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The Startling Size of US Special Forces

A TomDispatch investigation reveals America's secret military operates in over half the nations on the planet.

| Wed Jan. 8, 2014 7:00 AM EST

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 US Northern Command, SOCNORTH will have responsibility for the US, 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 US 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 US 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 US AID supports SOF pre-deployment training in preparation for missions throughout the globe... I'm proud that my office and US 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, US 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.  US 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."

US 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

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 US 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 US 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. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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