The Government Accountability Office, a Congressional watchdog, has released a new audit of “federal tactical teams,” or specialized law enforcement units, often generically referred to as SWAT teams, across the U.S. federal government. These range from better-known organizations, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Hostage Rescue Team and the U.S. Secret Service’s Counter Sniper Team, to much more obscure ones, including those that fall under the National Institutes of Health and Amtrak.
The report first appeared online on Sept. 10, 2020. It is a non-sensitive version of a restricted report that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had published last month. GAO’s analysts identified 25 such teams spread across 18 different entities, as of the end of 2019, but this only reflects the total number of distinct types of units. For example, the review treats the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) SWAT teams as a single collective organization, despite there being teams in each field office across the country and on call at the national level. A 2015 report from the Congressional Research Service identified 271 individual tactical teams across the federal government at that time.
This new report primarily also covers the activities of these units between 2015 and 2019, but there are added appendixes that cover some events in 2020. This includes the controversial deployments of tactical law enforcement units across the country in recent months. This has been in response to continued protests, which have at times led to violence, that have emanated from the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota in May, as well as other instances of police brutality that seem to disproportionately impact African Americans. Federal tactical teams have also taken part in aspects of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Many federal agencies employ law enforcement officers to carry out the agency’s law enforcement mission and maintain the security of federal property, employees, and the public,” the report says in its executive summary. “Some of these agencies have specialized law enforcement teams – referred to as federal tactical teams in this report – whose members are selected, trained, equipped, and assigned to prevent and resolve critical incidents involving a public safety threat that their agency’s traditional law enforcement may not otherwise have the capability to resolve.”
The bulk of the federal government’s tactical teams, 17 of the total 25, are within agencies that fall under the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice. The remaining eight are spread between the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as NASA, an independent agency, and Amtrak, a U.S. government-managed corporation.
The GAO report also provides a basic overview of specialized weapons and equipment that tactical teams typically use and how many U.S. government teams have access to these assets. These general categories range from small arms and crowd control munitions to armored vehicles, small drones, and helicopters.
Only three tactical teams operate their own helicopters, while six utilize aerial drones, though the review does not say which units have these capabilities. Of course, many others receive aviation support from other units. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) is one of the ones known to have its own helicopters, including a number of UH-60M Black Hawks, which you can read about in more detail in this previous War Zone piece.
Some of these organizations are very high-profile. For instance, the FBI’s HRT is a national-level top-tier direct-action counter-terrorism unit. The U.S. Secret Service’s Counter Assault, Counter Sniper, and Emergency Response Teams, which are charged with protecting and otherwise responding to threats to the President of the United States, the Vice President, their families, and foreign heads of state visiting the United States.
Others are perhaps less well-known by their formal names. It is generally public knowledge that most major federal law enforcement agencies, including FBI, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE), the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), have what would generally be considered SWAT teams of some kind.
Many of these units are structured and trained to perform higher-risk missions, including counter-terrorism operations, protecting high profile government gatherings and other public events, and helping with disaster response. The U.S. Coast Guard, by law, straddles military and law enforcement functions, as well, and its Maritime Security Response Teams (MSRT), in particular, are closer in many respects to military special operations units. Its Tactical Law Enforcement Teams (TACLET) deploy on U.S. Navy ships and with other U.S. military elements specifically to perform law enforcement duties, especially as part of counter-drug operations.
A number of these teams have also been in the news more recently as part of the aforementioned controversial deployments in response to ongoing protests around the country. GAO says the following 16 specific units or types of teams have taken part in some way in what President Donald Trump’s Administration has dubbed Operation Legend:
- BATFE Special Response Teams
- Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Special Operations Response Teams (SORT)
- FBI’s HRT
- FBI SWAT Teams
- U.S. Coast Guard’s Maritime Security Response Team
- U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Teams
- CBP’s Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC)
- CBP Office of Field Operations Special Response Teams
- ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Special Response Teams
- ICE Homeland Security Investigations Special Response Teams
- The Pentagon Force Protection Agency’s (FPA) Emergency Response Team
- USMS Special Operations Group (SOG)
- U.S. Park Police’s SWAT Team
- U.S. Secret Service’s Counter Assault Team
- U.S. Secret Service’s Counter Sniper Team
- U.S. Secret Service’s Emergency Response Team
Beyond the units that have been on the news lately, or those that regularly appear in blockbuster movies and popular television shows, especially procedural crime dramas, there are still more federal tactical teams that receive far less public attention. Despite their obscurity, many of these have very important functions.
For instance, GAO’s report includes the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Special Response Force, which supports the safe and secure movement of nuclear material, including nuclear weapons, around the country. This includes escorting highly-modified tractor-trailers, known as Safeguards Transporters, or SGTs, which have James Bond-esque security features that you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone story.
There is also the oddly named Mobile Security Deployments, which fall under the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, are prepared to respond to various crises abroad and at home. This includes contingencies that require added security at diplomatic facilities overseas and helping to safeguard major diplomatic events within the United States, such as the annual gathering of the United Nations General Assembly.
GAO’s review also makes mention of tactical units most Americans probably don’t even know exist, such as the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Special Response Team (SRT) and Amtrak’s Special Operations Unit (SOU).
NIH’s SRT, formally established in 2005, had previously been a hazardous materials response unit, but evolved to be able to respond to active shooters and other serious incidents at the Institute’s campus in Bethesda, Maryland. NIH works with radioactive materials for medical research and infectious diseases, among other hazards, all of which present potential security risks.
Amtrak’s SOU, part of the corporation’s larger Police Department, is on call to respond to terrorist attacks, active shooters, and other major crises that might happen along America’s critical railway networks. It also provides security details to protect VIPs traveling by train.
It’s also worth noting that a not insignificant number of the U.S. government’s tactical teams emerged, perhaps not surprisingly, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The total number continues to grow, as well. Just while GAO was working on its report, it received word from DEA that it formally established a standardized tactical team organization, known as Special Response Teams, to replace more ad hoc tactical units within 20 of its 23 field divisions.
You can read more about all of the U.S. federal government’s tactical teams in the GAO’s report, which a mirrored copy of which is available via The War Zone
here. It is likely to continue to be a valuable resource as these units look set to be an important, but often controversial component of federal law enforcement capabilities for the foreseeable future.
Contact the author: Joe@thedrive.com
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