Small Wars Journal

‘Top Secret America’

‘Top Secret America’: A Look at the Military’s Joint Special Operations Command by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, Washington Post. BLUF:

This article, adapted from a chapter of the newly released “Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State,” by Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, chronicles JSOC’s spectacular rise, much of which has not been publicly disclosed before. Two presidents and three secretaries of defense routinely have asked JSOC to mount intelligence-gathering missions and lethal raids, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in countries with which the United States was not at war, including Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Nigeria and Syria.


Concur with Dave's comment, which presents another balancing act SOF strives to get right, and that is the balance between remaining quiet and presenting our story. The article on Village Stability TTPs was professional and intended to be helpful to the larger defense/security community. It doesn't matter if you concur with the strategy, that is open to debate, but it hard to ignore the lessons observed by the real professionals doing this work on the tip of the spear. On the other hand comments about "we're the dark matter" are simply child like boasts that mean absolutely nothing to anyone other than perhaps a high school kid who dreams of being Luke Skywalker one day. Fortunately 99% of our SOF is very professional and doing great work around the globe, unfortunately our 1% tend to the get bulk of the media coverage because comments like that are bright shinny things to reporters like Dana Priest who want quotes that will grab attention and entertain (read sell), versus accurately telling a story about the great work SOF is doing globally.


Sun, 09/04/2011 - 8:58pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Dave, agree, much so and good perspective. - Dave D.

Dave Maxwell

Sun, 09/04/2011 - 1:42pm

In reply to by SWJED

I would just caution that all SOF is not the same and despite being relatively small it should not be painted with too broad a brush. I would compare the comments of those anonymous commenters with the young SF Captain who has the motivation to write about VSO and share his experiences here on SWJ. Two different kinds of SOF operators exposed here I think. So I would ask you not to paint with too broad a brush.


Sun, 09/04/2011 - 1:26pm

In reply to by bumperplate

Short and sweet, I agree with bumperplate concerning the anonymous SEAL quotes. One in particular irked me - "We’re the dark matter. We’re the force that orders the universe but can’t be seen". Sounds like an idiotic and naive plagiarism of Lord of the Rings - re: Aragorn's Rangers. When people actually start believing that SOF DA "orders the universe" we are in real trouble. If SOF truly prides itself in being the "silent professionals" then, G-damnit, stay silent. Do yourself and our country a favor. - Dave D.


Sat, 09/03/2011 - 7:58pm

The idiotic comments from the anonymous SEALS at the beginning of the article were, well....idiotic.

I can't intelligently comment on the need or lack thereof for secrecy when it comes to JSOC. Seems to me we hear enough. I will say this, however, perhaps more information needs to come out. Perhaps more information will trickle out to the conventional forces, such as:
1) Moving your headquarters away from the flagpole, as GEN McChrystal did...well, bravo General. Too often I see commanders and units doing all they can to get closer to the flagpole, whether it's beefing up their VTC capabilities, increasing frequency of meetings, liaisons, etc. Hard to be an independent leg of a starfish when you're shackled to the flagpole.

2) 17 5 that's outright blasphemy for the conventional forces. Where do they find time to produce the FRG newsletter, update the unit Facebook page, conduct SHARP training, check CIF records, generate a by-name roster of certifications, do carbon monoxide safety training, water safety training? You can't tell me that such focus on the mission and self-sustainment leaves any time for the evils mandated by Big Army. How dare he adapt such a focus - conventional GOs would never allow such crimes to be committed.

3) I won't say whether or not I believe GEN McChrystal's idea of equating a SOF life with that of TE Lawrence and his cohort is accurate or not. However, it's clear that he was on to something, whether he knew it or not. Relatively small groups with high unit cohesion, driven by common bonds (not by a hammer-like pounding that results from top-driven management) produce special circumstances, can often accomplish special missions, and are generally quite effective. This does not apply to 100% of the SOF community, but it does appear that the SOF community understands the power of small units, dispersed, manned by motivated and talented individuals that like chaos, challenge, excitement, and thrive on combined power of their group and the trust among the personnel. The conventional Army will probably never adapt such a mentality. They just don't trust Soldiers to move out and accomplish a mission. And they certainly are not willing to accept the risk that comes when you step back and let a unit do its thing.


Fri, 09/23/2011 - 5:31pm

In reply to by Publius

With regard to your comment :

"I'm old enough to know about a lot of bad things that were done in the name of anti-Communism and I'd just as soon not see that repeated. It just isn't worth compromising our nation's ideals. Plus our field operators should not be asked to lie down with dogs."

I too am old enough to remember that we didn't always get it right in the interplay between managing a genuine threat and holding true to our ideals. This quandary is evident in operations of both national security and everyday law enforcement - sometimes you have to lie down with the dogs to get close enough to gather the intel needed to secure operational supremacy. Determining who to trust and where to draw the line can be problematic at times. This is often a judgment call between pragmatic realities and ideal outcomes. Mistakes are made and national ideals are challenged in a context where the other guys are “playing dirty”. I agree that the need for our field operators to “lie down with dogs” is a negative but unfortunately it is, at times, a pragmatic reality.

Bill M.

Sat, 09/03/2011 - 7:49pm

In reply to by Publius

You are absolutely correct about our mixed track record with covert operations, and the CIA pulled some amateur stunts during the Cold War that caused more harm than good, and a degree of oversight is definitely required, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Where it drawn has been a topic of debate for years.

The Leahy Amendment has definitely harmed our national interests over the years, but admittedly in some respects it has been a blessing, because it allows DOD to pressure the particular unit we want to work with to clean out and prosecute their bad actors. Waivers for the Leahy amendment are possible, but trust me you don't simply get a waiver because we need to work with a particular organization. We have been prevented from working with some key CT units due to proven and some cases alleged violations of human rights. In one case a unit was accused of HR violations was investigated by DOJ reps (the country and unit opened their doors) and the finding by the DOJ reps was the unit used more constraint than U.S. law enforcement, but those that opposed the government were able to make them out as bad guys in the media and they were blacklisted by the U.S. for allegations, a mess we're still trying to unravel. In another case in a very important nation for the CT fight we're not allowed to train with a key unit because of proven HR violations that happened around 10 years ago, and everyone involved in those violations is now gone, yet Sen Leahy is still refusing to allow the U.S. to partner with the unit that went to great lengths to purge it ranks, because the gov failed to prosecute one individual. These decisions while well meaning are irrational and the danger beyond non-engagment and losing influence is we are not rewarding units who have taken efforts to reform, and by partnering with U.S. units we can actually help them reform in this area (professionalize the force) making it more likely there will be future HR violations. As you well know these issues are not black and white, but the Leahy amendment views the world in very simplistic terms.

I don't see what Dana Priest has done wrong. It's pretty simple: Sources spill their guts when they're not supposed to and she writes it down. That's why these people are called reporters. Reporters aren't bad people. They're just doing their job. And they can't do the job unless people with access help 'em out. I never knew a reporter with a security clearance.

Leahy Amendment? Well, good for Priest if she's a prime mover behind this law. We have a long history of having dealt with various thugs that would've been in prison in our country. We shouldn't be doing that, especially now, when there are no existential threats to the nation. I'm old enough to know about a lot of bad things that were done in the name of anti-Communism and I'd just as soon not see that repeated. It just isn't worth compromising our nation's ideals. Plus our field operators should not be asked to lie down with dogs. Besides, the Leahy Amendment seems pretty toothless anyway, especially when one considers that there are waiver provisions and that they've been used. I'd be real interested in learning of any instance where this amendment has harmed national security even a little bit.

"All America needs to understand is that both JSOC and the CIA are doing great work in the CT field, and for them to continue to be effective their methods need to remain effective."

Well, actually, given the track record over the years, I'd say maybe America needs to know a little bit more than just that. Funny thing about our system: the people who pay the freight are kind of entitled to know what's being done in their name. Now, I'm not unsympathetic to the argument for secrecy—after all, I come from that community—but in our system, it's just not as simple as saying, "Screw you," to the American people. A little finesse in this area goes a long way; IMO, limiting public releases to "all you need to know is we're doing a great job" wouldn't be the preferred approach. The American people know that the track record of most government agencies, particularly those that operate in the shadows, is decidedly mixed over the years; this, IMO, kind of argues against merely accepting bromides such as, "trust us." I used to say that to people and I always dreaded the response: "Oh, that's right, you're from the government and you're here to help."

Bill M.

Sat, 09/03/2011 - 7:33pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

My comments were not directed at your post, but rather some intentional leaks from others outside the organization that intended to them harm. Some were in the Pentagon and I suspect others were Congressional staffers.

I see the convergence of several troubling trends that will negatively effect SOF and the CIA.

- One we are now in a period of time when clandestine and covert operations are a very good option for addressing some of our security challenges, and many of these operations will require working with foreign partners who may value their secrecy more than we do (trust is essential).

- Looming budget cuts will pit U.S. organizations against one another and information is now being leaked quicker than ever to achieve political advantage and no one is being held accountable. Leaking has become an acceptable way of doing business within the beltway (to include the current and former administrations in the White House).

- Despite claims of being quiet professionals, all our organizations have their 10% that feel compelled to talk to the media in order to beef up their egos, and again they get away with this.

- Wikileaks, insider leaks, outsider leaks by those who know (or think they know) with intent to harm or show they're in the know, etc. has become the new norm.

- Lessons observed from the past prove secrecy is essential for these types of observations, but excessive secrecy (keeping information from those who be aware of the operation for deconfliction purposes) is almost as damaging as leaking the information to those who don't need to know (the media); however, with the current culture of I have a secret, where is the nearest reporter? I think we'll see out of necessity an effort to keep future operations even more tightly controlled, which in turn may lead to less than desired results.

I don't blame the media, they're government watch dogs (some are immature like the Rolling Stones reporter who have an agenda, but that has always been the case), but then again for an American reporter to intentionally expose operations ongoing in a current conflict in my view seems to come to the line of treason.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 09/03/2011 - 2:07pm

In reply to by Bill M.


My comments are directed toward the reporters (and those talking out of school) for getting it "half right" as you say. I am in no way denigrating the great work that JSOC has done and is doing. I am not about any competition with JSOC or bringing anyone down a notch (except perhaps reporters who get it wrong). In SOF (as in all the services) jointness not equal sameness and all SOF does not do the same thing.

Dana Priest is well known within professional military circles who frequently gets the story half-right. She is the reporter largely responsible for the Leahy Amendment, which has crippled our ability to help transform foreign security forces that were accused (rightly or wrongly) of human rights violations.

She quotes a couple of young, loud, arrogant SEALs who were naive enough to talk, but they only shared bar talk which again was only half right.

All America needs to understand is that both JSOC and the CIA are doing great work in the CT field, and for them to continue to be effective their methods need to remain effective. The biggest danger to their security are immature personalties who desire to bragg and former disgruntled operators. The press is doing their job, so I don't blame Ms. Priest for trying, but I do wonder why she feels compelled to expose our government's efforts to develop an effective means to conduct CT.

Some of our SOF brothers feel compelled to compete with each other and cheer any news that may bring their competition now a notch, but they should be concerned more concerned with national security and aware that the same type of reporting could just as seriously damage their efforts to develop a unique means for conducting warfare that is best left out of the media.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 09/03/2011 - 11:18am

Surprised there are no comments on this article yet. Someone sure provided a lot of information to Priest and Arkin. But of course not all of it is right. Just this historical fact for one:

"JSOC’s first mission in 1980, Operation Eagle Claw, an attempted rescue of diplomats held hostage by Iranian students at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, ended in a helicopter collision in the desert and the death of eight team members."

JSOC did not exist until after Eagle Claw and was established after the Holloway Commission report recommended it as a result of the mission failure.

And I have to take exception to this paragraph in regards to the Philippines. I think Priest and Arkin are mixing JSOC with other SOF:

"In Iraq and Afghanistan, lethal action against al-Qaeda was granted without additional approval. In the other countries — among them Algeria, Iran, Malaysia, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia and Syria — JSOC forces needed the tacit approval from the country involved or at least a sign-off from higher up on the American chain of command. In the Philippines, for example, JSOC could undertake psychological operations to confuse or trap al-Qaeda operatives, but it needed approval from the White House for lethal action. To attack targets in Somalia required approval from at least the secretary of defense, while attacks in Pakistan and Syria needed presidential sign-off."

I do not think that JSOC was undertaking PSYOP in the Philippines or conducting any significant operations there. Whomever is talking to these reporters is either spinning things or does not know what he/she is talking about at least in terms of this example.

And I am sure others can point out other errors or at least spin. How about the "National Capital task force" and "targeting" for ICE? That should generate some discussion.