On May 2, 2011, Osama bin Laden, the founder and head of the Islamist group Al-Qaeda, was killed by the United States Navy SEALs of the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group. The raid was welcomed by the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union. However, the killing was also condemned by human rights groups like Amnesty International, which questioned the legal and ethical aspects of the capture, such as bin Laden not being taken alive despite being unarmed. It was revealed that the SEALs were also assisted by the Joint Special Operations Command, also known as JSOC, which coordinated the Special Mission Units involved in the raid. Before this mission, JSOC was an open secret around the president’s circles yet almost completely undisclosed to the public. And after, the raid was supported by ninety percent of the American population. However, due to JSOC’s secretive nature, it is evident that the citizens are not getting enough of a complete story. This type of selective information can compromise the notion of civil society and cloud its judgment, ultimately building a lack of communication in between a policymaker and its state.
Headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, JSOC was stood up in 1980, as a response to the organizational and planning shortcomings of the ad hoc, failed rescue mission of fifty-two Americans held hostage in Iran. While much of what JSOC does remains secret, former commanders and operators have described, in detail, their role in killing and capturing terrorists, rescuing hostages, collecting intelligence, doing sensitive site exploitation, and conducting before-and-after analysis to support additional missions. These JSOC units operate separate from “general purpose forces” – such as Army divisions, Air Force wings, and Navy carrier battle groups – but rely on their transportation, logistics, and combat search and rescue support. Its secrecy is so extreme that it instructs its members not to write down important information, lest it is vulnerable to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, a federal law observed and enforced in American soil. This concern then raises the question of legality in its actions, and whether this has been or should be disclosed to the American public, the civil society that JSOC is supposedly fighting for.
In theory, a group with this kind of robust backup and grey tactics should be getting front and center media attention to the American public. There have been several attempts in trying to bring this issue to the forefront, but despite these efforts, JSOC has relatively remained obscure. And this is due to the influence, or lack thereof, of the Senate and House armed services committees. In 2012, Congress passed a defense bill that mandated confidential quarterly briefings from the Pentagon outlining counterterrorism operations and activities involving special operations forces. In 2017, Congress upped the frequency of these briefings to monthly. All members of these committees – as well as a handful of cleared staffers – could attend each monthly briefing. Far fewer show up: On average, seven to fifteen representatives attend the monthly hearings, depending on their travel schedules and legislative calendar. At these hearings, JSOC is generally represented by a group of civilian military officials from the offices of the assistant secretary of defense for special operations conflict. They provide specific information about individual drone strikes or special operations raids, especially those that could attract even just a little bit of media attention. However, for most these hearings, Senate and House members do not probe for details about the operations but would just prefer the results. The lack of attendance at these meetings can be attributed to the fact that JSOC has the power to directly report to the president, and have already been touted as the executive branch’s secret weapons. With the president being the prime policy maker and sovereign of the state, it would seem moot to try and react to it in a lower house.
Little public attention and Congress participation then allow policymakers to assert more power in enforcing foreign policies that can be interpreted as unethical, which are reflected in many of JSOC’s missions. Perhaps the most notable case from the Obama administration, aside from the bin Laden raid, would be the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the first American citizen to be targeted by a U.S. drone strike. His son, a teenager born in Denver, Colorado, was the second. The Trump administration followed this with a commando attack that targeted Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter. The lack of due process for these three individuals, especially for the two minors, raised questions for those who were aware. President Trump has also further expanded former President Barack Obama’s use of lethal counterterrorism operations in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. During the final one hundred and ninety-three days of Obama’s presidency, there were twenty-one such operations. Over a comparable number of days under President Trump, there have been five times as many operations: at least ninety-two in Yemen, four in Pakistan, and six in Somalia. And in a 2008 interview, when asked about the intelligence breakthroughs in Iraq, former President George W. Bush offered a simple answer: “JSOC is awesome.”
Reports about these cases were sparse; perhaps, the American media was too focused on its local territory, or there was little information to go on. While not to discount domestic problems, JSOC’s continuous increasing power over the U.S. military must be an issue to be discussed with the public. It affects issues at home, most notably the economy, as the American people’s taxes are the one of the wheels that keep JSOC running. It is also one of the biggest concerns of the American voters, considering the campaign promises from presidential elections prior. The basis of a state system like the U.S. is that the people comprising the nation became the ultimate source of the state’s legitimacy. A policymaker and its state’s population have a symbiotic relationship – but when one party refuses to give vital information that the other one needs to take, this ultimately damages the balance of the system.