Not content with a global presence in the physical world, SOCOM has also taken to cyberspace where it operates the Trans Regional Web Initiative, a network of 10 propaganda websites that are run by various combatant commands and made to look like legitimate news outlets. These shadowy sites -- including KhabarSouthAsia.com, Magharebia which targets North Africa, an effort aimed at the Middle East known as Al-Shorfa.com, and another targeting Latin America called Infosurhoy.com -- state only in fine print that they are "sponsored by" the U.S. military.
Last June, the Senate Armed Services Committee called out the Trans Regional Web Initiative for "excessive" costs while stating that the "effectiveness of the websites is questionable and the performance metrics do not justify the expense." In November, SOCOM announced that it was nonetheless seeking to identify industry partners who, under the Initiative, could potentially "develop new websites tailored to foreign audiences."
Just as SOCOM is working to influence audiences abroad, it is also engaged in stringent information control at home -- at least when it comes to me. Major Bockholt made it clear that SOCOM objected to a 2011 article of mine about U.S. Special Operations forces. "Some of that stuff was inconsistent with actual facts," he told me. I asked what exactly was inconsistent. "Some of the stuff you wrote about JSOC" I think I read some information about indiscriminate killing or things like that."
I knew right away just the quote he was undoubtedly referring to -- a mention of the Joint Special Operations Command's overseas kill/capture campaign as "an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine." Bockholt said that it was indeed "one quote of concern." The only trouble: I didn't say it. It was, as I stated very plainly in the piece, the assessment given by John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former counterinsurgency adviser to now-retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus.
Bockholt offered no further examples of inconsistencies. I asked if he challenged my characterization of any information from an interview I conducted with then-SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye. He did not. Instead, he explained that SOCOM had issues with my work in general. "As we look at the characterization of your writing, overall, and I know you've had some stuff on Vietnam [an apparent reference to my bestselling book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam] and things like that -- because of your style, we have to be very particular on how we answer your questions because of how you tend to use that information." Bockholt then asked if I was anti-military. I responded that I hold all subjects that I cover to a high standard.
Bockholt next took a verbal swipe at the website where I'm managing editor, TomDispatch.com. Given Special Operations Command's penchant for dabbling in dubious new sites, I was struck when he said that TomDispatch -- which has published original news, analysis, and commentary for more than a decade and won the 2013 Utne Media Award for "best political coverage" -- was not a "real outlet." It was, to me, a daring position to take when SOCOM's shadowy Middle Eastern news site Al-Shorfa.com actually carries a disclaimer that it "cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided."
With my deadline looming, I was putting the finishing touches on this article when an email arrived from Mike Janssen of SOCOM Public Affairs. It was -- finally -- a seemingly simple answer to what seemed like an astonishingly straightforward question asked a more than a month before: What was the total number of countries in which Special Operations forces were deployed in 2013? Janssen was concise. His answer: 80.
How, I wondered, could that be? In the midst of McRaven's Global SOF network initiative, could SOCOM have scaled back their deployments from 120 in 2011 to just 80 last year? And if Special Operations forces were deployed in 92 nations during just one week in 2013, according to official statistics provided to the New York Times, how could they have been present in 12 fewer countries for the entire year? And why, in his March 2013 posture statement to the House Armed Services Committee, would Admiral McRaven mention "annual deployments to over 100 countries?" With minutes to spare, I called Mike Janssen for a clarification. "I don't have any information on that," he told me and asked me to submit my question in writing -- precisely what I had done more than a month before in an effort to get a timely response to this straightforward and essential question.
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.
"I know what you're trying to do," Bockholt said cryptically before he hung up on me -- as if the continuing questions of a reporter trying to get answers to basic information after a month of waiting were beyond the pale. In the meantime, whatever Special Operations Command is trying to do globally and at home, Bockholt and others at SOCOM are working to keep it as secret as possible.
Nick Turse is the managing editor of TomDispatch.com and a fellow at the Nation Institute. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Nation, on the BBC, and regularly at TomDispatch. He is the author most recently of the New York Times bestseller Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (just out in paperback). You can catch his conversation with Bill Moyers about that book by clicking here.
Key to the Map of U.S. Special Operations Forces around the world, 2012-2013
Red markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces deployment in 2013.
Blue markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces working with/training/advising/conducting operations with indigenous troops in the U.S. or a third country during 2013.
Purple markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces deployment in 2012.
Yellow markers: U.S. Special Operations Forces working with/training/advising/conducting operations with indigenous troops in the U.S. or a third country during 2012.