Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton with Adm. William H. McRaven, left, the top officer of Special Operations Command, at a command gala dinner in Tampa, Fla., last month.
By ERIC SCHMITT
The request, which included seeking approval to train foreign internal security forces that had been off-limits to the American military, was the latest effort by the command’s top officer, Adm. William H. McRaven, to make it easier for his elite forces to respond faster to emerging threats and better enable allies to counter the same dangers.
Given the command’s influence in shaping American strategy toward extremism, the proposal seemed to have momentum. President Obama and his Pentagon’s leadership are tapping Special Operations troops more to hunt militants and train foreign security forces in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. And Admiral McRaven is a White House favorite, especially after he oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
But in a rare rebuke to the admiral and his command, powerful House and Senate officials as well as the State Department, and ultimately the deputy cabinet-level aides who met at the White House on the issue on May 7, rejected the changes. They sent the admiral and his lawyers back to the drawing board with orders to use security assistance programs already in place, particularly one created last year by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the defense secretary at the time, Robert M. Gates, for just these types of issues.
“Right now, anything Socom wants they pretty much get — they’re hot,” said one senior Congressional aide involved in the deliberations, using the command’s nickname. “But this was a nonstarter. They were overly zealous.”
The episode offers a rare window into the sometimes uneasy relationship between the powerful Special Operations Command, whose dynamic boss, Admiral McRaven, is pushing hard to achieve broad changes to his forces, and the more traditional interests of Congress, the State Department and some top military commanders. In this case, Congressional and State Department officials shared the command’s goals, but lawmakers said it was moving too fast and its request was causing “unnecessary confusion and friction.”
Admiral McRaven’s broad goal is to obtain new authority from the Defense Department to move his elite forces faster and outside normal Pentagon deployment channels. That would give him more autonomy to position his personnel and their fighting equipment where intelligence and world events indicate they are most needed. It would also allow the Special Operations forces to expand their presence in regions where they have not operated in large numbers for the past decade, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
At a time of declining Pentagon budgets and a waning public appetite for large wars of occupation, the Obama administration hopes to rely more on foreign troops and security forces to tackle extremist threats abroad. These new realities have led to a larger debate within the military about its future priorities, and not all senior officers welcome Admiral McRaven’s ambitious proposals, suspecting a power grab that might weaken the authority of regional commanders.
“I was trying to figure out how to stand in front of this juggernaut that is the Special Operations Command, particularly in today’s world,” Adm. Timothy J. Keating, a former head of the military’s Northern and Pacific commands, said at a Special Operations conference in April in Washington. “I don’t fundamentally understand what needs fixing.”
While it is not unusual for branches of the armed services or combatant commands to lobby Congress for troop benefits or weaponry, like new fighter jets or artillery systems, the Special Operations Command’s hurried pitch because of the pending legislation did not go down well.
In its request in April, the command sought a new $25 million fund to buy uniforms, build barracks and ferry foreign troops rather than using existing Pentagon and State Department aid programs that could have added months to the process. That required changes in the law, so the command asked to tuck them into a Pentagon budget bill the House was poised to pass.
In a three-page, confidential draft legislative proposal, the command argued that by coupling the proposed changes with its existing special fast-track acquisition authorities, it could provide “a fast turnaround resource for dealing with breaking issues.” Special Operations officers would work closely with American ambassadors in each country and the State Department to support foreign policy goals.