Obama Gives Commanders Wide Berth for Secret Warfare

Last summer, the White House authorized a massive expansion of clandestine military and intelligence operations worldwide, sanctioning activities in more than a dozen countries and giving the military's combatant commanders significant new authority to conduct unconventional warfare.

The New York Times reported on one major operational plan, which authorizes intelligence gathering and reconnaissance activities in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and Central Asia. A Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order, was signed on September 30, 2009, by CENTCOM commander in chief David Petraeus. It was marked "LIMDIS" -- as in "limited distribution," and hard copies were delivered to about 30 people.

The Times did not report its original classified codename, "Avocado." The name has since been changed.

Other "ex-ords" signed by combatant commanders include provisions for secret American bases and operations in countries like Georgia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and in the Dagestan region of the North Caucuses. In the latter space, U.S. soldiers were tasked with tracking down members of identified separatist groups with loose ties to Al Qaeda. One of those groups was responsible for the March 31 bombings in Kizlyar, according to American intelligence officials.

The Obama administration had been reluctant to allow such an expansion of nontraditional military activities in countries where the U.S. formally has no presence. That practice was unfavorably associated with the Bush-Cheney administration's disregard for international norms.

But political imperatives, the threat of terrorism, and the knowledge of what the U.S. military can accomplish if its strings are cut away has slowly changed the minds of some of Obama's senior advisers. It is helpful that Congress has generally given the military a wide berth to conduct activities that intelligence agency paramilitaries would find objectionable.

The authorization to write the orders allow combatant commanders to put together task forces for almost any purpose, and draw from almost any existing military unit. JUWTFs are not classified  and are in regular use. But until last summer, they tended to be formed for temporary and limited purposes. Even during the Bush administration, the military did not insert American personnel into Iran, which is what the Avocado execute order now permits.

Not surprisingly, the larger counter-terrorism task forces tend to be full of operators from the clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), as well as contractors from companies like L3. But JSOC is not the executive authority for these missions, as one might suspect. Rather, the commanders, like CENTCOM's Petraeus, have direct authority. 

Military commanders began to circulate drafts of the secret orders in the summer of 2009, a few months after U.S. Navy SEALS rescued sailors aboard the hijacked marine vessel the Maersk Alabama off the coast of Somalia.

At the time, news reports suggested that the SEALS were mobilized from a base in the United States. But that was false. The SEALS, part of the fabled DevGru special mission unit, or SEAL Team Six, were 45 minutes away at an operational base in Manda Bay, a resort beach town in Kenya.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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