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 Delta Force 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, CEMETERY WIND and GRAY FOX.
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.
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 DESERT CLAW mission. 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 in the same style as many Scottish clan’s badges.
n 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.
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).
On 17 December 1981, the senior U.S. Army officer in NATO southern European Command, Brigadier General James L. Dozier, was kidnapped by Italian Red Brigades terrorists. The search for the place where General Dozier was held saw the deployment of a massive effort by Italian and U.S. forces, including “remote viewers” which were part of Stargate Project. An ISA SIGINT team was sent to Italy, and used electronic detection devices from special helicopters and on the ground to monitor radio communications. ISA provided useful intelligence, enabling Italian police to arrest several Red Brigades terrorists in mid-January 1982. Although the way the Italian police were able to locate General Dozier in late January was never disclosed, it is suspected that it is the result of ISA’s SIGINT specialists. General Dozier was freed by NOCS operators 28 January 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 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.
After the ISA became widely known in the SOF community as Task Force – Orange, The Activity has once again changed its name. Since 2005 onward, the ISA is not currently operating under a two-worded Special Access Program (SAP) name anymore (Grey Fox, Centra Spike, etc.)
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 160th SOAR, 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 reconnaissance, signals intelligence, etc. Like all units, this Special Missions Unit contains operational detachments as well as support detachments.
Candidates must have a high rating in a language, Like all SOF (Special Operation Forces) assignments, 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 Operations Training Course (OTC).
Some of the disciplines focused on in the training course are: infiltration techniques, advanced air operations, professional driving (military/), personal defensive measures, and state-of-the-art communications.
As part of the training, recruits will also attend civilian aircraft schools to get FAA certified on fixed wing aircraft. These are not Army or DOD schools. Candidates earn their Airframe and Power Plant (A&P) license if they do not already possess it. The purpose of getting you FAA certified is so they will be able to work on any system that the aircraft may have (airframe, powerplant, avionics, hydraulics etc.) Candidates can also expect to attend Airborne School (mandatory) and Military Free Fall (if interested).
Gray Fox is the last known name of the former ISA. Its members often work closely with Tier 1 Special Operation Forces.
In 1993, its members intercepted a phone conversation that enabled them to track down the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
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. Task Force 20 has changed its name several times (known or suspected names include Task Force 11, Task Force 20, Task Force 121, Task Force 6-26 Task Force 145, Task Force 77, and Task Force 88).
Before the standard naming convention of task forces using numbers, Task Force 20 was, and is sometimes still identified, as their original task force name: Task Force Orange.