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America’s Black-Ops Blackout

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Posted on Jan 9, 2014
Neal. (CC BY 2.0)

By Nick Turse, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

“Dude, I don’t need to play these stupid games. I know what you’re trying to do.”  With that, Major Matthew Robert Bockholt hung up on me.

More than a month before, I had called U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) with a series of basic questions: In how many countries were U.S. Special Operations Forces deployed in 2013? Are manpower levels set to expand to 72,000 in 2014?  Is SOCOM still aiming for growth rates of 3%-5% per year?  How many training exercises did the command carry out in 2013?  Basic stuff.

And for more than a month, I waited for answers.  I called.  I left messages.  I emailed.  I waited some more.  I started to get the feeling that Special Operations Command didn’t want me to know what its Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs and Delta Force commandos—the men who operate in the hottest of hotspots and most remote locales around the world—were doing. 

Then, at the last moment, just before my filing deadline, Special Operations Command got back to me with an answer so incongruous, confusing, and contradictory that I was glad I had given up on SOCOM and tried to figure things out for myself.

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U.S. Special Operations Forces around the world, 2012-2013 (key below article) ©2014 TomDispatch ©Google

I started with a blank map that quickly turned into a global pincushion.  It didn’t take long before every continent but Antarctica was bristling with markers indicating special operations forces’ missions, deployments, and interactions with foreign military forces in 2012-2013.  With that, the true size and scope of the U.S. military’s secret military began to come into focus.  It was, to say the least, vast.

A review of open source information reveals that in 2012 and 2013, U.S. Special Operations forces (SOF) were likely deployed to—or training, advising, or operating with the personnel of—more than 100 foreign countries.   And that’s probably an undercount.  In 2011, then-SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told TomDispatch that Special Operations personnel were annually sent to 120 countries around the world. They were in, that is, about 60% of the nations on the planet.  “We’re deployed in a number of locations,” was as specific as Bockholt would ever get when I talked to him in the waning days of 2013. And when SOCOM did finally get back to me with an eleventh hour answer, the number offered made almost no sense. 

Despite the lack of official cooperation, an analysis by TomDispatch reveals SOCOM to be a command on the make with an already sprawling reach. As Special Operations Command chief Admiral William McRaven put it in SOCOM 2020, his blueprint for the future, it has ambitious aspirations to create “a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners.”  In other words, in that future now only six years off, it wants to be everywhere.    

The Rise of the Military’s Secret Military

Born of a failed 1980 raid to rescue American hostages in Iran (in which eight U.S. service members died), U.S. Special Operations Command was established in 1987.  Made up of units from all the service branches, SOCOM is tasked with carrying out Washington’s most specialized and secret missions, including assassinations, counterterrorist raids, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, psychological operations, foreign troop training, and weapons of mass destruction counter-proliferation operations.

In the post-9/11 era, the command has grown steadily.  With about 33,000 personnel in 2001, it is reportedly on track to reach 72,000 in 2014.  (About half this number are called, in the jargon of the trade, “badged operators”—SEALs, Rangers, Special Operations Aviators, Green Berets—while the rest are support personnel.)  Funding for the command has also jumped exponentially as SOCOM’s baseline budget tripled from $2.3 billion to $6.9 billion between 2001 and 2013.  If you add in supplemental funding, it had actually more than quadrupled to $10.4 billion. 

Not surprisingly, personnel deployments abroad skyrocketed from 4,900 “man-years”—as the command puts it—in 2001 to 11,500 in 2013.  About 11,000 special operators are now working abroad at any one time and on any given day they are in 70 to 80 countries, though the New York Times reported that, according to statistics provided to them by SOCOM, during one week in March 2013 that number reached 92

The Global SOF Network

Last year, Admiral McRaven, who previously headed the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC—a clandestine sub-command that specializes in tracking and killing suspected terrorists—touted his vision for special ops globalization.  In a statement to the House Armed Services Committee, he said:

“USSOCOM is enhancing its global network of SOF to support our interagency and international partners in order to gain expanded situational awareness of emerging threats and opportunities. The network enables small, persistent presence in critical locations, and facilitates engagement where necessary or appropriate…”


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