The Special Ops Command That's Displacing The CIA

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Most people could be forgiven for being unfamiliar with JSOC. The Joint Special Operations Command is part of the U.S. military's Special Operations Command, for which it oversees certain special operations. Established in 1980 following the unsuccessful rescue of American hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, it has remained an obscure and secretive corner of the military's hierarchy. But JSOC has enjoyed a rapid expansion of authority and notoriety beginning in the latter years of the Bush administration. Under President Obama, JSOC appears to be playing an increasingly prominent role in national security, counter-terrorism and the war in Afghanistan. If Obama's first ten months in office are any indication, it may not be so obscure for long.

A series of reports has shown JSOC taking on greater responsibility, especially in areas traditionally covered by the CIA. As recently as this weekend, The New York Times reported a secret "black jail" facility run by "military Special Operations" in Afghanistan. Descriptions of the detention center are strikingly similar to those of CIA "black sites," which Obama ordered closed in his first week in office. In Pakistan, JSOC reportedly runs a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle, or predator drone) program that rivals or exceeds that of the CIA. It may even be responsible for many of the UAV strikes attributed to the CIA. An unnamed military intelligence official told The Nation's Jeremy Scahill, "So when you see some of these hits, especially the ones with high civilian casualties, those are almost always JSOC strikes." The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh reported that the task of securing Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, should it be compromised by extremists, falls to JSOC.

The military at large has also felt the growing influence of JSOC. Indeed, General Stanley McChrystal, now the top military commander in Afghanistan, led JSOC from 2003 to 2008. McChrystal's extensive special operations in Iraq, credited as crucial in the country's stabilization, earned both him and JSOC wide support in the military and in Washington. In his high-powered role in Afghanistan, McChrystal is increasingly turning to his old command. Spencer Ackerman reports that JSOC's current leadership is "playing a large and previously unreported role in shaping the Obama administration's Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy." That new influence includes strategic decision-making and direct involvement in the more traditional warfare conducted by the conventional military. Ackerman writes: 

In his Afghanistan review, McChrystal said that a key goal for him would be to increase coordination between his NATO command and the independent command of JSOC, which suggested that the dichotomy between using Special Operations Forces for counterterrorism and conventional forces for counterinsurgency was eroding.

More evidence of the the growing special operations footprint can be found in the Special Operation Command's latest budgetary requests, which include 2,000 all-terrain vehicles and $7 million in training for handling detainees. All of which begs the question, Is JSOC an intelligence agency or a branch of the military? It is technically part of the military hierarchy, but its de facto status may be more complicated. Though it's unclear who JSOC currently reports to, it developed under McChrystal as a tool of the Bush White House. In a story on JSOC's contracting of private military firm Blackwater, Scahill quotes former Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell: 

"What I was seeing was the development of what I would later see in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Special Operations forces would operate in both theaters without the conventional commander even knowing what they were doing." ... Wilkerson said that almost immediately after assuming his role at the State Department under Colin Powell, he saw JSOC being politicized and developing a close relationship with the executive branch. He saw this begin, he said, after his first Delta Force briefing at Fort Bragg. "I think Cheney and Rumsfeld went directly into JSOC. I think they went into JSOC at times, perhaps most frequently, without the SOCOM [Special Operations] commander at the time even knowing it. The receptivity in JSOC was quite good," says Wilkerson. "I think Cheney was actually giving McChrystal instructions, and McChrystal was asking him for instructions. ... At that point you had JSOC operating as an extension of the [administration] doing things the executive branch--read: Cheney and Rumsfeld--wanted it to do. This would be more or less carte blanche. You need to do it, do it."

It's hard to say exactly why JSOC's authority is being expanded so rapidly. It could be little more than internal politics. The CIA was widely disgraced by revelations that it was funding Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a big player in the opium trade that indirectly funds the Taliban. The CIA has also been embattled in a politically contentious turf war with the Director of National Intelligence, as Marc reported. Or, McChrystal may simply be giving his former colleagues a leg up, or any number of back-room political machinations. But I have a hunch this bit from Scahill's story could have something to do with it: 

The military intelligence source says that the CIA [predator drone] operations are subject to Congressional oversight, unlike the parallel JSOC bombings.

President Obama has had a tough time surrendering Bush-era executive powers on national security. The use of JSOC as an independent intelligence and military force run out of the White House and unconstrained by congressional oversight would be tough to resist for any president. 

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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