Coast Guard trains Intelligence Specialists to keep watch on the sea

by PA3 Mark Jones

PORTSMOUTH, Va. – From its inception in 1915, one of the primary roles of the Coast Guard has always been protecting the nation. The safety of the U.S. depends on the ability of Coast Guard personnel to perform their duties, including maintaining U.S. borders against potential terrorist threats, illegal drugs, and illegal migration. To carry out those missions, there is an ever-present need to know what is happening in the world.

Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Coast Guard joined with agencies such as the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the Office of Naval Intelligence as a member of the national intelligence community, but until recently, the Coast Guard did not have any specifically designated full-time enlisted specialists dedicated solely to the intelligence mission.

Traditionally, Coast Guardsmen from different job fields served in intelligence positions. They attended a two-week course introducing them to the intelligence field. Additional instruction was done through on-the-job training which qualified members to fill important intelligence positions. When that assignment was over, they went back to jobs outside the intelligence field. As a result, the Coast Guard had difficulty maintaining a steady flow of professional expertise in the intelligence field.

With the creation of the Intelligence Specialist enlisted rating, that has changed.

Once the decision was made to create the rate in November, 2006, the first task in the hands of Master Chief Petty Officer Mark Pearson, the new Rating Training Master Chief, and his team was to determine what duties an IS would be responsible for. Due to the Coast Guard intelligence program’s needs being so broad and the job so varied, standardization was a challenge.

“In January, 2007, we decided to do an operational analysis of the whole Coast Guard enlisted intelligence community,” said Pearson. “We put together a survey online, and sent it out to the community. When we got our results back, we had a clear picture of what everybody was doing, and could put together the EPQs for the rate.”

Using the results of that survey, Pearson’s team determined what duties an IS is responsible for performing throughout the enlisted pay grades. For example, all IS’s needed to know how to collect visual imagery; therefore it became a practical factor for a petty officer 3rd class to use a digital camera.

After establishing requirements for what ISs would need to know and what they would do in the field, the next hurdle for the training team to clear was getting the “A” school established in order to start producing qualified enlisted intelligence specialists. An “A” school is a technical school that provides basic knowledge foundation for a new petty officers to do their job.

Because of this, it was necessary to get the “A” school up and running as soon as possible.

To get an idea of how to set up the school, Pearson and his team looked first at the Navy and Marine Corps Intelligence Training Center in Virginia Beach, Va., to see what they were doing there.

“We looked at the NMITC program and saw that 80% of all of our E-4 EPQs were covered in the NMITC curriculum,” said Pearson. “So we sent our early IS A-school students through the NMITC course first, and that way we were able to train them sooner than we would have if we had needed to create the entire course first.”

After the students graduated from NMITC, they went to Coast Guard Training Center Yorktown to complete their training in a three-week-long course designed by the IS training team to provide them with the tools needed for Coast Guard intelligence. This course taught the students the software, databases, and techniques they would use for missions such as law enforcement, which are Coast Guard specific and not performed by the Department of Defense.

Once the three-week course was developed, the ability to get students trained, graduated, and into the field existed, but that didn’t give Pearson and the Personnel Services Branch team, who make manuals and other instructional materials, any time to rest. They immediately turned their attention towards getting the full 13-week “A” school course established and started training classes full-time in September, 2008.

“Now that we have our own rate, it gets 100 percent of our time, all of the time,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Dennis McNamara, the enlisted chief in charge of the IS “A” school. “Intelligence specialists in the near future will be better trained than ever before.”

After graduation, the new petty officers are assigned to intelligence units such as the Maritime Intelligence Fusion Center in Virginia Beach, Va., or Alameda, Calif., a Field Intelligence Support Team located within a sector command, an intelligence detachment aboard the National Security Cutter, and other units.

At MIFC, IS Watchstanders monitor message traffic and communications between Coast Guard units and relay that information to and from the Intelligence Coordination Center, which in turn provides the information to various Coast Guard commands and field units..

Personnel at MIFC also monitor electronic signals, such as the Automatic Identification System, keeping an eye open for irregular or suspicious behavior. AIS is a system like GPS reporting the position of a vessel through an electronic beacon. This device is required for all commercial vessels over 300 gross tons.

A FIST is a unit at the field level where an IS may be assigned. The FIST’s primary missions include direct intelligence gathering and taking reports from field units.

The flow of intelligence is a two-way street between the intelligence field and operations – both rely on each other for needed information that they need. If a cutter crew sees something out of the ordinary, they put their observations in the field intelligence report. If the MIFC staff sees a trend that is out of the ordinary, they may recommend that a nearby unit go investigate.

“We gather information and put together a FIR – a field intelligence report – with just the facts – what we did and what we saw – then we send that report to the intelligence community,” said Lt. Cmdr. Holly Harrison, executive officer of Coast Guard Cutter Legare. “They take what we have observed, and what other cutters and units, other agencies have observed, and they decide whether there is something that requires attention or not.”

By comparing information from the FIR with other information, ISs have the ability to help locate illegal drug smugglers who often use small boats called “go-fasts,” that are often difficult to detect, providing cutters information needed to find and stop them.

Similar information helps cutters locate illegal migrant vessels and smugglers, saving the lives of those attempting the dangerous passage to the United States.

Not only does an IS get information from the Coast Guard, they also get it directly from ships entering U.S. waters.

Vessels entering U.S. ports are required by law to give a 96-hour advanced notice of their intent to arrive. This provides enough time for an IS to check the vessel’s information and history, inform the local Coast Guard sector commands, and if necessary, allow time for a Coast Guard crew to stop and board the vessel to check for illegal activity.

With the large number of ships and vessels traveling the nation’s waterways, these notifications, allow the Coast Guard to systematically identify and stop the vessels suspected of carrying illegal drugs, illegal migrants or other threats.

“We go through an extensive checklist for each vessel that gives notification of arrival and determine which ones are of interest based on the information that we find,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class James Clea, an IS at MIFC Atlantic.

Some things considered are type of cargo and vessel history. If any information in the notifications warrants attention or investigation, an IS drafts a report and sends it to the Coast Guard Intelligence Coordination Center in Suitland, Md., which passes it to the field units.

In order to qualify to become an IS, Coast Guardsmen must meet stringent requirements, passing a thorough background check to qualify for a top secret security clearance with authorization to access secure spaces and equipment.  Such high standards in personnel are vital to ensuring the quality of the intelligence program and the surety of the safety of Coast Guard operational security.

“The better intel we get, the better we’re able to actually perform our operations. The hard part is that there is so much information coming from so many different areas,” said Harrison. “When you put those few facts together and correlate them with other information, maybe you have a trend. You really need someone who can sit down and study that information and determine what is unusual and what is normal. Having a specialist who has that expertise can only help.”

The intelligence field has been the eyes and ears of the Coast Guard since the beginning, keeping the leadership informed so they can make the best decisions about where to go and what to do. Now, there will always be highly trained specialists filling intelligence jobs throughout the Coast Guard’s ranks who can make sure the flow of information remains unbroken.

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