Monday, February 13, 2012

Turnaround Time

The Army's Joint Special Operations Command has long been a key factor -- arguably, the key factor -- in America's overseas battles. Most of us understand that it is the various special forces, such as Delta, the SEALS and groups whose names don't trip as easily off the tongue, which are doing some of the most creative fighting.

Still: holy cow. We had no idea how tough those guys were, or how smart -- or (and this is important) how their increasing degree of smarts has helped move the military's intelligence gathering beyond the bad old days of anonymous torture chambers in Bucharest.

A lot of it comes out in this Wired interview with journalist Marc Ambinder, who has just written a book on the JSOC. We'll offer a few representative tidbits.

On toughness:
The leader of a JSOC unit in Iraq, known as K-Bar, gets shot in the chest by insurgents. K-Bar waves away his medic until he finishes killing his assailants. His reward? Leading JSOC’s operations in Afghanistan.
On torture:

Ambinder estimates that a very small number (50 or fewer) of JSOC operators were directly involved in torture, and that most or all of them have been punished or removed in a subsequent disciplinary process, orchestrated by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Michael Flynn. The interviewer asks:

DR: So they torture people until Flynn figures out there’s a better way to get intelligence?

MA: I know that sounds like a neat narrative, and this is a complicated story. But in essence, that is what happened. While you have to say the command was complicit in the rough, bad stuff early on, they figured out what was happening, and they figured out a much better, humane and more effective way of doing it. Then they proselytize it, and make sure rest of the military knows they’re doing it that way. You can’t ever erase the stain of torture, but this command deserves credit for figuring out what to do about it, and how to meet the need for intelligence without roughing people up, and how to get inside the decision loops of the insurgents.

On smarts:

Some of the [new intelligence-gathering] tactics were as simple as equipping your [operators] with a camera. Instead of rounding up insurgents, bringing them to one area of a house, they’d have pictures of them exactly where they are, and take pictures what they have on them exactly. ... And they’d send pictures back in real time to an intelligence fusion center. ... And you’d have analyst who could use many of various databases that JSOC had access to, and many that JSOC was building. ... There were teams of U.S. intelligence officers who were trying to get as many fingerprints, DNA samples and so forth of anyone in Baghdad as they could. The analysts would be able to create link analysis charts from them.

If you captured Abu So-and-So, you’d be able to say within a minute, “Hey, I know your uncle is this person, who we really want to get to. If you can tell me where this person is right now, we’ll give you a break and even let you go.” And often, that would be what Abu So-and-So would do, because it would be in his best interest. Within maybe 20 minutes, JSOC could launch a second raid targeting the uncle of Abu So-and-So

The whole interview is worth a read, and we expect that Ambinder's book will be as well.

[UPDATE: Today, the Times reported on Adm. McRaven's request that the Special Operations Command be given a freer hand, meaning more autonomy, which of course equals less oversight and control. We doubt that the timing of the two articles is a coincidence; alongside the gee-whiz admiration, Ambinder also dwells a bit on the danger that the Secial Operations people may already be lacking in the oversight and accountability departments. Caveat lector.]

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