A former top U.S. military officer is calling proposals to increase the autonomy of commando units to launch missions across the globe "bad for democracy."
Retired Gen. Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs during the second term of President George W. Bush, said during remarks in Washington on Wednesday that the only people who should have the legal authority to give an order that shifts U.S. combat hardware and personnel around the world are the president and secretary of defense.
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"Anything else is, I think, bad for our democracy," Pace said.
At issue is a proposal floated recently by U.S. Special Operations Command chief Adm. William McRaven that would give him—and future SOCOM chiefs—more power to move elite commandos around the globe without necessarily consulting diplomats or other U.S. government officials.
While several former senior U.S. military officials clashed over whether the change is even needed during Wednesday's forum sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former spec ops chief Adm. Eric Olson endorsed the proposal, saying the elite commandos are uniquely skilled to respond to worldwide flashpoints and often can't afford to get caught up in bureaucratic red tape.
"This is about getting in front of the sound of guns," Olson said. "It's not meant to circumvent the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the secretary of defense."
Pentagon brass say they are still mulling the proposal.
"What Admiral McRaven is proposing is that ... he would have the ability to maneuver forces across geographic combatant command lines to keep up with an agile enemy," current Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey told lawmakers in February.
Here's how the process works now, according to Dempsey: If Pentagon officials are considering sending a special operations unit to Mali to train indigenous forces, "right now the AFRICOM commander has that authority," Dempsey said, using Pentagon shorthand for U.S. Africa Command. But in what would be a radical change, McRaven "is suggesting maybe SOCOM should."
Former Pacific Command chief Adm. Timothy Keating argued against the increased autonomy for SOCOM.
"I'm not sure the proposal will fix anything," Keating said, "because I'm not sure what needs fixing."
During his time as a senior military leader, Keating said he "wasn't aware of a situation where an immediate [special operations] response was needed that it wasn't provided."
After Pace and Keating took swings at the plan, Olson, who's a former Navy SEAL, contended his support stems from a feeling that Special Operations Command is best-suited to know when its commandos are needed for non-combat missions like training allied forces.
"This is much more about indirect action," Olson says. "SOCOM's job is to track trends."