The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The not-so-secret history of the U.S. military’s elite Joint Special Operations Command

The government has declassified documents that shed light on how the U.S. military’s secretive terrorist-hunting units operate. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

The commandos of the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, have spent the last 14 years waging a secret war—but some parts of it, outlined in little-noticed declassified documents, are not so secret at all.

Ever since the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden turned the U.S. military’s secretive terrorist-hunting units into household names, article after book after leaked document has shed more light on the activities of JSOC, the force that will supply the commando teams whose deployment to Iraq Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced earlier this month.

The unauthorized disclosures have been a source of alarm in some military circles. In the past year alone, the Washington Post covered classified JSOC missions in Syria and Iraq; the web site The Intercept published a series of articles on JSOC’s drone campaigns in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen; the New York Times ran a long story on SEAL Team 6, JSOC’s most famous component unit; and St. Martin’s Press published journalist Sean Naylor’s tome on JSOC, “Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command.”

The accounts rely heavily on leaked documents and anonymous sources to describe JSOC’s operations. Days before Naylor’s book hit shelves, Carter publicly admonished special operations personnel to stop disclosing secrets, and the Pentagon has warned troops not to read The Intercept’s drone articles because the documents they are based on are still classified.

It may come as a surprise, then, that in describing two SEAL Team 6 missions in especially vivid passages, Naylor relied not on surreptitious meetings with sources, but on a pair of military investigations that U.S. Central Command quietly declassified in 2011 under the Freedom of Information Act, along with hundreds of pages of transcribed interviews with JSOC personnel.

The two investigations, into a 2010 hostage rescue mission that left kidnapped British aid worker Linda Norgrove dead and the fatal 2011 shoot-down of a Chinook helicopter with the call sign “Extortion 17,” were conducted by special operations officers on behalf of Central Command, to which JSOC task forces in Afghanistan and the Middle East report. The documents are accessible online at Central Command’s FOIA Reading Room site, though few besides Naylor seem to have noticed them. They provide an unusual — and unusually accessible — government-sanctioned glimpse at the interior life of top-tier counterterrorism forces at the peak of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Some JSOC “operators,” as the commandos are called, carry HK-416 rifles, fragmentation grenades, nonlethal flash-bang grenades, and sometimes highly lethal grenades called Hellhounds (designed to quickly kill everyone inside a room, bunker, or cave), the interviews reveal. When a raid force lands, an AC-130 lights up the area around them with a football field-sized “burn” of infrared light visible only through night-vision goggles. It is by the green glow of these goggles, and their signature facial hair, that the Taliban know the operators; an intelligence officer explains that insurgents call them “the bearded guys with green eyes.”

Those details won’t surprise the readers of SEAL Team 6 memoirs or other books and articles on JSOC, but it is rare to see them in a declassified military document accessible on a public web site.

Central Command released both investigations on its own, without being prompted by specific FOIA requests, according to spokesperson from the headquarters in what’s termed a “discretionary release.” For Naylor, they were a treasure trove. “They were invaluable in being able to describe how JSOC was working in Afghanistan at that particular time,” the author told the Washington Post. “It’s a fascinating resource and from a narrative perspective the ‘Extortion 17’ investigation in particular was very valuable.”

In most of the interviews and other documents, the only phrases that are redacted are the identities of the interviewees, information related to intelligence collection and surveillance systems, and the code numbers of the units involved. The phrases “JSOC” and “SEAL Team6” are not used at all. But the special operations commanders and ground-level operators interviewed provide vivid descriptions of their work, and it is easy enough for an informed reader to conclude that “Task Force [redacted]” is a unit of JSOC, and that the key troops involved in both investigated missions were Team 6 operators.

Naylor says that he was able to fill in the key blanks without consulting the former and current members of JSOC he relied on as confidential sources, and the Washington Post was able to do the same, cross-referencing the documents with one another and with other open-source information to make sense of them.

The Army colonel commanding one of the task forces at the time of the Norgrove raid puts his troops’ mission bluntly: “We hunt men,” he says. “We track them.” “We are focused on man-hunting, getting after those [insurgent] leaders,” agrees a task force intelligence officer.

That tracks closely with published accounts of JSOC’s niche mission, including in memoirs by former operators and by JSOC’s longest-serving commander, retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal. One chart included in the “Extortion 17” documents presents the task force’s mission using terminology that McChrystal helped invent and has written extensively about: the Find-Fix-Finish-Exploit-Analyze targeting cycle, or F3EA.

McChrystal writes that after he took command of JSOC in 2003, he put Delta Force (which he refers to by the code-name “Green”) in charge of JSOC operations in Iraq, while SEALTeam 6 (“Blue”) and the 75th Ranger Regiment (“Red”) shared responsibility for Afghanistan. On a map and chart included in the declassified documents, subordinate elements of the task force in Afghanistan are color-coded blue, green, and red. Other unclassified military documents help fill in the code-numbers of the JSOC task forces at the time of the two missions: Task Force 5-35 for the command’s overall forward headquarters, led by a general, and Task Force 3-10 for the intermediate JSOC headquarters led by the Army colonel.

The next step down the ladder was Task Force East, the Jalalabad-based counterterrorism unit responsible for both the Norgrove and Extortion 17 missions and referred to as TFE in some investigation documents. The Task Force East leaders’ ranks, unredacted in some of the documents, identify them as Navy, rather than Army, personnel, and in the charts and maps, boxes representing Task Force East are colored blue. At the time of the “Extortion 17” tragedy, moreover, news articles quickly identified many of the 30 Americans killed as SEAL Team 6 operators, although the Pentagon described them only as members of “an East Coast-based Naval Special Warfare unit.”

To discover what went wrong on both missions, the Central Command investigators interviewed dozens of troops and contractors involved in the missions: everyone from the crews of planes and helicopters that were overhead, to commanders and staff officers who watched by drone feed back at base, to operators who were on the ground, like SEAL petty officers and Ranger sergeants.

Several Team 6 operators speak with deference about the jagged, wooded terrain that makes operating in Kunar Provincethe mountainous site of the Norgrove missionespecially difficult. “The terrain was unreal,” a senior chief petty officer who led half the SEALs on the Norgrove mission says. “I’ve done missions up in Konar and I mean, it’s like being on a different planet,” a command master chief on his eleventh deployment adds, continuing: “It’s completely different in the Konar with the terrain [and] the way their compounds are put together. They’ve been in place since 10,000 BC and they’re just built on top of each other. The guys like to call them Ewok villages.”

Each year during the Afghan “surge” that President Barack Obama initiated in 2009, one declassified document shows, the manhunting task force ran many more missions than the year before¾about two per night countrywide in August 2009; six per night a year later, when the Norgrove mission went south; and eleven per night a year after that, at the time of the “Extortion 17” tragedy. By 2011, the JSOC task force numbered more than 3,800 personnel — huge in special operations terms, but still just 2.4 percent of the overall U.S.-led force in Afghanistan, as one briefing slide notes.

Accompanying the overall surge was a “Ranger surge” that put more and more platoons of the elite light infantry regiment into the field alongside the SEALs, allowing more targets to be struck. Operators from the Army’s Delta Force were present as well, some of them providing what a JSOC staff officer calls a “very special capability”: the ability to track a moving convoy of cars or trucks by helicopter and raid it on the go, as depicted in the movie “Black Hawk Down” and numerous YouTube videos. The documents describe one joint Delta-Ranger team specializing in this task as an “expeditionary targeting force”the same term defense secretary Carter used this week to describe the new JSOC raid force deploying to Iraq.

A map shows the staggering array of “enablers” at JSOC’s disposal in Afghanistan, amounting to an in-house air force: everything from transport and attack helicopters and Osprey tilt-rotors to fighter jets, AC-130 gunships, and a wide array of drones and manned spy planes. At Jalalabad alone, Task Force East’s assets include three MH-47 Chinook transports, four AH-64 Apaches on loan from a conventional Army unit, six Predator drones, and a HIMARS long-range missile system, used to hit remote targets without risking a strike force of SEALs or Rangers.

Some of the declassified material overlaps with the still-classified documents about JSOC’s drone war recently published by The Intercept. Much of the intelligence used to launch JSOC raids comes from tracking and monitoring insurgents’ cell phones during the day, an intelligence officer explains, and then handing the targets off to drones after dark: “These guys are smart enough to know that if their SI [signals intelligence] drop off by 1500/1600Z every day, that they are going to be pretty safe because they understand that’s how we target. . . . They will shut off the cell phone towers during the evening, so we would get the fix during the day and we will use FMV [full-motion video from a drone] for the period of darkness and maintain that unblinking eye over the target.”

In some instances, the declassified documents correct misinformation that has apparently emanated from leaked documents — and, ironically, sometimes reveal past secrets that those still-classified documents have not. Contrary to Wikileaks-based reports in the German newspaper Der Spiegel, for instance, JSOC didn’t work off the well-known Joint Prioritized Effects List of insurgent targets; the counterterrorism task force had its own more secret list of wanted militants called the JTL-A.

One officer makes a revealing comment about a group of Afghan officials that worked in the JSOC task force’s headquarters. That Afghan committee, U.S. generals and spokespeople stressed when they talked publicly about special operations night raids, had veto authority over all of the counterterrorism task force’s missions. “Technically they do,” a senior staff officer in the task force explains to the investigators. “They don’t exercise it, but technically they do have authority.”

The vagaries of hostage rescue missions in particular are laid out clearly. The Army colonel who approves the 2010 mission to rescue Norgrove judges there is a 75 percent chance the captured aid worker is at the target compound, 8,000 feet up in Kunar’s jagged mountains. The next officer below him, the SEAL commander at Jalalabad, thinks the mission has a 65 percent chance of success. 50-50 that she’s there, say two senior enlisted SEALs and an intelligence officer.

Norgrove was there, it turned out, but a grenade thrown by the SEAL assault force’s junior member killed her. “The moment that it came crashing down on me that she had died on our hands was when we watched this feed,” the operator in question tells investigators with apparent anguish, referring to an aerial video feed that recorded the raid and captured the movement of his arm as he threw the grenade that killed the hostage. “That’s when I could look at it and be like that grenade that I threw took Ms. Norgrove’s life. Until that point, there was doubt as to what had actually taken her life.”

Since the crash of “Extortion 17,” books, articles, and some family members of the fallen SEALs have proffered a theory that the shootdown was an inside job, arranged by Afghan officers with knowledge of the raid and white-washed by the Obama administration. Retired special operators have taken to the Internet to dispute that theory, and the declassified documents do not appear to offer any evidence to support it.

Indeed, in the Norgrove investigation, nearly a year before the shootdown, a one operator presciently remarks on how easy it would be for a lucky rocket-propelled grenade shot to bring any JSOC mission to grief in an instant. “All it takes, and I’ve seen it, is [for] one guy [to] come out with an RPG or something and that whole bird is going to start rolling down the hill,” the SEAL, a chief petty officer on his eighth combat deployment, tells investigators.

Asked why he thought the two investigations into normally secretive missions were declassified so fully, Naylor, the author whose book on JSOC drew on the documents, ventured a guess. “I wonder to what degree the fact that these were both such high-profile events in which something had gone wrong forced the military’s hand,” he said. “In one case a citizen of an allied country had been killed. So there may have been more pressure to make the investigations available.”

A Central Command spokesperson put the releases in a different light, emphasizing that the command tries to declassify what it can, when it can. “The CENTCOM chief of staff basically deemed it to be best to release them proactively because of the likely public interest,” he said. “The intent is to be as transparent as possible, within some parameters. Before it goes to the reading room, it goes through a review to see what can be released without using too much black Sharpie.”

Wesley Morgan’s book on Afghanistan’s Pech valley is forthcoming from Random House. Follow him on Twitter: @wesleysmorgan.