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July 24, 2008
Notes from the Pentagon

SOCOM defense
The commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command said recently that the mission of special operations commandos has not been downgraded and that there is no "meaningful gap" with policy-makers on the use of commandos.

"There was no decision to 'downgrade U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM),'" Adm. Eric T. Olson, the commander, said in response to the July 10 Inside the Ring article that reported such a downgrade as of May. "SOCOM has not 'reverted to its previous coordination and training role.'"

"There is no meaningful gap between USSOCOM and [Office of the Secretary of Defense] policy," he stated in a private e-mail to a military chat group. "[Defense] Secretary [Robert M.] Gates and [Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael G.] Vickers, in particular, have been strong, steady and knowledgeable in their decisions and judgments regarding special operations forces."

Adm. Olson was responding to special operations officials who are critical of the Pentagon and the command for not employing elite troops more effectively in the war on terrorism, specifically the hunt for such al Qaeda leaders as Osama bin Laden, and for the failure since 2002 to conduct U.S. commando operations in the ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan, where the senior leader is believed to have been hiding.

The officials privately told Inside the Ring that one of the problems is the refusal of the Bush administration and intelligence community to implement the recommendation of the 2004 9/11 Commission to give the Pentagon lead responsibility for directing and executing all covert and overt paramilitary operations.

Adm. Olson stated in his e-mail that the command and the intelligence community "are operating together more closely than ever before."

He declined to be interviewed, but a command spokesman provided some answers to questions submitted to the command.

Other special operations officials close to the command, however, said the report in this space was "spot on" in identifying policy constraints that have been placed on the use of special forces by policy-makers, many of whom prefer less aggressive intelligence-related operations against al Qaeda terrorists. Adm. Olson stated in a speech earlier this year that SOCOM does not direct specific activities that are in areas of operations of other commands, which is contrary to what former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld wanted the command to do to more aggressively capture and kill terrorists.

Asked if Adm. Olson regarded that as a change or downgrade of mission, SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw stated in an e-mail: "USSOCOM is meeting all of its responsibilities and using all of its assigned authorities. These authorities have not been scaled back or downgraded by anyone at the Department of Defense or USSOCOM."

Current law and policy give combatant commanders responsibility for all military operations in their regions and "deployed USSOCOM forces serve under the operational control of the [regional combatant commanders]," Mr. McGraw said.

However, the law and policy that allow commandos to conduct operations "as directed" by the president or secretary of defense "does not by itself permit USSOCOM to conduct activities without the full knowledge and support of" other commanders, he said.

The 2004 Unified Command Plan gives SOCOM the role as "lead planner and synchronizer" for all operations in the war on terrorism, not just special operations, he said.

"The authorities granted to USSOCOM by the 2004 [Unified Command Plan] have been inaccurately described by others as permitting unilateral [Special Operations Forces] operations globally," Mr. McGraw said. "Adm. Olson was simply correcting this misperception" in the May speech.

Asked if SOCOM is both a leading war fighter, or supported command, as well as a command that supports other war fighters, as announced by Mr. Rumsfeld several years ago, Mr. McGraw said the command's normal role is support to other commands. Its role as a supported command is limited in the sense that other commands provide help with its "synchronization of plans and planning for the war on terrorism."

"Adm. Olson has not changed the role USSOCOM plays," Mr. McGraw said. "The commander of USSOCOM will command and control specific special operations missions if and when the president or secretary of defense directs him to do so. Any such missions would normally be fully coordinated with the appropriate geographic combatant commanders, who would serve in a supporting role."

Asked about the failure of special operations forces to capture or kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or his most senior deputies and whether SOCOM favors operating inside the tribal areas of Pakistan where they are believed hiding, Mr. McGraw said: "This is a policy question for the U.S. and Pakistani governments." The command "is prepared to work with the Pakistanis in whatever capacity the Pakistani and U.S. governments determine is appropriate."

Retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul E. Vallely said he disagreed with Adm. Olson's view of limiting special operations forces.

"The war on terror is an unconventional war and always has been, and it should be run by the unconventional warfare guys," Gen. Vallely said.

"The fact is we haven't had a strong four-star commander at special operations command or senior officials at the Pentagon who understand how to fight this war. Special Operations should be the lead with conventional forces subordinated to them."

North Korea declaration
The Bush administration has frequently made excessive secrecy by China a major point of contention. The issue of the lack of "transparency" in China is raised by the Pentagon in meetings with Chinese military, and it is also a staple of the bilateral Strategic Economic Dialogue.

Now the administration appears to be adopting Chinese-style secrecy. The unclassified North Korean nuclear declaration has been stamped "secret" by the State Department. Also, the classification followed Chinese government requests to the department that the listing of North Korean nuclear facilities and materials not be made public.

The secrecy of the declaration is likely to undermine congressional and public support for the six-party nuclear talks with North Korea, which is already shaky in part because of a glaring omission: North Korea did not address covert uranium enrichment efforts in the declaration, according to officials familiar with the document.

Some members of Congress are asking that the declaration be made public.

Evidence that North Korea had covertly procured equipment for a uranium enrichment program triggered the standoff with North Korea in 2002, when a North Korean official admitted having such a program despite a 1994 agreement freezing its nuclear activities. Since then, Pyongyang has issued repeated denials regarding the uranium issue. The North Koreans have acknowledged U.S. concerns about the program in a side letter, which is not part of its formal declaration. The 60-page listing of North Korean nuclear facilities and programs was presented to the United States in Beijing recently and unclassified and provided to several other governments.

Air Force nuclear fallout
The dual ousters of Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley over nuclear-security concerns were meant to send a signal to Russia, Pakistan and other nuclear states.

Defense officials say the rare firings of top officials by Defense Secretary Gates was more than simply due to two recent incidents of failing to adequately control nuclear arms, flying live nuclear weapons over U.S. territory and a mistaken shipment of nuclear weapons components to Taiwan.

Additionally, there were concerns among U.S. counter-arms proliferation officials that the incidents undermined U.S. pressure on states such as Pakistan and Russia to tighten controls on their nuclear arsenals.

As a result, Mr. Gates has ordered a blue-ribbon commission, headed by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, to review the management of nuclear weapons,.

The task force will provide its initial assessment of organization, procedures, policy and other Air Force nuclear issues in 60 days. A second 120-day phase will focus on "department-wide matters" related to a still-secret review done by Navy Adm. Kirkland Douglas.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said international efforts to counter the spread of nuclear weapons were a "secondary concern" in Mr. Gates' action. "Our primary concern is to safeguard the most dangerous arsenal in the world," he said.

Mr. Morrell also said "we certainly, at the same time, don't want to undermine our position that all nuclear nations need to have zero tolerance" when it comes to control over nuclear arms.

  • Bill Gertz covers national security affairs. He can be reached at 202/636-3274, or at

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