Open Orders
January 8, 2003 8:51 AM   Subscribe

"Just do it. I don't care how." 'In a significant transformation...U.S. Special Operations Command...and its satellite units around the world, can now plan and execute their own hunt-and-destroy missions.' An "Open Order" is a very, very dangerous thing. A real life License to Kill, issued to thousands of men.
posted by kablam (34 comments total)
Disturbing. The question of how much damage one man in the White House can do is being answered every day.
posted by widdershins at 9:04 AM on January 8, 2003

First let me say I am hardly a lover of the man in the White House. But why get overly dramatic about what the article really is saying. We have been told that one way the terror cells remain so difficult root out is that they are not like a huge interlocking group but work on their own in small units, allowed to do what they are mindful to do when they so decide, though perhaps at times taking a hint that summons a number of cells to act in unison.
Allthispecialops thing says is that their mission is to find and destroy. There is no need to seek, find, and wait for authorization from someplace miles away.
There seems to be built-in regulations that would not simply cut loose a batch of "wild men" to go all over the place and killing randomly. In sum: a new approach for a new type of warfare.
posted by Postroad at 9:09 AM on January 8, 2003

They are simply streamlining their operations, not giving individual teams authority to operate autonomously. You still have a coalition of branches, and a politically sensitive general, that will pay a heavy price if mistakes are made.
posted by rotifer at 9:24 AM on January 8, 2003

lets just hope the guys running the assasination from the skies program have better command and control than these guys. sounds like an accident waiting to happen.
posted by specialk420 at 9:28 AM on January 8, 2003

Sure makes sense to me... Conventional forces are poorly suited to fight the threat we face. Special forces train specifically for the work of finding, capturing, or killing individuals or small groups in hostile and hard to reach places. If you want to feed your end-of-the-world fantasies by imagining thousands of crazed green berets roaming the planet whacking anyone who rubs them the wrong way, knock yourself out. But would you rather we use B52s, Hellcat armed Predator drones, AC-130 gunships, or entire infantry divisions blundering around (all of which we have been doing BTW) to catch/kill a handful of guys...or would you rather send in a highly trained and disciplined group of soldiers to snatch 'em in the dark. I would think that you would be happier with the political and PR ramifications of the latter.... This doesn't change the fact that SOCOM still reports to civilian leadership...just that the decision making power has been shifted from conventional command to commanders better able to understand the enemy they face.
posted by cyclopz at 9:29 AM on January 8, 2003

I agree with cyclopz.
posted by chris0495 at 9:45 AM on January 8, 2003

I wish I could come up with the exact quote, but famed "Rogue Warrior" (SEAL Team 6 plank-owner CO) Richard Marcinko once decried the stupidity whereby SpecNavWar operators, who have very different needs and procedures from the rest of the Navy, have to respond to the command and control of higher-ups who don't understand commanding anything that isn't "gray, pointy at one end, and named for a state."

Special Operations is one of the most independent but integrated joint-service aspects of the US military, and it's better left to do its own thing its own way than having to play "Mother, May I?" every time it needs to do its job. If anything, it ought to be an independent armed service.
posted by alumshubby at 10:03 AM on January 8, 2003

Put your kneejerk anti-Bush sentiment to the side for a moment (I hate the cowboy too). Al Qaeda is a different type of enemy, and it would be foolhardy to think that standard combat techniques will still suffice. If the military had been given this freedom earlier, maybe Al Qaeda head people (like Bin Laden) wouldn't have been able to escape at Tora Bora.
posted by owillis at 10:08 AM on January 8, 2003

So you anticipate this being different from the notorious Phoenix Program?

Perhaps being straightforward about it will help us avoid the pitfalls of (past) U.S. covert operations. Perhaps not.
posted by kablam at 10:14 AM on January 8, 2003

Mr. Rumsfeld did not supply specific budget numbers. But officials told The Times that SoCom's $4.9 billion annual budget will be increased to $6 billion in fiscal 2004. In all, it will receive a $7 billion increase to buy new weapons and equipment, and accommodate the new personnel.

I did have a kneejerk response, you're right. I have to admit I don't have a very open mind when it comes to all the money, energy and time being poured into creating war. In theory, preventing the 'mother, may I' chain sounds like a good idea, but what is really happening is that more power to kill and destroy with fewer restrictions is being given to more people. That does not sit well with me.
posted by widdershins at 10:15 AM on January 8, 2003

" A real life License to Kill, issued to thousands of men."

No. That would be the license given to al Qaeda agents - Kill everyone vaguely related to American interests. To date this includes civilians, soldiers, airplane passengers, disco patrons and office workers. Special Ops is not being given the green light to blow up *anything* in the hopes some terrorists might be present. I'm sure you see the difference.

However, I think as a policy this will only make the problem worse. It's another one of those "the world is black and white" logic errors Bush & Co. are so fond of. Inevitably mistakes will happen. It will cause more hatred. More terrorists will be created than will be killed.

Bush, in his "don't mess with Texas" way, is trying to frighten terrorists into inaction. I'm mystified as to how that is suppose to work.

If Special Ops can track down al Qaeda agents can shoot them in the head without it becoming a PR nightmare, I have zero problem with that. But something tells me it won't turn out that way.
posted by y6y6y6 at 10:21 AM on January 8, 2003

I have to agree with cyclopz, here... this is what we should have done from the beginning, or at least much sooner. Surgical strikes by smaller groups = fewer civilian casualties and less collateral damage.
posted by RylandDotNet at 10:22 AM on January 8, 2003

Aaeeii!!......Ideological lines breaking down. must. stick to. leftist line. must criticize program. must criticize US military. must.........

Well actually, given the apparent complete inability of the CIA and FBI to deter the 9-11 terrorists despite a deluge of warnings from foreign goverments, clues, memos from field agents, and so on - due to (it is claimed) bureaucratic centralization - maybe this is a good idea. Flexibility - individual initiative in the field in response to unanticipated challenges - has historically been one of the great strengths (when allowed, that is) of the US military.

BUT.....(and there almost always a 'but' in Troutfishing commentary)...I worry about the habits and attitudes this program will give rise to; giving small groups in the military relatively wide latitude to carry out special ops around the world - including extra-judicial killings (albeit with - perhaps - the sanction of local government) may give rise to attitudes in the US military which could become contemptuous of US legal prescriptions against such "special ops" within the US.

The Ashcroft Justice department has not yet succeeded in 'streamlining' the US legal system in terms of eliminating all civil rights for US citizens (and just as importantly, the belief that we posess rights) - Given the legal difficulties associated with prosecuting suspected terrorists, especially when they are also US citizens (inside the US) within the traditional machinery of the US legal system, I wonder about the temptation for these new US "angels of death" to quietly dispatch potentially enemies INSIDE the US, especially in cases in which US citizens become terrorist suspects.

Could the "War on Terrorism" ever develop dynamics in the US similar, for example, to the Argentinian governments' "dirty war" against the Argentinian left during the 1970's?

It is the perpetual temptation (and madness) of state power to believe that it knows best, and to use organs and institutions of the state - especially police, the military, and the courts - to curtail, reign in or even crush dissent.

Will the pursuit of "flexibility" (read as extra-judicial operations and assasination) in the amorphous and perpetual "War on Terrorism" be the eventual undoing of US democracy?
posted by troutfishing at 10:22 AM on January 8, 2003

*heavy, slow drum beat fading to ominous music...*
posted by troutfishing at 10:26 AM on January 8, 2003

extra-judicial operations and assasination

OK, now how is sneaking up on an al-Qa'ida leader and sending an anti tank missle through his car different from sneaking up on a platoon of Iraqi soldiers and dropping a GPS-guided bomb on them?

Assasinating politicians is one thing, and everyone agrees it is a bad idea, but these Jihadis are soldiers. Moreover, they are soldiers who don't observe even the most basic rules of civilized warfare such as respecting the rights of noncombatants, carrying arms openly, responding to a well-defined chain of command, etc.
posted by ednopantz at 10:37 AM on January 8, 2003

civilized warfare. heh.
posted by tolkhan at 10:42 AM on January 8, 2003

civilized warfare. heh.

Strange as the phrase sounds, there are rules for warfare, most of which came out of the horrid experiences of WWII: the Blitz, the firebombing of Dresden, the Rape of Nanking, Hiroshima, etc.

The trouble is that there are people, on the international scene mostly Islamists and, to a lesser extent Palestinian nationalists, who feel that any action they engage in in the name of jihad is inherently legitimate.

Here is a world where both Islamists and Western powers shed those rules:
Imagine, for a moment, if Israel responded to Sunday's suicide bombing inside the Green Line (an attack directed at Israeli civilians) by blanketing Jericho with artillery shells (attacking Palestinian civilians) instead of attacking alleged Palestinian arms factories (which are military targets). How about if the US responded to Sep 11 by shelling Jidda and firebombing Riyadh, killing thousands of Saudi civilians in response to Saudis killing thousands of US civilians?

By comparison, the world we live in looks downright civilized.
posted by ednopantz at 11:08 AM on January 8, 2003

How about if the US responded to Sep 11 by shelling Jidda and firebombing Riyadh, killing thousands of Saudi civilians in response to Saudis killing thousands of US civilians?

Instead, the US response will be to bomb Baghdad and kill thousands of Iraqi civilians. Now that's civilized.
posted by goethean at 11:34 AM on January 8, 2003

kablam, learn something about the military, will you?

Planning and executing missions is not the same thing as selecting missions. Just because SOCOM does not have to report to CENTCOM before they go to the bathroom does not mean that they have "open orders" or a "license to kill". SOCOM still takes its orders from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They won't be deciding all on their own that Fahim Muhajir of Upper Baluchistan is toast. They will be given that mission (on the assumption that poor Fahim is indeed a legitimate military target) by the appropriate chain of command just as they always have. The only difference is that now they will be able to decide on their own what resources to use, what type of operation to use, and how and when to execute.

Perhaps you should turn off the James Bond movies (fun as they are, 007's "license" had little to do with the laws of war, or even real spycraft) and read the thinking of real military officers about their own operations, command authority, mission selection, and service organization. Sure, Phoenix was a horrible example, "burning the village in order to save it" on the scale of a small nation, but it was primarily a CIA/Republic of Viet Nam operation. (SOCOM did not even exist at the time.) If anything, it illustrates the dangers of counter-insurgency being run by the wrong people, and underscores why SOCOM should have expanded operational independence from the regional military commands. In any case, another Phoenix could happen regardless of how the Pentagon structures its military commands if we return to those bad old days of using the military to achieve quotidian political objectives, a lesson that practically the entire officer corps would tell you in a heartbeat was a colossal mistake. That alone should tell you that the war you invoke has brought about some bitter lessons learned.

Some days, I get the impression that Chuck Rangel had a point, if only because a draft would mean that more people would understand the military (and the military would have a broader class of people in it). In many ways, liberals just plain don't get national security issues, at least since 1970 or so -- to their political detriment. I know you come from a different viewpoint, kablam, but I suspect the same tendency is at work.
posted by dhartung at 11:35 AM on January 8, 2003

Imagine, for a moment, if Israel responded to Sunday's suicide bombing inside the Green Line

Strange as the phrase sounds, there are rules for warfare, most of which came out of the horrid experiences of WWII

Israel has been a consistent violator of the Geneva Coneventions (precisely what you are talking about in the second pull quote) by engaging in collective punishment, using lethal force against unarmed non-combatants, land confiscation, illegal imprisonment without charge or trial, and use of torture among other violations. These violations are well documented by, among others, the US State department.

You are attempting to show the moral superiority of "the west" by using the example of Israel and failing miserably, as you overlook the daily grave violations of the 'rules of war,' while comparing an elected democratic government with a suicide terrorist group. My question is, do you deny that Israel commits daily serious violations of the Geneva conventions (which has led to far more deaths of non-combatants than suicide bombings by non state actors), and thus repudiate the US Government's findings, or do you just think that as long as these violations are not in the form of a single deadly attack, they don't matter?
posted by cell divide at 11:54 AM on January 8, 2003

OK cell divide, I'll bite. Sure, the Israelis are violating rights. Absolutely they need to come up with a way to get out of most of the West Bank and most of the Gaza strip, but they don't have a partner they can work with. The PA is worthless, incapable of even controlling its own myriad security forces, IJ and Hamas are opposed to any negotiated settlement. So where does that leave them? If the deal was land for peace, I don't have a problem with reoccupying if peace isn't forthcoming. Even the PA now admits that "militarizing the Intifada" was a disastrous mistake.

Nonetheless, their conduct of the war (they are fighting a war) has been remarkably restrained. They have responded to attacks on their civilians largely by arresting, not killing the perpetrators. Even where they have attacked their enemies, they have targeted combatants hiding among civilians and not the civilians themselves. They could have responded to wave after wave of suicide bombings by attacking Palestinian civilians, using their vastly superior firepower to kill in the same indiscriminate fashion as their enemies. (If they are actually trying to kill civilians, they are doing an uncharacteristically crap job of it).

In fact, I would argue that if anything, they have erred on the side of restraint, and have actually weakened the civilized rules of warfare by eliminating the disincentives of not cooperating. Their line should be: "You attack our civilians, we attack yours, and we have vastly more firepower than you. Neither of us wants that." This was the balance of terror that eventually emerged in southern Lebanon.

You might not like the Israelis, but their tactics are more civilized than their enemies', despite their enemies' better moral case. How this came about is testament to the astonishing stupidity, lack of vision, and sheer bloody mindedness of the Palestinian leadership. Of course the reason the Israelis get singled out is in part because we assume their Arab enemies are somehow incapable of moral action, and therefore we excuse their barbarities.
posted by ednopantz at 12:38 PM on January 8, 2003

esp. dhartung. Trouble is, I *do* know more than something about the military.

Something I once pointed out to my lowly company commander in Europe was that he had only four real peers in theater that did what he did. So no matter what all the brass in the Pentagon or Branch had to say about doctrine or policy, if those five Captains wanted to do otherwise, within reason, they did it their way. And the more combative and confused the circumstances, the greater the authority that devolved down to just those five, at least in as far as their specialty.
In Vietnam, much is said about "body counts." That is still only the perspective from above, *not* the point of view of the "executors" of the conflict. For them, the perspective was of the "personal ethics" of whoever the local boss was.
If your boss, be he a Lieutenant, a Captain, Major, Colonel, General or civilian, commanded your respect and understanding, you would most likely be willing to "take care" of an obvious problem that would be difficult to explain to higher ups who didn't really know the situation.

If you did not respect him or his judgement, you were faced with a moral dilemma.

And this is the everlasting problem of soldiers, doing what is necessary in wartime, yet to face condemnation by civilians who were not there, for doing what they did, after the fact. And this is what will be faced by the men going into harm's way.

First, through ordinary command channels, they will be sent into an area to search for a designated target. Once in the area, their chain of command shortens considerably. Eventually, their team leader will be the man who will determine what will be done. And if you are sending men around the world looking for targets, how low level is the authority to kill? Will the decision be made by a Colonel, a Captain or a Lieutenant? Will he even be an officer or just a lowly assassin?

This is hard enough in a shooting war, when your enemy is armed, uniformed and fighting back. Do you want someone to murder a man because he *thinks* he looks like the man in the picture he was sent to kill? Sniper assassins in Vietnam worked at this level, and often killed someone only ID'ed through a scope, as often as not, not their intended victim.
posted by kablam at 12:44 PM on January 8, 2003

Instead, the US response will be to bomb Baghdad and kill thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Gothean, far as I know, there are no plans to attack civilian targets, as much as the Iraqi regime would like that. Natually, they will do their best to ensure that as many innocents die as possible by putting legitimate military targets in civilian areas, sacrificing their own people for propaganda points.

How one deals with this is a problem. Do you 1) refrain from attacking those targets, thus rewarding the combining of military and civilian targets and ensuring the practice will continue or 2) attack anyway and risk killing or maiming the innocent?
posted by ednopantz at 12:44 PM on January 8, 2003

One question:

How long will it take before this shiny new tactic will be used in Central and South America to eliminate leaders and governments the Duhbya cabal don't like?
posted by nofundy at 1:17 PM on January 8, 2003

Not to, like, get back to the article or anything, but isn't all this saying is that SoCom will now be more autonomous? Not that they're going free-fire in or anything, just that rather than having their orders handed to them, they'll be drafting their own plan?

A reorganize, in other words...
posted by Ogre Lawless at 2:08 PM on January 8, 2003

posted by Ogre Lawless at 2:09 PM on January 8, 2003

During Operation Just Cause in Panama, there was a total goatf**k when somebody micromanaged how Noriega's personal aircraft was to be taken out at Patilla airfield.

In part, from the link:

Clearly, the tradgedy at Patilla was the fault of poor planning. But there were many factors that played into the events that took place, and many questions that should be asked. Why weren't the Rangers given this mission? Why did the Naval command decide to use such a large operating force? Why was the advice of an experienced operator and decorated SEAL ignored?

If this change in command style makes it harder for this kind of catastrophe to happen, I'm all for it.
posted by alumshubby at 2:37 PM on January 8, 2003

far as I know, there are no plans to attack civilian targets, as much as the Iraqi regime would like that.

So much for trying to deal with the regime by understanding it. Statements like this display little else than a storybook demonization of the enemy, which many a propagandist knows you need to make mass slaughter acceptable. It's like saying that the Bush Admin 'liked' 11/9...
posted by holycola at 2:59 PM on January 8, 2003

I trust SpecOps guys. They're screened pretty carefully and then subjected to intense training that capitalizes on a pronounced, inate characteristic of self-mastery. So, I don't worry about them too much. What I worry about is the source of the intel they're operating on.
I fear we'll see credible men being used as hit squads against legitimate dissidents or people that those providing the intelligence deem unworthy of life. It certainly wouldn't be the first time we got roped into that b.s.

I think the only way we could do something like this and maintain a relative degree of certainty that these guys were targeting true military enemies - would be for SOCOM to have its own, completely independant intel wing. They would provide reports to a sitting president, but be answerable only to a closed Congressional committee and the GAO. Something like that anyway...
posted by Tiger_Lily at 5:54 PM on January 8, 2003

Thinking more about this, I'm leaning more towards snatch squads and trial - maybe an extension of an international court. It'd be a lot more complicated and it might yield far fewer actors, but it seems like the sheer effort involved would increase the reliability of the information they're using to justify it. I just think the potential for abuse of intel is too high, no matter who's controling it, when the kill is too easy to hide.
posted by Tiger_Lily at 11:07 PM on January 8, 2003

A disclaimer: I work at Special Ops Command South. All the melodramatic talk about "open orders", etc. is ridiculous.
dhartung has allready stated the simple truth, so I won't
belabor the obvious.
posted by mcchesnj at 11:29 PM on January 8, 2003

Well, I disagree with "the obvious." Because obviously, it is not SOCOM Generals who will be in a dozen or more countries, killing people. mcchesnj: wouldn't you agree that perspectives at the troop level are far different than at Command HQ?
The purpose of a General is political liason. The Colonel is the HQ operations commander. The Captain is the field commander. Were this a conventional military unit, the privates would be the triggermen, under strict discipline. But in this case they will most likely be either junior officers or NCOs, operating under their own initiative, propelled by winks and nods and plausible deniability.
I have known military (assassin) snipers. I even knew a military (assassin) bomber. I know how they did what they did. And why they did it. And how they did it for money after the war was over, as mercenaries.

But most especially, I know military history. Vietnam was not a fluke. It was how the military adapted to its circumstances. And I know that low-level SOCOM personnel will adapt to their mission objectives.

I do not confuse militarism, how things should be, with militancy, how things actually are in wartime. Militarism is war on a blackboard and crisp, starched and new uniforms. Militancy is the desperate desire for there to be some other way than dehumanizing brutality.

And the SOCOM Generals will get medals. And the SOCOM triggermen will live the rest of their lives surrounded by ghosts. And there will be hundreds of soldiers who will have broken their military honor, discipline and control, left to fend for themselves. And as we sow so shall we reap.
posted by kablam at 8:29 AM on January 9, 2003

No disrespect to you, but just working for SOCOM - South doesn't mean that you bring to the discussion an active duty operators knowledge of covert combat missions - so the dismissive attitude is best left for the "ooh, ahh" crowd at Excuse my skepticism, but I've run into more than a few coffee grinders trying to pass themselves off as lethal weapons.

I know a Captain in Force Recon, a few Delta operators (all currently deployed) and a former USMC sniper who would probably argue that they're not particularly haunted by what they do (because they take a decidedly utilitarian view of their role - it's not personal, it's just work) but they'd all be honest enough to admit that you've got a point about potential abuses - so don't stop questioning conventional wisdom draping itself in our flag for authenticity.
posted by Tiger_Lily at 12:58 PM on January 9, 2003

Tiger_Lily: Quite so. The only group of soldiers I ever met who were terribly screwed up *as a group* were Brit vets of the Burma Campaign--hell defined. However, I have already seen disturbing trends in the current crop, for example, CIA working alongside Special Ops, and perhaps even directing them in Afghanistan. This sends up red flags, big time.
I see no logic in clouding the Geneva Convention's discrimination between soldiers and spies. And even these "non-signatories" are less likely to gratuitously kill enemy soldiers who act like soldiers, then if they are seen as soldier spies.

BTW, the $64 question: what was Daniel Pearl?
posted by kablam at 2:54 PM on January 9, 2003

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