To HRT or not to HRT – That is the question.

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I read a report of two FBI agents who died during HRT (Hostage Rescue Team) training last Monday. They were fast roping from helicopter to a ship that was underway. (article below) My career evolved in an era when the difference between police work morphed in many cases to be indistinguishable from military work. Having had my feet in both worlds, I’m going to make a few observations in the wake of this tragedy that I hope are taken the right way.
(Fox News) Two FBI agents who died while training off the Virginia Beach coast fell to their deaths when a helicopter had trouble during a “maritime counterterrorism exercise,” an agency spokeswoman said Monday night. 
Special Agents Christopher Lorek and Stephen Shaw were killed when they fell into the water Friday. Both were members of the bureau’s elite hostage rescue team, a group known most recently for rescuing an Alabama boy from a kidnapper in an underground bunker. 
“The FBI agents were participating in a maritime counterterrorism exercise involving helicopters and a ship,” Special Agent Ann Todd, an FBI spokeswoman, wrote in an email Monday night. “The agents were in the process of fast-roping from the aircraft onto the ship when the helicopter encountered difficulties. The agents tragically fell a significant distance and suffered fatal injuries.”
About a zillion years ago, I trained the FBI’s Los Angeles Division HRT team in advanced SCUBA. I put on a realistic training program and most of the members struggled to meet the basic proficiency standards that the US Navy set for this sort of complex underwater work. Technical diving is not at all like sport SCUBA. Those who arrived for training were more like tourist-divers than technical divers. Once the basic/advanced training had been completed, I suggested to FBI management that if they wanted to keep proficiency, their people needed to be in the water at least one week out of every month. Diving in obscure, dangerous harbor water where you need to navigate precisely not being able to see your hand in front of your mask constitutes a perishable skill. If you undertake a critical mission in this sort of situation when you are not physically and mentally prepared and trained, there is a substantial chance that you’ll be injured or killed.
And if the FBI doesn’t expect their people to do this sort of thing, why train them to do it in the first place? The FBI responded that they simply couldn’t devote additional time to training but yes, they’d expect their special agents to jump in obscure harbor water and use those skills three or four years down the road because ‘they had been trained’. Military people who do this, do train for it as specialists and they’re in the water two days out of every three so that it’s second nature. The FBI’s Division HRT teams are also FBI special agents who carry caseloads, and mostly sit at desks and push paper. Pushing weights to stay in shape before work or running at noon is not the same as practicing critical skills every day.
SA Lorek was 40 years old and SA Shaw was 41. I’m sure that both men were in top physical condition. I’m sure that they’d fast roped a lot in their careers. It’s unlikely that this particular training evolution introduced challenges that were unknown to them. However, at that age, I supervised men who were experts at snapping necks and cashing checks. And while yes, I did fast rope at age 40, I didn’t do it as gingerly as I did at 21.

(Fox News opcit) “These are not hit squads. These are not mercenaries. These are people who come into the FBI first and foremost to be an FBI agent. They have to have a college education, worldly experience, verbal skills,” Van Zandt said. “They have to have everything we would see in a regular FBI agent plus more.”

There is plenty of hubris and testosterone. I’m not suggesting that the HRT people lack either. But at some point do we get to a situation where it’s ‘more balls than brains’?

There are no operational US Navy SEAL platoons where most of the members are in their 40’s. It’s a young man’s game. There are situations where guile is required where you find senior chiefs and master chiefs working together with no youngsters around, in sensitive programs, but it’s rare. While its true that you find former US Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Marine Force Recon or Air Force Pararescue people in the FBI, they are all a bit ‘long in the tooth’ and by the nature of the new job, they are past their prime as front-line operators. Operator is a polite and politically correct word for killer. (The FBI asserts -above- that HRT members are not “killers”)
Is FBI HRT necessary, given that they’re expected to be on par with SEALs and Delta Team? And if it is, should we expect field agents to do it? It’s very difficult to effectively blend genuine military special forces style operational tempos and civilian law enforcement.
Would it simply be more effective to keep a rotating force of SEALs or US Army 18’s assigned to the FBI to meet their HRT needs? It would be a lot cheaper to have enlisted US Military people doing it than very expensive GS13’s, and the assigned military people could train in perishable skills with a matrix that didn’t require them to be part-time warriors. The Posse Comitatus Act was changed in January 2013 to allow this sort of thing to happen. (read more about that here)
I expect to take some heat for writing this, but it’s how I see it.

18 thoughts on “To HRT or not to HRT – That is the question.

  1. No reason why you should take heat here – what you said is simply true. I think there is a real desire on the part of HRT, SWAT and a host of other "Tac Teams" to be SEALs or DELTAs . . . they are simply not. They have neither the time or budget to become skilled at that level. Yet, they will continue to pretend. With the fully predictable results . . . .

  2. This all makes sense to me. Denying proper training and expecting 40-y-o men to have abilities of 20-y-olds, while keeping them at desks is asking for trouble.

  3. The police have situations which require heavier body armor and a tactical response that differs from their mainstream policing and I have no problems with SWAT teams. You're absolutely right that they will never rise to the operational proficiency of SEALs, for example, because you simply hire a different person to be a SEAL than you do to be a police officer, and then you train them differently.

    The situation with the FBI is that I think that they expect their HRT to be something that it was never intended to be. Originally HRT was designed to be an FBI version of a police SWAT team where they could step in and help local agencies or deal with federal problems that required a tactical response. Since then it has morphed into something different, and I'm not sure that's the best use of highly trained investigators.

  4. It makes sense to you and I, but not the FBI.

    And trust me, I understand that the HRT people WANT more hard core training. If I was there (at age 40), I'd be arguing that I could do what a 20 year old could do — because the individual agents want to do that. It's challenging and fun. But looking at it from a distance, I don't think that it's a good idea.

  5. Your's is the more logical way of filling HRT needs. I had long assumed, incorrectly it appears, that SEAL/Army teams fulfilled this need.

  6. I can't see the FBI changing course — but they will have a new director this summer and anything is possible. The agents, themselves, will chafe at not being able to play with the cool toys and who can blame them. However, from a management perspective, it simply makes more sense.

  7. I won't give too much heat…just shootin' from the hip, but I've thought about it a lot. There are numerous issues here. But I think the guys down at CIRG have thought about it a lot too. I know a few of the original guys, I think the last of them are now retired. Times change, and so has HRT.

    I can say this – as far as HRT and fitness, there is no issue with those guys. The 40-year-olds have to try out and compete against the 26-year-olds (I guess that would be about the youngest). For the most part, the ones that make it, are physical freaks of nature. Its a 2 week tryout – but the physical part is just a qualifier. (I've always said, after the first half of the first day, they should gear up, sit in a hot van, on a humid day, in the dark, for about 8 hours. If we still like you, and wouldn't mind sitting in a van with you again…you are one step closer.) It does beat down on their bodies (and families), and they generally don't do long tours, 6 years would be a long time…I'm guessing.

    They also have a team of boat drivers and a full dive component nowadays, which I know little about, other than the continued involvement of former and current frogmen in the development, training, etc. (SEALs of today like to share their toys and facilities, which may be the reason this event took place in Virginia Beach. I'll just say, the sequester kept some guys from attending…) They also have a Tactical Helicopter Unit, and sometimes it seems all they do is fastrope. Word is, the helicopter (not FBI, so I don't know if the pilot was FBI) lost power, lurched (my word, I hate helicopters), and I'm guessing #2 took out #1 down the rope.

    HRT Operators don't carry a caseload…they just train, and like you said, support operations around the country (by invitation only).

    I look at it this way, HRT is a just SWAT Team, a full-time team, that can be anywhere in the country with all their toys, in a matter of hours. Wherever they go, there will be an FBI Division (or two or three) SWAT Team that speaks the same language, has (some of) the same toys, and can play nice. So, as in Boston, when local teams are running on empty – here comes 30 guys, who know 30 guys, who know 30 guys…

    Each Division has its own SWAT Team, they train one week a month (or 4 separate days). Mostly the bread and butter stuff, room entries, vehicle assaults…but they also fast rope, rappel, dive, board ships, etc…and say, "That was fun, we'll probably never get THAT call though." Its a tool in the box…

    In 30 years, HRT has lost 4. Which was just 2 a week ago. That includes several years of deploying regularly to Afghanistan, etc, for site exploitation, etc.

    We will never have SEALs or DELTA running around Boston (although it would have been nice to just have set them loose in Boston, and say, "but don't break anything") – so we need SWAT Teams. How would you build an elite SWAT Team? I would use physically fit guys, who have demonstrated good decision making, and have nationwide mobility at a moments notice. I wouldn't use DEA, Secret Service, ATF (God help us) or ICE (who seem to be calling themselves Homeland Security Agents?!?!?!) I would make HRT.

    As for a new Director coming soon…Lord, help us. Hopefully the shit storm at the White House will give him pause, and he makes the right decision…

  8. Standing in THEIR shoes, I can justify an FBI Special Boat Unit supporting US Coast Guard operations and to insert HRT people. SEAL Delivery Vehicles could get FBI people into harbors but SDV's need to deploy from a mother submarine — then you need two for east and west coasts. I can justify air assets to include C-17's to move heavy goods from place to place. I can justify Pave Low's, I can justify Apaches, I can justify Ospreys, I can justify Reaper drones, and dedicated satellite coverage of the US. Because there is no limit on cool toys. Believe me, If I was in CIRG, I'd want it all (and I have a track record of wanting it all).

    Delta has a super SWAT Team for hostage rescue and air hijacking. So does the CIA's Special Activities Division. The Navy has a lot of the same sort of thing for DEVGRU in its training matrix. And while it's good that FBI SWAT can speak to FBI SWAT — my only question is how much is enough? The redundancy in 'cool' in the US is exceptional. Maybe we have just what we need.

    ICE is Homeland Security, right? I've heard them refer to themselves that way too. And now they have a SWAT team — because they need one? Or because the guys want cool toys and want to get out of work to train and play? How many dynamic entries do ICE-SWAT need to conduct that either local agencies or the federal agencies mentioned above (Division HRT) could do for them?

  9. Their business cards, vests, etc all say HSI – and the 1811's personally refer to themselves that way.
    ICE, er HS, is out of control. I guess there is enough crime to go around, but ICE is doing child porn, drug, and gang cases, that have little or nothing to do with I or C. Again, there's plenty to go around, but I personally would like them to focus on I and C E…

    Wouldn't that be like FBI SAs identifying themselves as DOJ. Eh…

  10. I'm kind of curious and this is sort of off topic, but what DO 38+ year old navy SEALs do? in comparison to a similar aged HRT member…like what would be the difference in the way each respective organization views their older personnel and how they would actually use them

  11. I've had some exposure to this world. I can't speak for FBI, and I've never worked with those guys. They kinda keep to themselves. As for some of the other federal tac teams, there are definitely situations where the risk is beyond what a "regular" 1811 is capable of doing…whether it is an aspect of physical fitness, weapons handling ability, training or motivation. There are people I would be AFRAID to enter a house with. Whereas any of the guys on our tactical team…no reservations.

    Having said all that, I do agree that there is nothing we do that a full time city or county tactical team can't do…and better. So yes, there's a part of this that involves the training, camaraderie, the pride of staying fit, being able to shoot good, etc. And there have been a handful of situations where I felt we were WAY out of our comfort zone. Luckily, team leadership is capable of recognizing our limitations.

    In closing, if these various regional part-time 1811/SWAT teams concentrate on basic entry and room clearing (when it is required…say a history of weapons, reinforced doors, multiple subjects, whatever else justifies deployment), then we're OK. When management gets creative and exotic, and puts these same guys into situations where they have a few days of training a year (fast roping, maritime, etc)….it's time to recognize a limitation and let someone else do the job.

    I guess that's the concept behind the FBI's HRT….which is, as far as I am aware, the only FULL time Federal Tactical Team. Maybe the Border Patrol's BORTAC….although I am not sure if they are full time or not.

    As for HSI….that's Homeland Security Investigations. It's a re branding of ICE's OI (Office of Investigations). It is PRECISELY an attempt to distance themselves from the I and the C. Especially the I (Immigration is a dirty word at HSI). I remember a scene from the Wire. One of the bad guys is in a college class, and asks his professor what he can do when he has an inferior product (in this case heroin). The professor recommends renaming the product.

  12. Several issues here. Long discussions with bad assumptions are useless. The g forces exerted on the operators who died due to erratic helicopter behavior where to much for any human to withstand. These guys were in great shape. HRT is full-time, no cases. There is only one HRT, there is no west coast HRT, never was.

  13. Many people say we shouldn't have teams like Swat and HRT and the military can do it. First, that is prohibited in the US by law. Secondly, the military, even the top units are not suited for LE operations. Sure tactically they can do it no problem. They are not sworn LE, they don't have legal training. Before you slam me on this I will tell you that THEY agree with this.

  14. Not only are you correct One who know the thing that FBI HRT brings to the table also is the ability to testify in judicial proceedings and collect evidence and maintain its chain of custody. 9/11 has changed the way the world operates thus changed the way the FBI operates. Who do you think is responsible for American lives abroad? The FBI so a global LE SWAT team is not only necessary but essential. What happens if a terrorist is captured alive it takes LE to collect evidence and prosecute the military isn't designed for that.

  15. HRT does not work behind a desk and there are no L.A. HRT division teams. There are L.A. FBI SWAT teams. There is one HRT division at the Quantico Virginia Marine Base that travels around the U.S. to conduct operations as needed. They train full time for HRT missions, unlike FBI SWAT that is only part time. HRT is not a Navy SEAL, Delta Force wannabe. HRT trains with Delta, goes through part of Navy SEAL training, and trains with US Marines. They also train overseas with Units like SAS, GIGN, GSG5, etc. HRT operators spend just as much time deployed overseas with JSOC than they do in the United States. They may have the name Hostage Rescue Team, but they are a fully trained SOF unit that assists in counter terrorism operations overseas and spearheads counter terrorism operations within the U.S. They do not work any cases like a regular Special Agent. They train full time for special operations missions. When they are not training they are doing either a domestic or overseas deployment. The deaths of the two Special Agents is tragic and something that also happens very frequently in the military. I served in the Marines and on the FBI's HRT. I can tell you that when HRT is called, the bad guys will most likely be taken out in body bags, not handcuffs. Since 9/11, HRT has served as a bridge unit. Military forces can not deploy on U.S. soil. HRT trains with the military and even deploys with the military so that the government can have a unit that works both sides of the fence. A simple example is the British SAS. They are Special Operations unis for the military and Tactical Law Enforcement when needed. That is what HRT is now. This comment is being written in 2016, but when the post was created in 2013, HRT operators were deployed in Libya alongside CIA and JSOC operators to hunt down high value terrorists. You can read all about that with a simple Google search. FBI HRT only seems useless and like a bad excuse for cool toys to those who don't understand national security and special operations training and capabilities.

  16. what part of navy seal training do they go through? I can't imagine USSocom would need or want these guys around when they are on missions if they aren't directly impacting the mission

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