Pakistanis shout slogans and hold banners in Karachi during a rally against… (Shakil Adil/AP )
The rapid collapse of a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya exposed the vulnerabilities of State Department facilities overseas. But the CIA’s ability to fend off a second attack that same night provided a glimpse of a key element in the agency’s defensive arsenal: a secret security force created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Two of the Americans killed in Benghazi were members of the CIA’s Global Response Staff, an innocuously named organization that has recruited hundreds of former U.S. Special Forces operatives to serve as armed guards for the agency’s spies.
The GRS, as it is known, is designed to stay in the shadows, training teams to work undercover and provide an unobtrusive layer of security for CIA officers in high-risk outposts.
But a series of deadly scrapes over the past four years has illuminated the GRS’s expanding role, as well as its emerging status as one of the CIA’s most dangerous assignments.
Of the 14 CIA employees killed since 2009, five worked for the GRS, all as contractors. They include two killed at Benghazi, as well as three others who were within the blast radius on Dec. 31, 2009, when a Jordanian double agent detonated a suicide bomb at a CIA compound in Khost, Afghanistan.
GRS contractors have also been involved in shootouts in which only foreign nationals were killed, including one that triggered a diplomatic crisis. While working for the CIA, Raymond Davis was jailed for weeks in Pakistan last year after killing two men in what he said was an armed robbery attempt in Lahore.
The increasingly conspicuous role of the GRS is part of a broader expansion of the CIA’s paramilitary capabilities over the past 10 years. Beyond hiring former U.S. military commandos, the agency has collaborated with U.S. Special Operations teams on missions including the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and has killed thousands of Islamist militants and civilians with its fleet of armed drones.
CIA veterans said that GRS teams have become a critical component of conventional espionage, providing protection for case officers whose counterterrorism assignments carry a level of risk that rarely accompanied the cloak-and-dagger encounters of the Cold War.
Spywork used to require slipping solo through cities in Eastern Europe. Now, “clandestine human intelligence involves showing up in a Land Cruiser with some [former] Deltas or SEALs, picking up an asset and then dumping him back there when you are through,” said a former CIA officer who worked closely with the security group overseas.
Bodyguard details have become so essential to espionage that the CIA has overhauled its training program at the Farm — its case officer academy in southern Virginia — to teach spies the basics of working with GRS teams.
The security apparatus relies heavily on contractors who are drawn by relatively high pay and flexible schedules that give them several months off each year. In turn, they agree to high-risk assignments in places such as Benghazi and are largely left on their own to take basic precautions, such as finding health and life insurance.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the GRS has about 125 employees working abroad at any given time, with at least that many rotating through cycles of training and off-time in the United States.
At least half are contractors, who often earn $140,000 or more a year and typically serve 90- or 120-day assignments abroad. Full-time GRS staff officers — those who are permanent CIA employees — earn slightly less but collect benefits and are typically put in supervisory roles.
The work is lucrative enough that recruiting is done largely by word of mouth, said one former U.S. intelligence official. Candidates tend to be members of U.S. Special Forces units who have recently retired, or veterans of police department SWAT teams.
Most GRS recruits arrive with skills in handling the weapons they will carry, including Glock handguns and M4 rifles. But they undergo additional training so they do not call attention to the presence or movements of the CIA officers they are in position to protect.
Although the agency created the GRS to protect officers in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, it has been expanded to protect secret drone bases as well as CIA facilities and officers in locations including Yemen, Lebanon and Djibouti.
In some cases, elite GRS units provide security for personnel from other agencies, including National Security Agency teams deploying sensors or eavesdropping equipment in conflict zones, a former special operator said. The most skilled security operators are informally known as “scorpions.”