Last October, a group of eight Apache attack and CH-47 Chinook helicopters carrying U.S. commandos roared out of an airfield in Iraq. They raced through Turkish airspace and across the Syrian border, coming in low as they approached a village just north of Idlib Province where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, his bodyguards, and some of his children were spending the night. The helicopters opened up with their machine guns, while military jets circled above and 50 to 70 members of the U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force stormed into a compound just outside the village of Barisha. When it was all over, Baghdadi’s home was rubble, an unknown number of people living in the area, including civilians, had been killed, and he and two of his children were dead — victims of a suicide vest worn by the ISIS chief.
That commando raid in Syria was the highest profile U.S. Special Operations mission of 2019, but it was just one of countless efforts conducted by America’s most elite troops. They also fought and died in Afghanistan and Iraq while carrying out missions, conducting training exercises, or advising and assisting local forces from Bulgaria to Romania, Burkina Faso to Somalia, Chile to Guatemala, the Philippines to South Korea.
Last year, members of the Special Operations forces—Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, and Marine Raiders among them—operated in 141 countries, according to figures provided to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). In other words, they deployed to roughly 72% of the nations on this planet. While down from a 2017 high of 149 countries, this still represents a 135% rise from the late 2000s when America’s commandos were reportedly operating in only 60 nations.
As General Richard Clarke, chief of Special Operations Command, told members of the House Appropriations Committee last year:
“Our worldwide access and placement, our networks and partnerships, and our flexible global posture enable the Department [of Defense]… to respond across the spectrum of competition, especially below the threshold of armed conflict where our competitors—particularly Russia and China— continue to hone their skills and advance their strategic objectives.”
This near-record level of global deployment came as questions swirled about mounting malfeasance by some of America’s most elite troops and was accompanied by handwringing from leaders at Special Operations Command over possible ethical failings and criminal behavior among their troops. “Recent incidents have called our culture and ethics into question and threaten the trust placed in us,” Clarke wrote in an August 2019 memo. Those “incidents,” ranging from drug use to rape to murder, have spanned the globe from Afghanistan to Colombia to Mali, drawing additional attention to what actually happens in the shadows where America’s commandos operate.
Special Operations Forces deployed to 82 countries weekly
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has leaned ever more heavily on its most elite troops. While U.S. Special Operations forces (USSOF or SOF) make up just 3% of American military personnel, they have absorbed more than 40% of the casualties of these years, mainly in America’s conflicts across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa.
During this period, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has grown in every way imaginable—from its budget and size to the pace and the geographic sweep of its missions. For example, “Special Operations-specific funding,” which stood at $3.1 billion in 2001, has, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw, increased to approximately $13 billion today.
There were roughly 45,000 SOF personnel in 2001. Today, about 73,000 members of Special Operations Command—military personnel and civilians—are carrying out a broad range of activities that include counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, security force assistance, and unconventional warfare. In 2001, an average of 2,900 commandos were deployed overseas in any given week. That number now stands at 6,700, says SOCOM’s Ken McGraw.
According to statistics provided to TomDispatch by Special Operations Command, more than 62% of those special operators deployed overseas in 2019 were sent to the Greater Middle East, far outpacing any other region of the world. This represented a rebound for special operators in the Central Command, or CENTCOM, area of operations. While more than 80% of America’s commandos deployed overseas at the beginning of the decade were stationed there, that number had dropped to just over 50% by 2017 before beginning to rise again.
The remainder of America’s forward-deployed special operators were scattered across the globe with just over 14% active in Africa, more than 10% in Europe, 8.5% in the Indo-Pacific region, and 3.75% in South and Central America as well as the Caribbean. During any given week, commandos are deployed in about 82 nations.
Traditionally, America’s elite forces have placed a heavy emphasis on “security cooperation” and “building partner capacity”; that is, the training, advising, and assisting of indigenous troops. In testimony to members of Congress last April, for instance, SOCOM commander General Richard Clarke asserted that, “for developing countries, security cooperation activities are key tools for strengthening relationships and attracting new partners while enabling them to tackle threats and challenges of common concern.”
Common concerns are not, however, always of the utmost importance to the United States. In that same testimony, Clarke made special mention of so-called 127e (“127-echo”) programs, named for the budgetary authority that allows U.S. Special Operations forces to use certain local troops as proxies in counterterrorism missions, especially those directed at “high-value targets.”
“It allows,” said Clarke, “small-footprint USSOF elements to take advantage of the skills and unique attributes of indigenous regular and irregular forces—local area knowledge, ethnicity, and language skills—to achieve effects that are critical to our mission objectives while mitigating risk to U.S. forces. This is especially true in remote or politically sensitive areas where larger U.S. formations are infeasible and/or the enemy leverages safe havens that are otherwise inaccessible to USSOF.”
Used extensively across Africa and the Middle East, 127e programs can be run either by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the secretive organization that controls the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, the Army’s Delta Force, and other special mission units, or by more generic “theater special operations forces.” In Africa, these programs typically involve small numbers of U.S. special operators working with 80 to 120 specially trained and equipped indigenous personnel. “The use of 127e authority has directly resulted in the capture or killing of thousands of terrorists,” Clarke claimed.
So-called direct action missions have led to the deaths of Baghdadi, Osama bin Laden, and countless other supposedly high-value targets, but some experts question the utility of these many attacks. Retired Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, who served 10 tours in Afghanistan, including as the combined joint special operations component commander there, as well as the chief of Special Operations Command Africa from 2015 to 2017, is one of them. Now running for the Senate in New Hampshire, he is critical of what he sees as an obsessive focus on killing one leader after another while not putting in the hard work of training local forces to achieve actual security and stability without U.S. technology and assistance. “You just can’t kill your way to victory,” Bolduc told TomDispatch.
In addition to questions about the efficacy of their tactics and strategy, Special Operations forces have recently been plagued by scandal and reports of criminal activity. “After several incidents of misconduct and unethical behavior threatened public trust and caused leaders to question Special Operations forces culture and ethics, USSOCOM initiated a Comprehensive Review,” reads the executive summary of a January report on the subject. But that review is itself a bit of a puzzle.
SOCOM commanders have repeatedly called out wrongdoing by America’s elite forces. In November 2018, then-SOCOM chief General Raymond Thomas co-authored an ethics memorandum for his troops. A month later, he also sent an email to them in which he wrote: “A survey of allegations of serious misconduct across our formations over the last year indicates that USSOCOM faces a deeper challenge of a disordered view of the team and the individual in our SOF culture.”
In February 2019, SOCOM underwent an ethics review followed by a 90-day “focus period on ethics.” Not long after, Thomas’s successor also decried moral turpitude within the command. “In the recent past, members of our SOF units have been accused of violating that trust and failing to meet our high standards of ethical conduct this command demands,” SOCOM commander General Richard Clarke told members of the House Appropriations Committee in April 2019. “We understand that criminal misconduct erodes the very trust that enables our success.” Clarke, in fact, inherited self-assessments of SOCOM components ordered by Thomas and used them as the basis for that Comprehensive Review issued in January.
“This is a very detailed review that takes a hard look at ourselves,” Clarke wrote in a letter to the SOF community released with the report. But despite employing a 12-person advisory team and an 18-person review team, despite their “55 engagements” and canvassing of more than “2,000 personnel across the SOF enterprise,” there’s no evidence of the review being “detailed” or the look all that “hard.” In fact, the 69-page report fails to offer even an inkling of what “misconduct and unethical behavior” it was examining.
In 2019 alone, however, many examples came to light that could have been included in just such a review. For instance, a Marine Raider, Staff Sgt. Kevin Maxwell, Jr., pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in military prison for his role in the killing of Staff Sergeant Logan Melgar, an Army Green Beret, in Mali in 2017. Navy SEAL Adam Matthews was also sentenced to a year’s confinement and a bad conduct discharge after pleading guilty to conspiracy, unlawful entry, hazing, obstruction of justice, and assault with battery, among other charges, in the attack on Melgar by fellow special operators. (It was meant to be a sexual assault, but led to the Green Beret’s strangulation and death.) Another Navy SEAL and a Marine Raider accused in Melgar’s death both face life in prison.
Last July, reports emerged that not only had members of SEAL Team 10 been caught using cocaine, but that commandos had long been cheating on urinalysis screenings. That same month, an entire platoon of Navy SEALs from SEAL Team 7 was removed from Iraq following reports of serious misconduct, including the rape of a female service member attached to the unit. Meanwhile, there have been rumors about even more serious misbehavior involving another SEAL Team 7 detachment in Yemen. In September 2019, three senior leaders of SEAL Team 7 were fired for failures in leadership that led to a breakdown of good order and discipline.
That same month, a complaint filed with the Department of Defense Inspector General accused Naval Special Warfare commander Rear Admiral Collin Green of “duplicitous actions” that were “done in an attempt to bolster his own reputation and protect his own career.” A month later, four members of the Naval Special Warfare Command were arrested in Okinawa on various charges related to unruly behavior.
Accounts of rampant drug use among SEALs also emerged in the court martial of SEAL Edward Gallagher who, in a circus-like case, was acquitted of charges that he had killed noncombatants in Iraq, but convicted of posing for photographs with the corpse of a teenager he was accused of murdering. (After Navy officials sought to discipline Gallagher, potentially stripping him of the Trident pin that signifies membership in the SEALs, President Donald Trump intervened to reverse the decision.)
And all of this followed a string of black eyes for elite troops in recent years, including allegations of massacres, unjustified killings, murder, prisoner abuse, child rape, child sexual abuse, mutilations, and other crimes, as well as drug trafficking and the theft of government property by Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, Air Force special operators, and Marine Raiders.
Despite this startling record of malfeasance, SOCOM’s Comprehensive Review came to an unstartling conclusion. The review team (whose members were almost exclusively connected to the Special Operations community) largely absolved the command and its commandos of responsibility for much of anything. The team claimed that special operators had only been involved in “several” incidents of misconduct and unethical behavior instead of a laundry list of criminality. The review appeared to conclude that, instead of criminal activity, Special Operations Command’s greatest failing was actually its insistence on not failing—what it termed (11 times in 69 pages) a culture focused on “mission accomplishment.” And the report ultimately concluded that SOCOM did not have a “systemic ethics problem.”
With thousands of commandos operating—with little visibility—in scores of countries on any given day, it’s little wonder that discipline has eroded to a point where the command could neither fully gloss over nor cover it up. “I am forming an implementation team that will follow through on these findings and recommendations, assess results, and refine our policies accordingly,” Clarke announced following the release of the Comprehensive Review.
But can an organization producing a report that avoids outside oversight, reads like a whitewash, and won’t even name all the countries it operates in be counted on to be honest with the American people? Special Operations Command still has an opportunity to, as their report promises, “ensure transparent accountability.” If they’re serious about such outside oversight, they should feel free to contact me.