Army Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, rarely talks specifics about the troops under his command. Direct action raids in Iraq, rescue missions in Afghanistan, Special Operations forces deployed in places like Syria, Somalia and Yemen are all — if even acknowledged — described in broad platitudes.
But when asked about the propensity of some of his elite forces to write books, star in movies and help advise on the production of certain video games, Thomas is outspoken — and angry.
“It is a phenomenon that is anathema to me. It runs counter to everything that any of us who ever entered special operations know [is] the right way to do business,” Thomas said during a conference hosted by the Institute for the Study of War in Washington on Wednesday. “It baffles me that people don’t hold true to that standard.”
“We won’t tolerate it,” he added.
Thomas’s remarks come on the heels of a $6.6 million settlement in August between Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette and the U.S. government. Bissonnette, who wrote a best-selling book titled “No Easy Day” about his role with SEAL Team Six during the 2011 raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, will have to forfeit all of his profits and royalties after violating a nondisclosure agreement and failing to get his book cleared by the Pentagon.
Thomas seemed to refer to Bissonnette during his remarks, noting that “we’re in the process of recouping about $8 million in book profits on one of our individuals who spoke out of school.”
While much of the press surrounding Special Operations forces have centered around a relatively small component of it — the SEALS — Thomas said the issue of unwelcome publicity is spread across the various components of his command.
“Enforcing it isn’t exclusive to one camp of special operators,” Thomas said. “We’re hurting ourselves with this gratuitous release of movies, books and whatnot.”
Since Operation Neptune Spear, the May 2, 2011, mission that saw a mix of Special Operations troops, including SEAL Team Six, kill Bin Laden, a plethora of movies and books — many of which have been written by former team members — have flooded the market. Piqued by the daring raid, the American public’s voracious appetite has been satisfied with films like “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Act of Valor,” the latter panned as a feature-length recruiting ad starring active-duty SEALs and both filmed with the Pentagon’s blessing and support.
The roster of books penned by Special Operations troops since the raid is formidable, and includes titles such “Damn Few” and “Inside SEAL Team Six.” In addition to books and movies, seven Navy SEALs from Team Six were punished in 2012 for helping advise the production of the video game Medal of Honor: Warfighter.
Thomas said that the trend hit a “high watermark” in the last couple years and that he hopes for less exposure going forward. He proceeded to use his own record of minimal press coverage as a good example for those forces underneath him.
“I was humored when I got announced for this job that the only article that came out about me was ‘the shadowy general that no one knows anything about,'” Thomas joked. “Right answer, right?”
Aside from berating those under his command, Thomas also seemed to address journalist Sean Naylor’s book “Relentless Strike,” though not by name, on the history of special operations since 9/11. Thomas has previously said he sees Naylor’s work as grievous breach of operational security. In May, Thomas accused Naylor of “naming names,” a point he reinforced Monday.
“I didn’t even take the time to read half the information that was in there,” Thomas said. “But it was the mother-lode of information that should have never, ever gotten out of our camp.”
With U.S. Special Operations forces spread in countries around the world, many of which are at the forefront of America’s wars against terror groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, the organization’s desire for secrecy has sometimes run contrary to a White House and Pentagon eager to show the results of their war campaigns.
As Thomas’s predecessor, Gen. Joseph Votel, was leaving his post as SOCOM commander late last year, he wrote a memo to Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter cautioning him on overexposing America’s elite forces, according to a report in Foreign Policy.
“I am concerned with increased public exposure of [Special Operations Forces] activities and operations, Votel wrote. “And I assess that it is time to get our forces back into the shadows.”