No one would have mentioned his name at all if President George W. Bush hadn't singled him out in public. Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, West Point '76, is not someone the Army likes to talk about. He isn't even listed in the directory at Fort Bragg, N.C., his home base. That's not because McChrystal has done anything wrong--quite the contrary, he's one of the Army's rising stars--but because he runs the most secretive force in the U.S. military. That is the Joint Special Operations Command, the snake-eating, slit-their-throats "black ops" guys who captured Saddam Hussein and targeted Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi.
JSOC is part of what Vice President Dick Cheney was referring to when he said America would have to "work the dark side" after 9/11. To many critics, the veep's remark back in 2001 fostered his rep as the Darth Vader of the war on terror and presaged bad things to come, like the interrogation abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. But America also has its share of Jedi Knights who are fighting in what Cheney calls "the shadows." And McChrystal, an affable but tough Army Ranger, and the Delta Force and other elite teams he commands are among them.
After the Zarqawi strike, multinational forces spokesman Gen. Bill Caldwell refused to comment on JSOC's role, saying, "We don't talk about when special operating forces are involved." But when Bush revealed to reporters that it was McChrystal's Special Ops teams that had found Zarqawi, Caldwell had to gulp and say (to laughter), "If the president of the United States said it was, then I'm sure it was."
McChrystal has checked all the right career boxes, serving as an unflappable military briefer during the Iraq invasion, and doing fellowships at Harvard and at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York (where he would run to work from Brooklyn, about six miles away). Still, the secrecy surrounding McChrystal's role worries some who note that Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have given clandestine operations the lead in the war on terror--with little public accountability, including in the interrogation room.
Rumsfeld is especially enamored of McChrystal's "direct action" forces or so-called SMUs--Special Mission Units--whose job is to kill or capture bad guys, say Pentagon sources who would speak about Special Ops only if they were not identified. But critics say the Pentagon is short-shrifting the "hearts and minds" side of Special Operations that is critical to counterinsurgency--like training foreign armies and engaging with locals. (Special Operations Command spokesman Ken McGraw says the Pentagon is "significantly increasing" those units.) Experts like former Deputy Defense secretary John Hamre are also concerned that Special Ops now has generic authority to deploy where it wants without case-by-case orders. Without proper civilian oversight, a Zarqawi-style success can easily become a "Black Hawk Down." Keeping that from happening is McChrystal's most important mission.