Supriya Ghosh (Editor)

Intelligence Support Activity

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Active  1981
Garrison/HQ  Fort Belvoir, Virginia
Branch  United States Army
Intelligence Support Activity
Country  United States of America
Type  United States Special Operations Forces
Role  Operational preparation of the battlefield, provides HUMINT and SIGINT

The United States Army Intelligence Support Activity (USAISA), frequently shortened to Intelligence Support Activity or ISA, and nicknamed The Activity, is a United States Army Special Operations unit originally subordinated to the US Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM). It is tasked to collect actionable intelligence in advance of missions by other US special operations forces, especially 1st SFOD-D and DEVGRU in counter-terrorist operations.


USAISA was the official name of the unit from 1981 to 1989; previously it was known as the Field Operations Group (FOG), created in September 1980. In 1989, the then USAISA commander sent a telex "terminating" the USAISA term and his special access program Grantor Shadow, but the unit continued under a series of different codenames which are changed every two years; known codenames include Centra Spike, Torn Victor, Quiet Enable, Cemetery Wind, and Gray Fox.

Field Operations Group

The Field Operations Group (FOG) was created in summer 1980 in order to take part in a second attempt to rescue the U.S. hostages held in the Tehran embassy after the failure of the Operation Eagle Claw. That operation had highlighted the U.S. shortfall in intelligence gathering, in spite of the attempts by Major Richard J. Meadows, who operated undercover in Tehran during the operation.

The Field Operations Group was under command of Colonel Jerry King, and operated in Iran, accomplishing various covert intelligence-gathering missions. The work accomplished by the FOG was successful, however the second attempt (called Operation Credible Sport), never took place because the air assets needed were not available.

After the cancellation of Operation Credible Sport, the FOG was not disbanded, but enlarged. The administration saw that ground intelligence contingencies needed to be improved upon if future special operations were to be successful (the CIA did not always provide all the information needed). So, on 3 March 1981, the FOG was established as a permanent unit and renamed US Army Intelligence Support Activity. This activity should not be confused with a later activity known as the Ground Intelligence Support Activity (GISA), as subordinated to the Army G2.

Badge and insignia

The current badge depicts an American bald eagle grasping a claymore, surrounded by a kilt belt, inscribed with Latin translation of "Truth Overcomes All Bonds". In the original crest, the claymore was wrapped in a chain with one of the links broken as a reminder of those killed during the failed Operation Eagle Claw. This symbol of failure was later deemed no longer appropriate.

The badge was deliberately designed by Jerry King and other founding members of the unit because of their shared Scottish heritage. The claymore is a greatsword originating from the Scottish Highlands, and the belt surrounding the badge is seen on Scottish clan's badges (the belt signifies that the wearer is a member rather than the chief of the clan. The chief wears the badge without a belt surround)


In 1981 the Intelligence Support Activity began to immediately select new operators, growing from FOG's 50 people to about 100. The ISA remained extremely secret; all of its records were classified under a Special Access Program (at first named OPTIMIZE TALENT). The ISA was given its classified budget of $7 million, a secret headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, and cover name, the Tactical Concept Activity. ISA included three main operations branches (Command, SIGINT and Operations), and an analysis branch, whose name changed over the years (i.e. Directorate of Intelligence, Directorate of Intelligence and Security). Colonel Jerry King became ISA's first commander.

ISA mission was to support top-tier Special Operations Forces (primarily Delta Force and SEAL Team Six) in counter-terrorist operations and other special missions. The ISA would provide actionable intelligence collection, pathfinding, and operational support. The ISA performed several operations mainly in Latin America and Middle East, but also in East Africa, South-East Asia, and Europe.

First missions

The ISA conducted various missions, including giving protection to the Lebanese leader Bachir Gemayel and attempting to buy a Soviet T-72 tank from Iraq (a deal that was finally stopped by the Iraqis).

Dozier kidnapping

On December 17, 1981, the senior U.S. Army officer in NATO Land Forces Southern European Command, Brigadier General James L. Dozier, was kidnapped from his apartment in Verona, Italy, by Italian Red Brigades terrorists. The search for General Dozier saw a massive deployment of Italian and U.S. forces, including thousands of Italian national police, the Carabinieri. The search also featured some unconventional participants, including "remote viewers" from Project Stargate and an international cast of psychics, largely orchestrated by General Albert Stubblebine, then-Commander of U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command INSCOM, and a great believer in the use of unconventional intelligence-gathering methods. An ISA SIGINT team was sent to Italy, and in conjunction with other Army SIGINT and counter-intelligence units, employed aerial and ground-based SIGINT systems to monitor and geo-locate terrorist communications. ISA and the other Army elements provided useful intelligence, helping Italian police to arrest several Red Brigades terrorists in mid-January 1982. The Italian police and intelligence agencies have never officially disclosed how they located General Dozier in late January 1982. However, U.S. Army participants in the operation have hinted that the mid-January arrests, the interrogation of those arrested, and follow-on investigations led to the eventual location of the Red Brigades hideout where Dozier was being held, in an apartment over a store in Padova. There is little doubt that the successful outcome resulted in part from the contributions of ISA's SIGINT specialists and the other supporting Army intelligence elements. General Dozier was freed unharmed by NOCS operators, also known as "The Leatherheads" for their unique headgear, on January 28, 1982.

Operation Queens Hunter

In early-1982, the ISA was needed to support a SIGINT mission in El Salvador, a mission that the CIA, the NSA and INSCOM were not able to accomplish. The task was submitted to the U.S. Army Special Operations Division (SOD), which started Operation Queens Hunter. Operating from a Beechcraft model 100 King Air flown by SEASPRAY (a clandestine military aviation unit) based in Honduras, ISA SIGINT specialists monitored communications from Salvadoran leftist guerrillas and fascist death squads, providing intelligence which helped the Salvadoran Army defend against guerrilla attacks. The success was such that the operation, planned to last a month, ran for more than three years. More aircraft were deployed, and eventually included eavesdropping on Honduran guerrillas too, as well as Nicaraguan Army units fighting against the Contras.

The POW/MIA affair

The ISA has also conducted an operation to search for U.S. MIAs (soldiers reported as Missing In Action) allegedly held in South-East Asia in secret POWs camps in the 1980s. In 1979, U.S. intelligence thought it had located a POW camp in Laos using aerial and satellite photographs. A ground reconnaissance was needed to determine if people seen on photographs were really American POWs. At the same time, former Special Forces Major James G. "Bo" Gritz planned a private rescue mission with other S.F. veterans. Having informed U.S. government officials about the mission, Bo Gritz was first told to abort his "mission," but was eventually approached by the ISA. Nonetheless, Gritz was not believed to be doing serious work, and Pentagon officials ordered the ISA to terminate their relationship with him when they discovered that ISA had provided him with money and equipment. Operation Grand Eagle aka BOHICA-1987 Scott Barnes ISA OpUS Senate Hearings 1986, 1992

Gray Fox

Gray Fox was the codename used by the ISA at the beginning of the War in Afghanistan. Its members often worked closely with US Special Mission Units.

In 2002, Gray Fox fought alongside Delta Force and DEVGRU in the mountains of Afghanistan. Gray Fox operatives intercepted enemy communications and trekked to observation posts with special operations units. Their efforts may have saved more than a hundred 10th Mountain Division and 101st Airborne Division soldiers fighting near Takur Ghar in Afghanistan's Shahikot Valley during Operation Anaconda.

The unit helped spearhead the search for Saddam Hussein and his family after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Gray Fox operatives sometimes work under the broader umbrella of "Joint Special Operations Task Force 20", which also includes DEVGRU, the Army's Delta Force, and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Saddam Hussein was eventually captured during Operation Red Dawn.

Before the standard naming convention of task forces using numbers, Task Force 20 was, and is sometimes still identified by their original task force name: Task Force Orange. To this day, the term "Orange" is used when referring to the unit's reinvigorated new role as not just intelligence gathering, analysis, support etc for other Tier 1 JSOC Special Mission Units such as Delta/NSWDG/24th STS, but also as a element capable of doing similar skillset-related taskings from JSOC. In several recent published accounts of post-2004 ISA operations, it was shown that there were even operations in Yemen, Iraqi Kurdistan (at the beginning of the 2014–2015 time frame) where the 75th Ranger Regiment's RRC i.e. Ranger Recon Company (formerly RRD) would pair up three or four "shooters" along with possibly a Delta/CAG/ACE/etc. sniper overwatch team of one or two other operators, and form a small dozen-man element with ISA/TF Orange acting as operators as much as their counterparts, despite those counterparts' reluctance to admit they retain such capability on any notable level like they, themselves, do (inside NSWDG and Delta Force). They would then "RV" (link up with CIA SAD/SOG Ground Branch and DIA DCS—with a small PSD of possible another one or two operators) and begin setting up a Mission Support Site and commence their operations in the aforementioned AO (Area of Operations).

One of the most interesting aspects of the "Army of Northern Virginia" (TF Orange/ISA's other nickname over the last few decades) and their constant scramble to be ahead of the most elite Tier 1 units' operations. Those picked from Delta's G Squadron (RECCE), who specialize in clandestine, low-visibility work which they had already specialized in before joining Langley or Ft. Belovoir's "all-star" teams of compartmentalized HUMINT/SIGINT gathering programs, would later comment in numerous recent books about "how well the units all worked in such Task Forces with other units of similar capability" (which, when on the ground—for recent examples—Syria, N. Iraq, Yemen, Ukraine, Afghanistan/Pakistan and even Haiti with the unrest leading to anarchy in recent months). Tier 1 Special Mission Units now in this post UBL-raid age have changed dramatically, and when a HVT (ISIL financier, kidnapper, whomever) pops up on their ISR (drones/UAVs) all over said regions, unfortunately with any other SOF unit, they usually requires immense, highly vetted intelligence gathering by reliable assets. Despite some past mistakes, that may or may not be blamed on and/or been accomplished by the "local" Agency SAD elements in the region, is basically proof that the type of personnel inside Orange are of another type (or "under a different school of thought" as one SEAL put it later after their operation in Pakistan in 2012).

The very notion that they (if they are not lucky enough to have "long term cover—official or nonofficial HUMINT capabilities, are able to put together scores of actionable intelligence that is instantly disseminated straight to the Squadron leadership of whatever Delta/NSWDG Direct Action unit riding on their way literally to the target itself minutes later is nothing short of "indispensable, despite what those AFO geezers would say about their Mi6's "Echo Squadron", Delta's AFO element from G Sqdn, and NSWDG's Black Sqdn. Even with all units' RECCE squadrons doing the same type of work, Task Force Orange is the one unit that hasn't had a "ton of movies and books made about how 'amazing' they are...and for good reason. It's under wraps when possible because it is technically more of JSOC's 'scalpel' or 'eyes among the target area'" then, in many cases (to many operators' dismay out of professional envy it may seem) it has surpassed nearly every SMU in JSOC when it comes to being "first in, last out" in the dozen plus countries it works in today, and in numerous articles and recent books, such as Sean Naylor's "RELENTLESS STRIKE" it is explained in even greater detail on why this unit's importance was so imperative.

Under Joint Special Operations Command

In 2003, the Intelligence Support Activity was transferred from the Army to Joint Special Operations Command, where it was renamed the Mission Support Activity.

Since 2005 onward, the ISA has not always operated under a two-worded Special Access Program (SAP) name (Grey Fox, Centra Spike, etc.). In 2009, the unit was referred to as INTREPID SPEAR, until this was revealed to have been leaked in an email to the Pentagon. In 2010 it was referred to as the United States Army Studies and Analysis Activity.

Elements of the former ISA assisted in intelligence collection and analysis operations prior to and during the 2 May 2011 U.S. Special Operations Forces mission which resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Elements of DEVGRU, along with the ISA, members of the CIA Special Activities Division, DIA, and the NSA combined to execute a raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, which ultimately killed bin Laden and resulted in the deaths of several family members and associates.

Recruitment and training

According to Sean Naylor in Not a Good Day to Die, most (but certainly not all) Activity operatives come from United States Army Special Forces, due to their self-reliance and specialized skill-set. Candidates go through a rigorous selection process, then once admitted, receive further training in deep surveillance, signals intelligence, etc. Like all units, this special missions unit contains operational detachments as well as support detachments.


Candidates must have previous training in tactics, such as CQB, sniper, counter-sniper, and source development. Foreign language skills, although highly desired, are not a prerequisite to becoming a member of the ISA, though to be a SIGINT/HUMINT operator in the field with other Special Mission Units, working clandestine operations in non-permissive environments, knowing a minimum of several languages is usually indispensable (e.g. Farsi, Arabic, Pashtu etc.). Candidates must pass a rigorous assessment and selection course, as well as a lengthy background investigation and psychological testing. After passing assessment and selection, candidates attend and pass the Operations Training Course (OTC).

Some of the disciplines focused on in the training course are: infiltration techniques, advanced air operations, professional driving (offensive and off-road), personal defensive measures, and state-of-the-art communications.

ISA remains a very poorly known force to the public. Some rare mentions of the ISA exist, including:

  • Robert Littell's 1991 novel An Agent in Place.
  • W. E. B. Griffin's The Presidential Agent series, especially its first book, By Order of the President, features "Gray Fox" in a major role. However, they are portrayed as a top secret unit within Delta Force.
  • In Dale Brown's Patrick McLanahan novels, the ISA operates on the high seas in support of McLanahan's operations. One such was the recovery of Col. David Luger, who was listed as KIA after the events of Flight of the Old Dog but was actually captured and interrogated by Russian forces.
  • A single reference, "ISA cell phone snipers", is present in the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. This strongly suggests that the ISA provided the technical intelligence on the location of the daughter of the President of the Russian Federation—as well as the means to communicate with her—when she unsuccessfully tried to escape pursuers in Germany. Members of the ISA only acted in support: they did not actually participate in either of the two rescue attempts.
  • ISA are a playable faction in Call of Duty: Black Ops II's multiplayer mode.
  • In Mark Bowden's 2001 book Killing Pablo, ISA operators ("Centra Spike") play a significant role in the hunt for fugitive drug lord Pablo Escobar of the Medellín Cartel leading to his death in December 1993 at the hands of Search Bloc, a Special Operations unit of the National Police of Colombia.
  • In Daniel Suarez's 2012 novel Kill Decision, a team of ISA operators is trying to unravel a conspiracy involving autonomous aerial drones.
  • In the television series Person of Interest, the ISA is mentioned as "an obscure U.S. Army unit that does black ops so dark, technically they don't exist" by former Special Forces soldier, CIA officer, and protagonist John Reese (Jim Caviezel). Three operators from the unit serve as antagonists in an episode in which they attempt to assassinate a National Security Agency employee under John's protection. ISA operators are later revealed to be Indigo assets, hunting relevant threats the Machine has identified. Fellow protagonist Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi) is a former ISA operative whom the government attempts to assassinate after she and her partner inadvertently learn about the Machine.
  • Nathan Edmondson's and Mitch Gerads' comic The Activity.
  • There are multiple references to "the Activity" in Ghost Recon Wildlands. The CIA officer who is covered as "Karen Bowman" mentions them many times, so that is is clear the ISA is providing extensive support to Operation Kingslayer.
  • References

    Intelligence Support Activity Wikipedia