CIA paramilitary officers watches of espionage spy watch

Inside The Watch Culture Of CIA Paramilitary Officers

A Watch Given To A CIA Paramilitary Officer

After a successful joint operation in the late 2010s, a European intelligence service presented a CIA Paramilitary Officer with a gift, a U-Boat timepiece to commemorate operational success. Like most accomplishments in the world of espionage, the ceremony (if you can call it that) was small, just the officer and his counterpart, deep inside the headquarters of the European service. There would be no press announcement and the accomplishment would remain unknown to the world, though its impact was of strategic level value to the United States. 

u-boat cia paramilitary watch custom spy watch

Today, that Paramilitary Officer is medically retired due to health issues and is going through treatment with the assistance of the Third Option Foundation. In his post-government life, he treasures the timepiece as a memento, a private celebration of his accomplishments, and multiple decades of service to his country. In our community, it’s never just a watch.

CIA Paramilitary Watch Culture 

CIA paramilitary rolex submariner navy seals
CIA PMOO wearing a Rolex Sub, somewhere overseas.

There is no such thing as a real-life Jason Bourne. The closest resources in CIA’s toolbox are the men and women of the Special Activities Center (SAC - formerly SAD) and specifically Paramilitary Operations Officers (PMOOs). PMOOs are trained as case officers and conduct traditional foreign intelligence (FI) collection, but what makes them unique is their focus on covert action.  Covert action is the “Third Option” for the President of the United States when military force is inappropriate and diplomacy is inadequate - a deniable capability to further US National Security interests.

While CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board won’t let us name countries, suffice it to say PMOOs have been on the ground before, during, and after most of the major conflicts of the past 70 years. Paramilitary Officers were particularly effective in carrying out train-advise-assist operations with local partner forces during the Global War on Terror in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the globe. Currently, they represent the tip of the spear in the multifaceted power competition in Europe and Asia.

breitling cia military watch third option foundation

CIA Paramilitary Watch Culture

SAC recruits primarily college graduates from Special Operations Forces (SOF) including Army Rangers/Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and Marines with a requirement of eight years of active duty service and multiple combat tours. While the majority of PMOOs rely on Digital Tool Watches (D.T.W.) in conflict zones, there is a strong watch culture inside the SAC, and it’s directly influenced by each operator's military background. We are aware of at least two “unit watches” commissioned by PMOOs with the SAC insignia on the caseback and/or dial, but can’t go into details at this time as these are ongoing programs.

Timex Ironman CIA issue military watch
CIA Issued Timex Ironman. This watch was issued to a partner force and the CIA Paramilitary Officer wore it as a sign of solidarity.

It is no surprise that PMOOs tend to prefer robust tool watches. On their wrists, you’ll find the usual suspects: Rolex, Breitling, Panerai, Sangin Instruments, and Bremont. While some in the Directorate of Operations will degrade PMOOs as “knuckle draggers”, the majority of the Paramilitary Officers I worked with were true intelligence professionals. SAC in particular puts a lot of focus on grooming future leaders and a traditional Case Officer/FI tour is practically a requirement for career progression, with the best Paramilitary Officers doing at least one traditional intelligence collection tour early in their careers.

Timepieces As Operational Gifts

As we have discussed, luxury timepieces play an outsized role in the murky world of intelligence while also serving as effective operational gifts for assets and developmentals (individuals being assessed for clandestine recruitment). They are also received by CIA Officers as gifts from “liaisons,” a colloquial term to capture third-country intelligence services that work jointly with CIA. This is the story of the receipt of a unique timepiece during one Paramilitary Officer’s traditional FI, or foreign intelligence, tour.

CIA paramilitary officers watches military

Coming Of Age

The paramilitary officer in question grew up in Connecticut, later moving out west during his teenage years. Motivated in part by the attacks on 9/11, he signed up for the Army and was commissioned as an officer in the mid-2000s. He deployed to the Middle East at the height of the Global War On Terror with the Joint Special Operations Command and was ultimately recruited by SAC's “operational branch/department” during a deployment to Afghanistan.  

Timex Ironman CIA military watch issue

After completing the training pipeline to be certified as a CIA Case Officer at “The Farm” as well as the tactical training required for PMOOs, the officer went on to have an extensive career with years of warzone assignments throughout the Middle East and more traditional assignments where he was accompanied by his wife and son. During the warzone assignments, he wore a Timex Ironman, a watch commonly issued by CIA to local partner forces. While he owned more feature-rich digital watches including a Suunto, this small detail was not lost on his local counterparts.  As he learned in CIA training, a simple gesture like a shared meal  — or a watch — can go a long way in building comradery. 

u-boat cia intelligence watch knives military

Gifting Watches In The Intelligence Business

The tradition of gifting watches between partner military and intelligence units goes back decades and can be used to build trust and commemorate an operational accomplishment or joint deployment. W.O.E. previously discussed receiving a Breitling Aerospace from King Abdullah of Jordan, and while there are restrictions on receiving expensive gifts, CIA Officers can generally later purchase these items from the US Government. If an officer feels that not accepting the gift would damage rapport, he or she can accept the item in question, understanding it ultimately becomes property of the US Government until it can be purchased through the proper channels at fair market value later.

Often, CIA works alone. However, at times, CIA works closely with “friendly” intelligence services, colloquially referred to as “liaisons.” It was through this partnership with a European service that the PMOO received the U-Boat watch.  

u-boat cia watch military challenge coins

The European service has a long tradition of presenting watches as commemorative gifts to honor its partnerships with counterparts in CIA and other intelligence agencies worldwide. Representing more than mere gifts, they are emblems of significant alliances and successful (REDACTED) operations. Each watch commemorates a different operation, a distinct moment in time when multiple agencies representing differing sets of national interests came together to contribute to global security.

After the operation (the details of which remain classified), the officer was invited to a (REDACTED) liaison meeting inside the intelligence service’s headquarters. The liaison counterpart rehashed the recent success and its impact on both countries before presenting the officer with a box. Inside was a U-Boat watch. The European officer explained his service's tradition of presenting watches: "The watch isn’t just a mechanism to tell time; it’s a reminder of our shared commitment, our shared victories, and sometimes, our shared losses.” 

CIA paramilitary officers deployment watches

For this CIA Officer and many others, a watch transcends its role as a timepiece, serving as a wearable testament to the trust and camaraderie developed in high-pressure situations, embodying a unique fraternity that surpasses national boundaries. These watches symbolize a brotherhood formed in secrecy, bound by a commitment to shared values and objectives.

In the world of intelligence, where time can be the difference between life and death and seconds can alter history's course, these watches hold profound significance, representing critical moments when nations, through their covert operatives, align not just in time but in principle and purpose. 

u-boat cia watch custom military issue

The Watch

U-Boat is a relatively young Italian watch brand. Founded in 2000 by Italian designer Italo Fontana, U-Boat takes its inspiration from the founder’s grandfather Ilvo Fantana who sketched designs for wristwatches for the Italian Navy in the 1940s. From this inspiration, U-Boat has a specific aesthetic that unites the different collections together. Oversized cases, highly legible dials, and left-sided “Destro” crowns complete the U-Boat look. 

U-boat cia custom watch military issue

The U-Boat Sommerso 46 DLC (Ref. 9015) is distinguished by its tactical PVD-coated case and lefty crown. The watch stands out both in design and presence on the wrist. The U-Boat watches gifted by this service are more than sophisticated timekeeping instruments; they are tokens of respect, trust, and an unspoken bond among intelligence professionals. They are reminders of joint efforts, shared risks, and commitments that transcend geographic and political divides, embodying the spirit of international collaboration in the clandestine world of intelligence.

cia paramilitary operations officer watches

Today, that Paramilitary Officer is medically retired due to health issues and is going through treatment with the assistance of the Third Option Foundation. He continues to work in the national security space, with frequent trips to the Middle East. He regularly wears the U-Boat watch as well as his Special Activities Center “unit watch,” he purchased as a retirement gift to himself. 

The timepieces are a memento, a constant reminder of his multi-decade service to his country, and a private celebration of his accomplishments. As we said earlier, in our community, it’s never just a watch.

If you would like to support the men and women of the CIA’s Special Activity Center, please consider a donation to the Third Option Foundation.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider signing up for our weekly free newsletter for further updates HERE.  


This Dispatch has been reviewed by the CIA’s Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information.


READ NEXT: Marathon, Watch Maker for the Modern Military

marathon military watch gsar automatic swiss made


Fantastic read as always, W.O.E.



The best Dispatch yet, just ordered my third five eye.


MSG Tucker

Another great article! Keep them coming! Cheers!

RP Reid

I have the privilege of currently being deployed to an embassy and although I’m just a lowly SPC, I do get to marvel at the pieces that rest on the wrists of alphabet boys in the chow line or gym. It’s a wonderful insight into a life completely not of my own.


Great write up. So true some of the sketchiest situations I have been in have been settled through the sharing of a meal or a drink, and at times chatting over time pieces. Thank you for putting this together.


Leave Your Thought Here

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles