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Antiterrorism Role for Elite Forces Rejected

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THE PROGRESSIVE REVIEW - May 22, 2008
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Wider Antiterrorism Role for Elite Forces Rejected
by: Thom Shankar, The New York Times

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, 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 
the regional commanders. 

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 Donald H. Rumsfeld put in place 
as defense secretary in 2004, when he said he wanted the 
Special Operations Command, based in Tampa, Fla., to 
operate unilaterally; he believed that it would be more 
aggressive in hunting down terrorists than the regional 
commanders, who are tied most closely to conventional 
forces. 

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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 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. Mr. Gates 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 carry-
ing out its own secret counterterrorism missions, but was 
instead coordinating counterterrorism planning across the 
military, as well as fulfilling its traditional role of 
training and equipping Special Operations forces for the 
armed services. 

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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," he said 
in the speech. He initially spoke off the record, but under 
an agreement with his command, the policy institute later 
posted his remarks on its Web site, 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." 

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Senior officials familiar with the admiral's thinking say 
his comments reflect the same deliberate 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 such 
missions 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. He 
said the Rumsfeld vision had 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, the Joint Special Operations Command. 

That command is in charge of the armed forces' most 
secretive counterterrorism units, and is credited with 
capturing or killing many of the most wanted terrorist or 
insurgent leaders, including Saddam Hussein. This elite 
command operates in full coordination with the regional 
commanders in the Middle East, East Asia and other parts 
of the world. 

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