WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
29 Jun 2012 | Commentary

The Special Operations Command: Our Clandestine International Quick-Fixers?

By George Withers, WOLA Senior Fellow*

As the country shifts from the use of our military to fight “large wars” to a strategy that would use military forces to operate quietly and secretly all over the world, the Special Operations Command saw a chance to request the expansion of their authorities to broaden their clandestine operations. Congress put a hold on that expansion recently, but the issue is bound to come up again.  

The United States is entering into a new era of a hybrid military-diplomatic action, where American solutions to international problems are becoming ever more military and ever more clandestine. The Obama administration has been very active in changing the way U.S. military force is used around the world.

Over the past decade, there has been a great deal of debate regarding tensions between the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defense.  A continuing focus of this debate has been the authorities that each Department has in conducting or effecting U.S. foreign policy. When the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 was passed, it was made clear that the State Department took the lead in conducting foreign policy. This included such military topics as foreign military sales and training. While the Department of Defense was crucial in the implementation of many of these policies, it was the State Department that had the global view of what was in the best interests of the United States, and as such, it made the decisions as to which countries would receive the military assistance, training, and other military cooperation. 

At the embassy level, it was well understood that the Ambassador, or the “Chief of Mission” as they are known, was just that: the U.S representative in that country who would make all final decisions on U.S. activities in those countries, including sensitive military and intelligence missions.  

In 2004, two members of U.S. military Special Forces operating under-cover were involved in a deadly incident in Paraguay.  Acting in self-defense, they shot and killed a Paraguayan who was trying to rob them.  A tragic incident became even more significant when it was discovered that the U.S. Ambassador was not aware that those soldiers were operating in his country and had no knowledge of their mission there. This may have been one of the early examples of what has become a significant shift in the roles that the State Department and the Defense Department play in our foreign policy apparatus.

Since that incident, steps have been taken to make sure that the Chief of Mission is, by most accounts, much more “knowledgeable” and has a more defined role in the decisions about how the military operates in the host country to which he or she is assigned. This is achieved through memoranda of understanding between individual embassies and the Department of Defense, a small but significant change to the “Chief of Mission” status held by the ambassador before. Also in the aftermath of the Paraguay incident, the Department of Defense and more recently their Special Operations Command have taken on an ever-growing portion of the international and diplomatic decision-making process in the post 9-11 world through their training programs and, in some cases, through their direct actions. These are not necessarily rogue activities. Mostly, it is with the acquiescence and encouragement of the State Department, the Congress, and the President of the United States. 

As the nation begins to turn its attention from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama in January of this year issued a new Strategic Guidance for our military. Most notable about this document is the shift of focus, not only geographically, but also in terms of how the nation will deploy its considerable military force internationally. The document instructs the Department of Defense to be prepared to mobilize large scale forces if necessary, but—in an age of austerity—to also “rebalance and reform” the force structure.  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta summarizes the effort as “shaping a Joint Force for the future that will be smaller and leaner but will be agile, flexible, ready and technologically advanced.” 

There are those who argue that the  “smaller, more agile, flexible and ready” capabilities are nowhere more adequately represented than in the Joint Special Operations Command.  Shortly after the new Strategic Guidance was released by the President, reports began to surface that the Commander of the Special Operations Command, Admiral William H. McRaven, was preparing a legislative proposal that would give the Command broader, new unilateral authorities to expand their activities and to quickly move their operators and equipment around the world. These authorities are said to be designed to make Special Operations deployments to any nation the Command deemed necessary more efficient and in much shorter time. In order to accomplish this, the well-sourced reports indicate, he would have Congress eliminate the involvement of the staff of the military Joint Chiefs in the process, shortcutting the guidance by which these decisions are currently made. It is further reported that he would ask that the Secretary of Defense no longer be required to sign off on these decisions. This would significantly reduce oversight by Congress, State Department or even by the Secretary of Defense.

The House and Senate Armed Services Committees are in the differing stages of producing the annual National Defense Authorization Act, and while there is language that speaks more generally to the “Global Rebalancing of U.S. Special Operations Forces,” actual language regarding specific expansion of authorities for the Special Operations Command described above has not yet been included, and not be in the near future. In the first version of the House bill, there is however, report language that calls for a “review of existing statutory authorities to support SOF security force assistance, training and advising…” To some degree, the door is open and whether changes come in this legislative cycle or the next, new authorities remain on the table. 

The expansion of reliance on special operators to be present and ready to act comes in the context of another dramatic change in how the military’s Geographic Combatant Commands are organized and function. First in Latin America at the U.S. Southern Command and then in the Africa Command, the commands have been “evolving the enterprise” to become Joint Inter-Agency Commands, a hybrid military-civilian operation that works together as one, with hundreds of representatives from the civilian cabinet departments working shoulder to shoulder with the military in the military command headquarters and in the field. A good case is made for increased efficiency, bringing together all U.S. agencies to address the tasks at hand. But it also sends a message to the regions as to who is in charge of bringing the U.S. assistance and problem-solving to the regions. The commands are headed by a 4 star General or Admiral and have—as their deputy—a civilian to head up the civilian side of the hybrid. With this flow chart, and emphasized by the deep pockets that the Department of Defense has, compared to say, the Department of State or the Agency for International Development, countries of the region are less and less confused as to who the “go to” agency is, whether the matter be military or civilian. 

Latin America has a long history of U.S. military involvement, and much of it has had a severe impact on the human rights of the people of the region. The application of military force is, diplomatically and strategically, the single most sensitive foreign policy tool our country has at its disposal. When considering the expansion of authority for direct, clandestine, small-unit lethality, which th
e Special Operations Command may provide, in this or any region—even and especially in countries with which we are at peace—we must not only look carefully at the negative impact that approach has yielded in the past, but be ever vigilant a repetition of that history. 

Streamlining the process by which the decision to use force is made, and handing more of that power to the military, while at the same time broadening the authority for—and availability of—that force may present efficiencies, but it is even more likely to present military answers to what are often social, political, and economic problems, and the news that Congress is—at least for now—rejecting the Special Operations Command’s request for broader authorities is a welcome pause in the rush toward quick-fix military solutions.


George Withers is a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), where he studies issues of regional security. Mr. Withers worked on Capitol Hill for 25 years and served on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee for ten of those years.

Photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Aaron D. Allmon II