General Military Questions

CIA Special Activities Division (SAD)

The Special Activities Division, shortened to the acronym SAD, is a special division of operatives that work under the supervision of the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

SAD is considered one of the most mysterious branches of operatives in the world.

Though technically not a military apparatus, the Special Activities Division has highly specialized, trained, and versatile operatives capable of carrying out some of the most sophisticated top-secret missions in the world.

In that regard, SAD operatives are often compared to elite Tier 1 special forces soldiers such as Delta Force or Navy SEAL Team 6 (DEVGRU).

In fact, many of its current members are former Delta and DEVGRU operators, which you’ll learn about shortly.

What is there to know about this enigmatic organization? What are the different branches that operated under the CIA Special Activities Division (SAD)?

What is the selection process like to get into this remarkably elite unit?

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1. Branches of Special Activities Division (SAD)

special activities division operatives with hamid karzai
Special Operations Division (SAD) is organized under the CIA. Image: Wikipedia

SAD is responsible for covert operations that fall within the CIA branch of the United States government. Since the operatives are often ex-military, the special ops unit has several comparisons to other elite forces like Navy SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force.

The CIA changed the name of this elite, covert ops group to Special Activities Center in 2016.

It was previously referred to as Special Activities Division, and for the purposes of this article, we’ll stick with SAD.

The reason for the change in title was to restructure the branches that operate under the Special Activities Center.

There are two separate groups that now operate under the CIA:

1. SAD/SOG: The elite unit was established for tactical paramilitary operations.

2. SAD/PAG: The separate group is used for covert political action.

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2. Special Operations Group (SOG)

The first department with Special Activities Division is the Special Operations Group, or SOG.

SOG is reportedly responsible for operations that include high-threat military as well as covert operations.

Special Operations Group is highly important to the U.S. government because it is known to employ its services when it does not want to be directly associated with the mission.

CIA SAD members operate deep behind enemy lines. Image:

Members of SOG are referred to as Paramilitary Operations Officers or Specialized Skills Officers.

Unlike members of direct U.S. Military branches, Special Operations Group members do not wear any resemblance of a uniform.

Therefore, there is no direct way to associate them with the United States government though they are highly skilled and trained combat soldiers.

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3. Political Action Group (PAG)

The Political Action Group, or PAG, is responsible for covert operations that deal with political influence, economic warfare, and/or psychological operations.

Though difficult to accurately define since the group is so secretive, one example would be an operative that deals with the ever-increasing threat of cyber-warfare.

sad cyber ops

PAG operatives are known to “influence” missions that are used to support U.S. foreign policy.

For example, in the past, it has been rumored that PAG operators were used during insurgencies in order to help or restrict one side that may be counterproductive to the interests of the United States.

In addition, its believed that Political Action Group members clandestinely organize various government protests and demonstrations in hostile nations.

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special activities division organizes government protests in foreign lands
The Special Activities Division organizes government protests in foreign lands. Image:

4. CIA Branches of SAD

Under SOG and PAG, the Special Activities Division has four different branches:

  • Air Branch
  • Maritime Branch
  • Ground Branch
  • Armor and Special Programs Branch

SAD Ground Branch

SAD Ground Branch is responsible for all covert operations handled on the ground. They are considered experts in surveillance, field and tradecraft, small arms, CQB, hostage rescue, and advanced driving. There are several former members of Delta Force that have advanced to join SAD Ground Branch.

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SAD Maritime Branch

SAD Maritime Branch is responsible for specialized missions that involve water.

Therefore, the branch is more prone to recruit ex-SEALs compared to the ground branch which reportedly prefers former Delta Force.

The SAD maritime branch is the elite of the elite, so naturally, they are experts in water-craft, ships, SCUBA, underwater diving, and other sophisticated maritime skills.

SAD Air Branch

SAD Air Branch is responsible for aviation activities, as the name suggests. There has not been quite as much reported about this branch of the Special Activities Division.

However, it is assumed that they are incredibly skilled pilots and aviation experts.

Armor And Special Programs

SAD Armor and Special Programs Branch is not like the other three branches in that it works more behind the scenes and not in direct combat.

Armor and Special Programs members are tasked with the development, testing, and covert collection of new personnel, armory, equipment, and transport.

The Armor and Special Programs department serves an important purpose as the gathering of weapons and equipment must be obtained from clandestine sources abroad in order to have no connection to the U.S. government in the event an Special Activities Division operative is captured.

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5. Special Activities Division Selection

cia headquarters langley virginia
How do you get into the CIA Special Activities Division. Image: Wikimedia

It has been reported that there are approximately 150 paramilitaries involved with SAD, though that number cannot be confirmed as there is no way of knowing for sure.

Basically everything involving SAD is classified.

In fact, if a SAD operative is caught and held during a mission, it is highly likely that the U.S. government will deny any knowledge of his or her involvement.

Therefore, it is impossible to know all of the details regarding the Special Activities Division, though an estimate around 150 operatives sounds plausible.

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DEVGRU and Delta Force

The incredibly low profile unit is believed to be composed primarily of pilots and other specialists. Delta Force and DEVGRU are known to have sent previous members to SAD.

former DEVGRU member Matt Bissonnette
Former DEVGRU member Matt Bissonnette. Image:

It makes sense since both special ops units are considered the best of the best in the U.S. Military, so naturally, the CIA is going to target those individuals.

SAD groups reportedly operate in six-member or smaller teams. It is also plausible that they may operate on their own during certain missions.

Though SAD is not considered a branch of the U.S. Military, they have actually worked side-by-side with DEVGRU and Delta Force in the past for very complicated and dangerous, yet vital missions to U.S. security.

delta force members often become special activities division members
Delta Force plays a crucial role in U.S. Military operations. Image: Wikimedia

For example, it’s speculated that Special Activities Division members were directly involved in the assault (and subsequent death of) Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.

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Osama Bin Ladens compound in Pakistan
Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Image:

Along with former DEVGRU or Delta Force, it is believed that a few SAD operatives were recruited from within the CIA.

As you can imagine, selection for SAD operatives, or more specifically Paramilitary Operations Officers is believed to be incredibly intense. Only the most elite, skilled, and decorated soldiers are considered for SAD recruitment.

SAD Paramilitary Operations Officers are not only elite soldiers but also extremely smart.

It has been reported that many have advanced Master’s and law degrees, and some have come from some of the most esteemed universities in the world.

The CIA reportedly seeks candidates from Ivy League schools and United States Service Academies like West Point and the US Naval Academy.

6. SAD Recruitment and Training

cia sad
The CIA has training standards for the SAD unit. Image: Flickr

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The secretive CIA division does not give away a ton on recruitment, rightfully so.

What is known is that candidates to become operatives for SAD are trained across a number of different environments.

It is believed that Paramilitary Operations Officers need to be able to work across the various branches of SAD, so they receive additional training after becoming accepted as a full-fledged new recruit.

Therefore, it is reported that SAD and SOG specialists complete a combined arms covert training course together with specialized training (based on the branch) done on the side.

New SAD recruits arrive already very skilled, yet still must undergo even more specialized and demanding training in order to cut it as a Paramilitary Operations Officer.

“The Farm”

Arguably the most elite group of operatives in the world, Special Activities Division recruits reportedly begin their training at Camp Peary in Virginia.

Camp Peary visitors center
Camp Peary visitors center, Camp Peary, Virginia.

Camp Peary is nicknamed “The Farm” for its reputation as a setting for special ops.

It is also believed that new recruits also may receive training at “The Point” in Harvey Point, a facility located near Hertford, North Carolina.

Recruits enter what is called the Clandestine Service Trainee (CST) program. Recruits are trained on a wide range of modern as well as groundbreaking new weaponry, explosive devices, and firearms.

In aerial photos, you can see the various racetracks that are used to teach prospective Special Activities Division members in defensive and offensive driving techniques.


They also receive advanced hand to hand combat training, techniques for avoiding apprehension, building explosives from common products, HAHO/HALO, parachuting, SCUBA, and closed-circuit diving.

The best description is they literally become “super soldiers”.

In addition to combat skills, operatives also are expected to be proficient in:

  • A number of foreign languages
  • Know how to break into a variety of different locks and vehicles
  • Survive in the wilderness for extended periods of time
  • Have EMS training
  • Track individuals through a variety of methods
  • Surveillance and reconnaissance
Examples of lock picking tools used during SAD training
Examples of lock picking tools used during SAD training. Image:

SAD requires recruits to undergo SERE, or Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training.

They are also briefed on the latest in cyber-warfare and technology.

It has been reported that the motto for SAD/SOG Paramilitary Officers is Tertia Optio, or “Third Option.”

They must operate with “agility, adaptability, and deniability.”

7. Known SAD Missions

cia special activities division
Where has SAD been known to carry out top secret missions in the past? Image:

Though every operation that SAD is a part of is highly covert, there are a few reported missions where it has been known they played a hand in the outcome.

It is important to remember that the identity of current SAD Paramilitary Operations Officers is not available.

In fact, the United States government may deny all knowledge of their association to the government in the event their identity gets compromised during a mission.

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However, there are some reported instances of Paramilitary Operations Officers receiving Distinguished Intelligence Cross and Intelligence Star honors.

In fact, they account for the majority of these awards.

Former SAD and SOG operatives also account for the majority of the stars displayed on the Memorial Wall at CIA headquarters that indicate officers who died while on active duty.

CIA memorial wall. Image:

CIA has placed Special Operations Group operatives in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In fact, they were reportedly the first American forces on the ground in Afghanistan post-9/11.

Operatives reportedly collaborated with anti-Taliban forces during the early days of the conflict in Afghanistan as they gathered intelligence on AL Qaeda and the Taliban, which helped present vital intelligence for subsequent airstrikes.

The CIA had a similar presence in Iraq prior to its official invasion by the U.S. Military.

SAD teams gathered intelligence that was helpful in learning more about Saddam Hussein’s WMD program, as well as the terror group Ansar al Islam.

Additionally, it’s believed they were instrumental in the capture of Saddam Hussein during Operation Red Dawn.

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capture of Saddam Hussein
It’s believed SAD played a role in the capture of Saddam Hussein. Image:

During the invasion of Iraq, SAD continued to work with Army Special Forces in the northern part of the country.

Their combined efforts resulted in Iraqi forces not being able to retreat south in order to counter the main coalition.

CIA operatives were involved in the prisoner revolt at Qala-i-Janghai, a bloody conflict that resulted in the loss of one SAD officer – Johnny Micheal Spann.

Special Activities Division operatives were also involved with Pakistani forces in the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – a mastermind behind the September 11 attacks.

special activities division helped to capture khalid sheikh mohammed
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed shortly after his capture. Image:

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8. Notable Documentaries / Books / Movies

Due to the secrecy and dangerous situations that Paramilitary Operations Officers encounter, there is great interest in learning more about the mystifying organization.

There are some titles in the media that can present you with more information regarding SAD:

9. Documentaries

10. Books

  • “First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan” by Gary C. Schroen
  • “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001” by Steven Coll
  • “Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA” by John Prados
  • “The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA” by John Ranelagh
  • “The Art of Intelligence: Lessons from a Life in CIA’s Clandestine Services” by Henry A. Crumpton.

11. Movies

  • Jason Bourne
  • Zero Dark Dirty
  • The Hunt For Red October
  • The Good Sheppard
  • Ronin
  • Spy Game

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Quick Related Frequently Asked Questions

What is Special Activities Division?

The Special Activities Division (SAD) is a special division of military operatives that work under the supervision of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

What does the Special Activities Division do?

SAD is responsible for covert operations for the CIA, comprised of two divisions: SAD/SOG, for tactical paramilitary operations, and SAD/PAG for covert political action.

Is the Special Activities Division part of the U.S. military?

While the Special Activities Division is not part of the US armed forces, they frequently comprise former military like Delta Force and DEVGRU and oftentimes work closely with these units on complicated missions.

How do you become a CIA paramilitary?

CIA paramilitary positions require a bachelor’s degree, experience in combat arms or military special ops, and combat leadership skills. There is also an extended background check, medical and psychological examination, and polygraph test.

What does Special Activities Division training entail?

Although their training is classified, it is known that they received training in foreign languages, wilderness survival, and EMT, as well as combat training, evasion, diving, and parachuting.

12. Conclusion

The Special Activities Division (SAD) is the most elite unit in the field of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Its members, known as Paramilitary Operations Officers are part of the most secretive and discreet special ops organization in the United States.

Though not a ton is known about these highly classified operatives, it has been reported that they represent everything of the definition of a “super-soldier.”

Rob V.
Special Activities Division

Special Activities Division

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Learn more about the CIA Special Activities Division, or SAD. Includes details on the different branches, selection, training, and known missions.
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