from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Defense Spending, Special Operations, and Secrecy

February 16, 2012

U.S. Navy Admiral William McRaven, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, answers a question during an all-call at Hurlburt Field, Florida, on January 31, 2012.
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After the release of the Pentagon’s core budget request of $525 billion for fiscal year 2013, pundits are picking the winners and losers. While the defense budget has increased by 45 percent from $365 billion in 2001, the Obama administration’s current proposal is only a 1 percent reduction from last year; targeted programs to cut include the Joint Strike Fighter (179 fewer purchases in the next five years) and the conventional Army (shrinking its currently authorized level of 570,000 troops to 490,000 by 2017).

The winners, unsurprisingly, are special operations forces, surveillance and strike drones, and cyber capabilities. In other words, by re-focusing spending on such twenty-first century tools, the big budget winner is secrecy. All three capabilities play an important role in protecting and advancing U.S. national interests. But, for all of their benefits, the programs are overly-classified, with poorly articulated strategic goals and limited Congressional oversight. As they will incorporate an increasing share of Pentagon spending and defense planning in the coming years, an even greater amount of U.S. military activities abroad will inevitably be conducted in secret.

Consider the emergence of Special Operations Forces (SOF) over the past decade. Since a team led by U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011, SOF have received unrelenting, if unsolicited, media attention. Since the John F. Kennedy administration, Democratic presidents have been attracted to the lower cost, smaller footprint, and minimal Congressional oversight aspects of SOF. Debating methods of attacking bin Laden in Afghanistan, President Clinton proposed: “[It would] scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of helicopters into the middle of their camp." Earlier this week, the New York Times appropriately described SOF as the Obama administration’s “military tool of choice.” (I’d add drone strikes.)

Since September 11, 2001, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has more than doubled in size and budget—from some 30,000 troops for $2.2 billion in 2001 to 67,000 and $10.5 billion today—as well as quadrupled overseas deployments to over one hundred countries. Presently, 85 percent of the estimated 11,500 SOF troops deployed overseas are stationed in the Middle East, with the bulk in Afghanistan, where they are projected to have an enlarged role up to and beyond the withdrawal date of 2014. Senior defense officials envision that SOF will constitute between one-third and one-half of all U.S. forces in beyond 2014—pending an agreement with Kabul. Admiral William McRaven, commander of SOCOM, recently revealed that this could include “3,000 folks deployed outside of Afghanistan.”

Despite the levels of secrecy, as well as the myths promoted by the media and Hollywood, the functions of the SOF are actually well defined under U.S. law. Title 10 (Section 167) of the U.S. Code, “Special Operations Activities” enumerates ten roles and missions:

  • direct action
  • strategic reconnaissance
  • unconventional warfare
  • foreign internal defense
  • civil affairs
  • psychological operations
  • counterterrorism
  • humanitarian assistance
  • theater search and rescue
  • other activities as specified by the president or the secretary of defense.

The increasing use of SOF to conduct U.S. foreign policy correlates with the growth of ultra-secret Pentagon intelligence, support, and operations, known collectively as Special Access Programs (SAPs). Although most programs are technically required to provide annual reports to Congress, under U.S. law (Title 10, Section 119 (e)) the secretary of defense can waive the normal reporting requirements for SAPs. Instead, these "waived SAPs" must only be reported to the chairman and ranking minority member of the House and Senate committees of the Armed Services, Appropriations, and Defense Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations. In total, six members of Congress.

It is impossible to know the number of existing SAPs, and it is entirely plausible that no one knows. According to the book Top Secret America, a Pentagon list of highly-classified SAP code names runs over three hundred pages. As described by the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper: "There’s only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all SAPs—that’s God.”

On the same day that the Obama administration released its defense budget, a New York Times headline read, “Admiral [McRaven] Seeks Freer Hand in Deployment of Elite Forces.” The article notes that McRaven has asked for “the authority to quickly move his units to potential hot spots without going through the stand Pentagon process,” which is termed “cautious and deliberate.” Unnamed SOF commanders “pledged that their efforts would be coordinated” with U.S. country ambassadors and “local security forces,” except “when a local government was unable or unwilling to cooperate with an authorized American mission.”

There are a number of troubling elements to this proposal, but it is not hard to imagine that most countries would reject the prospect of Navy SEALs routinely infiltrating their sovereign territory to kill or capture suspected terrorists, or destroy things. Moreover, the most likely candidates for such operations—Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia—have already seen their fair share of kinetic SOF missions. (For how the SOF-centric approach to Yemen—missile strikes and training a dictator’s security surrogates—read this excellent reporting by Jeremy Scahill.)

As a Pentagon official explained, McRaven’s “proposal is anticipating what the future will be for these guys and getting ahead of it.” The military, however, has a poor track record of predicting or anticipating where they will fight. According to General James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command (covering 85 percent of SOF deployments): “I think as we look toward the future I’ve been a horrible prophet. I have never fought anywhere I expected to in all my years.” To reduce the risk of potentially inaccurate predictions, under McRaven’s proposal, SOF teams will have to be everywhere, just in case they are needed anywhere.

The enthusiastic and unchecked support for SOF was made crystal clear as articles reporting on McRaven’s proposal received almost zero attention in Washington. As a Pentagon official insisted, there is no reason for concern because McRaven “is not looking for complete autonomy unanswerable to anybody.” When determining what should be the proper authority and oversight for U.S. military activities, that is a dangerous ceiling to imagine.