THEY HAD HIM AT THEIR MERCY. The burly man, hooded and helpless, sat on the ground as his two captors — a soldier dressed in black from helmet to boots, another clad in camouflage, both with rifles slung on their backs — grabbed him by his armpits and hauled him to his feet. A dark Mercedes minivan snaked up the dirt road toward them, as two other soldiers in full camouflage scanned the bare tree line with their automatic weapons at the ready. The van pulled up, its door slid open, and the men, captors and victim, were gone. It looked like a scene out of a thriller starring Liam Neeson or Jason Statham.
It was, indeed, something of a fiction.
In March, members of the U.S. Special Operations forces traveled to Bosnia and Herzegovina to train with local special police units. Carried out at Bosnia and Herzegovina’s national training center in Manjaca, the arrest demonstration, chronicled in an official video, was part of the first-of-its-kind Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) in the Balkan nation.
The training program was part of a shadowy and growing global engagement strategy involving America’s most secretive and least scrutinized troops. Since 9/11, Special Ops forces have expanded in almost every conceivable way — from budget to personnel to overseas missions — with JCETs playing a significant role. Special Operations Command keeps the size and scope of the program a well-guarded secret, refusing to release even basic figures about the number of missions or the countries involved, but documents obtained by The Intercept demonstrate that from 2012 to 2014 some of America’s most elite troops — including Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets — carried out 500 Joint Combined Exchange Training missions around the world.
That’s the official line, but the program appears to have an additional goal — transferring elite military skills from American operators to local forces. “Ultimately that is the overarching goal of these activities,” says Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corp. and author of One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare.
Just who is learning these “mission-critical skills” is often opaque since most JCETs — unlike this year’s mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina — are carried out in secret, far from the prying eyes of the press. The documents obtained by The Intercept show that many are conducted with “partner-nation” security forces that have been implicated in serious criminal acts.
While the U.S. military is barred by law from providing aid to foreign security forces that violate human rights, JCETs have been repeatedly conducted in Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Chad and many other nations regularly cited for abuses by the Department of State. Under the so-called “Leahy Law,” a vetting process is meant to weed out foreign troops or units implicated in “gross human rights violations” — including extrajudicial killing, forced disappearances, and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. But the State Department office responsible for the vetting process receives only a tiny fraction of funding compared to the projects it oversees, and a spokesperson noted that “State does not track cases in a way that is easily quantifiable.” SOCOM, for its part, was evasive about whether the military command was aware of individuals or units disqualified by Leahy vetting. “If you have questions about who has been barred, I recommend you contact the State Department,” SOCOM’s McGraw wrote in an email.
REPORTS ON THE TRAINING of Special Operations forces, submitted to Congress and obtained through the Freedom of Information Act from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs, show that the U.S.’s most elite troops trained in 77 foreign nations alongside nearly 25,000 foreign troops under the JCET program in just 2012 and 2013. Both the number of planned missions and foreign nations involved in JCETs are forecast to rise next year, according to a separate set of documents publicly available from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller).
Four JCETs were conducted in Colombia in 2012, even though the State Department, in that same year, called attention to the country’s “extrajudicial killings, insubordinate military collaboration with members of illegal armed groups [and] forced disappearances,” among other abuses. In 2013, according to the OSD-LA documents, elite U.S. forces were back in Colombia for a month of JCET training, and in that same year, according to the State Department, “there were several reports that members of the security forces committed extrajudicial killings.”
Colombia is hardly an anomaly. Special operators, for example, carried out a JCET in Saudi Arabia in December 2011. The next month, Army Green Berets began a 60-day JCET while Saudi security forces clashed with demonstrators seeking an end to sectarian discrimination. The Saudi government said the demonstrators were armed but according to a State Department report, protesters claimed that “security forces responded to stone-throwing youths by firing indiscriminately” at them. In February 2012, elite U.S. troops kicked off a new JCET, practicing advanced marksmanship and close-quarter battle techniques while also focusing, according to the Pentagon documents, on “principles and procedures of human rights.” At the same time, however, Saudi security forces reportedly killed two activists and wounded as many as 50 people. Nevertheless, the JCETs continued. In 2013 the U.S. conducted four months of missions in the kingdom while the State Department held that there were, again, “some reports of human rights abuses by security forces,” including torture and violence directed at demonstrators.
In 2012, Special Ops forces also conducted three JCETs — focused on honing skills including close-quarter battle techniques and night operations — alongside Bahraini troops. That same year, the State Department called out the Persian Gulf nation for “a number of reports that government security forces committed arbitrary or unlawful killings” and the “arrest and detention of protesters on vague charges.” Three JCETs also took place in Cambodia in 2012, despite the State Department noting that “members of the security forces reportedly committed arbitrary killings.” In one instance, while Green Berets were conducting training in small unit tactics and human rights, Cambodian police and military forces clashed with lightly armed civilians during a land eviction operation. “Witnesses reported that government security forces stormed the village and opened fire with automatic weapons,” reads a State Department account of the incident, which left a 14-year-old girl dead.
In late 2011, elite U.S. forces traveled to Chad to train in desert warfare and long-range patrolling with indigenous troops, while the State Department’s annual human rights report noted that “the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.” The next year’s report drew attention to work by Amnesty International that found “Chadian officials and members of armed groups responsible for serious human rights violations, including unlawful killings, rape, and other torture, continued to act with impunity.” But that fall, special operators from the Navy, Air Force and Army were back in Chad practicing reconnaissance operations and tactical ground mobility. In 2013, while American troops were in the arid African nation rehearsing raids and training in “heavy weapons employment,” members of Chad’s security forces “shot and killed unarmed civilians and arrested and detained members of parliament, military officers, former rebels, and others,” according to the State Department.
In 2012, JCETs were also conducted in Algeria, where “impunity remained a problem,” and Tajikistan, where there was “torture and abuse of detainees and other persons by security forces,” according to reports by the State Department. Additionally, five JCETs were carried out in El Salvador (“isolated unlawful killings and cruel treatment by security forces); four in Lebanon (“torture and abuse by government and other security forces”); four in Romania (“police and gendarme mistreatment and harassment of detainees and Roma”); and two in Mexico (“police and military involvement in serious abuses, including unlawful killings, physical abuse, torture, and disappearances”); among other nations called out by the State Department.
In 2013, the story remained the same as Special Operations forces conducted multiple missions alongside local security forces in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Cameroon, El Salvador, Kenya, Romania, Indonesia, and Uganda, among other countries cited for abuses in the State Department’s human rights reports.
SPECIAL OPERATIONS FORCES CARRIED out 324 JCET missions from October 2011 through September 2013 (fiscal years 2012 and 2013), according to reports provided to Congress by OSD-LA. Documents from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) point to efforts at expansion since.
“Over the past 4 years, there has been a steady increase in the number of requests for SOF JCET participation,” reads an official report, issued earlier this year, on the proposed 2016 Pentagon budget. “The continued uptick in the number of training events and locations in FY 2016 is a testament to USSOCOM’s unwavering commitment to assure our allies and deter our aggressors in support of SOF’s global campaign.”
Of the six geographic combatant commands, Pacific Command saw, far and away, the most missions during 2012 and 2013. The Philippines, for its part, trumped all other nations in the number of JCETs in 2012 and tied Thailand for the top spot the following year.
Robinson, of Rand Corp., questions the value of these episodic missions, which last for weeks or a few months at most. Instead, she suggests an enduring approach, such as “the decade-long effort to build competent special operations forces and counternarcotics police in Colombia and assist the country’s counterinsurgency effort,” which she views as a success (though hardly an unqualified one) in helping to stabilize that country.
“Being in 70 countries, in and of itself, may not be the best use of SOF,” she says. “If there are fewer countries where a more persistent presence could have an effect like Colombia or the Philippines, it might be better. … Let’s focus on where we think we can actually have an effect.” She is quick to add, however, that even these two success stories haven’t been entirely successful, drawing attention to the problematic nature of dealing with troubled regimes. “The Philippine government, as a whole, has a terrible problem with corruption,” Robinson points out. “Obviously, Colombia’s military has had its problems, some of that is resurfacing now.”
The 2012 and 2013 JCETs in Colombia focused in part on advanced light infantry tactics, close-quarters combat, and small unit tactics — skills useful for an elite military force but also prized by sophisticated criminal syndicates. In fact, the State Department’s human rights reports not only implicate Colombia’s security forces in collaborating with illegal armed groups and criminal gangs, but in many ways acting like them, with significant human rights abuses that include disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
Under the Leahy Law — named after Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy — the U.S. is barred from providing assistance to specific individuals or units “of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.” While the official purpose of the JCETs is enhancing the skills of U.S. troops, the program — as with many other assistance efforts — is subject to State Department review.
While the law has prevented some aid from reaching Pakistan and Indonesia, the effectiveness of the Leahy vetting process has been criticized on a number of fronts — from insufficient funding to loopholes that allow it to be circumvented. As Lora Lumpe, a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Foundations observed, the State Department’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, which carries out the vetting, operated on a budget of just $2.75 million in 2014, while the security assistance projects it oversaw — including JCETs — were worth $15 billion.
Critics have also noted that not only can the White House ignore or evade the law — and the secretary of defense waive the prohibitions for “extraordinary circumstances” — but the structure of foreign militaries, the shifting of personnel, and the difficulties of tracking aid overseas, allows the law to be manipulated and makes it difficult to ensure that no funds reach problem units. Additionally, gaps in vetting procedures can potentially result in State Department researchers overlooking significant evidence of wrongdoing.
Very few foreign military units fail to pass the State Department’s litmus test. In 2012, 90 percent of the 162,491 cases vetted were reportedly approved, 1 percent were rejected, and 9 percent were suspended. The percentages were similar in 2013. And last year, of the roughly 160,000 units and individuals that were vetted, only 15,000 — just 9 percent — were denied, suspended or cancelled, a State Department spokesperson told The Intercept. Training requests are not tracked by program, so there’s no easy way to tabulate how many, if any, foreign units or individuals have been denied from taking part in JCETs, according to a State Department spokesperson.
SOCOM’s McGraw stated that Special Operations Command “has not turned down any requests to provide forces to a GCC [geographic combatant command] based on concerns over human rights violations because the human rights vetting process takes place before USSOCOM receives the request…Training requests go through the Leahy Law human rights vetting process before the requests are sent to USSOCOM.” According to McGraw, “USSOCOM fully supports and has complete confidence in the State Department’s Human Rights vetting process.”