I never thought the day would arrive when I would have to rise to the public defense of a former aide to Dick Cheney, but that day is here. A few weeks ago, Seymour Hersh said the following in a speech in Minnesota:
"Right now, today, there was a story in the New York Times that if you read it carefully mentioned something known as the Joint Special Operations Command -- JSOC it’s called. It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently. They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office. They did not report to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff or to Mr. [Robert] Gates, the secretary of defense. They reported directly to him. ...
"Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on. Just today in the Times there was a story that its leaders, a three star admiral named [William H.] McRaven, ordered a stop to it because there were so many collateral deaths.
"Under President Bush’s authority, they’ve been going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving. That’s been going on, in the name of all of us.
I read all this and chuckled. Describing the Joint Special Operations Command as an "executive assassination ring" is just hilarious. And Hersh later walked back from some of the language he used. But the progressive media has jumped on this story like it's the next great scandal of the Bush Administration.
John Hannah was then called upon to talk about this on CNN, which was probably a bad choice because a) anything defended by a Cheney aide is immediate dismissed as evil by approximately 70% of the country and b) it's not like the JSOC is some partisan task force that went away when Obama was elected. But if you ignore who the messenger was, what was said by Hannah was essentially correct. I cannot, I think you all understand, get into the task organization or mission of the organization, but we all understand that within the U.S. military there exist special operations task forces which specialize in direct action missions -- killing and capturing high-value targets. Understand that there is a real need to tie these task forces into the greater overall strategies in play in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I talked about this need at length in my recent op-ed for Small Wars Journal. We cannot have a special operations task force pursuing missions uncoordinated with the theater and local commanders. But I don't think any of us would dispute the need for highly-trained, highly-specialized commandos capable of carrying out "capture or kill" or hostage-rescue missions of some high degree of strategic importance. (Remember Desert One?)
But there is some really great irony in play here. It is pretty much one of the worst-kept secrets in the U.S. special operations community that one of the most prominent commanders in this task force is also one of the most politically liberal general officers in the U.S. military. Like to the left of the Center for American Progress. So trying to paint the task force as the minions of Dick Cheney is really funny if only for that reason.
In the end, one of the problems with carrying out training and missions under a high degree of security classification is that it encourages some really silly conspiracy-mongering. And hauling out John Hannah to respond to those conspiracies probably wasn't the best decision.