Profile: Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)
Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) was a participant or observer in the following events:
Logo of the Joint Special Operations Command. [Source: Joint Special Operations Command]The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which is the US military’s elite counterterrorism force, cancels its final preparations for a large-scale training exercise that is based on the scenario of terrorists threatening to attack the US with an unconventional weapon. The exercise, code-named Ellipse Charlie, would involve Special Operations troops who are trained in hostage-rescue operations and counterterrorism missions “rehearsing a complicated mock attack from a foe like al-Qaeda,” according to journalists Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker. The goal of the 16-day exercise would be to find and thwart terrorists who have captured a nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon and are threatening to use it against the United States.
Exercise Canceled Due to Real-World Attacks - About 1,800 Special Operations forces and several other secret government operators have been preparing to take part in the exercise, which is overseen by the United States European Command, and is set to take place in six European and Mediterranean countries and on a ship at sea. The exercise is called off during its final planning stages following the terrorist attacks in the United States, and the commandos involved in it then hurry back to their normal bases. [Schmitt and Shanker, 2011, pp. 22-23] Further details of the exercise, including the date it is set to commence, are unknown. However, the previous Ellipse Charlie exercise, held throughout September 2000, reportedly involved “hostage rescue, vessel recovery, infiltration, re-supplying troops on the ground, and removal of Special Operations forces.” About 4,000 Special Operations Command personnel, ships, and aircraft participated in it. [GlobalSecurity (.org), 5/7/2011]
Command Is Responsible for Counterterrorism Missions - The highly secretive Joint Special Operations Command, which has been preparing for this year’s Ellipse Charlie exercise, is based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and also operates out of Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina. It is responsible for conducting the military’s most sensitive counterterrorism missions. [New York Times, 9/3/2002; GlobalSecurity (.org), 12/8/2011] JSOC’s counterterrorism activities, according to a 1994 report by the General Accounting Office, involve “the application of highly specialized capabilities to preempt or resolve terrorist incidents abroad, including (1) hostage rescue, (2) recovery of sensitive materiel from terrorist organizations, and (3) direct action against the terrorist infrastructure.” [General Accounting Office, 3/24/1994, pp. 11-12]
In a 2007 book, CIA Director George Tenet will reveal that the late 2001 Afghanistan war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda is fought by only about 500 US fighters, plus their Afghan allies. He says the US force is made up of “110 CIA officers, 316 Special Forces personnel, and scores of Joint Special Operations Command raiders creating havoc behind enemy lines… .” [Tenet, 2007, pp. 255] There are many other US forces in Afghanistan which are not used at the time. For instance, 1,200 Marines remain in a military base in Afghanistan and do not take part in combat (see Late October-Early December 2001).
A New Yorker article by journalist Seymour Hersh claims that the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib in 2003 were covered up at a high political level in order to protect a clandestine operation called Copper Green where Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) task forces were given virtually unlimited preapproved authority to capture and interrogate high ranking al-Qaeda figures (see Late 2001-Early 2002). JSOC interrogation techniques were brought to Abu Ghraib prison right when the worst documented abuses began taking place (see (Late August 2003 or September 2003)). One anonymous former senior intelligence official tells Hersh that when photographs of the Abu Ghraib abuses were published, some in the Pentagon and the White House “didn’t think the photographs were that bad” because they put the focus on low ranking soldiers instead of on the secret task force operations. A Pentagon counterterrorism consultant also tells Hersh that the “basic strategy was ‘prosecute the kids in the photographs but protect the big picture.’” [New Yorker, 6/17/2007]
In October 2007, Fox News military commentator Col. David Hunt claims that in August 2007, the US military had a chance to kill Osama bin Laden, but did not. “We know, with a 70 percent level of certainty—which is huge in the world of intelligence” that bin Laden was in a convoy heading south from Tora Bora. He claims that bin Laden was seen on satellite imagery and heard through communications intercepts. “We had the world’s best hunters/killers—SEAL Team 6—nearby. We had the world class Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) coordinating with the CIA and other agencies. We had unmanned drones overhead with missiles on their wings; we had the best Air Force on the planet, begging to drop one on the terrorist.” But, “[u]nbelievably, and in my opinion, criminally, we did not kill Osama bin Laden.” He blames risk-aversion and incompetence for the failure to act. His account has not been corroborated by other sources. [Fox News, 10/23/2007]
Reporter Seymour Hersh speaking at a 2007 forum on the media in Doha, Qatar. [Source: Reuters / Fadi Al-Assaad / MinnPost (.com)]In a wide-ranging seminar with former Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale and investigative journalist Seymour Hersh at the University of Minnesota, Hersh claims that he has evidence that the US operated what he calls an “executive assassination wing” during the Bush administration, perhaps controlled by the office of then Vice President Dick Cheney. [MinnPost (.com), 3/11/2009] (Hersh will later say he used the word “wing,” but it was widely misreported as “ring” in the media.) [CNN, 3/30/2009] Hersh says he will explain his charges more fully in an upcoming book. When asked about recent instances of a president exceeding his constitutional authority, Hersh gives a response that moves from CIA activities, through the Joint Special Operations Command, to the alleged “assassination wing”: “After 9/11, I haven’t written about this yet, but the Central Intelligence Agency was very deeply involved in domestic activities against people they thought to be enemies of the state. Without any legal authority for it. They haven’t been called on it yet. Right now, today, there was a story in the New York Times that if you read it carefully mentioned something known as the Joint Special Operations Command—JSOC it’s called. It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently. They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office. They did not report to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or to Mr. [Robert] Gates, the secretary of defense. They reported directly to him.… Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination wing essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on. Just today in the Times there was a story that its leaders, a three star admiral named [William H.] McRaven, ordered a stop to it because there were so many collateral deaths. Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us. It’s complicated because the guys doing it are not murderers, and yet they are committing what we would normally call murder. It’s a very complicated issue. Because they are young men that went into the Special Forces. The Delta Forces you’ve heard about. Navy Seal teams. Highly specialized. In many cases, they were the best and the brightest. Really, no exaggerations. Really fine guys that went in to do the kind of necessary jobs that they think you need to do to protect America. And then they find themselves torturing people. I’ve had people say to me—five years ago, I had one say: ‘What do you call it when you interrogate somebody and you leave them bleeding and they don’t get any medical committee and two days later he dies. Is that murder? What happens if I get before a committee?’ But they’re not gonna get before a committee.” Mondale says of Cheney and his office that “they ran a government within a government.” Hersh adds, “Eight or nine neoconservatives took over our country.” Mondale notes that the precedents of abuse of vice presidential power by Cheney would remain “like a loaded pistol that you leave on the dining room table.” [MinnPost (.com), 3/11/2009] CIA spokesman George Little responds to Hersh’s allegation by writing: “I saw your story on Seymour Hersh’s recent allegations regarding CIA activities since 9/11. If you wish, you can attribute the quoted portion that follows to me, in name, as a CIA spokesman: ‘This is utter nonsense.’” [MinnPost (.com), 3/12/2009]
CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer interviews investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who recently alleged that an “executive assassination wing” operated out of the White House (see March 10, 2009). Blitzer notes that the entity Hersh cited, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), denies Hersh’s claim, and says, in Blitzer’s words, “their forces operate under established rules of engagement and the law of armed conflict.” The JSOC “has no command and control authorities over the US military,” the JSOC has told Blitzer. Additionally, former Bush national security expert Frances Townsend has denied Hersh’s claim.
Not New Reporting - Hersh tells Blitzer that though he has not written specifically about the “assassination wing,” he and others have written about the actions of the JSOC well before now. “[I]t’s a separately independent unit that does not report to Congress, at least in the years I know about.… It has been given executive authority by the president in as many as 12 countries to go in and kill we’re talking about high value targets. That’s absolutely correct.” He says that such actions are not only illegal, but have no basis in intelligence. “The idea that you’re telling a group of American combat soldiers,” he says, “[t]he idea that we have a unit set up who goes after high-value targets who up to a certain point I know for sure until very recently were clearing lists. That doesn’t mean Cheney has an assassination unit that he says I want to go get somebody. That’s how it sort of played out in the press. The idea that we have a unit that goes around and without reporting to Congress, Congress knows very little about this group, can’t get clearings, can’t get hearings, can’t get even a classified hearings on it. Congresspeople have told me this. Those are out and has authority for the president to go into a country without telling the CIA station chief or the ambassador and whack somebody and I’m sorry, Wolf, I have a lot of problems with that.”
Poor Choice of Phrase - Hersh says he regrets using the phrase “executive assassination wing,” because it is a “loaded phrase.” Word choice aside, Hersh says: “It comes down to the same thing, that you can—you’ve delegated authority to troops in the field to hit people on the basis of whatever intelligence they think is good and I can tell you it’s always not good and sometimes things get very bloody.… The bottom line is, it’s—if it were the way your little presentation set up, that everything was checked and cleared, in fact, it was an awful lot of delegation to this group, which does not brief the Congress. And this does raise profound questions of constitutional authority. It’s the same questions that have come up repeatedly in the Bush administration. That is a unitarian president, the notion that a president can do things without telling Congress and unilaterally. This is an extension of that issue.”
Implied Confirmation from Former Cheney Adviser - John Hannah, the former national security adviser to Vice President Cheney, says Hersh’s allegations are “not true,” but in his next statement, he seems to confirm Hersh’s allegations to an extent. Blitzer says: “Explain exactly what’s going on in terms of a list. Is there a list of terrorists, suspected terrorists, out there who can be assassinated?” Hannah replies: “There is—there’s clearly a group of people that go through a very extremely well-vetted process—interagency process, as I think was explained in your piece, that have committed acts of war against the United States, who are at war with the United States, or is suspected of planning operations of war against the United States, who authority is given, to our troops in the field in certain war theaters to capture or kill those individuals. That is certainly true.… Osama bin Laden and his number two are right at the top of the list. [The number of individuals to be assassinated] is a small group and the point is that it is very, very heavily vetted throughout the interagency process.” Hannah says that he has trouble believing that Congress was not aware of actions, presumably including possible assassinations, carried out by the JSOC: “I don’t know exactly what the consultations are with the Congress, but it’s hard for me to believe that those committee chairman and the leadership on the Hill involved in intelligence and armed services, if they want to know about these operations, cannot get that information through the Defense Department.” Asked if such assassinations are legal and Constitutional, Hannah says: “There is no question. And in a theater of war, when we are at war, and there’s no doubt, we are still at war against al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and on that Pakistani border, that our troops have the authority to go out after and capture and kill the enemy, including the leadership of the enemy.” [CNN, 3/30/2009; MinnPost (.com), 3/31/2009]
Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal. [Source: DoD photo by Helene C. Stikkel/Released, via Reuters]Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen announce the nomination of controversial former special/black operations commander Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal to replace the top US commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan. At the Pentagon, Gates explains that “new leadership and fresh eyes” are needed to reverse the course of the seven-year-old war. “We have a new strategy, a new mission, and a new ambassador. I believe that new military leadership also is needed,” he says. The White House confirms that President Obama has signed off on the nomination. McChrystal is the former commander of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which during his tenure was tied to prisoner abuse and covert assassinations in Iraq, as well as controversy in the military’s handling of the death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. McKiernan will remain in place until the Senate confirms the appointments of McChrystal and his designated deputy, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, also a veteran of elite US forces. Both officers have experience in Afghanistan and have more familiarity with counterinsurgency operations than McKiernan. Gates says that McChrystal and Rodriguez will “bring a unique skill set in counterinsurgency to these issues, and I think that they will provide the kind of new leadership and fresh thinking that [Admiral Mike Mullen] and I have been talking about.” [CNN, 5/11/2009; Army Times, 5/11/2009]
Prisoner Abuse, Geneva Convention Violations - Under McChrystal’s command, the Joint Special Operations Command supplied elite troops to a secret unit known variously as Task Force 626 and Task Force 121, based at Camp Nama (an acronym for “nasty ass military area”) near Baghdad. A Human Rights Watch report found evidence that the task force engaged in prisoner torture and abuse, and that the JSOC command likely violated the Geneva Conventions (see November 2004). According to the report, which was based on soldier testimony, inmates at the camp were subjected to beatings, exposure to extreme cold, threats of death, humiliation, and various forms of psychological abuse or torture. The report’s sources claimed that written authorizations were required for abusive techniques—indicating that the use of these tactics was approved up the chain of command—and that McChrystal denied the Red Cross and other investigators access to Camp Nama, a violation of the Geneva Conventions. [New York Times, 3/19/2006; Sifton and Garlasco, 7/22/2006; Daily Telegraph, 5/17/2009]
Secret Assassinations - During McChrystal’s tenure as head of JSOC, he led campaigns to track down, capture, or kill enemies. To this end, McChrystal built a sophisticated network of soldiers and intelligence operatives to assassinate Sunni insurgent leaders and decapitate al-Qaeda in Iraq. He is also understood to have led the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, a Human Rights Watch report on the secret units under JSOC command states that although targets included Saddam Hussein and Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the operations also swept up “hundreds of anonymous, and often innocent, detainees.” One senior Pentagon officer, quoted by the Washington Post, warns, “People will ask, what message are we sending when our high-value-target hunter is sent to lead in Afghanistan?” [Sifton and Garlasco, 7/22/2006; Washington Post, 5/13/2009] Newsweek has noted that JSOC is likely part of what then-Vice President Dick Cheney was referring to when he said America would have to “work the dark side” after 9/11 (see September 16, 2001). [Newsweek, 6/26/2006] Furthermore, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has reported that JSOC ran what he called an “executive assassination wing” that reported directly to Cheney’s office, which then cleared lists of people to be targeted for assassination by secret JSOC units (see March 10, 2009 and March 31, 2009).
Pat Tillman Silver Star Controversy - The Pentagon’s inspector general found McChrystal responsible for promulgating false and misleading information in the aftermath of the “friendly fire” death of Pat Tillman in 2004. In the controversy, McChrystal had approved paperwork recommending Tillman for a silver star, which stated that he died from “devastating enemy fire,” despite knowledge of internal investigations pointing to friendly fire as the cause of death (see April 29, 2004) and April 23-Late June, 2004). McChrystal then backtracked only when he learned that then-President Bush was about to quote from the misleading silver star citation in a speech. The US Army later overruled the Pentagon inspector general’s recommendation that McChrystal be held accountable for his actions. [Washington Post, 8/4/2007; Daily Telegraph, 5/17/2009]
Entity Tags: Seymour Hersh, Task Force 121, Robert M. Gates, Task Force 626, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, David Rodriguez, Obama administration, Camp Nama, David D. McKiernan, Human Rights Watch, Joint Special Operations Command, Michael Mullen, Pat Tillman, Stanley A. McChrystal
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan
The Pentagon gives Stanley McChrystal, nominated to become commander of US and allied forces in Afghanistan, unprecedented leeway to handpick his top staff, according to nearly a dozen senior military officers who provide details about McChrystal’s plans to the New York Times. According to the Times report, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen has personally told McChrystal that “he could have his pick from the Joint Staff.” McChrystal chooses several veterans of Special Operations, including former colleagues now serving with the Joint Staff, to join his inner circle. He is ultimately assembling a corps of 400 officers and soldiers who will rotate between the United States and Afghanistan for a minimum of three years (see October 7, 2009), a rare military commitment to one theater of combat which is common to Special Operations.
Special Operations Vets Chosen for Inner Circle - McChrystal chooses friend and former Army Ranger colleague Lieutenant General David M. Rodriguez to be his deputy, marking the first time an American commander in Afghanistan will have a three-star second in command. Rodriguez will be in charge of running day-to-day combat operations. McChrystal picks a senior intelligence adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Major General Michael T. Flynn, to join him in Kabul as director of intelligence. General Flynn was McChrystal’s chief of intelligence when he headed the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). McChrystal selects Brigadier General Scott Miller to organize a new Pakistan-Afghanistan coordination cell. Miller is a longtime Special Operations officer assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff who has served previously under McChrystal. [New York Times, 6/10/2009; Wall Street Journal, 6/12/2009]
General Stanley McChrystal, commander of military forces in Afghanistan, pushes successfully for the installment of his personal choice to head the CIA station in Kabul after Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan, objects to the CIA’s original choice for the post. ABC News will report that after the CIA withdraws its preferred candidate due to Holbrooke’s objection, McChrystal successfully pressures it to appoint the official he has in mind, who is known only as “Spider.” [ABC News, 2/19/2010; Wall Street Journal, 8/24/2010] According to ABC, Spider is a friend and career paramilitary operative with prior experience in an elite Marine commando unit and as the CIA’s liaison to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) at a time when JSOC was headed by McChrystal. ABC notes that Spider previously served as CIA station chief in Kabul sometime in the middle of the decade (see (June 2004)). A spokesperson for Holbrooke will later deny his involvement in the decision. CIA spokesman George Little will also deny that Holbrooke or McChrystal had any involvement in the agency’s decision.
Intelligence Officers Fear CIA Subordinate to the Military - Current and former intelligence officials will later tell ABC that the CIA’s capitulation to McChrystal and Holbrooke indicates a waning of its influence in Afghanistan. “McChrystal can have anyone he wants running the CIA station,” says a former senior intelligence official and Pentagon consultant. The officials fear the episode is proof that the CIA has become subordinate to the military in shaping strategy and relegated to an historically unprecedented supporting role. “The CIA is supposed to be a check on the military and their intelligence, not their hand maiden,” adds former CIA agent Robert Baer. “This is a sign of things to come, where the military dominates intelligence.” [ABC News, 2/19/2010]
Militarization of the CIA and a Special Forces Surge - Soon after McChrystal is tapped to become the new commander, he leads an effort to increase the role of Special Forces in intelligence and operations which coincides with increased militarization of the CIA in Afghanistan. Within months, the CIA will expand its teams of spies, analysts, and paramilitary operatives in Afghanistan to support an expanding covert war led by Special Operations and military intelligence (see September 2009). According to one current intelligence official, the CIA has roughly 800 personnel in Afghanistan. [ABC News, 2/19/2010] In June, just ahead of McChrystal’s confirmation, the Pentagon sends 1,000 additional Special Operations personnel to Afghanistan, raising the publicly acknowledged number of Special Operations forces there to about 5,000 (see June 5, 2009).
US Special Operations and CIA paramilitary forces more than quadruple the number of clandestine kill or capture raids they carry out in Afghanistan. The secret teams carry out 90 raids in November as compared to 20 in May, according to US officials. The Los Angeles Times reports that top commander General Stanley McChrystal orders the change in US military strategy, which intensifies Special Operations missions and shifts away from hunting al-Qaeda leaders to targeting mid-level Taliban commanders. Black operations teams involved in the missions reportedly include the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy SEALs’ Team Six, working together with CIA paramilitary units. [Los Angeles Times, 12/16/2009] These special units fall under the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a secretive structure formerly headed by McChrystal (see May 11, 2009).
Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in flames. Apparently, the fires are mainly due to a crashed US helicopter. The picture comes from a neighbor’s cell phone. [Source: Reuters] (click image to enlarge)Osama bin Laden is shot and killed inside a secured private residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, according to US government sources. The operation is carried out by US Navy SEAL Team Six, the “Naval Special Warfare Development Group.” The covert operation takes place at 1:00 a.m. local time (+4:30GMT). Two US helicopters from bases in Afghanistan fly low over the compound in Abbottabad, and 30 to 40 SEALs disembark and storm the compound. According to White House sources, bin Laden and at least four others are killed. The team is on the ground for only 40 minutes; most of that time is spent searching the compound for information about al-Qaeda and its plans. The helicopters are part of the 160th Special Ops Air Regiment, itself a detachment from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). The CIA oversees the operation, but the operation is tasked to, and carried out by, Special Forces. When President Obama announces bin Laden’s death, he says: “His demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity. Justice has been done.” Of the soldiers that eliminated bin Laden, and the other military personnel deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere, Obama says: “We are reminded that we are fortunate to have Americans who dedicate their lives to protecting ours. We may not always know their names, we may not always know their stories, but they are there every day on the front lines of freedom and we are truly blessed.” The members of Team Six are never identified, and it is unlikely their names will ever be made public. [CNN News, 5/1/2011; ABC News, 5/2/2011] Bin Laden is said to have ordered the 9/11 attacks, among other al-Qaeda strikes against American and Western targets. In a 1997 CNN interview, he declared “jihad,” or “holy war,” against the US. He had been number one on American military and law enforcement “Most Wanted” lists well before the 9/11 attacks. [CNN News, 5/1/2011]
Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, US Department of the Navy, Obama administration, Al-Qaeda, Leon Panetta, Barack Obama, Bush administration (43), US Naval Special Warfare Development Group, Joint Special Operations Command, Central Intelligence Agency
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, War in Afghanistan
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