Leading a group of Navy SEALs on raids in Baghdad's maze of maze of neighborhoods, Lt. Cmdr. Jamie Cartwright turned up tatooed members of Saddam Fedayeen, Palestinian terrorists, and makers of fake passports.
Over 300 combat missions in six months, he also discovered something about his own men.
Specialized in raids to kill or capture most-wanted leaders, the SEALs proved very adept at a softer but equally essential skill: gathering intelligence.
Young SEALs would "jump in the back [of helicopters] ... to photograph the targets" and sleuth out street-level sources, he says. After a raid, they scoured houses for documents, cell- phones, and other tips that could lead to quick, follow-on action.
"The guys got really good at searching these homes," said LCDR Cartwright of SEAL Team 5, noting that his men had from two days to as little as 20 minutes to prepare a mission.
As the Pentagon's lead troops in the war on terrorism, elite US Special Operations Forces (SOF) are taking on a far more robust and independent role in intelligence and undercover operations as their numbers, deployments, and funding grow at an unprecedented rate.
Indeed, some senior military officers are calling for a transformation of the 49,000-strong force around the imperative for a new, secretive, and ethnically diverse intelligence cadre capable of tracking down sophisticated terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden. "A robust cadre of humint [human intelligence] forces organic to SOF [Special Operations Forces] would give us perhaps the most important aspect of operations-intelligence fusion that one could get in the field, in direct support of counterterror," says Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Yet the shift is also stirring controversy over what some military analysts view as the potential pitfalls of blurring the traditional line between Special Operations and the CIA, especially in the realm of covert action.
Today, the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is already exercising unprecedented authority under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to lead the US military's fight against terrorism. The war in Iraq has seen the largest Special Operations deployment since Vietnam, with more than 80 percent of its deployed forces now in the Central Command area (the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa.)
Given the biggest budget increase in its history, SOCOM's funding is projected to increase over the 2003 level by 20 percent per year for the next five years, as it adds 4,000 people to its ranks and dozens of new helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. The personnel increase will include Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces (also known as Green Berets) and Civil Affairs soldiers, and a new 85-man Marine Special Operations unit, Det 1, which is preparing to deploy to Iraq in April.
As part of this growth, the command, based in Tampa, Fla., is carving out a new niche by expanding its intelligence capabilities across the board. It is adding 700 people to its US and overseas regional headquarters to analyze intelligence - gathered by its own forces as well as by CIA agents, spy satellites, and other means - and to plan Special Operations-led missions with an emphasis on agile responses to short-term intelligence.
The nexus of the effort is a new Center for Special Operations, a "warfighting hub" with sole responsibility for "planning, supporting, and executing Special Operations in the war on terrorism," says SOCOM's commander, Gen. Bryan "Doug" Brown. If ordered by the president or Defense secretary, SOCOM's beefed-up headquarters now allows it to reverse roles and direct operations anywhere in the world supported by US regional commanders - instead of supplying forces to serve under them.
New intelligence channels
Another way Special Operations leaders are boosting their intelligence capabilities is by leveraging ties with foreign counterparts. For the first time, coalition partners from "several" countries are stationed at SOCOM headquarters, General Brown says.
Intelligence-sharing agreements are also in the works between the Pentagon and close allies, says Thomas O'Connell, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. "We are pushing very hard ... starting with the UK, Australia, and others, to get them access to the Sipernet [classified Internet], break down these barriers, and we will start seeing the type of access and exchange that we need."
With US and foreign Special Operations Forces together in combat, restrictions on information sharing such as the "NOFORN" [no foreigner] classification cease to make sense, defense officials say. "You have this goofy warning on intelligence that says 'NOFORN' that I think is sometimes overused," says Mr. O'Connell. "If someone is fighting and dying with you, at that particular time you don't consider them a foreigner. You consider them a very close ally."
Meanwhile, in coming years larger numbers of US Special Operations Forces will be based overseas for longer rotations, to strengthen bonds with foreign counterparts and gain local access. All these initiatives will build upon the street-level intelligence-gathering skills that elite forces are already demonstrating in Iraq and Afghanistan, military officials say. In Iraq, for example, such troops are generating their own intelligence by going to prisons, interrogating detainees, linking events across zones controlled by different military units - without necessarily relying on CIA spy satellites or other intelligence information.
"They've developed their own intelligence networks. They've gone out, they've grabbed people, and they've effectively shut down a tremendous portion of the problem that exists today," says O'Connell. "Each action often results in additional intelligence ... what I personally call a bounce," he says. "If you hit him in a certain way, something develops from that hit."
Bolstering this independent ability of Special Operations Forces to gather human intelligence may be as vital to defeating terrorists as are combat skills. "This community needs to morph ... and become less kinetic, more nuanced, more collector," General Schwartz, a former SOCOM deputy commander, told a Special Operations gathering last month. He outlined an idea for a future "black," or covert, Special Operations intelligence cadre with cultural and language skills that could operate in disguise. "We need to look more like them than we do like us," he said, speaking of terrorist networks.
Such a force would not conflict with today's unprecedented cooperation between Special Operations Forces and CIA operatives, say military and defense officials.
"Regarding the interaction between CIA and SOF, I would say, one, there is enough work for everybody," O'Connell said in an interview. "Two, I don't think the relationship between the CIA and Special Operations Forces has ever been closer, and, three, both have their own distinct role. The CIA can certainly provide many considerable advantages to SOF, but their primary mission is still to recruit spies, and SOF is much larger than the CIA."
Still, some military officers and analysts raise concerns about a blurring of roles between the CIA and Special Operations. "The new and apparently ad hoc policy of integrating [SOF and CIA] operations together in combat" has "eroded distinctions between SOF and the CIA," writes Army Col. Kathryn Stone in a research paper published last July.
Specifically, the participation of Special Operations Forces in covert action carries several risks: Such forces, if captured, would lose their Geneva Convention protections that govern conduct in war. Such actions could also alienate foreign governments and prompt them to use soldiers to conduct covert activity against the US. Then, too, traditional military activities are not subject to congressional oversight the way CIA covert action is, notes Jennifer Kibbe, a fellow at the Brookings Institution here who explored the problem this month in a Foreign Affairs article, "Rise of the Shadow Warriors."
In response, Defense officials acknowledge the possible loss of Geneva Convention protections, but assert that few of America's adversaries honor the statues. The need for Special Operations Forces to work undercover outweighs the risks, they say. "For those who were questioning our ability to do that [operate under cover], and there was some talk that they would take that away, it's not going to happen on my watch," O'Connell says.