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The Loudest “Quiet Professionals”: Why We Disagree with the “Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund”

While we don’t normally “chase the news”, we just can’t ignore the dark-money “public interest” group, “Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund”, which entered the 2012 presidential news cycle under breathless headlines like, “Former SEALs, Intel Officers, Form Group Assailing White House for Leaks”.

In one fell swoop, this group combines OPSEC, over-classification, leaks and intelligence, with heaps of counter-terrorism, into one story. (Though we’ll discuss the story, we won’t dive into the presidential politics.)

Like the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund (Okay, that name is too long. SOOEF from here on out.), we have called out the Obama administration for leaking too much classified information. Unlike SOOEF, we’ve also criticized the Obama administration for prosecuting whistleblowers, and we believe the Senate should finally pass a “Whistleblower Protection Act”.

But we also think SOOEF’s criticism shouldn’t stop with the President Obama. If SOOEF really wants to stop classified information from being leaked, it needs to target the biggest source of leaks to journalists:

Special Operations folks.

That’s right. The biggest hole in the national security boat comes from the “quiet professionals” who love to get their moment in the spotlight. Like in print. Amazon has over 3,600 books on Navy SEALs, over 3,000 on Delta Force, over 3,800 on Army Rangers and another couple hundred on the uber secret Intelligence Support Activity. The term “special forces” has almost 20,000 hits in the history section alone. Obviously, some of these searches return the same books, but when Amazon has three times as many books on Navy SEALs than seals (the animals), you lose the rights to the term, “quiet professional”.

And if they aren’t writing books (or telling their stories to people writing books) Special Operations soldiers from SEALs to JSOC to the CIA to the Rangers to Delta Force are talking to journalists. From Dana Priest to Jeremy Scahill to Seymour Hersh to Marc Ambinder to David Ignatius to Nicholas Schmidle to Spencer Ackerman to Michael Hastings to Tara McElvey, multiple journalists have gotten the “inside” scoop on the elite world of special operations. Especially after the Osama bin Laden raid, almost every American heard about “DevGru”, which means Special Warfare Development Group, the home to SEAL Team 6, the Navy SEAL version of Delta Force, which is allegedly a secret.

These scoops always cast special operations men and women in amazingly good light. As we wrote in our "On V Update to Old Ideas", Ignatius called JSOC a “a highly effective killing machine”. Ambinder has called JSOC, “one of the most formidable and least-understood elements in America’s military arsenal”. Spencer Ackerman describes their reputation in America as “uber elite”. Scahill has the highest praise for Navy SEALs, saying many consider them, “the most elite warriors in the US national security apparatus”.

One Navy SEAL even told Dana Priest, “We’re the dark matter. We’re the force that orders the universe but can’t be seen”.

But how far can books and magazines really reach? Only Hollywood can truly turn sailors into superheros. Nowadays, Hollywood doesn’t just make up stories about special operators like they did in the 1980s. (Remember Delta Force? Navy SEALs?) Last spring, Act of Valor starred real life Navy SEALs. Zero Dark Thirty will tell the story of the Osama bin Laden raid, based allegedly on the leaks that kicked this whole thing off. And, eventually, Mark Wahlberg, Eric Bana, Taylor Kitsch and Emile Hirsch will portray Navy SEALs in Lone Survivor.

Can you see the through line? SEALs pride themselves on being “quiet professionals”, but the SEALs just can’t stop talking...about themselves. From books to magazines to movies, SEALs and secret commandos in JSOC keep telling the world what a great job they are doing and how they’re doing it. The Osama bin Laden raid just cemented the reputation. Sure, President Obama and his administration leaked information to make themselves look good, but so does JSOC, SEAL Team Six and the larger Special Operations community.
Will SOOEF tell other special operators to pipe down? Like Marcus Luttrell? Or pseudonymous “Mark Owen”, whose book describing the Osama bin Laden raid, No Easy Day, comes out on 9/11? Probably not.
Recently, Admiral McRaven and Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey have both chided special operators, especially SEALs, for their leaks. I doubt SOOEF will listen. SOOEF is a partisan political group, not a public interest group. And they don’t really care about OPSEC.

six comments

Sorry, this idea really infuriates me. America is infatuated with its warriors, that I understand. Everyone is naturally interested in the “best of the best”.

But this coverage only serves to prove the point, in an intellectually faulty way. We can’t really know how effective special operations troops are unless we know ALL the information, and leaks just designed to make SOCOM look good won’t really provide that balanced coverage. The Cleveland Browns would appear to be an amazing football team if we only covered their wins, and not their losses.

Excellent post. Such glorification might prove detrimental for that well trained community. Achilles, too, believed his own hype and “sent forth to Hades many valiant souls.”

Sorry for the melodrama, but you’re right on.

We are going to apply this sentiment to the larger military too, but if no one is allowed to criticize you, its hard to improve. That applies to the military and to our society in general.

If anything, the events surrounding the Navy SEALs this past week show that “OPSEC” just isn’t what you think it is in the 21st Century. Most “OPSEC” champions really do assume that the enemy (and the public in general) is stupid.

(Full disclosure: This comes from a draft blog post I never used…though one which features extensive links to On Violence)

In today’s world, anyone with an iPhone has become an intelligence collector; while interested crowdsourcers have become analysts.

The raid was so daring because Osama bin Laden was snatched from right under the noses of the Pakistani military: The al-Qaeda mastermind was holed up for years in a walled fortress, just a few hundred meters from the Pakistani Military Academy, and within one hundred miles of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

It would have been futile to conceal the raid. One Abbotabad inadvertently live-Tweeted the entire affair. Crowdsourcers had managed to post a a Google map on Facebook, pinpointing the location of the raid within a few hundred meters.

The raid also left behind physical evidence, namely, the tail rotor section of one of the stealth helicopters. Aviation enthusiasts (including yours truly) soon noted that the aft section did not come from a conventional Black Hawk helicopter, and quickly surmised that the aircraft was a previously-unknown, stealth design.

The Pakistani government, slowly but surely, had cordoned off the area and began to search the site. (You know, the same Pakistani government which might have known that Osama bin Laden were hiding there, and promptly surmised that he was either captured or killed)

As there was no denying that something took place in Abbotabad, the United States had to act quickly to control the narrative for two important reasons.

First, the US needed to quickly gain the moral high ground in the wake of the raid, as relations between the two nations were certain to sour. Second, and most importantly, the United States realized that the killing of Osama bin Laden was a major symbolic victory. Bin Laden had largely been marginalized, his ideology outsources to spinoff groups in Yemen and the Horn of Africa. Yet, he remained a powerful inspirational figure to thousands of jihadists, and a perennial sore point for the United States, which had been mired in two costly wars in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. By announcing that Osama bin Laden was killed midnight attack, the US had a much needed moment of elation and unity. Incidentally, it also prevented al Qaeda from ruining the moment by falsely claiming that bin Laden had died of natural causes, ruining any symbolic victory the United States might have received.

And indeed, for all the talk about security, some former SEALs are quick to use their credentials to peddle their stories, merchandise, and yes, their own political agendas. “Rogue Warrior” Dick Marcinko has sold thousands of books focusing on SEAL tactics, leadership, and serves as a consultant to many Hollywood producers. Former SEALs regularly hawk books on physical fitness and self-defense, while others use the Trident to peddle their own brand of nutjobbery.

Last year, former SEAL Chuck Pfarrer used his SEAL cred to pen “SEAL Target Geronimo”, which is either the most gratuitous work of self-insertion since Mariah Carey’s Glitter, or an elaborate deception operation. SEALs widely decried the book as a “fabrication”. Others didn’t buy Pfarrer’s allegation that Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction somehow wound up in the hands of Osama bin Laden in his secret hideout: a fact that was covered up by the media, and worse yet, “the politicians”.

Nor is Pfarrer the only former SEAL to spout this theory. Former SEAL Marcus Littrel also alleges an uber-Saddam/Osama/WMD consipracy; and despite his claims that he “doesn’t get into politics”, certainly loves to castigate the “liberal” media and the Democratic party for the deaths of his former SEALs.

(And don’t forget former UDT member Jesse Ventura, who hosts a television show on conspiracies)

I were the cynical sort (and I am), I think this obsession with “OPSEC” is there to a.) create a mystique and b.) protect the institution from any criticism. Neither are healthy.

We will bug out of Afghanistan unsuccessful, thwarted by a bunch of guys in flip flops. One of our primary ways to combat the people who are thwarting us are night raids, conducted by the spec ops supersoldiers. After our departure the night raids will be hailed as a big success and the supersoldiers will tell us how well the raids worked and how well the supersoldiers executed them. Somehow they won’t make the connection that the night raids didn’t result in the defeat of the flip flopped night letter carriers. What will be curious is most of us won’t call them on that.