The Reach of JSOC ‘the President’s Private Army’

Yves here. Sadly it goes with the terrain of being a great power to have thugs like our JSOC. For sticklers, the etymology of thug:

Also thugee, from the native Hindi name for the system of religious assassination practiced by the thugs. thuggish (adj.) “ruffianly, brutal and forceful,”

Even though the existence of these special forces is not a surprise, the scale of their operation might be.

By Thomas Neuburger. Originally published at God’s Spies

Whereas the late scholar of militarism Chalmers Johnson used to refer to the CIA as “the president’s private army“, today JSOC performs that role, acting as the chief executive’s private assassination squad, and its parent, SOCOM, functions as a new Pentagon power-elite, a secret military within the military possessing domestic power and global reach.
—Nick Turse

“[JSOC is] the ace in the hole. If you need someone that can sky dive from thirty miles away, go down the chimney of a castle, and blow it up from the inside — those are the guys you want to call on.
—General Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Clinton

I’m working on a series of novels set in the near future. But one aspect of these novels that’s decidedly not futuristic, near or otherwise, is U.S. government kill teams. This is an introduction to how JSOC (the Joint Special Operations Command) and how it operates. It’s drawn from the work of investigative reporter Nick Turse, now with The Intercept.

The President’s Private Army

Let’s start here, with this 2011 piece by Turse published in Aljazeera.

The US military’s secret military

Special US commandos are deployed in about 75 countries around the world – and that number is expected to grow

Somewhere on this planet a US commando is carrying out a mission. Now, say that 70 times and you’re done … for the day. Without the knowledge of much of the general American public, a secret force within the US military is undertaking operations in a majority of the world’s countries. This Pentagon power elite is waging a global war whose size and scope has generally been ignored by the mainstream media, and deserves further attention.

After a US Navy SEAL put a bullet in Osama bin Laden’s chest and another in his head, one of the most secretive black-ops units in the US military suddenly found its mission in the public spotlight. It was atypical. While it’s well known that US Special Operations forces are deployed in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it’s increasingly apparent that such units operate in murkier conflict zones like Yemen and Somalia, the full extent of their worldwide war has often remained out of the public scrutiny.

Keep in mind, this is 2011.

Last year, Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post reported that US Special Operations forces were deployed in 75 countries, up from 60 at the end of the Bush presidency.  By the end of this year, US Special Operations Command spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told me, that number will likely reach 120. “We do a lot of travelling – a lot more than Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said recently. This global presence – in about 60 per cent of the world’s nations and far larger than previously acknowledged – is evidence of a rising clandestine Pentagon power elite waging a secret war in all corners of the world.

Turse details the creation and rise of SOCOM (the Special Operations Command), one of eleven “unified combatant commands” run by the Pentagon. Others include CENTCOM (Central Command, responsible for the Middle East), NORTHCOM (responsible for domestic surveillance in North America) and others.

What does SOCOM do?

SOCOM carries out the United States’ most specialised and secret missions. These include assassinations, counterterrorist raids, long-range reconnaissance, intelligence analysis, foreign troop training, and weapons of mass destruction counter-proliferation operations[.]

SOCOM contains a sub-command called JSOC:

One of [SOCOM’s] key components is the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, a clandestine sub-command whose primary mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists. Reporting to the president and acting under his authority, JSOC maintains a global hit list that includes US citizens. It has been operating an extra-legal “kill/capture” campaign that John Nagl, a past counterinsurgency adviser to four-star general and soon-to-be CIA Director David Petraeus, calls “an almost industrial-scale counterterrorism killing machine”. […]

In addition, the command operates a network of secret prisons, perhaps as many as 20 black sites in Afghanistan alone, used for interrogating high-value targets.

Again, this is 2011, three years into Barack Obama’s presidency. But the bottom line is as striking now as it was then:

Whereas the late scholar of militarism Chalmers Johnson used to refer to the CIA as “the president’s private army“, today JSOC performs that role, acting as the chief executive’s private assassination squad, and its parent, SOCOM, functions as a new Pentagon power-elite, a secret military within the military possessing domestic power and global reach.

More on JSOC’s Earlier Days

Other articles from this period offer more context.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration began waging a global war on terrorism both openly and on the “dark side.” […] Directed by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the White House expanded the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) into a global capturing and killing machine.

In March 2009, investigative reporter for the New Yorker Seymour Hersh caused a minor controversy by telling an audience in Minnesota that he had uncovered “an executive assassination ring” that the Bush administration operated abroad. “It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently,” he said of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). “They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office.”

“Their real days of glory … really only started after 9/11,” Colonel Walter Patrick Lang, who spent much of his career in covert operations, told [writer Jeremy] Scahill. “They didn’t do a lot of fighting before that.”

Known within the covert ops community as ninjas or “snake eaters,” JSOC operators train to track a target, fix his position, and then finish him off without being detected.

“They’re the ace in the hole,” General Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Clinton, told Scahill. “If you need someone that can sky dive from thirty miles away, go down the chimney of a castle, and blow it up from the inside — those are the guys you want to call on.”

The real-life stuff of movies, straight from your imagination.

First, note Dick Cheney’s role in the JSOC story. They operated at his command.

Next, about “the end of the kills squads,” hold onto the salt shaker as you read that piece. Hersh has said many times that Obama changed little about Bush policies.

And as to “displacing the CIA,” don’t count on it. Since no one knows what the CIA does — perhaps even the CIA — displacement seems highly unlikely. Are there CIA kill teams today? According to my read of this, there used to be. Why would they want to stop?

JSOC Today

Where are we now? Another Nick Turse piece, this one from 2019, brings us mostly up to date. (See map at top.)

Revealed: The U.S. military’s 36 code-named operations in Africa

Between 2013 and 2017, U.S. special operations forces saw combat in at least 13 African countries, according to retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who served at U.S. Africa Command from 2013 to 2015 and then headed Special Operations Command Africa until 2017. Those countries, according to Bolduc, are Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia, South Sudan and Tunisia. He added that U.S. troops have been killed or wounded in action in at least six of them: Kenya, Libya, Niger, Somalia, South Sudan and Tunisia.

Yahoo News has put together a list of three dozen such operations across the continent.

The code-named operations cover a variety of different military missions, ranging from psychological operations to counterterrorism. Eight of the named activities, including Obsidian Nomad, are so-called 127e programs, named for the budgetary authority that allows U.S. special operations forces to use certain host-nation military units as surrogates in counterterrorism missions.

Used extensively across Africa, 127e programs can be run either by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the secretive organization that controls the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, the Army’s Delta Force and other special mission units, or by “theater special operations forces.” These programs are “specifically designed for us to work with our host nation partners to develop small — anywhere between 80 and 120 personnel — counterterrorism forces that we’re partnered with,” said Bolduc. “They are specially selected partner-nation forces that go through extensive training, with the same equipment we have, to specifically go after counterterrorism targets, especially high-value targets.”

Not all of the operations listed in the Yahoo report are murder squads. But Jupiter Nimbus in Nigeria (running a military operation against Boko Haram), or Paladin Hunter and Ultimate Hunter operating in Somalia, don’t look like teams of crossing guards.

“Ultimate Hunter”? Really?

As you peruse the list of operations in the Yahoo article, note also how many are “psychological” in nature. All of the ops named “Octave” appear to be doing information warfare.

Bottom Line

This suggests, or demands, several questions.

  1. Where else is JSOC operating? Africa and the Middle East can’t be the only places.
  2. Who really are they killing? Just “terrorists,” declared enemies of the U.S.? Or are they sent out by our “partners” to kill our partners’ enemies as well? The ongoing op against Boko Haram seems one example of the latter.
  3. Are they killing foreign politicians? Just curious.
  4. What are they doing domestically? NORTHCOM is responsible for North America, the “homeland.” JSOC isn’t geographically limited. Are people being quietly killed here as well?

In the real world, it’s hard to imagine the dystopia this represents. We are constrained by our assumptions. In fiction, however, imagination is plentiful, and many writers will challenge those assumptions by painting these pictures for you.

So what do you think is most likely — that the President and/or Pentagon murders only abroad, and is content to polish the furniture at home? Or something closer to what you’d think a self-important general, or Dick Cheney, might do?

I can’t answer any of those questions. But the questions are scary enough.

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  1. Cristobal

    Won’t be long before they are operating in the US – actually they probably have been for years, but this a growth industry.

  2. Cristobal

    Unfortunately neither the Russians nor the Chinese can cut this tumor out. We will have to do It ourselves. It will be painful and there may be blood – but hey, I’ll be retired by then!

    1. SocalJimObjects

      You never know, some of those people crossing the border everyday might very well be sleeper agents ready to help Americans clear out the swamp!!

  3. JohnA

    The British government has issued a so-called D-notice to media, i.e. an official request not to publish or broadcast anything about what British special force units are doing in Gaza. Likely similar stuff to the above US units.

  4. billb

    I sometimes wonder if there are any “real” terrorists, and what we are seeing is just factions of the US deep state fighting each other

    1. digi_owl

      Kinda sorta. What you likely see is repeated blowbacks from previous operations, resulting in USA creating its own enemies.

      Bin Laden, son of a Saudi construction magnate, joined the same mujaheddin that CIA was supplying weapons to in the 80s to fight the USSR in Afghanistan.

      1. Timothy Osman

        How do you determine what is ‘blowback’ versus ongoing black ops that are easily concealed behind the now widely accepted notion of ‘blowback’?

  5. none

    I remember a version of the Green Beret song:

    Fighting soldiers from the sky,
    Fearless men who jump and die
    They are crude and stupid brutes–
    They wouldn’t die with parachutes.

  6. ciroc

    If there were a similar organization in Russia, it would be called “Putin’s assassination squad”.

  7. The Rev Kev

    There has been criticism in the past that all these super-dooper soldiers can do is perform raids and it is all they want to do. But consider this from a return of investment point of view. That image of those four troopers? Each of them would have had millions of dollars spent on their training from when they first entered the military to the present day. Their uniforms and gear must be worth tens of thousands of dollars alone. Then think of all the support, the intelligence, transport, bases, supply and sustainment of these forces overseas. Now you are getting into the hundreds of millions of dollars territory. So who after they going after? Guys with sandals and AK-47s most likely. Does that make any sense?

    Then you have to consider that the US military is teaching those in Africa how to fight them. Like in Iraq, the stupid and slow to learn leaders would get themselves eliminated and a smarter guy would take over. So I ask you – how effective has the military been in Africa alone over the past twenty years or so?

    ” Terrorism in Africa increased 100,000% during ‘war on terror’ ”

    1. JTMcPhee

      As to effectiveness of this secret-squirrel shit, the point of course is that “we’ll never know, will we?”

    2. Trees&Trunks

      ” Terrorism in Africa increased 100,000% during ‘war on terror’ ”

      Self-licking ice cream cone. Send Americans to grow terrorism to send even more Americans to grow even more terrorism ad adventum Russia

    3. CA

      ” Terrorism in Africa increased 100,000% during ‘war on terror’ ”

      Simply look what happened in and then around and to the south of Libya in the wake of the US and European bombings. Libya had a large immigrant population to that time, but immigrants had no place after the government collapsed.

      Notice the instrument of French intervention in Libya, and think back to France in Algeria:

      April 1, 2011

      By His Own Reckoning, One Man Made Libya a French Cause

      PARIS – BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY, 62, is such an inescapable figure in France — of mockery, admiration, amusement, envy — that he is by now unembarrassable. Making his mark young as a philosopher, he was satirized neatly by a critic with the words: “God is dead, but my hair is perfect.”

      But in the space of roughly two weeks, Mr. Lévy managed to get a fledgling Libyan opposition group a hearing from the president of France and the American secretary of state, a process that has led both countries and NATO into waging war against the forces of the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi…

  8. Yaiyen

    From what I see, these people help USA spread terrorism and coup left wing governments what USA don’t like. If USA don’t care about their own people why would they send force anymore to do anything good for that country citizens . USA population is so brainwashed and so afraid of other countries. This make it impossible we will ever have peace in the world

  9. Camelotkidd

    What’s important to remember is that JSOC, SOCOM and all of the rest of the special forces are useful for expeditionary warfare against so-called Third World countries. However, Russia is demonstrating in Ukraine that these sorts of forces are less than ideal against a peer adversary armed with superior artillery, air-defense, hypersonic missiles and armored divisions. As many war bloggers have reminded us–industrial warfare never went away.
    I do think the salient point is that these forces will increasingly be used domestically against Americans. After all, everything that happen on the periphery of an empire returns to sender

    1. Patrick

      They are operating extensively in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia

      Whether they will tip the balance is hard to say. But Russia seems to suffer a lot of inexplicable bridge and factory explosions

  10. Carolinian

    Every Banana Republic needs a good assassination squad. One could suggest some Mossad influence but the Phoenix program in Vietnam (and the French before that had one too) provides a much longer track history.

  11. Susan the other

    I dunno, but this seems like another description of the same old klunky tactics of war. You can hear a helicopter coming loud and clear. Whereas a drone is downright stealthy by comparison. Much subtler than Commando Cody, the original rocket man, or even Superman. Who can hide and be sneaky while wearing all that noisy gear? This reads like a lotta propaganda bullshit. Not that we don’t have murder squads. But I’d be on the lookout for something so innocuous that it would require a dog’s sixth sense to spot. Maybe drive-by shooters with guided bullets. Or maybe just guided bullets.

  12. Hector

    The occupy oakland folks told tales of young fit men all in black that were the ones that went around downtown oakland smashing windows and setting things on fire then disappearing. Probably a bit low level work for JSOC, but this was during Trump. Hmmm…

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      The original Occupy, in the days of actual occupations, was crushed in a 17 city, coordinated paramilitary crackdown under Obama, not Trump.

        1. digi_owl

          Reads a bit like Black Bloc, though it is hard to tell these days if it exist as an idea still or if it has become wholly an agent provocateur thing (or if it always was).

  13. Expat2uruguay

    I’m surprised that journalists aren’t mentioned. I’m quite sure that these forces are mobilized against journalists and not just politicians

  14. WillD

    Yet more evidence of the excessively hostile US’ destructive activities around the world.

    It really is a cancer, a highly aggressive tumour that has spread throughout the body! But perhaps, and hopefully, that same cancer will end up killing the host – eventually.

  15. liz

    Is this the connection between Israel and the US? Do they do each others dirty work? Is this why the US seems incapable/unwilling to stop the massacre in Gaza.. because it doesn’t want to? Does it “owe” Israel one? New book by Antony Loewenstein”The Palestine Laboratory” describes Israel “this light unto the nations” (!) as basically a military dictatorship supplying whoever has the money with whatever weapons they want as well as training and probably supplying fighting forces when it could be embarrassing for the US.

  16. Barnabas Path

    Interesting. So, the Boeing whistleblower winds up committing “suicide” in the middle of his reportedly damaging Congressional testimony. From Investopedia: ” Boeing Segment Breakdown: Revenue: Defense, Space & Security, 39%. And, while the MSM plays a bit of sleight-of-hand with our Neocon government, “Hey, look over there! Putin just murdered Navalny!”, we are expected to not notice the similarities. Yeah, we don’t spy on our citizens.

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