Will the Biden Administration Shine Light on Shadowy Special Ops Programs?

Amid a broad review of American war-making policy, how and where commandos will be used in the coming years hangs in the balance.

STENNIS SPACE CENTER, MS - FEBRUARY 20: An active-duty Special Boat Team member from the Navy's riverine Gulf Coast team peers through a night vision device while patrolling the Pearl River on a night training operation on February 20, 2013 in the swamps of the John C. Stennis Space Center in Stennis Space Center, Mississippi. Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen, or SWCCs, are members of the United States Navy's Special Boat Teams and are responsible for insertion, extraction, and combat fire support for the U.S. Navy SEALs. Ninety percent of riverine training takes place at night, due to the enormous advantage afforded to American special operations forces because of their extensive night vision capabilities.(Photo by Luke Sharrett/Getty Images)
An active-duty Special Boat Team member from the Navy’s Gulf Coast team peers through a night vision device while patrolling the Pearl River during a night-training operation in the swamps of the John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Miss., on Feb. 20, 2013. Photo: Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

Members of the U.S. special operations forces deployed to 154 countries, or roughly 80 percent of the world’s nations, last year, but information about exactly where elite forces conduct missions, under what authorities they operate, who they’ve killed, and whether they’re adhering to the laws of armed conflict is closely guarded, buried in obscure legal provisions, shrouded in secrecy, or allegedly unknown even to Special Operations Command.

The command, known as SOCOM, will only name half the countries where its forces were active in 2020. It claims that its personnel — Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, and Marine Corps Raiders among them — have captured or killed “thousands of terrorists” under one obscure program but also that it doesn’t track such data. SOCOM refuses to provide even basic information about publicly acknowledged operations.

The Biden administration has imposed temporary limits on counterterrorism drone strikes and commando raids outside conventional war zones like Afghanistan to “ensure the president has full visibility on proposed significant actions in these areas,” Emily Horne, a National Security Council spokesperson, told The Intercept. But so far there is little indication that the new administration will be more open with the American people about what commandos are doing and where they’re doing it.

“We need greater transparency around counterterrorism,” Luke Hartig, a senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council in the Obama White House and now a fellow in New America’s International Security program, told The Intercept. “We need to do it carefully, in a way that doesn’t endanger special operators or their host-nation partners, but greater transparency about where we’re conducting operations and why we’re conducting operations is essential.”

U.S. Special Operations Command has grown exponentially over the last 20 years. “Special operations-specific funding” topped out at $3.1 billion in 2001, compared with $13.1 billion now. Before 9/11, there were roughly 43,000 special operations forces. Today, there are 74,000 military personnel and civilians in the command. Two decades ago, an average of 2,900 commandos were deployed overseas in any given week. That number now stands at 4,500, according to SOCOM spokesperson Ken McGraw.

As the command’s global reach has grown, so has the toll on America’s commandos. While special operations forces make up just 3 percent of American military personnel, they have absorbed more than 40 percent of the casualties, mainly in conflicts across the Greater Middle East. Suicide rates among commandos are also the highest in the military and outpace the general population, according to an internal study of special operators’ suicides between 2012 and 2015, commissioned by SOCOM and obtained by The Intercept. “Nearly all cases suffered some form of PTSD or emotional trauma following the first deployment,” the report notes.

“Greater transparency about where we’re conducting operations and why we’re conducting operations is essential.”

A special operations culture fixated on “force employment and mission accomplishment has led to sustained high operational tempo” to the “detriment of leadership, discipline and accountability,” a 2020 SOCOM ethics report noted. The Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General recently announced an investigation into whether SOCOM has implemented “law of war” mandates and whether war crimes have been properly reported.

America’s most elite troops specialize in 12 core competencies, including counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, security force assistance, unconventional warfare, and “direct action,” a euphemism for the types of missions that resulted in the killings of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by Army Delta Force commandos and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs. Other missions have included the 2013 abduction of terror suspect Abu Anas al-Libi in Libya by Delta Force operators; a 2017 SEAL raid in Yemen that killed more than two dozen civilians; and a drone program run by SEALs that resulted in 54 declared airstrikes in Somalia last year, more than were carried out under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations combined.

Three programs have been especially key to recent U.S. special operations around the world, according to unreported SOCOM statistics, exclusive documents, congressional testimony, and interviews with former government officials and others. The trio of efforts — one employing proxy troops, another supporting surrogate irregular forces, and a globe-spanning training program with a troubled past — underscores a host of largely invisible dangers, from failures to rigorously evaluate activities to a subversion of human rights safeguards to a pattern of loose oversight of commando missions that experts say could lead to catastrophe.

Marine Raiders assigned to 3rd Marine Raider Battalion, Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, execute a direct-action night raid during Training Exercise II at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, July 26, 2020. The exercise gives a Marine Special Operations Team the ability to practice full-scale ground assault and demonstrate team-level proficiency, cohesion and agility for evaluators. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Ethan Green)

Marine Raiders assigned to the 3rd Marine Raider Battalion, Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, execute a direct-action night raid during a training exercise at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., on July 26, 2020.

Photo: Cpl. Ethan Green/ U.S. Marine Corps

Special Ops vs. Great Powers

Some of the least-known special operations missions are authorized under a provision known as “Section 1202 Authority,” which first appeared in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, and is “used to provide support to foreign forces, irregular forces, groups, or individuals” taking part in irregular warfare. Neither the Defense Department, SOCOM, nor any media outlet has ever revealed detailed information about 1202 missions, but based on what little is known about them, they are explicitly focused on so-called near-peer competitors such as China and Russia or, as former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper put it, “non-terrorist threats, including malign state actors.”

China, Russia, and Iran are “practitioners of campaigns of disinformation, deception, sabotage, and economic coercion, as well as proxy, guerrilla, and covert operations,” according to an unclassified summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex to the 2018 National Defense Strategy released last October. The document called for the U.S. military to fight fire with fire through “proactive, dynamic, and unorthodox approaches to [irregular warfare] that can shape, prevent, and prevail against our nation’s adversaries.” Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, praised Section 1202 Authority as a “highly useful tool for enabling irregular warfare operations” aimed at countering “coercion and aggression by revisionist powers and rogue regimes.”

America’s capacity “to train foreign forces, irregular forces, with the 1202 authority” would be key to supporting conventional forces in a conflict with Russia or China, SOCOM Commander Gen. Richard Clarke said during a 2019 House Armed Services Committee hearing. But because 1202 authority relates to great power competition, its use involves far greater dangers than a one-off commando raid in Syria or even a sustained campaign in Somalia.

“The risks of escalation and unintended consequences are much greater,” said Linda Robinson, director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corporation and a leading expert on U.S. special operations. “High-end state actors are a far cry from even a robust nonstate actor like ISIS.”

The Biden administration’s counterterrorism review “will seek to ensure appropriate transparency measures,” Horne, of the National Security Council, told the New York Times. When asked whether more information will be forthcoming about 1202 programs, Horne told The Intercept: “We won’t have more to share beyond the statement we provided earlier for now.”

U.S. special operations service members conduct combat operations in support of Operation Resolute Support in Southeast Afghanistan, May 2019. RS is a NATO-led mission to train, advise, and assist the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and institutions. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jaerett Engeseth)

U.S. special operations service members conduct combat operations in support of Operation Resolute Support in southeast Afghanistan in May 2019.

Photo: Sgt. Jaerett Engeseth/U.S. Army

War on the Cheap

In the earliest days of the war in Afghanistan, as U.S. commandos and CIA personnel sought to support the Afghan Northern Alliance in its fight against the Taliban, Army Special Operations Command found that it lacked the authority to provide direct payments to its new proxies and was forced to rely on CIA funding. This prompted a broader push by SOCOM to secure the ability to support foreign forces in counterterrorism missions, a military corollary to the CIA’s use of militia surrogates that was ultimately enshrined in U.S. law as U.S.C. Title 10 § 127e, known in military parlance as “127-echo.”

127e allows special operations forces to use local troops to do America’s bidding and, according to Maj. Gen. James Hecker, vice director for operations for the Joint Staff, “provides us viable surrogate forces designed to achieve U.S. [counterterrorism] objectives at relatively low costs in terms of resources and especially risks to our personnel.”

397440 04: Northern Alliance soldiers watch US warplanes drop bombs on Taliban positions November 18, 2001 near the city of Kunduz, Afghanistan. The city is under siege by the Northern Alliance, who surround aproximately 5000 Taliban soldiers who are Arab, Chechen and Pakistani volunteer fighters who have vowed to fight to the death. (Photo by Sion Touhig/Getty Images)

Northern Alliance soldiers watch U.S. warplanes drop bombs on Taliban positions near Kunduz, Afghanistan, on Nov. 18, 2001.

Photo: Sion Touhig/Getty Images

Such operations, which have been used extensively in Africa, can be run either by Joint Special Operations Command — the secretive organization that controls SEAL Team 6, Delta Force, and other special mission units — or by more generic “theater” special operations forces. Originally granted a $25 million budget under a predecessor program in 2005, 127e is funded at four times that level and has “directly resulted in the capture or killing of thousands of terrorists, disrupted terrorist networks and activities, and denied terrorists operating space across a wide range of operating environments, at a fraction of the cost of other programs” according to SOCOM’s Clarke.

The basis for Clarke’s statement is unclear, however. McGraw, the Special Operations Command spokesperson, said SOCOM doesn’t have hard numbers on those captured or killed.

This may not be the program’s most worrying blind spot.

“It’s not asking much to require as a matter of law that the U.S. military take specific steps to ensure we’re not funding or supplying war criminals or abusive praetorian guards.”

Typically, foreign troops who receive U.S. assistance undergo vetting, under the so-called Leahy law, to weed out gross violators of human rights. But when asked whether 127e surrogates underwent any type of screening, U.S. Africa Command referred The Intercept to the State Department, which referred a reporter back to AFRICOM.

In fact, the program has always been immune from such oversight. While traditional security cooperation and security assistance activities conducted by special operations forces have long been subject to oversight under the Leahy law, the 127e program, as an effort in which proxies conduct missions for U.S. aims, has been exempt from assessment, monitoring, and evaluation, including Leahy oversight. That may finally be changing: The 2021 NDAA is the first to require the Pentagon to describe how it ensures that U.S. taxpayer dollars aren’t funneled to war criminals.

“The Leahy laws were developed specifically to ensure that U.S. taxpayer dollars don’t go to the units and individuals who are known to have committed violations of internationally recognized human rights — the serious crimes of torture, rape, or murder,” said Dan Mahanty, who ran the State Department’s Office of Security and Human Rights during the Obama administration and now heads the U.S. program at the Center for Civilians in Conflict. “It’s not asking much to require as a matter of law that the U.S. military take specific steps to ensure we’re not funding or supplying war criminals or abusive praetorian guards.”

U.S. Air Force MC-130H Combat Talon II crew members from the 353rd Special Operations Group fly over the Kanto Plain, Japan, June 19, 2017, during Exercise Teak Jet. Exercise Teak Jet is a joint combined exchange training (JCET) focused on improving interoperability between U.S. Air Force and Japan Air Self-Defense Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Yasuo Osakabe)

U.S. Air Force crew members from the 353rd Special Operations Group fly over the Kanto Plain during a Joint Combined Exchange Training program in Japan on June 19, 2017.

Photo: Yasuo Osakabe/U.S. Air Force

A History of Violence

Another program, Joint Combined Exchange Training, or JCET, has a similarly troubled history of exploiting human rights loopholes. “JCETs often appear to bring America’s premier soldiers into conflict with aims of American diplomacy enunciated in Washington,” Dana Priest of the Washington Post wrote in 1998, casting the program as one in which “effective civilian oversight and coordination with the State Department or National Security Council is minimal to nonexistent.”

Soon after, the General Accounting Office (now known as the Government Accountability Office) also documented a failure to “accurately” report to Congress “the number of JCETs that were conducted, their costs, or their relationship to counternarcotics and counterterrorism.” And a 2013 RAND study of JCETs conducted in the Africa Command, Pacific Command, and Southern Command areas of operations found “moderately low” effectiveness of the missions in all three regions.

Officially, the “training” provided by JCETs is for the benefit of American commandos, but experts have long recognized that the program is also meant to aid foreign partners. In fact, the missions’ goals include “enhancing partner forces’ counterterrorism abilities” as well as “gaining regional access with a minimal footprint” and solidifying “military-to-military contacts,” according to exclusive SOCOM documents obtained by The Intercept.

JCETs are generally conducted by small groups of commandos, such as an Army Special Forces Operational Detachment-Alpha, a 12-person team, or a Naval Special Warfare element focusing on “mission essential tasks, particularly foreign internal defense and unconventional warfare,” according to the files. In 2018 and 2019, commandos conducted a total of 278 JCET missions in 68 countries. SOCOM reports show that more than 4,800 American special operators and nearly 32,000 foreign personnel took part.


Pentagon’s Own Map of U.S. Bases in Africa Contradicts Its Claim of “Light” Footprint

Not long after Priest’s 1998 exposé, the Leahy law was applied to JCETs, theoretically barring foreign units or individual troops implicated in gross human rights abuses from receiving U.S. assistance. Subsequent Intercept reporting on overseas training programs, including JCETs, raised serious questions about the quality of U.S. vetting procedures, while a separate investigation revealed that JCETs were still regularly conducted with foreign militaries whose members were implicated in widespread atrocities.

An analysis of the SOCOM documents obtained by The Intercept finds that JCETs continue to be conducted with troops from countries labeled as consistent violators of human rights. More than 20 years ago, Priest’s reporting drew special attention to JCETs conducted with Colombian forces despite their dismal human rights records. The new files show that commandos carried out four JCETs in Colombia during 2018 and 2019 despite State Department human rights reports alleging unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government.

Colombia is not an anomaly. In 2018 and 2019, JCETs were carried out with numerous nations whose security forces stand accused, in State Department reports, of widespread abuses, including Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, and Indonesia, whose governments have been implicated in unlawful or arbitrary killings; Egypt, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, whose forces have reportedly committed extrajudicial killings; and Tajikistan, which has been accused of “forced disappearance by the government in collusion with foreign governments; torture and abuse of detainees by security forces.”

This week, the U.S. launched a two-month JCET to train Mozambican marines “to support Mozambique’s efforts to prevent the spread of terrorism and violent extremism.” A State Department press release noted that “civilian protection [and] human rights … are central to U.S. cooperation and are foundational to effectively counter the Islamic State in Mozambique.” But earlier this month, Amnesty International issued a report detailing extrajudicial killings by the Mozambican military. Mozambique’s embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.

Marines attending the Special Operations Forces Fundamentals course, Marine Raider Training Center, execute a night ambush while patrolling at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., Dec. 11, 2020. SOF Fundamentals is designed to equip high-performing Marines with additional skills and concepts required to be effective in special operations and provide combat support expertise in intelligence, fire support, communications, explosive ordinance disposal and canine operations as part of a Marine Special Operations Team. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Brennan Priest)

Marines attending a special operations forces fundamentals course execute a night ambush while patrolling at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., on Dec. 11, 2020.

Photo: Cpl. Brennan Priest/ U.S. Marine Corps

Oversight Wanting, Oversight Wanted

As the Biden administration reviews the bedrock precepts of American war-making policy over the last two decades, including the post-9/11 authorizations for military force and the rules governing counterterrorism missions outside conventional war zones, how and where commandos will be employed in the coming years hangs in the balance.

“We need a firm, clear oversight mechanism to make sure the things we’re doing on the ground are consistent with our broader strategy and policy.”

The reviews are all the more critical given that many billions of dollars have been poured into special operations over the last two decades, but U.S. military interventions in special operations forces-centric locales like Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and Somalia have been marked by worrisome and worsening outcomes. A 2019 study by Robinson and her RAND colleagues found that special operations forces’ assessments of their own efficacy “are not standardized or consistently implemented,” making it impossible to evaluate, for example, Clarke’s glowing assessments of the 127e program to Congress. “They don’t have the data to prove it in the way that I and other RAND researchers think is needed,” Robinson told The Intercept.

Yemeni women take part in a rally protesting the recent deployment of US Special Forces to Yemen, amid the ongoing conflict in the impoverished Arab state, outside the UN offices on May 12, 2016, in the capital Sanaa. / AFP / MOHAMMED HUWAIS        (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Yemeni women take part in a rally protesting the deployment of U.S. special forces to Yemen outside the U.N. offices in Sana’a on May 12, 2016.

Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Images

In terms of human rights safeguards, Hartig, the New America fellow, sees broader policy considerations governing special operations as more important than issues with specific programs, like the lack of Leahy vetting for 127e activities. “We need a firm, clear oversight mechanism,” he told The Intercept, “to make sure the things we’re doing on the ground are consistent with our broader strategy and policy.”

If the administration concludes that special operators can continue to conduct lethal operations outside conventional war zones, as was common under Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama, then 127e and 1202 programs are likely to continue without major changes. This means that it’s up to Congress to rein in globe-spanning special operations and institute safeguards that ensure transparency, bar commandos from supporting abusive foreign military units, and protect the United States from being unintentionally drawn into wars, said Mahanty, of the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

“If the U.S. wants to be involved in a campaign against groups in the Sahel or against Iranian proxies in Syria, whether directly or alongside, behind, or overhead,” he said, “it should make the case to the public and get congressional authorization for it.”

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