JSOC: The End of Military Accountability
When the Obama administration decided to militarily intervene in Libya, they did so without approval from Congress. A UN resolution authorized a mission to protect the civilian population from Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi’s forces, but the mission quickly morphed into an extended military conflict aimed at regime change. Not only did Obama violate Constitutional requirements which give Congress the authority to authorize war, he also disregarded the applicability of the post-Vietnam War legislation – the War Power Resolution – which requires notifying Congress of military action and receiving formal authorization if it lasts more than 60 days.
At the time, this was viewed by many as a gratuitous expansion of Executive power plainly not in keeping with much lauded American principles like checks and balances. There was even opposition within Washington: there was a House vote on an amendment to stop funding the Libyan War, a formal letter by the Speaker to conform to the law, and ten legislators filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration for unlawfully taking the country to war.
This controversy was something of a nod to various antiquated notions of the rule of law in this country. As James Madison said: “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, & most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legislature.” This is such a fundamental tenet of basic rule of law as initially conceived, that even in such a criminal and corrupt Congress as we now have, some opposition to Obama’s martial overreach was perhaps predictable.
But for the past decade, we’ve seen the rise of a secret, unaccountable U.S. military force with activities and implications far more pernicious than Obama’s criminal disregard for the rule of law for intervention in Libya. This rise has occurred without even a fraction of the feigned opposition to intervention in Libya. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) is an unwieldy private army at the command of the President, and him only. And they conduct military and spy missions all over the world, never receiving formal congressional approval and never garnering even the limited scrutiny applied to the U.S.-led no-fly zone in Libya.
“Without the knowledge of the American public,” wrote Nick Turse back in August, “a secret force within the U.S. military is undertaking operations in a majority of the world’s countries. This new Pentagon power elite is waging a global war whose size and scope has never been revealed.” According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, JSOC forces “reportedly conduct highly sensitive combat and supporting operations against terrorists on a world-wide basis.” As the New York Times this week reported:
The Special Operations Command now numbers just under 66,000 people — including both military personnel and Defense Department civilians — a doubling since 2001. Its budget has reached $10.5 billion, up from $4.2 billion in 2001 (after adjusting for inflation).
Over the past decade, Special Operations Command personnel have been deployed for combat operations, exercises, training and other liaison missions in more than 70 countries. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Special Operations Command sustained overseas deployments of more than 12,000 troops a day, with four-fifths committed to the broader Middle East.
JSOC operates outside the confines of the traditional military and even beyond what the CIA is able to do. It’s unprecedented, but the Times reported that the leader of the Special Operations Command Admiral William H. McRaven is requesting even more unaccountability. He “wants the authority to quickly move his units to potential hot spots without going through the standard Pentagon process governing overseas deployments.” Those deployments have been focused in the Middle East, but also include Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
These forces have been known for their brutality and have been at the forefront of Bush and Obama’s night raid strategies as well as savage torture regimes in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Night raids have more than tripled there since 2009. In one notable incident in February of 2010, U.S. Special Operations Forces surrounded a house in a village in the Paktia Province in Afghanistan and ended up killing two civilian men and three female relatives (a pregnant mother of ten, a pregnant mother of six, and a teenager). U.S. troops, realizing their mistake, lied and tampered with the evidence at the scene, attempting blame the murders on the Taliban. These tactics very often kill civilians and the vast majority of those detained during night raids and sent without a trial to the detention facility at Bagram Airbase have been civilians.
But it goes well beyond the war zones. In concert with the Executive’s new claims on extra-judicial assassinations via drone strikes, even if the target is an American citizen, JSOC goes around the world murdering suspects without the oversight of a judge or, god forbid, granting those unfortunate souls the right to defend themselves in court against secret, evidence-less government decrees about their guilt. As Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Seymour Hersh said at a speaking event in 2009:
Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination ring 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.
Marc Ambinder has written a new e-book called The Command: Deep Inside the President’s Secret Army. Ambinder gave a revealing interview to Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman in which he claims that JSOC has faced some accountability. For example, after it was revealed they were torturing people in Iraq at Camp Nama, an internal investigation “resulted in about 30 people being disciplined, with some of them kicked out of the military or transferred to other units.” Ouch, harsh punishment for the crime of systematic torture. Ambinder explains that “JSOC prefers to keep its record of accountability in-house,” which of course is precisely anathema to the spirit of the word accountability.
JSOC operates in a legal black hole, where no law seems to be applicable which might restrain their activities. Authorization from Congress for the use of military force abroad is so irrelevant to the application of JSOC, it’s never even been suggested in Washington, so far as I know. What makes JSOC immune from congressional oversight, the Constitution, and the rule of law, nobody seems to know. Furthermore, one has to accept the premise that America owns the world and has jurisdiction on every speck of the planet in order to believe that the national sovereignty of countries JSOC infiltrates isn’t being violated.
Since World War II the United States government has divided up the world into different war zones. Various regions were placed under the auspices of some subdivision of the U.S. military in case of war and in the effort to maintain global hegemony. “The Unified Combatant Command system,” a recent Congressional Research report explains, “signified the recognition by the United States that it would continue to have a world-wide, continuous global military presence.” U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) had responsibility over the Middle East and parts of Asia, U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) over the North Americas, U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) over Europe, and so on.
This system was itself a betrayal of principles espoused in the American Revolution against an all-powerful Executive and standing armies. It was truly the makings of Empire, and America’s subsequent military adventures and bourgeoning national security state came at the expense of civil liberties here at home and the livelihood of millions abroad. In September 2000, the Washington Post’s Dana Priest published a series of articles on this system of global militarism (cited in the CRS report) exposing how each domain had yielded an inordinate amount of influence in policymaking. She wrote that they “had evolved into the modern-day equivalent of the Roman Empire’s proconsuls—well-funded, semi-autonomous, unconventional centers of U.S. foreign policy.” The CRS report asks “whether or not COCOMs [Combatant Commands] have assumed too much influence overseas, thereby diminishing the roles other U.S. government entities play in foreign and national security policy….The assertion that COCOMs have usurped other U.S. government entities in the foreign policy arena may deserve greater examination.”
The imperial mechanisms fully embraced by Washington insulated the government from the basic standards of a free society: that the people ought to have some knowledge and control over the actions of their representative government; that the people and the state were engaged in a consensual relationship. JSOC takes this an immense step further. As Ambinder said in his interview:
There are legal restrictions on what the CIA can do in terms of covert operations. There has to be a finding, the president has to notify at least the “Gang of Eight” [leaders of the intelligence oversight committees] in Congress. JSOC doesn’t have to do any of that. There is very little accountability for their actions. What’s weird is that many in congress who’d be very sensitive to CIA operations almost treat JSOC as an entity that doesn’t have to submit to oversight. It’s almost like this is the president’s private army, we’ll let the president do what he needs to do.
Which evokes another of Madison’s insights: “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty.”