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.

That operation, and the delay in standing up the SEALS, laid the groundwork, officials said, for a series of meetings involving senior counter-terrorism and intelligence officials, about the possibility for a coordinated worldwide unleashing of U.S. military assets.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, at the time the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advised President Obama to allow combatant commanders more latitude to combat terrorism using task forces. Coming from McChrystal, it was a surprising endorsement of a policy that would shift responsibility for unconventional warfare from JSOC, which he had commanded, to the combatant commanders.

In September, two task forces of American commandos surveilled and killed two top Al Qaeda operatives in Somalia, even though they had the opportunity to capture and imprison the two men. The authority to execute the terrorists was given to the commander of one of the squadrons. A task force operating in Yemen has helped Yemeni forces kill terrorism suspects, but it has also carried out unilateral operations.

The intelligence community, including the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency vets the lists of targets and decides who needs to be captured for the purposes of intelligence collection, or who can be killed. The National Security Staff is notified about the eventual final status of the terrorists, and it can overrule the decisions of the intelligence agencies.

There was little opposition to the expansion from the CIA's leadership, which was content to handle its traditional portfolio without having to resort to the type of paramilitary activities that, when revealed, invited intense scrutiny from Congress and the public. One exception is the CIA's Predator Drone program, which an official called a "stealth, but not denied capability." There are a few others.

By contrast, there has been almost no investigation of JSOC's activities during the Bush administration, and there is little oversight of the activities of the terrorism task forces that operate worldwide.

The Times reported that all operations are run by the National Security Staff, though it is not clear how many officials there are aware of the specific details.

"They naively think that because [Obama] told them to do it and to be responsible that they are not going to be unchecked," a military officer in contact with the National Security Staff said. "The real headline is that Petraeus is doing his own thing."

It is unusual for a combatant commander to be given the ability to ask civilians to collect intelligence in countries like Iran. It is not clear under what legal authority he can do so. The CIA's National Resources Division regularly keeps touch with academics and business people who travel to hostile countries, and occasionally requests from them specific tasks. The Department of Defense, at Petreaus's request, set up a parallel organization called the Civillian Expeditionary Workforce that hires non-soldiers and non-contractors for temporary military-type tasks using detainee interrogations.

White House and Pentagon spokespeople declined to comment.