How The CIA's Adrift Maritime Branch Lost Four Men On A Doomed Spy Mission Against China

The story paints a tragic picture of the Agency's clandestine operations that are often glamorized by Hollywood.

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Talk about a story with everything and a tragic one at that. A feature published by Yahoo News recounts the tragic story of four CIA operators that were sent into the nexus of the Philippine and South China Seas to place a camouflaged electronic intelligence gathering device used for monitoring suspicious Chinese military traffic. This was 12 years ago, before China's manmade islands and militarization of the region emerged to become a foreign policy powder keg. It was also a time when the CIA's Maritime Branch was adrift, struggling for validity. In the end, four men sailed directly into a hurricane in an attempt to accomplish the espionage mission and were never heard from again.

Here is just a taste of the story: 

Stanek and Perich planned to dive on the island using commercial scuba gear that would be deniable in the event they were captured, whether by the Chinese or anyone else. There were to be no U.S. government fingerprints on any of their activities. Deployed from the small ship, the two divers would emplace a “pod” disguised as a rock and stuffed with classified technology just beneath the surface of the waves. It would then passively monitor electronic signals of Chinese naval ships.

Once they returned to their ship, the crew would head for Japan, where they would cool their heels for a few weeks before returning and retrieving the device.

Stanek would have closely examined the onboard weather radar system in those final moments before making his decision. According to his Navy service records as well as friends and teammates, Stanek was a patriot and a mentor, the kind of sailor admired by his peers for his hard work and can-do attitude.

But he was also under pressure to make it work. The mission wasn’t just about placing a device on one island, it was a proof of concept that would demonstrate the continued relevance of the CIA’s Maritime Branch.

The mission came as Maritime Branch was struggling to prove its reason for existence. Several U.S. Navy programs also made use of “covered” maritime assets, meaning ships that hid behind commercial cover. The CIA’s Maritime Branch was essentially in competition with the Navy, and this mission would help prove its worth.

It’s impossible to know how much that played into Stanek’s decision, but gambling that the storm would change course as meteorologists predicted, he decided to go forward with the covert operation.

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Maritime Branch is one of the CIA’s paramilitary components. Nestled within the agency’s organizational structure is the Special Activities Division, today known as the Special Activities Center, which includes Special Operations Group (SOG), which conducts paramilitary operations, and Covert Influence Group (CIG), which specializes in disinformation and propaganda operations.

SOG has three paramilitary branches. Air Branch covertly maintains fleets of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft all over the world, including the CIA-operated, Russian-made helicopters that ran logistics and delivered troops in Afghanistan during and after the 2001 invasion. Ground Branch functions as the CIA’s version of Special Forces but operates under the agency’s covert action authorities; it often works in tandem with operations officers (the agency’s spies) and, at times, the U.S. military. Once filled with former Marines, today Ground Branch is home to many former Delta Force operators.

Maritime Branch covertly operates sea vessels in South America, West Africa and a few other locations. They can be used to extract CIA officers or their assets if called upon. “Maritime Branch was trying to become relevant again in SOG and SAD,” a former CIA officer said, “because mostly it was just a place for former SEALs to hang out with between Ground Branch tours.”

The piece offers a unique look into a real-world CIA operation that has all the trappings of a Hollywood movie—in fact, a very similar camouflaged signals intelligence pod was just featured on the final season of Showtime's Homeland. But this would be a disaster movie, not triumphant espionage yarn. 

In the end, four of the stars of the CIA's sacred Memorial Star Wall belong to these men. Give the piece a full read, it can be found here, and let's talk about it in the discussion section down below. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com