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The ONI Covert Operations Unit was the Office of Naval Intelligence's primary attack force. Their existence was a tightly kept secret, and they were known to only a few members of the UNSC High Command. Although Lord Hood despised them for their missions' tendencies to be targeting members within the UNSC, he recognized the need for such a force as a means of policing high ranking and otherwise untouchable officials. The COU's actions were directed by Vice Admiral Parangosky, and they were led in the field by Captain Tiberius Lierne, an ONI agent whose savagery and efficiency had brought him to the attention of his superiors.
The idea of a covert operations unit meant for aggressive action against targets within the UNSC was originally conceived in 2520, when several corrupt UNSC officials managed to escape any kind of punishment through bribery and blackmail. Several high ranking members of ONI suggested that a "unit that doesn't exist" could help to prevent such travesties of justice from occurring again. The idea was eagerly accepted by ONI's leaders, who also saw the unit's potential as a private army for ONI, and by a few admirals with close ties to ONI. The unit was officially formed in 2521, when a mix of ONI agents, Marines, and members of several NavSpecWeapons programs were handpicked for special training. A critical part of this training was constant conditioning of the trainees meant to produce unwavering loyalty to ONI and an unquestioning obedience to any order that they were given. Aside from special operations training, the trainees were also given advanced infantry training and took courses normally reserved for ODSTs and other special forces groups. The unit's initial 7000 members all graduated from the program, and the ONI Covert Operations Unit was officially deployed in 2525.
With the discovery of the Covenant and the beginning of the Human-Covenant War, fighting corruption and unrest inside the UNSC took on even greater importance. The COU was sent on a variety of missions, some dealing with corrupt officials and others involving the Insurrection. Even as the need for experienced soldiers to fight the Covenant increased, the COU was kept away from the fighting by ONI, whose leaders were worried that their "wild card" might be caught and destroyed in a surprise battle with Covenant forces. However, some of their missions did take them to the front lines, where their ruthless nature earned them the nickname "death squads" by the other UNSC forces that they came into contact with. The rumor of these commandos spread, and the term "death squad" was privately embraced by the soldiers within the COU. The unit's casualties were light and extremely rare, but whenever a soldier did die, ONI always had a replacement waiting, keeping the unit at a constant strength of 7000.
As the end of the war drew near, Vice Admiral Parangosky, the head of ONI, decided that should the SPARTAN III program be discovered the shortcuts and illegal methods used by ONI in the program be discovered, a full scale investigation could ensue. Afraid of what such an investigation might uncover about ONI, she dispatched the COU to New Africa where the latest batch of SPARTAN IIIs, Gamma Company, were deployed. Disguised as ODST reinforcements, the unit dispersed across the planet, ordering SPARTAN IIIs to report to specific locations, where the death squads promptly slaughtered them. Although Captain Lierne was quick to declare the mission a success, the unit remained stationed on New Africa, searching for the handful of SPARTANs that might have survived.
After a few weeks, the unit received the order to stand down and aid ONI in searching for the surviving SPARTANs. It turned out that the order had been rescinded after Parangosky's judgement in issuing it had been called into question. After another week of searching, all of the SPARTANs were accounted for. Told that they had been the victims of an unfortunate misinterpretation of orders, the S-IIIs were quickly returned to the UNSC and resumed their duties. But one of the SPARTANs, one SPARTAN-G294 had gotten off of the planet and learned the truth about the order. Seeking revenge, he returned to New Africa and ambushed Captain Lierne and a good amount of COU troops as they were heading to a ship that would take them off planet. Over a dozen COU troops were killed by the renegade SPARTAN, and Lierne himself was executed in cold blood. After this incident, the COU was immediately taken off planet, where they were reassigned to more missions.
A few years after the New Africa Incident, the COU was disbanded by ONI on the grounds that smaller units, such as the High Priority Assassination Program, could perform same tasks while attracting less attention. The COU's members were reassigned to more of ONI's special warfare groups after signing a legal agreement not to speak of their time in the COU.
COU troops deployed with varied equipment, depending on the mission. For most assassination missions, a small number of squads would deploy in plainclothes to carry out their objective. During missions on the front line, they usually wore standard ODST body suits in order to protect their identities. They were trained to use all manner of UNSC and Covenant equipment available to them.