America’s Special Operators Will Be Adrift Without Better Civilian Oversight


What happens when America’s most elite military forces are given almost complete autonomy for two decades? For starters, they develop unparalleled intelligence, precision strike, and direct-action skills. But according to a recently released comprehensive review of U.S. Special Operations Command, their fixation on developing those skills creates “situations allowing for misconduct and unethical behavior.” As America’s priority shifts away from counterterrorism, the report notes that the requirements of great power competition “are challenging a [special operations forces] culture with a bias towards force employment.” This culture is unlikely to change as long as special operations forces govern themselves.

When Congress created the command in 1987, it also created a civilian official — the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict — to oversee and advocate for the new military command. Unfortunately, as U.S. Special Operations Command amassed resources and credibility after 9/11, civilian oversight from this office failed to keep pace. Insufficient civilian oversight has contributed to the command’s over-emphasis on direct-action capabilities, ethics problems, and a special operations force that is ill-prepared to meet the challenges of great power competition. Congress sought to strengthen oversight through legislation in 2016, but U.S. Special Operations Command’s immense resources, prestige, and autonomy have made it difficult to restore civilian leadership to its proper place over U.S. Special Operations Command.



Collectively, our writing team has more than four decades of special operations experience. One member of our team recently concluded serving as the acting assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. We believe proper civilian oversight would consist of an assistant secretariat of special operations that reports directly to the secretary of defense on personnel, training, and equipping issues. This office would remain at the assistant secretary level, but would be independent and not fall under any undersecretary. Without stronger guidance and oversight from civilian leadership in the Pentagon and Congress, it is unlikely that U.S. Special Operations Command will enact the necessary changes to produce capable and ethical special operations forces — forces vital in competition against great power rivals like China and Russia.

The Trouble with Autonomy

The challenge of great power competition also presents an opportunity for America’s special operators to revolutionize and modernize. The command could develop entirely new skillsets like those associated with artificial intelligence and big data analysis, or it could elevate existing skills like psychological operations. It could use experimental forces to develop new organizational constructs and operating concepts suited for great power competition. Special operations forces participate in new organizational structures aimed at defeating near-peer adversaries, but these organizations are designed for conventional armed conflict rather than great power competition. Instead, the command has chosen incremental change rather than large-scale innovation because it does not want to risk moving away from the personnel and operations that previously won it resources, prestige, and autonomy.

Beyond the lack of true innovation, a series of legal and ethical problems threatens to destroy the force’s credibility and undercut the broad, bipartisan congressional support it has gained over the past two decades. Documented expertly by Andrew Milburn, some of the ethical issues include the 2017 killing of a Special Forces soldier by a Navy SEAL in the wake of a sexual assault gone wrong, spousal murder, child rape, and drug trafficking — events that indicate organizational issues. Most men and women in special operations conduct themselves impeccably, but these incidents point to problems that must be addressed.

Despite these high profile incidents, U.S. Special Operations Command’s recently published ethics review ordered by Gen. Richard Clarke conclude that the command “does not have a systemic ethics problem.” The report blames overemphasis on operations at the expense of training and force development. This authorship team lauds the findings and hopes U.S. Special Operations Command empowers its implementation team. However, we assess that a lack of civilian oversight has, at least in part, contributed this situation. Without true external evaluation, we question the organization’s ability to police itself.

As U.S. Special Operations Command’s manpower and resources have grown since 9/11, the civilian oversight regime in both the Pentagon and Congress has failed to keep pace. While willful neglect of special operations oversight was convenient for U.S. Special Operations Command, Pentagon officials, and members of Congress when the global war on terror was the country’s main national security effort, weak oversight of special operations forces will not force the organization to undertake the necessary adaptations required to compete with near-peer adversaries.

The Special Operations Oversight Regime

The Cohen-Nunn Amendment to the 1987 National Defense Authorization Act created both U.S Special Operations Command and the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. U.S. Special Operations Command was to solve inter-service coordination problems in the wake of high-profile special operations failures. However, the command was also considered a “service-like” organization with the responsibility for writing doctrine, training, and equipping special operations forces.

The original intent for assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict is clear: His “principal duty [is] the overall supervision (including oversight of policy and resources) of special operations activities …” But unlike the role of the military’s service secretaries, whose positions and organizations are outlined in Title 10, the specific organization and authorities of the assistant secretary have never been clearly defined or appropriately resourced. As Susan Marquis accounts in her book Unconventional Warfare, Congress was so focused on protecting U.S. Special Operations Command from the military services in its early years that little attention was paid to properly developing the civilian oversight regime.

After 9/11, U.S. Special Operations Command ballooned in terms of budget, manpower, and authorities, while the office of the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict stagnated. Throughout this period, U.S. Special Operations Command expertly exploited its dual combatant command and service-like authorities to increase its relative autonomy and compete for more resources, missions, and decision-making authority within the Department of Defense.

Despite success with light-footprint operations, scholars of special operations consistently point to overemphasis on direct-action over the last 19 years. RAND’s 2019 report on service competition found that U.S. special operations’ “dominant side is on the use of strikes and raids” and that a “preponderance of operations and attention since September 11, 2001, has focused on the direct approach.” The 2017 National Security Strategy and 2018 National Defense Strategy affirm the importance of special warfare and information operations, which are more relevant to competition below the level of armed conflict but had been sidelined in favor of direct-action operations during the War on Terror.

Beyond U.S. Special Operations Command’s massive expansion in the past decade, the organization acquired three important authorities. First, in 2013, it requested and received the authority to man, train, and equip the theater special operations commands, which coordinate special operations missions for geographical combatant commanders. Second, U.S. Special Operations Command took over the counter-weapons of mass destruction mission. Finally, U.S. Special Operations Command began operating the Joint Military Information Support Operations WebOps Center to “address the opportunities and risks of the global information space” by coordinating messaging between combatant commands. Despite these new responsibilities, there was not an accompanying increase in resources for oversight by the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.

922’s Promise and Perils

In December 2016, Congress reaffirmed the authority of the assistant secretary over the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. Section 922 of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act stated that the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict had preeminence for all “matters relating to the organization, training, and equipping of special operations forces.” Despite this clear message from Congress, both the Pentagon and U.S. Special Operations Command continue to slow-roll the law’s implementation.

Even since 922’s passage, U.S. Special Operations Command continued going directly to both Congress and the Secretary of Defense. The command regularly submitted budget requests and advocated for policies in Congress without full coordination with or approval from the assistant secretary. For example, although the military command and the assistant secretary jointly signed a 2019 vision statement, U.S. Special Operations Command largely ignored input from the assistant secretary’s staff on the statement’s final language. The publishing of a subsequent special operations strategy, signed only by the current commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, came as a surprise to the assistant secretary, whose staff did not have an opportunity to review the document.

It is difficult to imagine a similar situation, where the uniformed leadership publishes a strategy without the input from or imprimatur of the service secretary, in the services. These end-runs were made significantly easier because of U.S. Special Operations Command’s large legislative affairs section and a staff that is more than 40 times larger than that of the office of the assistant secretary’s.

As of October 2019, the secretariat for special operations, who oversees U.S. Special Operations Command’s service-like functions, remained understaffed. To properly implement 922, the Army Office of Manpower and Reserve Affairs determined that 64 full-time employees would be needed in the secretariat. Only 28 work there. Section 361 of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act mandated that not less than $4 million be used to hire additional civilian personnel for the office of the assistant secretary. This money has yet to be spent. A May 2019 Government Accountability Office report found that the Pentagon had no specific plan to implement the remaining requirements from 922. Despite the clarity of 922’s Congressional message, neither U.S. Special Operations Command nor the Pentagon appears committed to implementation.

Towards Better Special Operations Oversight

Any new oversight plan must strengthen the office of the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict without diminishing the ability of special operators to innovate and reform — a key strength of special operations forces. One critical problem with the current oversight regime is the lack of access the assistant secretary has to the secretary of defense. Below, we outline three options for reformed civilian oversight of special operations.

The first option is to maintain the Department of Defense’s incremental yet noncommittal approach to implementing 922. U.S. Special Operations Command and the Pentagon apparently prefer this option because it maximizes flexibility and control to the U.S. special operations commander while limiting the attention the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs must pay to special operations. Though the lack of a true civilian advocate in the Pentagon could conceivably frustrate special operations leadership, U.S. Special Operations Command prefers to request budgets, issue vision statements, and obtain operational approvals without having to go through civilian intermediaries below the level of the secretary of defense. However, the current leadership in both the House and Senate Armed Services have made clear their displeasure with the lack of civilian oversight of special operations. In October, majority and minority leadership in both houses of Congress sent a joint letter to Secretary Mark Esper voicing their frustrations with the lack of progress on 922 implementation. This option would do little to allay Congress’s concerns.

As a second option, Congress could elevate special operations oversight to an undersecretary who reports directly to the Secretary of Defense. Several experts, including the first Senate-confirmed assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict James Locher, recommend this option. This option would only happen if Congress writes it into law, escalating Congressional involvement in the Pentagon’s internal structure. In addition to direct access to the secretary of defense, this option would almost guarantee the confirmation of an official knowledgeable on special operations. Few undersecretaries of defense for policy understand, much less have real interest in, special operations beyond high profile missions or failures. The creation of a new undersecretary would almost certainly evoke strong protest from the Pentagon, especially the undersecretary of defense for policy, who would lose control over a substantial part of his portfolio while facing competition on issues related to special operations policy.

We firmly recommend a third, hybrid option. Rather than maintaining the status quo or creating a new undersecretary of defense, armed forces and the United States would be best served by the elevation of the secretariat of special operations to an independent assistant secretariat. The assistant secretariat would report directly to the secretary of defense similar to the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs or the secretary’s principal cyber advisor. A single assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict would remain responsible for both special operations policy and man, train, equip issues but have clearly delineated lines separating policy issues from service-secretary-like responsibilities. Importantly, this approach would grant direct access to the secretary of defense for issues concerning the manning, training, and equipping of special operations forces. It also would allow special operations and irregular warfare policy to remain under the undersecretary of defense for policy.

Both the second and third options would require Congressional intervention. Though Congress has usually eschewed this degree of intrusion on the Pentagon, lawmakers are growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of special operations oversight. In interviews with senior Congressional and Pentagon officials, one senior official likened U.S. Special Operations Command to “Frankenstein’s monster” that Congress had created but could no longer control. Congressional intervention initially created both the military command and its civilian oversight in the Pentagon, but Congressional support since 1987 has been primarily for U.S. Special Operations Command rather than the Pentagon office meant to oversee and advocate for the command. If Congress is serious about civilian oversight and wants to see Section 922 fully implemented, it will have to deeply involve itself in special operations issues in the Pentagon yet again by strengthening civilian oversight.

The Return of Civilian Oversight

Strengthening civilian oversight of special operations is an unpopular proposition to a Pentagon that has been happy to allow U.S. Special Operations Command to manage global counterterrorism. Similarly, a series of U.S. Special Operations Commanders have capitalized on weak oversight to focus on operations while increasing the capacity of special operations forces to perform direct-action missions. However, a series of recent events have demonstrated the peril in a U.S. Special Operations Command that has been allowed to self-regulate and escape stronger oversight from both the Pentagon and Congress. Perhaps most importantly, the Pentagon senior leaders’ episodic focus on direct-action missions and capabilities ignores America’s most effective special warfare capabilities — like information operations. Special warfare capabilities are the capabilities which will — or at least should — be most relevant as the United States defense establishment embraces the return of great power competition.

For U.S. Special Operations Command to mature its acquisitions process, address its ethics issues, and reform the organization to match the future threat environment, civilian oversight must be strengthened. Drastic change on this scale cannot happen without a strong civilian advocate in the Pentagon who can objectively assess the current capabilities and future requirements of special operations. For U.S. Special Operations Command to fully support competition with our adversaries, it requires stronger civilian oversight.



Mark E. Mitchell is a former senior executive in Defense Department who served most recently as the acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. He is a highly decorated U.S. Army infantry and Special Forces combat veteran with extensive experience in the Middle East and South Asia. He has also served on the National Security Council as a director for counterterrorism and worked as a business executive in the private sector.

Zachary Griffiths is an Army Special Forces officer and former instructor in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. Follow him on Twitter @z_e_griffiths.

Cole Livieratos is an Army strategist and an instructor in West Point’s Defense and Strategic Studies Program. He is a former Psychological Operations officer and is currently a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University researching the impact of civil-military relations on special operations. Follow him on Twitter @LiveCole1.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any other branch or agency of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Russell Rhodes Jr.)