Operational Preparation of the Environment

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Operational Preparation of the Environment is a term that has come into use by the U.S. Department of Defense, including reasonably traditional military Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace, clandestine intelligence collection that may have a more distant relation to military action, and Operational Preparation of the Battlespace. The topic gets into the area, known since World War II, of organizational confusion and bureaucratic fighting over Clandestine HUMINT and Covert Action; the current situation extends that to include covert operations that support overt combat.

Military cultural aspects

There long has been a conflict between "operators" and the "lesser" people that variously are specialists in intelligence and support functions. Increasingly, the lessons of joint operations are resolving this conflict. One early example comes from WWII cryptanalysis, where the former missionaries translating a Japanese naval codebook were utterly puzzled by one phrase.

More recently, operators have been surprised when intelligence or other support personnel learn operational skills, even in the relative safety of naval special opeations. U.S. Chief Petty Officer Tommy Cox, on the intelligence collection submarine USS Lapon, was the first signals intelligence technician to do the study, take the difficult exams, and earn the "dolphins" insignia of an operationally qualified submariner. [1] The KGB officer assigned to the luckless Soviet missile submarine K-219, whose duties were nominally counterintelligence, uniquely qualified as a submarine watchstander and was among those who voluntarily took massive radiation exposure in repairing the boat.

Special operations and reconnaissance teams have needed augmentation with communications and signals intelligence specialists, but, as in the case of U.S. Marine Force Reconnaissance, the specialist were looked down upon. Volunteers from the Radio Battalions, however, saying "There is nothing that the Marine Corps can do to me that I can't take." [2] Force Recon required that the RRT candidates pass their selection course, and, to the surprise of Force Recon, they passed with honors. Both teams were assigned to the exercise, and the RRTs successfully maintained communications connectivity for Force Recon and SEALs, collected meaningful intelligence, disrupted opposing force communications, and were extracted without being compromised.

US policy review

In its hearings for the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence expressed concern [3] about blurring between the intelligence-gathering activities carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the clandestine operations of the Department of Defense (DOD).

"In categorizing its clandestine activities, DOD frequently labels them as Operational Preparation of the Environment (OPE) to distinguish particular operations as traditional military activities and not as intelligence functions. The Committee observes, though, that overuse of this term has made the distinction all but meaningless. The determination as to whether an operation will be categorized as an intelligence activity is made on a case-by-case basis; there are no clear guidelines or principles for making consistent determinations. The Director of National Intelligence himself has acknowledged that there is no bright line between traditional intelligence missions carried out by the military and the operations of the CIA."

The committee observed that any clandestine operation, even legitimately OPE, has the same diplomatic and security risk as an activity subject to reporting to the intelligence committees and leadership as an exceptionally sensitive operation. "DOD has shown a propensity to apply the OPE label where the slightest nexus of a theoretical, distant military operation might one day exist."

Such activities thus do not come to the notice of the intelligence and defense committtees, which cannot exercise their oversight responsibility. Recent discussions with DOD makes the Committee hopeful that it will be properly notified, but it will consider legislative action to enforce notification if it does not receive it.


  1. Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, with Annette Lawrence Drew (1998), Blind Man's Bluff: the Untold Story of American Submarine Intelligence, Public Affairs, ISBN 1891620088, p. 128
  2. Jeremy Choate (2007), History and Mission, 2nd Marine Radio Battalion, Radio Reconnaissance Platoon, 2RRP. Retrieved on 2007-10-19
  3. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (26 June 2009), report from hearings on the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010, House of Representatives, 1st Session, 111th Congress