May 18, 2008 — WASHINGTON — The military’s elite Special Operations Command has quietly stepped back from a controversial plan that gave it the authority to carry out secret counterterrorism missions on its own around the world.
The decision culminates four years of misgivings within the military that the command, based in Tampa, Fla., with its expertise in commando missions and unconventional war, would use its broader mandate too aggressively, by carrying out operations that had not been reviewed or approved by other senior generals. A new Special Operations commander, Adm. Eric T. Olson of the Navy Seals, has now said publicly that he intends to play a different role, and will instead continue the command’s new mission as coordinator of the military’s counterterrorism efforts around the world.
The shift reverses what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld put in place in 2004, when he said he wanted the Special Operations Command to operate unilaterally; he believed it would be more aggressive in hunting down terrorists than the regional commanders who are tied most closely to conventional forces.
Roger D. Carstens, a 20-year veteran of Special Operations missions who is now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington policy institute, said the Special Operations Command finally “came to the conclusion that its role is not to be that of a global Lone Ranger who shows up at the last second to dispatch the bad guys.
“That just can’t be done,” Mr. Carstens said, “or rather it should not be done.”
The change is the latest rejection of initiatives that Mr. Rumsfeld set forth during his almost six years as defense secretary, before stepping down in 2006.
His successor, Robert M. Gates, has increased the size of the ground forces, a move Mr. Rumsfeld resisted; signed off on a plan to keep more troops in Europe than Mr. Rumsfeld had envisioned; and called for future budgets to focus on the weapons needed to fight insurgents and terrorists today, rather than on investments in next-generation technology advocated by Mr. Rumsfeld.
Mr. Gates, a former director of central intelligence, has also reined in some Pentagon intelligence operations and has otherwise sought to ease tensions caused by what intelligence officials saw as Mr. Rumsfeld’s attempts to give the Pentagon a more dominant role in American spying efforts.
It is not known how Mr. Gates views the decision by the Special Operations Command to back away from Mr. Rumsfeld’s view of its role. The defense secretary has not discussed it publicly, and senior aides said they were not privy to his thinking on the matter.
But senior Pentagon and military officers made clear that the Special Operations Command was not independently carrying out its own secret counterterrorism missions, but was coordinating counterterrorism planning across the military, as well as fulfilling its traditional role of training and equipping Special Operations forces for the armed services.
Mr. Rumsfeld outlined his views in 2004 by advocating what was known as a new Unified Command Plan, one that would have shifted the center of gravity within the military. It declared that the Special Operations Command “leads, plans, synchronizes, and as directed, executes global operations against terrorist networks.” He stressed that his reorganization was intended to permit the command to send out its own small teams to capture or kill terrorists.
But Admiral Olson used a speech in March to the Center for a New American Security to register disagreement with that approach.
“There was some sense that from our headquarters in Tampa we were in the business of directing specific activities that were really in the area of operations of other commanders, and we really don’t do that,” Admiral Olson said in the speech. The admiral initially spoke off the record, but under an agreement with his command, the policy institute later posted his remarks on its website, www.cnas.org. “What we really do is we synchronize plans and planning in the global war on terror,” he added.
Counterterrorism missions continue to be carried out under regional commanders, Admiral Olson said. Officers at the Special Operations Command, he said, “receive the plans, review the plans, coordinate the plans, deconflict them.” He also said the command made recommendations to the Joint Chiefs and the defense secretary “on how resources ought to be allocated around the world to match the demands of the global war on terror.”
Senior officials familiar with the admiral’s thinking say his comments reflect the same cautious approach that his predecessors have adopted in interpreting Mr. Rumsfeld’s directive, and they say it is in keeping with the instruction that the Special Operations Command carry out its own missions only when first directed by the president or the defense secretary. Senior officials said that that had rarely, if ever, actually happened.
Mr. Carstens, of the Center for a New American Security, said that when the Unified Command Plan was first approved by Mr. Rumsfeld, many people thought the Special Operations Command would conduct military operations regardless of whether regional commanders had approved the missions. The Rumsfeld vision has been rejected. “It is not what we thought it was going to be when we first received the authority,” Mr. Carstens said. The way missions are carried out today, he added, “is not much different than what we have always done.”
In many ways, Mr. Rumsfeld’s goals for the Special Operations Command are being carried out by a subordinate unit, called the Joint Special Operations Command.
The Joint Special Operations Command is in charge of the most secretive counterterrorism units of the armed forces, and is credited with capturing or killing many of the most-wanted terrorist or insurgent leaders, including Saddam Hussein. In carrying out its missions, this elite command operates in full coordination with the regional commanders in the Middle East, East Asia or other parts of the world