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Dan K. Thomasson: Should special ops forces work more independently?

By Dan K. Thomasson

Scripps Howard News Service

Published: Friday, Feb. 24 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Navy Vice Admiral William McRaven, who as commander of Joint Special Operations Command had operational control of the SEAL Team Six mission to get Osama bin Laden, is pictured at a ceremony in Washington, Tuesday, July 12, 2011.

Associated Press

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In the movies, special operations forces deploy independently and at a moment's notice to the nation's toughest military assignments. But in reality, they are subjected to the same scrutiny and direction all units are.

Now, according to reports, the top commander of special ops wants to be closer to the Hollywood model with authority to move to hot spots around the globe outside of normal Pentagon channels. Is this a good idea, since apparently President Barack Obama has decided to rely more heavily on these highly trained mobile commando units because of budget restraints, among other things? A lot of people, including Adm. William McRaven's peers at the command level, don't think so.

McRaven is chief of the elite Navy Seals, and he directed the operation that took out Osama bin Laden so spectacularly inside Pakistan last year. The almost textbook operation, while successful, angered bin Laden's hosts, who may or may not have known he was there, and further strained relations between the U.S. and the Pakistani government. McRaven reportedly has been pushing the expanded authority concept to his superiors for several months.

The idea is to place units in areas where they can not only meet challenges but also gather intelligence necessary to prevent wider conflicts. It sounds like a fair proposition but the State Department is not only unsure of the proposal but outright concerned that it could run counter at times to foreign policy. As a result the diplomats have been able to hold off the idea.

Obviously, McRaven and his backers contend that they would face the same kind of control as any unit operating under regional commanders. It would merely enhance the efficiency of those commands. Maybe it would or maybe it would not. Clearly, the regional commanders, as do the diplomats, believe that such freedom of movement could give rise to major disruptions in policy, particularly in countries like Pakistan where there is clear unhappiness among military leaders with independent U.S. activities uncoordinated with them for good reason.

McRaven's operations have been spared the same cutbacks so far applied to other units as Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reshape the nation's military to more mobile forces less reliant on large numbers of troops. That concept was one former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld propounded in Iraq. The problem, of course, was that while these blitzkrieg-like troops quickly undid the Iraqi military the lack of sufficient occupation troops to restore order was a clear liability.

America's commando units as personified by the Seals and Delta Force are among the most elite in the world. They are efficient, swift and fierce and they can be great intelligence gatherers. But, let's face it, there is a distinct danger in too much independence in these units. Rogue military operations aren't unknown in history. While it would be silly as well as unfair to accuse McRaven of trying to build his own command outside the Pentagon, the fear of a "Seven Days in May" scenario is always with us.

That does not mean that the nation should not move to more modern approaches in its efforts to adapt the military to a less expensive but more efficient security force. We certainly did that when we gave up conscription for a volunteer army.

The strength of the United States' security has been in its dedication to civilian rule of the military. The pieces between the Pentagon and the State Department should fit neatly into place without one disrupting the other. During the George W. Bush administration that wasn't always the case.

Once again is McRaven's proposal a bad idea? The answer is probably but only to the degree it disrupts the concept of a military strictly answerable to the civilian command structure.

Without full agreement of other pieces of the security puzzle, operations such as those he is recommending would do more harm than good.

On the other hand, the ability to move swiftly within those strictures is a valid concept, particularly when fast moving developments require quick response and reliable on-the-ground intelligence.

Otherwise, as the Greeks asked, "Who shall guard against the guardians?" It's a question as old as history.

Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan@aol.com.

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