Not to be confused with the other SAS, the Special Activities Staff is a CIA paramilitary organisation. It is a direct action wing of the Directorate of Operations (DO). The DO has numerous subsections to fulfil its roles in the CIA, including human intelligence gathering and counter-narcotics, among others. One of its roles is Special Operations - and it is this which the Special Activities Staff is concerned with. Special operations in the CIA sense essentially refers to getting into places they shouldn't be, doing things they shouldn't be doing, getting back out again, and many permutations thereof.
The common misconception of a spy is that he or she is a James Bond-esque figure, sneaking around enemy installations, shooting bad guys, blowing things up and driving away very fast. If you happen to see anyone doing that, that's not a spy. That's these guys.
The DO forms short-term Special Operations Groups (SOGs) to deal with particular covert actions. The SAS is kept as a pool of trained personnel ready to form a SOG for such grey-area operations such as long-range reconnaissance, surveillance, sabotage, search and rescue, counter-terrorism, hostage rescue and bomb damage assessment. They are known to conduct interrogations in the field to quickly acquire intelligence.
Amongst other things, this group mined the harbours in Nicaragua, armed the Contras (in the sense of physically handing over the guns), delivered and retrieved intelligence from the Kuwait City Embassy during Desert Storm and resupplied UNITA rebels in Angola. According to some reports, they were active in Afghanistan from 1997. They headed US efforts in that country to find Osama bin Laden, and were without a doubt active in Iraq, probably in a similar role. It seems likely that Johnny "Mike" Spann, a CIA officer killed at the northern Afghan fort at Kala Jangi, was part of an SAS group.
The range of abilities required for the SAS means they recruit from several sources: from active members of military special forces groups (e.g. Delta Force, DEVGRU, 160th SOAR); from former members of less specialised commando units (e.g. Marine Force Recon, Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs); and from within the Central Intelligence Agency itself.
Within the SAS, there are three groups: Air, Maritime and Ground. Usually, a SOG has at least one member from each, although individual operations are of necessity different. In any case, the groups often overlap due to the highly skilled nature of recruits. The range, depth and detail of the techniques they are trained in are, frankly, frightening. From specialoperations.com:
Training is known to include instruction in the following areas: assessing threat types; intelligence gathering; room entry techniques; tactical communications (covert radios, infrared, microwave transmitters, etc.); levels of force; use of the baton; armed and unarmed crowd control; edged weapons; unarmed combat techniques; team training and leadership; individual and team movements; structure penetration; boarding and securing vessels; prisoner search/snatch and handling; hostage situation management; small unit tactics; long range reconnaissance and patrol; explosives; field medicine; extreme environment survival; and land, sea and airborne operations.
Small arms instruction is provided using a wide variety of weapons, ranging from pistols and shotguns to rifles and carbines. CQB [close quarter battle] shooting skills, sniping, and countersniping are all considered vital skills and are emphasized throughout operator training.
Add to this in-depth vehicle training; aggressive and defensive driving courses; covert fieldcraft; night operation training; infil/exfil techniques; surreptitious entry; linguistics; ordnance disposal and, most likely, many others and you've got yourself some genuinely scary mooleys.
This extensive training begins at "The Farm", the CIA training centre at Camp Peary, Virginia. It continues at a less well known site, the Harvey Point naval base near Hertford, North Carolina.
The SAS' usefulness really is political. The United States has the largest, best equipped armed forces in the world, and many, many different flavours of special operations soldiers who are exceptionally good at killing people and breaking their things. However, given that the CIA not only can but is expected to spend money on things no-one is supposed to know about (most of the $1 billion it was given in September 2001 for counter-terrorism was earmarked for covert actions), it is useful for it to have squads of people to quietly do the aforementioned killing and breaking. Black funds and black operations are just that. While there is a 24 hour oversight rule meaning CIA covert actions have to be declared to Congress, if necessary retrospectively, executive orders from successive presidents have made scrutiny of the CIA black budget very difficult.
Added to this, the CIA is a civilian agency. This means that any high ranking official can swear under oath that US troops were nowhere near any particularly suspicious goings on in the Third World troublespot of choice. Not only that, but the United States can put the gentlemen of the SAS in any country, enemy or no, and not technically be invading. This civilian status also means that the SAS is not always bound by the same rules a military force would be. For example, the U.S. military in Afghanistan has a policy dictating that no assistance is to be given to friendly forces involved with drug trafficking. Yet warlords in the southeast have been given US dollars in return for their help fighting al-Qaeda.
It is extremely unlikely that very much more of what the SAS does will become public knowledge. Indeed, several journalists and photographers in Afghanistan have been threatened by armed Americans wearing no uniforms. It was only the extremely public nature of that war, combined, perhaps, with a desire to expunge the Agency's failings before September 11, that led to their existence being acknowledged at all. The men of the SAS go almost completely unrecognised for what are undoubtedly extremely dangerous missions, however morally questionable. This may have been what President Bush referred to when he said the war on terror could include, "covert operations, secret even in success."