DOMESTIC SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) TEAMS

October 25, 2014

Los Angeles Creates First SWAT

The first tactical, quasi-military domestic police team was formed in the Los Angeles Police Department in 1967 for special assignments as needed.  The concept was provoked by sniping incidents during and after the six day Watts Riot in 1965, when 34 people were officially reported killed, 1,100 injured, 4,000 arrested, and 600 buildings were damaged or destroyed with an estimated $200 million in damages.

The concept was to train a small group of supposedly highly disciplined officers to utilize special weapons and tactics to respond to situations that were thought beyond the capabilities of normally equipped and trained police.  More specifically, the initial idea was to provide military-type security for police facilities during civil unrest. The first Los Angeles tactical unit consisted of 15 four-man teams. Virtually all members of each team had prior military service, and participated in monthly trainings.

The first large challenge to the special tactical teams came in December 1969 when search warrants for illegal weapons were served at the Black Panther Headquarters in inner city Los Angeles. The Black Panthers resisted the 40 member tactical unit during a four-hour siege.  Thousands of rounds of ammunition were fired, resulting in the wounding of three Panthers and three police officers before the Panthers surrendered.

By 1971, the first tactical teams were assigned on a full-time basis to respond to perceived “subversive” groups. They adopted the name, Special Weapons And Tactics Team (SWAT), designated as “D” Platoon.

Blurring Lines Between Military and Domestic, Civilian Police

Ever since the creation of the first domestic police Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) teams 45 years ago, there has been a blurring of the line between military and civilian police missions and tactics. Use of both military and civilian police to contend with “terrorist” or “insurgent” threats has evolved worldwide from the concept of “unconventional” operations utilizing “special” forces in guerrilla warfare.

There is no better domestic example of the meld of military with civilian police operations and mentalities than the April 19, 1993 siege of the David Koresh Davidian religious compound in Waco, Texas. Fatigue-clad FBI and Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents, accompanied by advisors from the Army’s secret Delta forces, fortified with helicopters, armed vehicles, tanks, and assault weapons, conducted a military, in lieu of a civilian law enforcement, operation. Over 80 human beings needlessly perished in the operation. The local sheriff possessed a regularly accessible and friendly relationship with members of the religious commune who often traveled to nearby towns. The sheriff was virtually totally ignored in the attempts to talk and negotiate with Koresh. The federal assault operation became the alternative. The military mind-set easily becomes a siege mentality where respect is ignored and nearly any response is rationalized.

It is believed that both military and CIA and FBI counterterrorist units were present alongside civilian law enforcement agencies at both the July 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles and the Democratic convention in San Francisco to protect participants from “terrorists.” Soldiers from the Army’s elite Delta force, discussed above, were apparently deployed in New York City to assist New York’s finest during the 1986 July 4 celebrations (“Army Antiterrorist Squad To Be In City, Officials Say,” The New York Times, June 28, 1986). As these encroachments by the military on domestic law enforcement functions have leaked to the public, citizens and civil libertarians have severely criticized these operations as a dangerous violation of the long-held principle of the separation of armed forces from domestic law enforcement operations. Such military powers can very easily expand to seriously threaten the privacy, liberty and lives of the people.

Military Origins of “Special Forces”

U.S. Army unconventional warfare began with small units operating behind the lines during World War II. Army Special (counter-insurgency) Forces officially became part of its Psychological Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in 1952. Shortly after President Kennedy took office, prompted by the ill-fated April 1961 CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba, he substantially expanded the Special Forces (now wearing green berets) counterinsurgency capacities at their beefed-up Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg. Special Forces were the first American troops dispatched to Vietnam under President Kennedy to conduct operational roles, often working under the command of the CIA and well insulated from Army regulars.

The Marine Corps, historically proud of its record and capacity for engaging in hostile local operations around the world going back to the late 1700s, was nonetheless bolstered in 1961 with the appointment of Major General Victor Krulak to fill a new post as Joint Chiefs’ Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities. The Air Force, too, established its First Air Commando Group in April 1961 and created its own Special Air Warfare Center at Eglin AFB, Florida in 1962. Not to be ignored, the Navy created the SEALs (Sea, Air, Land forces) in 1962, combat paratrooper frogmen who could do everything the Army’s Special Forces could do and more. The Seals first saw operational action in Vietnam as well. By the 1980s, SEAL Team 6, with nearly 200 men, a far larger number than the normal 16-man units, was created specifically as a highly trained counterterrorist force. And the other military branches continued to refine their “special” and “unconventional” components as well.

Emergence of Terror As the Pretext

In the 1960s the words “terror” and “counterterror” increasingly began to appear in Army field and training manuals, as their cooperative role with the CIA developed for shaping U.S. foreign policy, not just in Vietnam, but in places such as Guatemala and the Congo, among others. And when COINTELPRO first surfaced in 1971, and Congressional hearings had begun to disclose the 1960s infiltration by the Army–in association with the CIA, FBI and local police agencies–of domestic political movements, we discovered that our views and activities at home were also being “shaped.” The lines were blurring even more between the military, the CIA, and law enforcement functions.

Army Ranger units, wearing black berets, were re-established in 1974 in response to fears of international terrorism. Rangers were relatively small forces trained for special missions such as rescue of hostages. In sorting out confusion and competition among the various military units claiming special prowess for dealing with “terrorists,” President Carter rebuilt the Special Forces and Rangers as units to accomplish very narrowly defined tasks. The Army’s First Special Forces Operational Detachment, Delta, a secret unit for antiterrorist missions became operational at Fort Bragg in November 1977, competing with the counterterrorist Navy SEAL units as the best trained of the elite forces. The Delta force drew upon specially trained personnel from the other services, not just from Special Forces and Rangers. Their first mission, Operation Eagle Claw, launched in April 1980 to rescue the American hostages in revolutionary Iran, ended in tragic failure.

Reagan Presidency Intensifies Atmosphere For CounterTerror Forces

The Reagan Presidency revived with gusto the Cold War ideology following the futile attempt of the Carter Administration to place human rights in the forefront of foreign policy. The nation was still feeling stunned from our defeat in Vietnam. Angry about the success of revolutionary Iran and perceived threats to our security interests in the Middle East, the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (only six months after President Carter angered the Soviets by pouring aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul, the origins of the Mujahideen), and the “Communist” presence in Angola and Central America, the Reagan administration set out to reverse “Communist” and revolutionary advances, and re-establish the U.S. as the prevailing, God-fearing nation in the world as claimed by our delusional belief in “Manifest Destiny.”

In the heightened atmosphere of fear of global threats from “terrorists,” revolutionaries, and the new menace of “drug traffickers,” as well as “Communists,” to preservation of the consumptive American Way of Life (AWOL), i.e., to our “national security,” President Reagan formulated a number of secret policies granting expanded powers to the CIA, FBI, and the U.S. Armed Forces for countering threats both at home and from abroad. In December 1981, he signed Executive Order 12333, establishing operating procedures for the CIA, FBI, and other intelligence agencies, intending to restore to them the domestic surveillance and other powers enjoyed prior to Watergate-initiated reforms, while still prohibiting assassinations. This Executive Order authorized the infiltration, manipulation, and disruption of domestic organizations even in the absence of evidence of wrongdoing. It must be remembered that in the language of the National Security Act of 1947 that created the CIA, a huge loophole has enabled each and every President since to commit and direct heinous criminal activity in the name of “national security”: The CIA could “perform such other functions and duties…as the National Security Council may from time to time direct.” And please note again that as early as Vietnam various “special” military units worked closely with, often under the command of, the CIA in “eliminating” civilian leadership and organizations.

On April 3, 1984, President Reagan signed classified National Security Decision Directive 138 (NSDD 138), approving both preemptive and retaliatory raids against “terrorists.” It authorized creation of FBI and CIA paramilitary squads for counterterrorist operations, and enabled the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to have its own contract intelligence agents for the first time. A Joint Special Operations Agency was created in 1984 under the Joint Chiefs of Staff to coordinate military counterterrorist activities in each service branch. Reagan’s Vice-President, George Bush, chaired the executive Task Force on Combating Terrorism, which in turn created the Operations Subgroup (OSG) under the Terrorist Incident Working Group (TIWG) chaired at the time by Oliver North. NSDD 207 (Jan. 20, 1986) created a National Security Council (NSC) coordinator of counterterrorism, again chaired by Oliver North. Terrorism was indeed weighing heavy in the minds of the Reagan folks. Reagan’s Secretary of State, George P. Schultz, emphasized the need for the U.S. to use military force to combat terrorists, the “depraved opponents of civilization,” even though he acknowledged it could mean “the loss of life of innocent people” (“Schultz Says Risks To Innocent People Part of Combating Terrorism,” The Boston Globe, Oct. 26, 1984).

Numerous individuals and organizations in the U.S. fiercely opposed President Reagan’s aggression and internationally adjudged illegal policies in Central America. It is no surprise that Reagan quickly applied his secret “terrorist” guidelines leading to gross violations of civil liberties of a number of U.S. citizens by various federal agencies, civilian and military, in efforts to quell domestic dissent. During the Iran-Contra scandal it was revealed that there were plans to round up “dissidents” and immigrants in the event of a U.S. invasion of Nicaragua and detain them in emergency prisons, some located at U.S. military bases. This was all justified as being “legal” under the secret Executive Orders and National Security Decision Directives authorizing such draconian measures to protect “national security.”

“Terrorists,” and the emerging “drug traffickers,” have replaced “Communists” as major pretexts rationalizing interventions after conclusion of the Cold War. The use of government instruments for repressing dissent and other perceived threats to “national security,” whether here in the U.S. in local communities, or by or from other countries, was of course not new.  A powerful new pretext has been ingrained, being conditioned in the minds of the U.S. population.

Post-9/11 Domestic Militarization on Steroids

Reports of police brutality are now commonplace, but rarely is anything seriously done about them. The July 19, 2013 Wall Street Journal reported: “Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment–from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers–American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the US scene: the warrior cop–armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.”

The most recent long war on drugs was inaugurated by President Nixon in 1971. It has never ceased being a state war against impoverished inner city residents, exploding our prison population such the US leads the world in per capita detention rates, primarily incarcerating African American males in a society that has never truthfully overcome its insidious racism and history of being built upon unspeakable slavery. This brutal truth was well laid out by former US Supreme Court Justice in his autobiography, A Defiant Life: Thurgood Marshall and the Persistence of Racism in America (Crown 1999, and by law professor Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010). 

As the very conservative, seemingly ardent racist, Paul Craig Roberts concluded in CounterPunch (September 16, 2013), “The bald fact is that today’s cop in body armor with assault weapons, grenades, and tanks is not there to make arrests of suspected criminals. He is there in anticipation of protests to beat down the public for exercising constitutional rights. To suppress public protests is also the purpose of the Department of Homeland Security Police, a federal para-military police force that is a new development for the United States. No one in their right mind could possibly think that the vast militarized police have been created because of “the terrorist threat.” Terrorists are so rare that the FBI has to round up demented people and talk them into a plot so that the “terrorist threat” can be kept alive in the public’s mind.”

There is no substitute for assuring social and economic justice as the basic foundation for peace and tranquility. None. We either choose to a commitment to fairness for everyone, or we all lose, a principle articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr:, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”




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