The Non-Scandal of Special Operations Forces

There's much less than meets the eye to the fact that U.S. special forces are arrayed around the world.

By + More
WideModern_140117_sof.jpg
Special operations forces from Jordan and the U.S. conduct a combined demonstration with commandos from Iraq, unseen.

Professor and former State Department Counselor  Eliot A. Cohen, writing about the elite British Special Air Service in his 1978 book " Commandos and Politicians," noted that:

The SAS fought in Malaya, Borneo, Muscat and Oman, largely as a counter-insurgency force but also as jacks of all trade ready for various delicate and dangerous tasks. The British government kept their activities secret, hoping to use them as a discreet, non-publicized intervention force. Ironically, the curtain of secrecy surrounding the SAS made it an intriguing topic for speculation. Its reputation grew in inverse proportion to what was known about it, to the point that the government could use it effectively as a symbol because of the mystery surrounding it.

While today there is a great deal more information available about such elite formations – particularly due to the rapidity with which information is gathered and disseminated in the information age and their place in popular culture due to films and video games – there still remains a great deal of mystery and secrecy surrounding such units. Some of this shroud is completely appropriate and understandable in order to provide legitimate operational security for such unit members and their missions, but others argue that this sometimes goes too far.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Last week, for instance, The Nation ran a piece by Nick Turse entitled "Why Are US Special Operations Forces Deployed in Over 100 Countries?" In this piece, he starts off by discussing a conversation with a public affairs officer at Special Operations Command that apparently soon turned acrimonious when he felt the officer was not being completely truthful.

Turse proceeded to do his homework and compiled a large volume of information about the command and its subordinate units. While much of this information appears legitimate, unfortunately Turse seems to combine it with the reactions of the officer in order to support his own narrative for what he thinks Special Operations Command is really up to. For instance, take the quotes below:

[About the plan for the so-called Global SOF Network] In translation this means that SOCOM is weaving a complex web of alliances with government agencies at home and militaries abroad to ensure that it's at the center of every conceivable global hot spot and power center. In fact, Special Operations Command has turned the planet into a giant battlefield, divided into many discrete fronts: the self-explanatory SOCAFRICA; the sub-unified command of US Central Command in the Middle East SOCCENT; the European contingent SOCEUR; SOCKOR, which is devoted strictly to Korea; SOCPAC, which covers the rest of the Asia-Pacific region; and SOCSOUTH, which conducts special ops missions in Central and South America and the Caribbean, as well as the globe-trotting JSOC.

Today, Special Operations Command finds itself at a crossroads. It is attempting to influence populations overseas, while at home trying to keep Americans in the dark about its activities; expanding its reach, impact, and influence, while working to remain deep in the shadows; conducting operations all over the globe, while professing only to be operating in "a number of locations"; claiming worldwide deployments have markedly dropped in the last year, when evidence suggests  otherwise.

[ Check out 2013: The Year in Cartoons.]

Look, just because elements of American Special Operations Forces are deployed to 100, or more or less, countries around the world does not mean that they are up to insidious purposes. The vast majority of such deployments are for legitimate training exercises that take place with friends and allies abroad. In a democracy, of course, the citizens and the press are entitled to know what the government undertakes on their behalf a majority of the time, but there are legitimate areas that require varying degrees of secrecy.

Turse's piece is interesting because his homework was very good. But perhaps a softer touch from a public affairs officer would have diffused it some, or at least prevented Turse's piece from serving as a literary tool for those who are already predisposed to such arguments. This perfectly illustrates what a retired officer I know said the other day: "If you are not willing to tell your own story then others will tell it in ways that you may not like."

Michael P. Noonan is the director of the program on national security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.