Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Protecting America's Heroes

Criminal investigations…foreign counterintelligence…polygraph exams…dignitary protection…these are just a few of the jobs performed by Marine Corps special agents of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS).

The NCIS is a unique federal law enforcement agency comprised of special agents, investigators, forensic experts, security specialists, analysts, and support personnel. Headquartered at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., it is the primary law enforcement and counterintelligence arm of the United States Department of the Navy. The NCIS maintains a worldwide presence – its special agents operate from 15 field offices, including one operational unit dedicated to counterespionage, and more than 140 individual locations around the globe.

As the investigative arm of the Department of the Navy and the Marine Corps, NCIS special agents deploy to locations most federal agencies fear to tread. You’ll find NCIS special agents serving aboard aircraft carriers or aboard the ships of an Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG). They currently serve among the Marines and sailors of the I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan and among the Marine expeditionary units (MEU) in the Atlantic and Pacific and Persian Gulf. Forward deployed to dozens of countries around the globe, NCIS special agents strive to prevent terrorism, to protect the secrets of the Navy and the Marine Corps, and to reduce crime through a proactive and highly regarded criminal investigative program.

Unknown to many Marines and civilians alike, a small cadre of Marines work alongside the civilian special agents. They carry the same badge, conduct the same investigations, and testify at the same court hearings. They are Marine special agents, a few men and women of NCIS who’ve been individually screened and selected to serve the Navy and Marine Corps in a unique and exciting capacity. Previously assigned to the Criminal Investigative Division (CID) office at a major Marine Corps installation, the Marine special agent, once selected, is assigned to an NCIS field office or resident agency, such as the
Carolina Field Office located at and Camp Lejeune, N.C. or the Marine Marine Corps West Field
Office at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Indistinguishable from a civilian special agent, the Marine special agents are treated as equals within the organization. Though technically employed by the Marine Corps, they no longer stand formation or uniform inspection. Instead, they stand duty, responding to crime scenes and engaging with commands who’ve fallen victim to a criminal act. They carry their own caseload of criminal or foreign counterintelligence investigations, working the cases from inception to prosecution. Often cooperating with other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, the Marine special agents build a network of contacts and associates to further assist them in the conduct of their investigations.

According to Colonel John Forquer, the current military assistant to the NCIS Director and commanding officer of the NCIS Office of Military Support, roughly 65 Marine special agents and six counterintelligence Marines now fill the ranks of NCIS. They are joined by 130 Navy reservists and approximately 200 active-duty sailors performing various administrative, counterintelligence and analyst duties roles throughout the agency.

Despite the change in their working environment, the Marine special agents are still required to participate in PFTs, qualify with their firearms and meet the height and weight standards required of Marines in uniform. They still abide by professional military education requirements and are screened for promotion. Although they’ve traded their uniforms for a coat and tie, they remain Marines underneath and as such, are expected to meet the high standards of performance, physical readiness, and conduct.

With today’s demanding operational tempo, it is very likely that they will be deployed in support of potentially dangerous assignments and duties. Marine special agents were the some of the first NCIS special agents deployed to Iraq at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. From OIF I to present, over 32 former and current Marine special agents have deployed to Iraq to support the war on terrorism.

Leatherneck NCIS agents have conducted investigations into criminal misconduct of Marines and sailors, ranging from common theft incidents to sexual assaults. They’ve spent countless hours investigating non-combat related deaths and allegations of detainee abuse. They’ve embedded with other NCIS special agents at locations such as Camp Fallujah, Camp Blue Diamond, Tikrit, Taqaddum and Al Asad. Five Marine special agents are currently assigned to the 2006 deployment cycle in support of OIF and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan: Master Sergeant Tim Fowler,
Gunnery Sgt William Link, GySgt. Mark McLawhorn, SSgt Michael Payne and Sergeant Jeffrey Farmer.

Marine special agents have also served on personal protection teams in the cities of Al Hillah and Al Basra, protecting high-level dignitaries of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the United Nations from potential threats and harm. Since the start of OIF, Marine special agents have subsequently deployed to Afghanistan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Djibouti and numerous other locations in the war against terrorism. First to fight, the Marine special agents are always at the tip of the NCIS spear.

MSgt Tim Fowler, a Marine special agent from the Washington Field Office, is an NCIS subject matter expert in the field of computer forensics and computer crime investigations. Deployed by NCIS to Iraq during OIF I, MSgt Fowler utilized the skills he practiced as a NCIS special agent to assist various governmental agencies with the screening of computer materials seized across the area of operations. Traveling across Iraq in a variety of military and civilian vehicles, his actions and incredible successes on the battlefield earned him a Bronze Star with combat “V”. MSgt Fowler is currently deployed with NCIS to Afghanistan in support of OEF, continuing the fight against terrorism.

MSgt Tim Fowler, Marine Special Agent, atop Mount Ghar, Afghanistan

GySgt Dan Carlin, a Marine special agent at the Carolinas Field Office, volunteered to serve on a dignitary protection team in the city of Al Hillah, Iraq during OIF 3. Part of a nine-man team dedicated to providing personal protection for the CPA ambassador in south central Iraq, “Gunny” Carlin often found himself dual-hated as a gunner and team navigator, using the land navigation skills he learned as a Marine to navigate around the small towns and villages between Baghdad and Hillah.

MSgt Patty Lyons, a Marine special agent from the NCIS Resident Agency in Quantico, deployed to Iraq in support of the NCIS criminal investigative mission, spending the bulk of her time with the Third Marine Aircraft Wing at Al Asad. Her assignment took her on dozens of “milk runs” aboard CH-46 Sea Knight and CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters to Al Asad, Taqaddum, and Camp Fallujah during her deployment, investigating crimes including arson, assault, bribery and graft.

Special Agent Doug Einsel, the supervisor for the NCIS detachment at Camp Fallujah, Iraq during OIF 4-6, said NCIS special agents, both Marine and civilian, are dedicated to supporting the MEF in Iraq, providing criminal investigative support and force protection methodology to the MEF. Working closely with the MEF antiterrorism/force protection (ATFP) cells and force-protection units established at each of the camps, the NCIS agents seek to identify physical and counterintelligence vulnerabilities which could jeopardize the health and well-being of Marines located at or transiting to the camps.

Formerly military police investigators (MOS 5819) or criminal investigators (MOS 5821), the Marine special agents receive their entry-level law enforcement training via the Marine Corps MOS training program at the Army’s Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Following their acceptance into NCIS, they are required to attend six weeks of specialized training conducted at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Georgia. Operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, FLETC provides law-enforcement training to 81 partner agencies, to include the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Border Patrol, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The newly selected Marine special agents learn the “ins and outs” of felony level investigations and how to operate in a civilian environment. They use this training time to sharpen their skills and to learn some advanced techniques for conducting crime scene examinations and interviews, enabling them manage a felony investigation from crime scene to courtroom.

For those special agents engaged in the war against terrorism, FLETC is creating a Counterterrorism Operations Training Facility to augment their already robust training center, situated on the grounds of the former Brunswick, Ga., Naval Air Station. The $50 million facility will recreate various settings, both foreign and domestic, that agents might encounter in the field, including urban and rural neighborhoods, subway stations, buildings and roadways. Within the facility, a mock Middle Eastern training village was constructed, providing students a realistic environment simulating the urban environment of Iraq. At least 13 organizations at FLETC, including NCIS, currently send graduates overseas in direct support of the war on terrorism.

Post academy training for both Marine and civilian special agents covers a variety of subjects, including but not limited to legal instruction, forensics, crime scene processing, firearms, driver training, computer crimes, illicit narcotics, child pornography, larceny, and a host of other activities prosecutable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the United States Code. If necessary, Marine special agents are granted relaxed grooming standards for certain activities, such as narcotics or gang investigations. Blending into their surroundings aboard base or out in town, the Marine special agents are an inseparable part of the NCIS team.

Seamlessly integrated into NCIS, the Marine special agents are enthusiastic about being part of the NCIS team. According to Col Forquer, the special agents in charge of the NCIS field offices are quick to tell you that the Marines assigned to the field offices are a critical part of their team. “They have an outstanding work ethic and eagerly take on the tough assignments. They are true professionals, absolutely dedicated to the mission. But if you asked a Marine special agent, he or she’d just tell you that it’s all in a days work.”

Leatherneck Editors Note: LtCol Covert served as one of two U.S. Marine Corps Field Historians deployed to Iraq during OIF 4-6. Traveling throughout the Al Anbar and Babil provinces, he collected 240 taped interviews of Marines, sailors and soldiers engaged in combat operations, security and stability operations (SASO) and combat service support. The interviews, along with corresponding photographs and documentary materials, are permanently archived at the Marine Corps Historical Division at Marine Corps Base Quantico, VA. In his civilian career, LtCol Covert is a Supervisory Special Agent for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Norfolk, VA.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

To the Border, Amigo

Well, it's been awhile since I posted and I certainly didn't think I'd post again after returning from Iraq last February. However, at the prompting of a couple of friends and a few former readers of this blog, I figure I'd give it a shot and continue adding a few stories from time to time. Certainly not to the extent I posted while deployed, but I hope to add some interesting insights from time to time.

The following piece is a story I submitted to "Leatherneck" magazine for publication. I've been notified by the editor that it will probably appear in the August issue. For preview by fellow milbloggers and non-subscribers to Leatherneck, here's my first attempt at publication:

Standing upon the roof of a small border fort, five dust covered Marines scan the horizon, searching for signs of life across the sandy, barren desert. Joined by an equal number of Iraqi border police, the Marines and “jundee” discuss an upcoming patrol along the expansive border. The Marines belong to the Multi-National Forces West (MNF-W) border transition teams, or BTT, which operate along the Iraqi borders of Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

Unique to OIF, the primary mission of the BTT Marines is to support the manning, training and equipping of the Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement, or DBE. One of several fledgling law enforcement organizations within the newly formed Iraqi Ministry of Interior (MOI), the DBE operates 43 border forts along 900 kilometers of border.

Tasked with staunching the flow of illegal aliens, foreign fighters, smugglers and insurgents into Iraq, the DBE remains a separate entity from their Iraqi Police (IP) counterparts, a separate law enforcement organization within the Ministry of Interior. Similar to the U.S. Border Patrol, the border policemen of the DBE exercise powers of arrest along the border, while the IP operate in the cities and towns located in the interior of the country.

Deploying to the border for weeks at a time, the BTT Marines work with and live among the Iraqi Jundees at the various forts. Supported by the addition of embedded Arabic interpreters, the BTT’s began their initial operations during the spring and summer of 2005. “Our job (was) to assess the operations and logistics at the forts, using the assessment as a baseline and trying to improve from there”, said Major Michael Casey, Border Transition Team Chief, during a September 2005 interview. “We spent a lot of time working with the jundees one on one, teaching leadership and basic military skills.” Classes on patrolling procedures, weapons maintenance and hygiene (were) routine. “We try to infuse the (warrior) ethos” Casey said.

The BTT Marines quickly found they had their hands full. “When we first got there, the area was the wild west,” said LtCol. Kenneth DeSimone, II MEF DBE coordinator from February through September, 2005. “We were told they (the Iraqi border police) were equipped and trained. But in reality, they had no uniforms, weapons, or vehicles. There was little or no comm – no radios or phones. It was a very spartan existence.” “It was straight from a scene out of an old French foreign legion film,” DeSimone continued. “Many of these forts are located in extremely desolate locations. The forts have turrets and shooting ports and look like miniature versions of a medieval castle. It may be the only real building within miles – there’s a surreal aspect to many of these locations.”

Prior to the arrival of the BTT Marines, few border forts had hosted permanent coalition staff. Some received sporadic visits from U.S. Army advisory support teams, as well as hosting officers of various U.S. civilian organizations such as the U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Agency. Assigned to remote areas like Waleed and Trebil, the officers deployed in 4-man teams, each comprised of two Border Patrolmen and 2 CBP Officers. Still, the lack of permanent coalition presence was a continuing issue.

Filling this void were the Marines of the BTT. Having Established the original Border Transition Teams by late spring, the Marines set out to assess the effectiveness of the existing Iraqi border police and to determine the readiness of their forts. Traveling hundreds of miles in small convoys, they moved in self-sufficient detachments initially containing M-1114 up-armored HMMWV’s (high mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicle) and an accompanying logistics train comprised of a 7-ton MTVR (medium tactical vehicle replacement) or LVS (logistics vehicle system) filled with supplies and equipment.

The initial assessments uncovered a variety of challenges. The Iraqi border police typically relied on the leadership of border police officers to make the day-to-day decisions. Few, if any, leadership roles were delegated below the rank of officer and many of the border police failed to show for work on a routine basis. Sanitation concerns were almost non-existent at most forts and training was not being conducted on tactics, patrolling or standardized law enforcement techniques.

According to 1stLt. Braulio Lopez, logistics advisor for Border Transition Team 4 during OIF 4-6, the assessment phase paired up members of the BTT with individual policemen at the forts. The teams assessed not only the training and effectiveness of the border police, but also reviewed the maintenance of the buildings, the condition of their vehicles and the functionality of the weapons at the forts. Often lacking electricity, heat, water, and vehicles, the forts were initially ineffective.

One major obstacle hampering the efforts of the border police was the lack of vehicles assigned to each fort. Many forts had only one vehicle, usually a run down SUV or pick-up almost in a state of disrepair. Proper equipage became an immediate priority for the BTT, resulting in the delivery of new vehicles, uniforms, weapons and other equipment to the forts. “We constantly emphasized that they open lines of communication with their own chain of command, the Ministry of Interior,” Lt. Lopez noted. “It was important that they start to rely on MOI for issues rather than relying on us for everything.”

Getting the equipment to the forts and keeping it maintained was the greatest challenge following the assessment phase, said GySgt. Shawn Dellinger, Operations SNCOIC. “We showed them how to improvise, to adapt, to utilize the equipment they already had…when a piece of equipment breaks, (how to) keep it maintained and fix it.” From 4-wheel drive vehicles to communications gear, GySgt. Dellinger said the establishment of an effective preventive maintenance program by the border police went a long way in the ensuring the success of the DBE.

Dellinger indicated the lack of NCO leadership among the Iraqi units was the root of the problem that allowed the maintenance and equipment issues to flourish. “There is no staff or NCO leadership when the officers are not around, no enlisted leadership whatsoever. An officer has to make the decision. An officer goes out on patrol, an officer tells them to clean up, to wake up…they don’t make a move without an officer present. If the officer didn’t give approval, they don’t do it….it’s a habit from the old regime,” Dellinger stated. The solution was teaching the border police the concept of the non-commissioned officer. “Our biggest challenge was showing them that we, as staff NCO’s, have responsibility, have leadership, make decisions and go out there to get the mission done without having to have an officer present.” (4)

The training phase started slowly but rapidly gained momentum. The first several days were spent teaching sanitation fundamentals. From trash collection to hygiene trenches, the Leathernecks imparted the philosophy of cleaner, more sanitary workplaces. Operational lessons followed, including instruction on basic patrol fundamentals at the fire team and squad levels. Getting the border police to leave the confines of the border fort and conduct proactive patrols, either by vehicle or afoot was a success in itself. The active patrols were outwardly displaying a law enforcement presence not previously seen on a regular basis.

The BTT also developed leadership courses using the 14 leadership traits taught to Marine officer candidates and recruits, focusing on judgment, initiative, and integrity. Classes on motor transport maintenance, driving techniques, and basic logistics issues helped fill the day, each lesson resulting in a more empowered border policeman.

In order to formalize a more permanent training regimen within the ranks of the DBE, the Falcon Academy was established in An Najaf by the fall of 2005. Akin to “train the trainer” programs found throughout the US Marine Corps, the Falcon Academy provided a structured environment to train senior border policemen as instructors and mentors, giving them the ability to become training representatives at their respective border forts. The week-long border training initiative provided instruction in logistics and medical issues as well as courses on leadership, communications, and weapons handling. BTT Marines organized and taught the courses, developing the curriculum and perfecting the syllabus. “We empowered the senior sergeants, the class commander and squad leaders, giving them the ability to make decisions…and provide consistent sustained training…they just ate it up”, said GySgt. Dellinger. Given the responsibility to make decisions on their own accord, “…they were leading the way.”
“Taking and using our procedures, ” Dellinger said, “was one of the greatest success stories of the Academy.”

During a Falcon Academy graduation in September, 2005, Maj. Gen. Hussain Aooyz Al Ghazali, commander of the 5th Border Patrol Regiment, addressed the students. “Take what you have learned here and teach the others you work with. There are no contracts between Saudi Arabia and Iraq to keep the insurgents from crossing the border.” He continued, “You are policemen, protecting our borders. You are very important men, carry yourselves high due to the position you are in.”

LtCol. DeSimone stated it was difficult to maintain a constant finger on the pulse of each fort. An average of 20 kilometers spanned the distance between each of the 43 border forts, and communication between forts was spotty. Manned by 20-25 border police, the area of coverage for each border fort was immense. “We flew to one desert town where they had never seen U.S. forces before…they thought we were Spanish.” Regardless, DeSimone remained positive in his assessment of the DBE and the future of the Iraqi border police. “The border police have successfully made arrests and have taken people into custody,” DeSimone commented prior to his departure from Iraq. “We are bringing the ISF (Iraqi Security Forces) to a point where they can conduct their own law and order operations. Nobody knew how bad a shape they were in until we started poking around the border, hitting the border forts and meeting with the Iraqis. Since then we’ve been pushing out vehicles, uniforms, improving their pay and their life support. We’ve been getting them into training academies and are bringing them up to better standards that what they were before.”

LtCol. DeSimone believes the BTT’s role is vital to the success of Iraqi government. Commenting on the state of the Iraqi justice system, he opined the DBE is more effective than the courts they serve at this point. By the end of his tour in Iraq, Desimone saw radical changes in the effectiveness of the border police forces. “The border police are locking people up and are becoming more and more effective daily. We measure their success on how many arrests they make and how many people they are stopping and interdicting. They’ve come a long way – from guys in Metallica t-shirts and flip-flops to what we’ve got now – jundee in uniform, armed, conducting patrols and making arrests. We hope to see the same level of forward progress with the courts in the Ministry of Interior. It will take some time.”

Today, the BTT Marines of I MEF (Fwd) are focused less on assessments and basic equipment issues and spend the bulk of their time teaching advanced marksmanship techniques, patrolling, weapons handling, and internal security. The changes over the last year have been dramatic and continue to improve daily with the continuing efforts of I MEF (Fwd). During his turnover with I MEF in January, 2006, Major General Stephen Johnson, Commanding General of II MEF (Fwd), commented on the status of the Department of Border Enforcement. “The Department of Border Enforcement forces have grown over the past several months. The Iraqis, in coordination with the coalition forces, have built a number of border forts or installations along their border in the areas that we are responsible for - the border with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Those border forts are manned. The border police continue to go through training….there are now two brigades out there making progress in returning control of the border to the Iraqi government and to the Iraqi people. It’s not a unilateral effort. They are partnered with Iraqi Army forces on the border and are also getting support from coalition forces as well. It’s a three-way effort out there, and the Department of Border Enforcement forces are showing improvement.” (8)