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Special Activities Division Training for the CIA

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The Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, is part of the national security force of the United States. It’s the agency responsible for obtaining intelligence around the world on matters relevant to protecting the country.

Until 2016, the elite, covert operations group of the CIA was termed the Special Activities Division, when it was renamed the Special Activities Division. But the change of name doesn’t change the division’s status as one of the most compelling and mysterious branches of operatives in the world.

CIA Special Activities Division

The CIA Special Activities Division is the CIA’s covert paramilitary operations unit. It’s listed among the country’s most secretive special ops organizations. Its responsibility is to carry out “deniable” covert operations in foreign countries.

Since the operations are so secretive, it’s hard to obtain much detailed information about SAD other than its organizational overview. All aspects of SAD are classified. It’s suspected that if a SAD operative is captured during a mission, the CIA will deny knowing the individual rather than reveal their involvement.

The Special Activities Division includes two separate covert ops groups that operate under the CIA umbrella. They are:

  • Special Operations Group
  • Political Action Group: a separate group used by the CIA for covert political action

Special Operations Group

The Special Operations Group is an elite unit assigned to tactical military operations. All of the members of the Special Operations Group are called Paramilitary Operations Officers. These operatives do not wear military-style uniforms or any clothing or badges that resemble uniforms. They are highly skilled combat soldiers, but there is nothing about their garb that can directly associate them with the United States government.

Political Action Group

The Political Action Group of SAD is a different group of elite operatives. The CIA uses this group to undertake covert political action. This can include operations that shape political influence around the world, economic warfare with another country, or psychological operations.

Not a lot of public information is available about this group. It’s suspected that Political Action Group agents might work on matters like cyberwarfare. It’s also been suggested that these operatives are involved in missions abroad to support the USA’s foreign policy. These might include getting involved with uprisings in foreign countries to be either a beneficial or detrimental influence to one side or secretly organizing government protests and demonstrations in hostile foreign countries.

Paramilitary Operations Officers

Who works in the CIA’s Special Activities Division? The CIA Special Activities Division is made up of agents called Paramilitary Operations Officers. These employees almost always have an extensive military background and are often veterans of military special operations units like the Marine Force Recon or the Green Berets. A few are recruited from inside the CIA.

Veteran-run websites estimate that there are approximately 150 paramilitaries engaged with SAD. Others put the number at around 200. But CIA and government websites don’t confirm or deny this information. That makes it impossible to state with any certainty the number of operatives who work for SAD.

Paramilitary Operations Officer

What exactly does a paramilitary operations officer do? Many of the specifics are not made public. However, the CIA website contains a job description for the position of Paramilitary Operations Officer for the CIA. The CIA describes the responsibilities of this position as:

  • Leading and managing covert action programs, at the direction of the president of the United States, and
  • Collecting foreign intelligence vital to national security policymakers.

The job description mentions that anyone seeking the position must be willing to accept demanding responsibilities and take on significant personal risk. Paramilitary Operations Officers use their prior military experience to “conduct air, ground and maritime paramilitary operations, covert action as well as intelligence collection, in austere and dangerous environments.”

New operative recruits spend several years studying clandestine operational trade craft both in classroom settings and in the field. They also undergo specialized paramilitary training and physical fitness training to prepare to work in hazardous places in other countries.

Special Activities Division Training

What does all this mean? Despite a military background, SAD operators must undergo extensive specialized training in all types of covert military skills across a number of different environments. The training is said to include:

  • hostage rescue
  • sabotage
  • bomb damage assessment
  • personnel and material recovery
  • kidnapping
  • bomb damage assessment
  • counter terrorism

Arguably, SAD recruits are the most elite group of operatives in the world. Even their training location is kept quiet. They are thought to begin their training at Camp Peary in Virginia, nicknamed “the Farm.” Additional training may take place at a facility near Hertford, North Carolina, nicknamed “The Point.”

During training, recruits become super-soldiers. They learn to operate groundbreaking new weaponry, explosive devices and firearms. They also get advanced hand-to-hand combat training, learn techniques for avoiding apprehension and learn to build explosives from common products. They practice parachuting, scuba diving and closed circuit diving as well as wilderness survival skills, EMS training, tracking, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Branches of SAD

The Special Activities Division of the CIA has four branches under the Special Operations Group and the Political Action Group. Operatives are assigned to one of these branches. They are:

  1. SAD Ground Branch
  2. SAD Maritime Branch
  3. SAD Air Branch
  4. SAD Armor and Special Programs Branch

As you might guess from the branch names, the Ground Branch handles operations on the ground and are experts in surveillance, field and trade craft, small arms and hostage rescue. The Maritime Branch handles missions that involve water, and operatives are experts in ships, scuba and underwater diving. The Air Branch handles aviation activities.

The Armor and Special Programs Branch is different from the other three in that it operates covertly and not in direct combat. These operatives develop and test weapons and equipment obtained abroad from clandestine sources.

Applying for CIA Paramilitary Training

If you are considering a career in the CIA’s Special Action Division, you need to take the time to carefully review the minimum qualifications. These are listed on the CIA website. First, you’ll need to be a United States citizen and willing to locate to the Washington, D.C. metro area. But that’s only the beginning.

You’ll also need to have earned or have almost completed the studies for a bachelor’s degree. It doesn’t matter what subject you earn your degree in, and no subject id preferred over others. But you do need to have a grade point average of at least 3.0 on a 4-point grading scale.

Military Experience Requirements for SAD

You cannot waltz into the CIA after getting a four-year degree and expect to get hired as a paramilitary officer. The CIA does not hire untrained people and then train them to become a paramilitary operative. Rather, it only hires Special Forces fighters who are already highly trained and experienced. These fighters then cross-train as operations officers and paramilitary fighters.

Let’s review the specialized work requirements to qualify for SAD training. You must have served in the United States Armed Forces on active duty for at least eight years in one of two careers:

  • Special operations or combat arms
  • Aviation or aviation-related specialties

During your time in the military, you must have seen combat. You will also need to show that you held more than one leadership position demonstrating a high level of responsibility and critical decision-making under stress. The CIA prefers that you are still on active duty, and, at a minimum, you can’t have left active duty more than three years before applying.

Other Qualifications Considered

The CIA will also consider several other types of experience in selecting candidates for SAD paramilitary training. For example, if you were deployed overseas in a non-combat role, but your work had “real world” impact, the CIA will consider it. They also prefer applicants fluent in foreign languages and applicants who have foreign travel experience, especially those with knowledge of particular areas of the world.

Do you have advanced combat skills? Experience in underwater operations or combat diving while in the military? How about military experience parachuting or flying delivery operations? All of these will make you a more attractive candidate.

Testing Required for SAD

A good resume only goes so far. The CIA also requires applicants to complete a set of exams, starting with a thorough medical exam. You’ll also need to ace a psychological exam as well as a polygraph interview. After that, you can still expect them to do a comprehensive background investigation.

Will drug use disqualify you? It may. The CIA prefers applicants who haven’t used any illegal drugs within the past year. And even drug use prior to that will be evaluated during the security processing.

CIA SAD Salary Information

According to the CIA job description, there is a lot of wiggle room in the salary and benefits you can get if you are hired by the CIA Special Activities Division as a Paramilitary Operations Officer. The website lists the starting salary range as running from a low of $65,442 to a high of $108,422. But it then states that you may be eligible for a higher starting salary, depending upon your experience.

This sounds promising, but there’s more money possible. The website also notes that if you are selected for this position, you may be eligible for a one-time hiring bonus equal to a quarter of your base pay amount. Note that you have to sign up for a five-year contract.

Jobs as SAD officers also carry comprehensive benefit packages, including life insurance and medical coverage. This is lucky, given the risks you are likely to take in this position.

Path to Become a CIA Operative

It’s clear that becoming a CIA SAD operative is not something most people can aspire to. To classify it as highly competitive is an understatement. Best guesses put the total number of CIA paramilitary operatives at 200 or under, so they really can afford to be picky.

If you aspire to this elite corps, you must have a superior record in almost every part of your life. Start with your schooling. SAD officers are not just elite soldiers, but they also very bright. Be sure you earn high grades throughout your entire education, not just in college.

You might want to consider getting an advanced degree, since many SAD operatives earn master’s or law degrees at renowned universities such as Ivy League schools or West Point. Any issues with the law in your youth will likely disqualify you since you will require a higher level of security clearance.

Other CIA Job Options

If working for the CIA’s elite Special Activities Division seems out of reach for you, keep in mind that there are many positions at the agency that require other skills and offer other work environments.

Given the popularity of operatives in the movies, many people think of a secret agent when they think of careers in the CIA. But it pays to explore other career opportunities with the agency if you are interested. These can range from Language Officer to Staff Operations Officer, from Engineer to Political Analyst or Clinical Psychologist.


Teo Spengler has worked as a trial lawyer, a teacher and a writer at various times in her life, which is one of the reasons she likes to write about career paths. Spengler has published thousands of articles in the past decade including articles providing tips for starting a job or changing careers. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson,, and Working Mother websites. She holds a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley, an M.A. in English and an M.F.A. in fiction.

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