is that they can operate under the CIA’s Title 50 authority for covert action. This makes GB a deniable force, unlike active-duty SEALs, Rangers, or Delta operators.

GB has been very active in both Afghanistan and Iraq during the Global War on Terror, but their actions are rarely reported by the press. Even less known is the role that GB played in the Libyan Civil War, when Gaddafi was overthrown after President Obama signed an executive action authorizing clandestine support to rebel factions. Today, GB officers are active in northern Syria with the Kurdish YPG militia, where they provide tactical support in the war against ISIS.

With a history stretching back to the OSS in World War Two and America’s secret war in Laos during the Vietnam conflict, paramilitary officers give policymakers strategic and tactical options when deciding whether or not they should intervene in foreign conflicts. Ground Branch offers a deployable paramilitary force capable of conducting covert operations, technically something that JSOC is unable to do as their low-visibility missions are considered operational preparation of the environment.