Al-Qaeda had divided Iraq into sections and put a provincial commander in charge of each. These commanders further divided their territory into districts and put someone in charge of each of those, too, according to military officials. There were city leaders within those areas and cells within each city. There were leaders for foreign fighters, for finance and for communications, too.
By the spring of 2006, using the expanded bandwidth and constant surveillance by unmanned aircraft, JSOC executed a series of raids, known as Operation Arcadia, in which it collected and analyzed 662 hours of full-motion video shot over 17 days. The raid netted 92 compact discs and barrels full of documents, leading to another round of raids at 14 locations. Those hits yielded hard drives, thumb drives and a basement stacked with 704 compact discs, including copies of a sophisticated al-Qaeda marketing campaign. Operation Arcadia led, on June 7, 2006, to the death of the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, when JSOC directed an airstrike that killed him.
JSOC’s lethality was evident in its body counts: In 2008, in Afghanistan alone, JSOC commandos struck 550 targets and killed roughly a thousand people, officials said. In 2009, they executed 464 operations and killed 400 to 500 enemy forces. As Iraq descended into chaos in the summer of 2005, JSOC conducted 300 raids a month. More than 50 percent of JSOC Army Delta Force commandos now have Purple Hearts.
The most intense Iraqi raids reminded McChrystal of Lawrence of Arabia’s description of “rings of sorrow,” the emotional toll casualties take on small groups of warriors. Greatly influenced by T.E. Lawrence’s life story, McChrystal thought of his JSOC troops as modern-day tribal forces: dependent upon one another for kinship and survival.
If killing were all that winning wars was about, the book on JSOC would be written. But no war in modern times is ever won simply by killing enough of the enemy. Even in an era of precision weaponry, accidents happen that create huge political setbacks.
Every JSOC raid that also wounded or killed civilians, or destroyed a home or someone’s livelihood, became a source of grievance so deep that the counterproductive effects, still unfolding, are difficult to calculate. JSOC’s success in targeting the right homes, businesses and individuals was only ever about 50 percent, according to two senior commanders. They considered this rate a good one.
“Sometimes our actions were counterproductive,” McChrystal said in an interview. “We would say, ‘We need to go in and kill this guy,’ but just the effects of our kinetic action did something negative and they [the conventional army forces that occupied much of the country] were left to clean up the mess.”
In 2008, Bush also briefly sent JSOC into Pakistan. To soothe the worries of U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson about the mounting civilian deaths from JSOC raids in other countries, commandos brought her a Predator console so she could witness a raid in real time. Because of public outcry in Pakistan, U.S. officials canceled the mission after only three raids. The CIA has continued to conduct drone strikes there.
The Defense Department has given JSOC a bigger role in nonmilitary assignments as well, including tracing the flow of money from international banks to finance terrorist networks. It also has become deeply involved in “psychological operations,” which it renamed “military information operations” to sound less intimidating. JSOC routinely sends small teams in civilian clothes to U.S. embassies to help with what it calls media and messaging campaigns.
When Obama came into office, he cottoned to the organization immediately. (It didn’t hurt that his CIA director, Leon E. Panetta, has a son who, as a naval reservist, had deployed with JSOC.) Soon Obama was using JSOC even more than his predecessor. In 2010, for example, he secretly directed JSOC troops to Yemen to kill the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Arab Spring forced the White House to delay some JSOC missions. In the meantime, the organization is busy with its new 30,000-square-foot office building turned command center. Unlike previous offices, it is not in some obscure part of the world. It sits across the highway from the Pentagon in pristine suburban splendor, just a five-minute drive from McChrystal’s civilian office and the former general’s favorite beer-call restaurants.
As its name implies, the focus of Joint Special Operations Task Force-National Capital Region is not the next terrorist network but another of its lifelong enemies: the Washington bureaucracy. Some 50 battle-hardened JSOC warriors and a handful of other federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies work there.
Mexico is at the top of its wish list. So far the Mexican government, whose constitution limits contact with the U.S. military, is relying on the other federal agencies — the CIA, the Department of Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement — for intelligence collection and other help.
But JSOC’s National Capital task force is not just sitting idly by, waiting to be useful to its southern neighbors. It is creating targeting packages for U.S. domestic agencies that have sought its help, including the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, the second-largest federal law enforcement agency and the latest to make a big play for a larger U.S. counterterrorism role.
From the book “Top Secret America.” Copyright 2011 by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co., New York, N.Y. All rights reserved.