This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com
In "Getting bin Laden," Nicholas Schmidle's New Yorker report on the assault on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, here's the money sentence, according to Noah Shachtman of Wired Magazine's Danger Room blog: "The Abbottabad raid was not DEVGRU's maiden venture into Pakistan, either. The team had surreptitiously entered the country on ten to twelve previous occasions, according to a special-operations officer who is deeply familiar with the bin Laden raid." DEVGRU is the acronym for the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, better known as SEAL Team Six (think "SEAL-mania"), the elite special operations outfit that killed bin Laden.
His assassination -- and Schmidle's piece makes clear that his capture was never an objective -- brought on a blitz of media coverage. But without reading that single, half-buried sentence, who knew that the same SEAL team had been dropped into Pakistan to do who knows what 10 to 12 times before the bin Laden mission happened? Not most Pakistanis, nor 99.99% of Americans, myself included. Keep in mind that this was only a team of 23 elite troops (plus a translator and a dog). But there are now about 20,000 full-time special operations types, at least 13,000 of them deployed somewhere abroad at this moment. In other words, we simply don't know the half of it. We probably don't know the tenth of it -- neither the breadth or number of their missions, nor the range of their targets. According to Schmidle again, on the day of the bin Laden raid, special operations forces in nearby Afghanistan conducted 12 other "night raids." Almost 2,000 of them have been carried out in the last couple of years.
These are staggering figures. And since we didn't know that U.S. special operations forces were secretly conducting Pakistan missions in such numbers, it might be worth asking what else we don't know. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking to the press in 2002 about the lack of evidence linking Saddam Hussein's Iraq to the 9/11 attacks, made a famous (or infamous) distinction among "known knowns," (things we know we know), "known unknowns" (things we know we don't know), and "unknown unknowns" (things we don't know we don't know). How apt those "unknown unknowns" turn out to be when it comes to the ever-expanding special operations forces inside the U.S. military.
Think of them, in fact, as the unknown unknowns of twenty-first century American warfare. Fortunately, thanks to
A Secret War in 120 Countries
The Pentagon's New Power Elite
By Nick Turse
Somewhere on this planet an American commando is carrying out a mission. Now, say that 70 times and you're done... for the day. Without the knowledge of the American public, a secret force within the U.S. military is undertaking operations in a majority of the world's countries. This new Pentagon power elite is waging a global war whose size and scope has never been revealed, until now.- Advertisement -
After a U.S. Navy SEAL put a bullet in Osama bin Laden's chest and another in hishead, one of the most secretive black-ops units in the American military suddenly found its mission in the public spotlight. It was atypical. While it's well known that U.S. Special Operations forces are deployed in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it's increasingly apparent that such units operate in murkier conflict zones like- Advertisement -Yemen and- Advertisement -Somalia, the full extent of their worldwide war has remained deeply in the shadows.- Advertisement -
Last year, Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post reported that U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed in 75 countries, up from 60 at the end of the Bush presidency. By the end of this year, U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told me, that number will likely reach 120. "We do a lot of traveling -- a lot more than Afghanistan or Iraq," he said recently. This global presence -- in about 60% of the world's nations and far larger than previously acknowledged -- provides striking new evidence of a rising clandestine Pentagon power elite waging a secret war in all corners of the world.
The Rise of the Military's Secret Military
Born of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American hostages in Iran, in which eight U.S. service members died, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) was established in 1987. Having spent the post-Vietnam years distrusted and starved for money by the regular military, special operations forces suddenly had a single home, a stable budget, and a four-star commander as their advocate. Since then, SOCOM has grown into a combined force of startling proportions. Made up of units from all the service branches, including the Army's "Green Berets" and Rangers, Navy SEALs, Air Force Air Commandos, and Marine Corps Special Operations teams, in addition to specialized helicopter crews, boat teams, civil affairs personnel, para-rescuemen, and even battlefield air-traffic controllers and special operations weathermen, SOCOM carries out the United States' most specialized and secret missions. These include assassinations, counterterrorist raids, long-range reconnaissance, intelligence analysis, foreign troop training, and weapons of mass destruction counter-proliferation operations.
One of its key components is the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, a clandestine sub-command whose primary mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists. Reporting to the president and acting under his authority, JSOC maintains a global hit list that includes American citizens. It has been operating an extra-legal "kill/capture" campaign that John Nagl, a past counterinsurgency adviser to four-star general and soon-to-be CIA Director David Petraeus, calls "an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine."
This assassination program has been carried out by commando units like the Navy SEALs and the Army's Delta Force as well as via drone strikes as part of covert wars in which the CIA is also involved in countries like Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen. In addition, the command operates a network of secret prisons, perhaps as many as 20 black sites in Afghanistan alone, used for interrogating high-value targets.- Advertisement -
From a force of about 37,000 in the early 1990s, Special Operations Command personnel have grown to almost 60,000, about a third of whom are career members of SOCOM; the rest have other military occupational specialties, but periodically cycle through the command. Growth has been exponential since September 11, 2001, as SOCOM's baseline budget almost tripled from $2.3 billion to $6.3 billion. If you add in funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has actually more than quadrupled to $9.8 billion in these years. Not surprisingly, the number of its personnel deployed abroad has also jumped four-fold. Further increases, and expanded operations, are on the horizon.
Lieutenant General Dennis Hejlik, the former head of the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command -- the last of the service branches to be incorporated into SOCOM in 2006 -- indicated, for instance, that he foresees a doubling of his former unit of 2,600. "I see them as a force someday of about 5,000, like equivalent to the number of SEALs that we have on the battlefield. Between [5,000] and 6,000," he said at a June breakfast with defense reporters in Washington. Long-term plans already call for the force to increase by 1,000.