In October, members of the Norwegian Special Operations Forces traveled to SOCOM's state-of-the-art Wargame Center at its headquarters on MacDill Air Force Base in Florida to refine crisis response procedures for hostage rescue operations. "NORSOF and Norwegian civilian leadership regularly participate in national field training exercises focused on a scenario like this," said Norwegian Lieutenant Colonel Petter Hellesen. "What was unique about this exercise was that we were able to gather so many of the Norwegian senior leadership and action officers, civilian and military, in one room with their U.S counterparts."
MacDill is, in fact, fast becoming a worldwide special ops hub, according to a report by the Tampa Tribune. This past fall, SOCOM quietly started up an International Special Operations Forces Coordination Center that provides long-term residencies for senior-level black ops liaisons from around the world. Already, representatives from 10 nations had joined the command with around 24 more slated to come on board in the next 12-18 months, per McRaven's global vision.
In the coming years, more and more interactions between U.S. elite forces and their foreign counterparts will undoubtedly take place in Florida, but most will likely still occur -- as they do today -- overseas. TomDispatch's analysis of official government documents and news releases as well as press reports indicates that U.S. Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed to or involved with the militaries of 106 nations around the world during 2012-2013.
For years, the command has claimed that divulging the names of these countries would upset foreign allies and endanger U.S. personnel. SOCOM's Bockholt insisted to me that merely offering the total number would do the same. "You understand that there is information about our military" that is contradictory to reporting," he told me. "There's certain things we can't release to the public for the safety of our service members both at home and abroad. I'm not sure why you'd be interested in reporting that."
In response, I asked how a mere number could jeopardize the lives of Special Ops personnel, and he responded, "When you work with the partners we work with in the different countries, each country is very particular." He refused to elaborate further on what this meant or how it pertained to a simple count of countries. Why SOCOM eventually offered me a number, given these supposed dangers, was never explained.
Bringing the War Home
This year, Special Operations Command has plans to make major inroads into yet another country -- the United States. The establishment of SOCNORTH in 2014, according to the command, is intended to help "defend North America by outpacing all threats, maintaining faith with our people, and supporting them in their times of greatest need." Under the auspices of U.S. Northern Command, SOCNORTH will have responsibility for the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and portions of the Caribbean.
While Congressional pushback has thus far thwarted Admiral McRaven's efforts to create a SOCOM satellite headquarters for the more than 300 special operators working in Washington, D.C. (at the cost of $10 million annually), the command has nonetheless stationed support teams and liaisons all over the capital in a bid to embed itself ever more deeply inside the Beltway. "I have folks in every agency here in Washington, D.C. -- from the CIA, to the FBI, to the National Security Agency, to the National Geospatial Agency, to the Defense Intelligence Agency," McRaven said during a panel discussion at Washington's Wilson Center in 2013. Referring to the acronyms of the many agencies with which SOCOM has forged ties, McRaven continued: "If there are three letters, and in some cases four, I have a person there. And they have had a reciprocal agreement with us. I have somebody in my headquarters at Tampa." Speaking at Ronald Reagan Library in November, he put the number of agencies where SOCOM is currently embedded at 38.
"Given the importance of interagency collaboration, USSOCOM is placing greater emphasis on its presence in the National Capital Region to better support coordination and decision making with interagency partners. Thus, USSOCOM began to consolidate its presence in the NCR [National Capitol Region] in early 2012," McRaven told the House Armed Services Committee last year.
One unsung SOCOM partner is U.S. AID, the government agency devoted to providing civilian foreign aid to countries around the world whose mandate includes the protection of human rights, the prevention of armed conflicts, the provision of humanitarian assistance, and the fostering of "good will abroad." At a July 2013 conference, Beth Cole, the director of the Office of Civilian-Military Cooperation at U.S. AID, explained just how her agency was now quietly aiding the military's secret military.
"In Yemen, for example, our mission director has SVTCs [secure video teleconferences] with SOCOM personnel on a regular basis now. That didn't occur two years ago, three years ago, four years ago, five years ago," Cole said, according to a transcript of the event. But that was only the start. "My office at U.S. AID supports SOF pre-deployment training in preparation for missions throughout the globe... I'm proud that my office and U.S. AID have been providing training support to several hundred Army, Navy, and Marine Special Operations personnel who have been regularly deploying to Afghanistan, and we will continue to do that."
Cole noted that, in Afghanistan, U.S. AID personnel were sometimes working hand-in-hand on the Village Stability Operation initiative with Special Ops forces. In certain areas, she said, "we can dual-hat some of our field program officers as LNOs [liaison officers] in those Joint Special Operations task forces and be able to execute the development work that we need to do alongside of the Special Operations Forces." She even suggested taking a close look at whether this melding of her civilian agency and special ops might prove to be a model for operations elsewhere in the world.
Cole also mentioned that her office would be training "a senior person" working for McRaven, the man about to "head the SOF element Lebanon" -- possibly a reference to the shadowy SOC FWD Lebanon. U.S. AID would, she said, serve as a facilitator in that country, making "sure that he has those relationships that he needs to be able to deal with what is a very, very, very serious problem for our government and for the people of that region."
U.S. AID is also serving as a facilitator closer to home. Cole noted that her agency was sending advisors to SOCOM headquarters in Florida and had "arranged meetings for [special operators] with experts, done roundtables for them, immersed them in the environment that we understand before they go out to the mission area and connect them with people on the ground." All of this points to another emerging trend: SOCOM's invasion of the civilian sphere.
In remarks before the House Armed Services Committee, Admiral McRaven noted that his Washington operation, the SOCOM NCR, "conducts outreach to academia, non-governmental organizations, industry, and other private sector organizations to get their perspective on complex issues affecting SOF." Speaking at the Wilson Center, he was even more blunt: "[W]e also have liaison officers with industry and with academia... We put some of our best and brightest in some of the academic institutions so we can understand what academia is thinking about."
SOCOM's Information Warfare