Dirty Wars: A Review, Part 2: The Rise of JSOC

Dirty Wars: A Review, Part 2: The Rise of JSOC

JSOCScahill’s book is first and foremost a book about the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Critics of America’s dirty wars usually focus on the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). And there’s lots of sound reasons to do this: the drone wars in Pakistan’s tribal areas are run by the Counterterrorism Center at the Agency, and executed by the Special Activities Division (SAD). But in focusing on the CIA, the far more geographically expansive program run by the U.S. military’s secretive JSOC is skipped over.

As covered in my previous entry, at the start of the Bush presidency in 2001, a “turf war” between the CIA and the military broke out over who would control the dark side of the war on terror. On 9/11, the CIA’s in-house paramilitary capabilities were limited to around six to seven hundred covert operatives. So the Agency relied heavily on “sheep dipping” Special Forces, which numbered more than 10,000 for special missions. “Rumsfeld saw the lending of US Special Ops Forces to the CIA as creating a problematic, obstructionist middle man whose operations could be lawyered to death. He wanted America’s premier direct-action forces to be unrestrained and unaccountable to anyone except him, Cheney, and the President” (p.59).

And so, neoconservatives Rumsfeld and Cheney were determined to make the U.S. military more like the CIA—a paramilitary force capable of running its own spying operations and lethal raids. In JSOC, they found a highly specialized unit that would, within a matter of years, become the President’s “secret army”. As Scahill writes, “Rumsfeld believed that JSOC had been underutilized, and he intended to transform it from the tip of the spear of a new global killing campaign to the spear itself” (p.55). And under Rumsfeld, JSOC would be yanked out of the military chain of command and report to just a handful of executives in Bush’s cabinet. Often this created friction with Secretary of State Colin Powell and more established military leaders.

For a long time JSOC’s very existence was a closely guarded secret. The unit was formed in 1980s as response to the failed mission to rescue 53 American hostages held in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, codenamed Operation Eagle Claw. After the failure, the White House and Pentagon stated they needed an “all-star” operations team that would have full-spectrum capabilities. Thus in JSOC was secretly created, within the confines of its parent organization the Special Operations Command. JSOC was unique because it reported directly to the President and circumvented virtually all other entities in military and government, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

US_Joint_Special_Operations_CommandThe organization was composed of Special Mission Units (SMUs) that would train for F3 missions (Find, Fix, Finish). JSOC would eventually command the army’s Delta Force and 75th Ranger Regiment and SEAL Team 6, which was later renamed the Naval Warfare Development Group, or DEVGRU (this SMU would kill Osama bin Laden in 2011). In the early days of its existence its primary mission was to “train” other friendly special forces around the world. Yet at times the lines between combat and training were frequently blurred, particularly in the dirty wars of Latin America in the 1980s. Indeed, following the Iran-Contra scandal, the White House deployed Special Operations Forces sparingly. Rumsfeld wanted to change that of course, and aimed to take covert operations from the CIA and consolidate control for himself.

At the start of the George W. Bush administration, Special Forces already worked alongside the famed signals intelligence operation, the Intelligence Support Activity, also known as the “Activity” or “Gray Fox”. But Rumsfeld wanted Special Forces to have their own internal HUMINT (human intelligence) capabilities like the CIA. And so in April 2002, “Project Icon” was launched, and clandestine spying teams were deployed alongside Special Forces to “prepare the environment” in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. This program would become known as the Strategic Support Branch, or SSB, which would later pair up with the Activity in July 2002 when Bush signed it over to Special Operations Command by executive order. This gave Rumsfeld authority over a huge proportion of U.S. intelligence assets, and giving Special Forces a fully-fledged HUMINT capability. Officially, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency ran the SSB, but the person with the real power was neoconservative Stephen Cambone, an “ideologue” recruited by Rumsfeld. He would become a key player in organizing special operations and the globalizing killing machine. In 2003, Rumsfeld created a new position for Cambone, the “undersecretary of defense for intelligence”. It gave Cambone unprecedented authority as the DIA and NSA now had to report to him. Indeed, 85% of the nation’s intelligence budget would be under his control.

Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 11.30.01In mid-2002, Rumsfeld reorganized Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and JSOC. The SMUs that populated JSOC would no longer need to coordinate with conventional command authorities. And SOCOM was transformed from delivering soldiers and materials to regional commanders across the globe, to being an autonomous organization headquartered in Tampa, Florida. “Rumsfeld and Cheney were beginning to build up the infrastructure for waging an unaccountable war— and JSOC would be their prized weapon” (p. 101). Stanley McChrystal would head JSOC between September 2003 and June 2008, becoming Director of the Joint Staff in August 2008. In that influential role, along with David Patreaus, he would push the Obama administration to authorize the expansion of covert operations against al-Qaeda to a dozen countries throughout the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and Central Asia. William McCraven took over from McChrystal in June 2008 and led JSOC until June 2011, when he took over Special Operations Command.

By mid-2010, the Obama administration had increased the presence of Special Operations Forces from 60 countries to 75. SOCOM had about 4,000 people deployed around the world besides Iraq and Afghanistan. Under the Obama administration, JSOC teams were deployed in Iran, Georgia, Ukraine, Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru, Yemen, Pakistan (including Baluchistan), and the Philippines – and sometimes these teams were even deployed in Turkey, Belgium, France and Spain.  JSOC teams were suspected of supporting the DEA in Columbia and Mexico.

This list of countries where Special Forces are deployed is really quite staggering. But as Scahill insists, “Although the Obama administration boasted that it had al Qaeda on the ropes, its global assassination program was becoming a recruitment device for the very forces the United States claimed to be destroying” (p. 355). This “blowback” is a theme I’ll explore later.

Next, in a section called “Lawfare”, I’ll be exploring in some depth the legal machinery that paved the way for the increase in clandestine activity under JSOC.


See Derek Gregory’s recent post at Geographical Imaginations on critical reaction to Scahill’s companion film (which I have yet to see).

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Jeremy Scahill, JSOC, Special Forces and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Dirty Wars: A Review, Part 2: The Rise of JSOC

  1. Pingback: Creating Monsters (Dirty Wars, A Review, Part 6) | Understanding Empire

  2. Pingback: Bureaucratic Assassination — How do U.S. Targeted Killings Work? | Understanding Empire

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