This article was updated at 7:58 p.m. EST.
The general overseeing U.S. special operations forces has written a memo to Defense Secretary Ash Carter demanding the Pentagon stop talking about what his elite troops are up to in Iraq or elsewhere, saying the commandos require a veil of secrecy to do their job, Foreign Policy has learned.
Gen. Joseph Votel, the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) who has been nominated to take over U.S. Central Command, issued the complaint in a Dec. 8 memo — days after Carter and White House officials announced that a force of about 200 special operations forces (SOF) would be deployed to Iraq to target Islamic State militants.
“I am concerned with increased public exposure of SOF activities and operations, and I assess that it is time to get our forces back into the shadows,” Votel wrote, according to an excerpt newly provided to FP by a defense official.
Votel added that discussing operations makes it more difficult for commandos to conduct those missions, and he “requested the department support him with an approach to avoid public discussion of SOF activities,” the official said, paraphrasing the brief memo.
It was unclear precisely what public comments Votel was referring to in his memo, which was also addressed to Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford.
Still, it’s not the first time that commanders and top officials have expressed frustration about the disclosure of sensitive information about the elite forces. In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, senior officials — including then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates — privately lambasted their White House counterparts for publicizing key details about the raid.
More recently, some senior officers have privately complained and congressional critics have suggested the administration is hyping the deployments of special operations forces for political gain, either to push back against accusations of not doing enough to combat foes like the Islamic State or to help Obama burnish his legacy as a bold wartime commander willing to chase down America’s enemies anywhere in the world.
The new memo came amid a renewed effort by the White House to defend its strategy in Iraq and Syria in the face of sharp criticism in Congress, with officials frequently citing the deployment of commandos to take on the Islamic State. The force includes members of elite units such as the Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force as part of a plan to “intensify” the war against the Islamic State — a push long demanded by critics who note that more than a year of coalition airstrikes has failed to defeat the militants or dislodge them from their strongholds in Raqqa, Syria, and the Iraqi city of Mosul.
In a Dec. 1 congressional testimony, Carter unveiled plans for a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” of roughly 200 commandos that would “conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture” Islamic State leaders.
The arrival of the force “puts everyone on notice,” Carter said. “You don’t know at night who is going to be coming into the window.”
Asked about the memo, a senior defense official said Carter “shares Gen. Votel’s concerns about the public disclosure of SOF operations, especially any reporting that could expose our personnel to additional risk and undermine their chances for success.”
The senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that Carter also recognized the department had an obligation to keep the American people informed about the U.S. military’s activities.
“In striking that balance, the safety of our personnel will always be the top priority,” the official said.
Votel drew a line on the issue just weeks before President Barack Obama picked him to be the next head of Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East.
The memo could reignite the long-standing political controversy over the administration’s public references to elite forces, whose missions are normally kept secret.
In his memoir, Gates expressed disgust with Obama administration officials for revealing “techniques, tactics, and procedures the SEALs had used” in the raid that killed bin Laden — despite promises not to divulge details of the operation.
The White House and CIA “just couldn’t wait to brag and to claim credit,” Gates wrote in Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.
Recounting an exchange with then-National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Gates wrote: “I was outraged and, at one point, told Donilon, ‘Why doesn’t everybody just shut the fuck up?’ To no avail.”
When asked about Votel’s concerns, Republican Sen. John McCain told FP: “I would strongly associate myself with Secretary Gates’s four words of advice to National Security Advisor Tom Donilon regarding the bin Laden raid.”
After one commando published a book about his part in the bin Laden raid, then-head of SOCOM Gen. William McRaven wrote a letter to troops warning them against seeking fame or profit from their secretive missions.
Special operations forces were once a much smaller contingent able to work in the shadows. But the force has dramatically expanded since the 9/11 attacks, and the bin Laden raid thrust the commandos into the public spotlight.
A new book published last year under the title Relentless Strike, by former FP senior staff writer Seán Naylor, uncovered for the first time details of secret operations by U.S. commandos in Pakistan and Syria over the past decade. The book, the first full-fledged history of Joint Special Operations Command, prompted senior U.S. military officers to remind troops they must abide by nondisclosure agreements.
The military’s preference to maintain a shroud of secrecy for commandos has not always been consistently enforced. A number of active-duty special operations troops starred in a 2012 movie about a team of commandos seeking to rescue a captured CIA agent. Their commanders gave them permission to take part in the film, Act of Valor, in hopes the movie could help with recruiting.
Photo credit: Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Eric Logsdon/U.S. Navy via Getty Images