The swift, quiet rise of Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel, Special Operations commander


Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meets with Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of Joint Special Operations Command, at Fort Bragg, N.C., on April 23. Hagel announced on Tuesday that President Obama has selected Votel to serve as the next four-star commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. (DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

Shortly after a controversial Dec. 11 drone strike in Yemen, Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel began pressing for the United States to push back on accusations that it had killed numerous civilians in a wedding party in the process. He believed the criticism was unwarranted and didn’t want al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to use the narrative to score a propaganda victory, even though human rights advocates concluded that civilians had indeed died.

Those details, reported in the Wall Street Journal in May, are among the only recent public characterizations of Votel. The Army Ranger has led the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command since June 2011, overseeing the military’s most highly classified missions and well trained units. They include the Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, commonly known as Delta Force, the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, often called SEAL Team Six, and the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron, which frequently deploys with them.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Tuesday that Votel is President Obama’s pick to serve as the next commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, the powerful four-star command that oversees U.S. Special Operations forces across the globe. The decision requires Senate confirmation, but it’s hardly a surprise. Rather, it continues a swift, quiet ascent by Votel through the most elite forces in the military.

Votel, a married father of two, is rarely quoted, and has spent most of the last decade quietly working in Special Operations. He’ll spend just three years as a three-star general if confirmed as the next chief of SOCOM, a relatively short time for any senior officer.

In becoming the next SOCOM nominee, Votel follows a recent playbook. The current SOCOM chief, Adm. William McRaven, previously served as the head of JSOC from June 2008 to August 2011. But the White House hasn’t always moved JSOC’s commander into the SOCOM job afterward.

In 2007, for example, President George W. Bush chose then-Vice Adm. Eric Olson, SOCOM’s deputy commander at the time, to run the four-star organization. JSOC had been run at the time by then-Army Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal for four years. McChrystal would move on in 2008 to serve as the three-star direct of the Joint Staff before ultimately being promoted and taking over the war in Afghanistan in June 2009. In other words: If confirmed, Votel will move through the Army’s highest ranks faster than McChrystal, perhaps JSOC’s most celebrated commander ever.

Votel’s résumé is bolstered by command assignments in a variety of influential jobs. As a colonel he led the 75th Ranger Regiment — the Army’s elite light-infantry Rangers — as its members parachuted into Afghanistan on Oct. 19, 2001, to set up what would become Camp Rhino, the first U.S. base established in the country.

In 2003, Votel established the U.S. Army’s Counter Improvised Explosive Device Task Force as a one-star general, advancing the military’s ability to respond to the threat IEDs posed in Iraq. The organization was eventually broadened to become the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Task Force, or JIEDDO, and Votel stayed on as its deputy director.

He was later became the deputy commanding general of the Army’s famous 82nd Airborne Division, of Fort Bragg, N.C., and served as the deputy commanding general of operations for the Army task force that oversaw U.S. military operations in eastern Afghanistan for 15 months beginning in February 2007. He was subsequently selected to become a two-star general in September 2008 while serving as a deputy commanding general at JSOC. He held that job from July 2008 until July 2010.

Through all that, Votel mostly stayed out of the public eye. In October 2010, however, Gen. James Mattis, then the head of U.S. Central Command, chose him to lead an investigation into how British aid worker Linda Norgrove was killed that Oct. 9 during a failed rescue attempt in Afghanistan by JSOC troops.

Votel was serving at the time as the chief of staff of SOCOM, and some questioned whether he’d spent too much time in JSOC to investigate its forces critically. But Mattis and others pushed back, saying he was the most qualified for the job, according to an Army Times article published at the time. The troops involved in the botched mission were “shaking when they knew who was coming to do the investigation,” one source told the newspaper.

The investigation ultimately found that Norgrove was mortally wounded by a grenade tossed by a U.S. service member. Three troops were disciplined for not disclosing the details of the blast, U.S. officials said afterward.

Votel took over at JSOC in June 2011, shortly after a JSOC-led overseen by McRaven killed terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 1. While there, he has pressed industry to improve the military’s ability to share intelligence quickly and detect chemical weapons. The civil war in Syria and the use of chemical weapons there is a good example of things the United States needs to worry about, he said at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa in May.

“The proliferation that has taken place in the last number of years, not only in Syria, but in a variety of other locations where there are large stockpiles of chemicals or other munitions out there that would pose a significant threat,” he said. “I think we always have to be concerned about those.”

Votel’s JSOC forces also have been busy within the last year in several high-profile missions, including the capture of  Nazih Abdul-Hamed al Ruqai, an alleged al-Qaeda official, outside his home in Tripoli, Libya, in October, and the more recent raid in Benghazi, Libya, that led to U.S. troops — said to be Delta Force operators — taking one the top suspects of the 2012 attacks on U.S. compounds there into custody

Ahmed Abu Khattala was now transported to the USS New York. He is now believed to be on his way back to Washington to be prosecuted, and is likely traveling under guard on the USS New York.

UPDATE: June 27, 1:30 p.m.: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Adm. Eric Olson’s name.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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