With little policy guidance or public attention, the Donald Trump administration has further expanded former President Barack Obama’s use of lethal counterterrorism operations in nonbattlefield countries — namely Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. During the final 193 days of Obama’s presidency, there were 21 such operations. Over a comparable number of days under President Trump, there have been five times as many operations: at least 92 in Yemen, four in Pakistan, and six in Somalia.
The workhorse for these expanded missions is the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) — a sub-unified command of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). We know that JSOC, and not the CIA, is the lead executive authority for these operations because they are overt, rather than covert. Military officials have publicly explained the missions, and the Defense Department has even issued press releases about them. (The only operations undeclared were the reported four drone strikes in Pakistan — a country that the CIA has been bombing intermittently since the summer of 2004.) Operations in Yemen and Somalia — which fall under Title 10, the part of U.S. law that outlines the role and authority of the armed forces — are broadly acknowledged and even reported to Congress every six months.
Despite that, the public knows relatively little about the organization carrying them out. We can catch glimpses inside JSOC from anecdotal reporting or from rare histories, like Sean Naylor’s masterful Relentless Strike. But the extent of America’s understanding of the primary military command responsible for “direct action” operations is best summarized by President George W. Bush’s declaration in 2008: “Listen, JSOC is awesome.”
Through a series of discussions and interviews over the past few years, I have uncovered insights into how the command has evolved, how the congressional oversight of its lethal operations is really exercised, and what the limits are to what JSOC, however “awesome” it may be, is able to accomplish.
Headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, JSOC was stood up in 1980, as a response to the organizational and planning shortcomings of the ad hoc, failed rescue mission of 52 Americans held hostage in Iran. The operational core comprises special mission units, such as the Army’s Delta Force, the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, Army and Air Force aviation units, and other generally classified…