The Rise of America’s Super Warriors

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Residents surround the compound where U.S. Navy SEAL commandos reportedly killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad May 5, 2011. Defense reporter Sean Naylor traces the history of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), responsible for operations including the raid on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, in a new book, "Relentless Strike." Faisal Mahmood/Reuters

Talk about being out of position. Just as a second hijacked airliner was banking toward the World Trade Center 14 years ago today, the commander of the nation’s top counterterrorism unit was in Hungary putting the final touches on a highly classified war game focusing on “loose nukes” in Europe. Major General Dell Dailey, boss of the then-little-known Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), rushed back to Washington and began frantically proposing ways to hit back at Al-Qaeda, which had long been telegraphing its plans to carry out a major attack inside the United States.

One of Dailey’s wacky ideas was to poison Afghanistan’s food supply, veteran defense reporter Sean Naylor reveals in his astonishing new book, Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Another was to hit a fertilizer plant, a plan which puzzled his subordinates. As the clock ticked, Dailey’s ideas, fueled by “JSOC intelligence analysts’ wildly exaggerated estimates of the enemy threat in Afghanistan,” as Naylor puts it, became more and more elaborate. “The planners went back to work,” Naylor writes, “under the strong impression that for JSOC’s first combat operation of the twenty-first century, stealth and secrecy were not only not required, they were to be avoided.”

What a difference a decade made. In May 2011, the CIA and Navy SEALs, a key JSOC component, successfully launched the complex, clandestine raid to liquidate Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, an operation that was preceded only three years earlier by a disastrous effort to nab lesser Al-Qaeda figures and almost certainly would have been impossible in 2001. But in the intervening period, an ever-growing JSOC had developed and deployed an array of jaw-dropping electronic weapons and tactics to locate and eliminate insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq. It had to: Even though the CIA had been fixated on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for decades, the spy agency “was unprepared” for the Sunni insurgency that rose up after the 2003 invasion, Naylor writes, based on countless interviews with special operations personnel, both named and unnamed. “There was no intel” when a squadron of Army Delta Force operators arrived in Baghdad with the invasion force. And the CIA proved risk-averse in its spy operations, he writes, according to Delta operators. So JSOC, now under the command of General Stanley McChrystal, set out to get its own intelligence on the enemy, mostly by gunning around incognito in beat-up old cars to capture and squeeze jihadi suspects, while CIA personnel rode to agent meetings in small convoys of black Chevy Suburbans. One Delta operator likened the unit's own interrogations to unraveling a sweater. “We’d pull that string...and sometimes it unravels, and over time that intel picture starts to develop.”

Such inside accounts of how JSOC morphed from a tip of the spear to the spear itself—now steadily chasing after Islamic militants in a wide crescent ranging from Africa across the Middle East to Southeast Asia (and unacknowledged points beyond, one presumes)—forms the spine of Naylor’s fascinating, if largely bureaucratic, tale, which might’ve sunk from the weight of its alphabet-agency acronyms in lesser hands. But Naylor, who spent 23 years covering military affairs at Army Times, often accompanying units into battle, sprinkles his 518 pages of heavily footnoted text with plenty of headline-worthy anecdotes.

JSOC, for example, did “a lot of planning” to assassinate Hussein after he invaded Kuwait in 1990, Naylor recounts, but the scheme was shelved for a lack of credible intelligence. Likewise, after the 2003 invasion, a special ops air unit pursued a convoy of vehicles from Iraq into Syria, believing that Hussein was aboard. He was not. A secret JSOC hunt in Syria and Lebanon for Iraq’s fabled weapons of mass destruction in 2003 also turned up empty-handed (of course). As in these—and in most of JSOC’s hostage-rescue missions—failure could be laid at the feet of faulty intelligence-gathering and analysis, not the skill and courage of the warriors propelled into harm’s way. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s character, Colonel Jessup, in A Few Good Men, we want these men on the line for us. We need these men on the line for us.

Indeed, far be it from an exposé of JSOC’s failures, Naylor's book shows that he clearly admires the skill, tenacity and creativity of such troops. You’d think that the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in Tampa, Florida, JSOC’s parent organization, would quietly, if not publicly, appreciate the publication of this authoritative, largely admiring, history. But no. A week before the book’s September 1 publication, the thin-skinned Tampa commanders sent a two-page letter to every person named within it, calling it “a significant risk to our most valuable resource, our personnel,” and warning them that they might now be targeted by foreign spies and identity-theft scammers. In a passage worthy of MASH’s paranoid intelligence agent, Colonel Flagg, SOCCOM also warned military personnel not to discuss the book even with their own families.

For an outfit supposedly skilled in psychological warfare, it was a pretty ham-handed piece of negative propaganda. Special operators didn’t need any reminders to protect themselves from foreign threats—certainly not after revelations of how the federal Office of Personnel Management failed to protect the confidential files of 21 million government workers from Chinese hackers. They do it out of deeply ingrained habit. Likewise, they don’t give up their names to reporters, even those who have earned their trust over decades, without a firm certainty that nothing they’ve said is truly classified. Those who do share sensitive information on terms of anonymity almost always do so to highlight a bone-headed decision by the brass or politicians that could have—or did—needlessly put their lives at risk, or to expose ongoing lapses that commanders have covered up to save their ass. (See Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda, which in 2003 won Naylor the White House Correspondents' Association’s Edgar A. Poe award for “excellence in reporting an issue of regional or national importance.”)

Predictably, USSOCOM’s letter, signed by Major General W. Lee Miller Jr., its chief of staff, provoked a barrage of vitriol from misguided, self-styled patriots, including tweets aimed at Naylor, now a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, with hashtags like #Traitor, #Treason and #SeanIsATerrorist. One of the nastier missives was floated by Brad Taylor, who trades on his experiences as a former Delta operator to write third-rate, action-packed thrillers. Taylor posted Naylor’s photo, personal email and cellphone number on his blog, “with a clear suggestion that his readers should let me know what they think,” Naylor tells Newsweek.

All of which reveals the underside of turning over so much of our military strategy to such a secretive, inward-looking, mutual protection society, however effective. Over the years, its cheerleaders in Congress and the White House have enabled it as a kind of nascent Praetorian Guard. “I don’t know if I’d call it ‘mission creep,’ but certainly, having used the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to build and refine the extraordinary war-fighting machine that JSOC has become, policymakers and senior military leaders will be tempted to use it in other locations,” Naylor said in an interview with Sofrep.com, a website manned by special ops veterans.

“One of the issues I raise,” he said, “is the question of whether, having built the perfect hammer in JSOC, U.S. policymakers will be tempted to treat too many thorny international challenges as nails.”

One such challenge, of course, is the Islamic State, or ISIS. JSOC helps locate high-value targets for U.S. warplanes and drones, but “with no land-holding units” inside Iraq or Syria, its usefulness is limited. That leaves bleak options for the United States, with one of them—deploying huge ground units into the fight—ruled off the table by the Obama administration (and public opinion). In the meantime, JSOC will have to carry its fight elsewhere. No doubt it is.