The HRT: A Small Unit With Large Responsibilities

by Franklin Kirby
By Franklin KirbyThe destruction and chaos left in the wake of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina last year overwhelmed the ability of state and local law-enforcement agencies to perform their duties. Fortunately, law-enforcement teams from other states, and from some federal agencies – including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which sent its Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) – were deployed to the Gulf Coast to help restore order. The HRT has been the topic of political and operational debate since it was founded in 1982 in preparation for the Los Angeles Olympic Games. Theea of creating a federal tactical operations unit immediately came under fire from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), which did not see the need for a federal agency providing security and responding to incidents in the department’s own backyard, particularly when the LAPD’s own SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) team was one of the largest and most capable, as well as most experienced, in the nation. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) disagreed and successfully defended creation of the HRT on the grounds that the availability of a unit with its special capabilities was essential to respond to hostage situations such as those that had occurred at the Munich Olympic Games. Moreover, as DOJ also pointed out, the legal restrictions of Posse Comitatus prevented the use of military units such as Delta Force from participating in domestic law-enforcement operations. Controversy and Validation In the almost quarter of a century since its creation, the HRT has been used a number of times to respond to domestic-hostage situations, many of which precipitated additional debate over how and when the unit The availability of a unit with its special capabilities was essential to respond to hostage situations such as those that had occurred at the Munich Olympic Games should be deployed. The most publicized of these situations were the controversial events that occurred at Waco and Ruby Ridge, where the HRT carried out tactical operations in support of various other federal agencies and of local law-enforcement units. Those incidents led to considerable criticism and aroused considerable debate about the lawful jurisdiction of a federal paramilitary unit operating within the borders of United States itself. These criticisms were offset by some less publicized operations – the successful rescues of prison guards in Talladega, Alabama, and Martinsville, Louisiana – that helped to justify the HRT’s existence. Nonetheless, the primary focus of HRT continued to change and evolve, and the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 pushed the unit into more of a counter-terrorism role. Some HRT members even have been sent on missions overseas – to trouble spots in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. In addition, HRT members now often train and operate with the U.S. military’s Special Forces units, as well as with foreign counterparts such as the English and Australian Special Air Services (SAS) units and the French GIGN (National Gendarmerie Intervention Group). Specialized Skill Sets, Pre-packaged Organizationally, the HRT is a unit of the Tactical Support Branch of the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group headquartered in Quantico, Virginia. There currently are approximately 90 Special Agents on the team, plus a number of support personnel, all of whom can be deployed quickly – or in task force-sized teams – to carry out various law-enforcement functions usually beyond the capabilities of state or local agencies. Those state and local agencies should take comfort in knowing that, as was seen in the aftermath of last year’s Gulf Coast hurricanes, the HRT can, upon request, deploy quickly to anywhere in the country to carry out law-enforcement functions beyond the capabilities of local agencies – almost always, though, by working as part of a task force supplemented by state, local, and other federal officers. On its Gulf Coast deployment, the task force relied upon the HRT’s special training to patrol communities, control crowds, and rescue endangered citizens. Moreover, effective coordination of all of the agencies participating was facilitated through the use of mobile command vehicles, another tool at HRT’s disposal. It should be noted that several other federal agencies have special teams that are available – again, upon request – to assist local law-enforcement units in various tactical situations. The U.S. Border Patrol’s BORTAC team, for example, which carries out various low-profile tactical operations along U.S. borders, also was successfully used to conduct the Elian Gonzalez rescue operation in Miami. In addition, a number of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Special Response Teams are strategically positioned at ICE offices throughout the country and are available to state and local law-enforcement units, and to other federal agencies, for such operations as high-risk warrant service, protective-escort duties, and certain specialized marine operations.