Battle Order...
Special Operations

The three man Special Operations Section in ¤The SandbaggersË brings both the parallels and diverences between Mackintosh’s SIS and the real one into perhaps the sharpest relief. Mackintosh repeatedly draws parallels between the Special Section, the CIA’s Covert Action Staff and the Executive Action Section of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, the former being fictitious but the latter two being factual. These groups are charged with handling operations that are too sensitive or too dangerous for resident stations personnel. This includes meeting agents, lifting defectors, occasional strong arm actions such as assassination, and clandestine entry and inspection (witness Karen Milner breaking into Sir George Stratford-Baker’s flat). However, while sabotage and assassination were definitely part of the Executive Action section’s job description — the Soviet trade slang was ‘wet operations’, presumably because of the spilling of blood — they have never been the work of the Covert Action Staff (since 1989 the Covert Action Division), nor really of SIS’ succession of special sections.

SIS’s original special operations section appeared prior to the Second World War in the form of Section D run by a Major Lawrence Grand. Section D’s functions included a mixed bag of tasks including organising and equipping Resistance organisations (towards which end Section D can lay claim to having invented both plastic explosive and the time-delay fuse), contact with and support of anti-Nazi dissident groups in Eastern Europe, sabotage and subversive propaganda. In 1941 Section D was excised from SIS and amalgamated with its opposite numbers in the War Office and Foreign Office to form the wartime Special Operations Executive, enjoined by Churchill in a classic rhetorical flourish, to ‘set Europe ablaze’. Interestingly enough, SIS’ first field school was originally part of Section D, the strictly intelligence side of the service feeling that training in field ciphers before posting abroad was sufficient, the new officer learning his tradecraft by way of on-the-job training from his predecessor.

After the Second World War, SOE was abolished with what one official described as ‘almost indecent haste’. Most of its staff was demobilised while the much reduced ‘rump’ SOE was transferred to the SIS in January 1946 where for a short time it formed that agency’s Special Operations Branch. During the next few months SIS underwent a comprehensive post-war reorganisation under which the Special Operations Branch was dismantled completely and replaced with a Directorate of War Planning (D/WP) headed by the former head of Middle East General Staff Intelligence, Brigadier John Nicholson. D/WP’s functions were officially planning for resistance operations in the event of a future war, presumably against the Soviet Union, liaison with SAS who would provide the field operators/liaison officers in the event of such operations (a role the wartime SAS had played vis a vis French and Italian partisans). D/WP also appointed War Planning Officers (WPOs) to the individual controllerates where they oversaw the recruitment of stay-behind networks and installation of clandestine arms caches in vulnerable areas such as Austria, Germany and the northern Middle East.

D/WP was dismantled in the early 1950s, partly because of its involvement in the disastrous 1949 resistance campaign in Albania (Operation Valuable), partly because the Cabinet and Foreign Office became desperately leery of paramilitary operations once the USSR detonated its first nuclear device in 1949 and the risk of ‘escalation’ entered the Cold War vocabulary, and finally because with the emergence of a nuclear standoff, the risk of imminent war had receded appreciably.

At about the time D/WP was falling from grace, SIS found itself moving into a new sphere of Cold War work. The 1948 creation of the Foreign Office Information Research Department (IRD) to handle overt and indirect propaganda against the USSR created the need for SIS to handle the deniable side of the work or ‘black propaganda’ and to provide information from political intelligence that could be used by IRD (for example, defector information about the Gulag concentration camps). Also, in 1951 SIS was tasked by the Foreign Office to disrupt the Iranian administration of Mohammed Mossadeq. Mossadeq led the Communist Tudeh party which had formed a coalition government in the Iranian Parliament or Majlis. Apart from the fact that a Communist party was in power in a state which bordered the USSR, Mossadeq also nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company which had previously held a monopoly oil extraction in the country.

Reorganization and rewenal
SIS set about organising opposition through a trio of contacts called the Rashidian brothers and caching a supply of arms to be distributed to the chronically rebellious northern tribes.. Mid-way through the operation codenamed BOOT, Mossadeq’s government severed diplomatic ties with Britain, and the Embassy staff including the SIS station was expelled. It this point SIS turned to the CIA for financial and operational support. The CIA provided money and personnel (including officer Kermit Roosevelt who would later publish his account of the operation — codenamed AJAX in CIA circles), and during three weeks of chaos in 1953 Mossadeq lost control of the country, was placed under house arrest (where remained thereafter), and the SIS and the CIA returned a grateful Shah Reza Pahlavi to the Peacock Throne.

On the strength BOOT and the IRD liaison brief, SIS set up a new Special Political Action Section in 1953. SPA was run by R1, and consisted of perhaps twenty officers. Its main function was planning and coordinating political operations such as deception, influence, black propaganda and engineered coups like BOOT — of which there was only one other being the1961 overthrow of the Congo’s Patrice Lumuba in concert with the CIA, the Israelis and Belgian intelligence. SPA did not operate itself, but via the controllerates who actually recruited and ran the agents, smuggled equipment and handled other operational aspects. SPA was shut down in the mid-1970s at about the same time as IRD was abolished by a strongly left-wing labour government with a mortal fear of anything that might be called ‘dirty tricks’.

Now, it is important to understand that abolishing D/WP and SPA did not mean that their kind of work stopped, but that it was suficiently minor an interest that it could be devolved to the controllerates to handle individually. Neither section handled paramilitary actions or ‘strong arm work’ in the fashion of The Sandbaggers. This is not to say that paramilitary actions did not occur, but generally even if SIS formulated a project, the sharp end of the work would usually be handled by members of UK special operations forces like SAS and SBS seconded or ‘sheep-dipped’ for the purpose. However, SIS did not have a central covert action section for another fourteen years when Information Operations (I/Ops) was set up after the Gulf War to handle psychological operations, ‘disruptive actions’ and the clandestine penetration of computer systems.

The CIA’s Covert Action Division was originally a contemporary of SPA, and conforms to SPA’s description in most respects. Paramilitary operations are a separate matter. Burnside refers to the CIA’s paramilitaries in ‘A Feasible Solution’ when asks Jeff Ross for a team of ‘PMs’ (paramilitaries) to attack Apollo’s facility in Cyprus. PMs are usually sheep-dipped from US special operations forces, and used to be quartered, trained and briefed at Camp Peary, Virginia. PM’s are not however controlled by Covert Action Division but by the CIA’s Special Operations Staff (now Special Operations Division), another case where Mackintosh appears to have used the CIA as his template for his version of SIS.

Every Officer Able
Comparing Mackintosh’s SIS with the real one, it is tempting to say that in many ways every real-life SIS officer is a Sandbagger, and none of them ase Sandbaggers. By this I mean that the real SIS does not, nor has it ever had, a section comparable to the Sandbaggers as can be seen from the preceding. However, if one looks at the training of the Sandbagger, in making clandestine contacts without detection, paramilitary skills such as vehicle and weapons handling, every SIS officer is trained in all of these things. The New Intelligence Officers’ Entry Course (IONEC) at the main training facility at Fort Monkton near Gosport features training is wartime special operations ranging from firearms and explosives to regular agent handling such as clandestine communications (dead and live letter boxes, bump contacts &c) and the applied psychology of agent handling.

The idea of sending Sandbaggers abroad to make meets and lift defectors under conditions too sensitive for the resident station to handle has been the work of ‘Visiting Case Officers’ (VCOs) sent from ‘natural cover’ and Targeting Sections sinc the 1940s. From the beginning of the Cold War it was quickly apparent that contacting and recruiting agents behind the Iron Curtain was prohibitively hazardous for stations, partly because of the pervasive secret police surveillance by the KGB and its allies, and partly because of the use of false approaches or ‘provocations’ (provokastiy) by the KGB to entrap foreign intelligence officers.

As a result, the preferred doctrine was to target and recruit SovBloc nationals while they were abroad and then run them in the Soviet bloc on their return. Officer or cut-out agents operating out of the UK station in London (originally on Horseferry Road, later Vauxhall Bridge Road) would travel from the UK to ‘denied areas’ to meet agents and then fly back again without anything linking the local station to the source. The station’s responsilities were confined to handled agent communications through letter drops and accommodation addresses, and noting likely targets who might be approached by VCOs from London.

The identification and monitoring of significant Communist bloc nationals for surveillance and recruiting was handled by Targetting Sections along aside the P Sections under the SovBloc and Far East Controllerates. It was generally T Section officers who would be sent abroad to make the approach or ‘pass’ to potential agent and further meetings with such an agent in hard target countries. SIS officers would typically rotate through a variety of T, P and R section functions. as well as stations abroad, prior to promotion to a section headship or appointment as a Controller, often starting out in T Sections or acting as VCOs under ‘natural cover’ when their very newness would make them less recognisable to hostile security services. In their way, every operational SIS officer puts in time doing Sandbagger-like work

There is a real life Special Projects Team, but it is not a part of the SIS. The term SPT refers to whichever SAS squadron is tasked with Counter-Revolutionary Warfare (CRW) and clandestine paramilitary operations (when there were two regular squadrons they would rotate this responsibility, but since 1994 SAS has been reduced to one regular squadron and one Territorial, i.e. reserve, squadron). SIS has always, however, been able to plan and mount paramilitary special operations in conjunction with the MoD which provides the SPT or other elements of UK SOF for the task. During the 1980s, after the intelligence disaster that was the Falkland Islands War, the HMG finally provided with standing arrangements for military units seconded for ‘special duties’, known colloquially as the ‘increment’. The ‘increment’ handles emergency transportation for officer insertion and exfiltration in the form of RAF and Naval units attached for the purpose, as well as small units drawn from SAS and SBS for the paramilitary actions. Liaison with the ‘increment’ is handled by a new Ministry of Defence Adviser in the Secretariat, MODA/SO.

The Operations Room
The Ops Room or Main Communication Office (MCO) is also a point of convergence and divergence with reality. The pace of life in SIS is far more sedate and steady than in Mackintosh’s version — until the 1960s, senior officers tended not to wander in until 10:00am, and were usually in the office pub in the basement of Broadway Buildings (prior to the 1964 move to Century House) by 4:30 or 5:00pm. Targeting and recruiting an agent takes months or even years, a good source will run like clockwork through letter drops and occasionally case-officer debriefings for a decade or more. Life really does consist of hoisting packs from in-tray to out-tray. There is a Communications Centre which has become steadily more and more high-tech over the decades, but field communications have traditionally been through telegrams handled by the FCO through the Diplomatic Wireless Service (which was originally SIS’s own wartime clandestine short-wave network). Even SIS’ original email intranet in the 1980s was called the Automated Telegram Handling System (ATHS).

At night there is traditional a Duty Officer in the building, whose task is to keep an eye out for late-breaking, high-priority telegrams from stations abroad — an unpopular task Kim Philby was known and popular for volunteering to undertake. But on the whole operations are handled by the various controllerates independently of each other, and a central information centre like Mackintosh’s Ops Room would violate the security practice of ‘compartmentalisation’ or keeping information about an operation confined to those authorised to know about or ‘indoctrinated into’ that operation. And so one might find the lights burning late at night in the offices of a controllerate where a particularly immediate operation was taking place — such as the crash exfiltration of an agent (as in the case of Oleg Gorgievsky in 1985), but no one outside the controllerate would be involved or informed. However, while SIS may not have an Ops Room as such, the CIA has long had an Operations Centre in the DO which is effectively their main communications centre, comparable to that at the SIS.

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