U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Law of the Sea Convention on May 23. (Saul Loeb / Agence France-Presse)
TAMPA, Fla. — Many were surprised last week when it was announced that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be speaking at a major special operations conference here.
But after listening to her and Navy Adm. William McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), it became clear that the two entities they lead have quietly forged an operational bond that has seen their staffs share space in Washington, here and out in the field — and that both want that bond to deepen.
The growing relationship comes as McRaven is looking to make changes to the Pentagon’s Unified Command Plan, which defines the roles, responsibilities and missions tasked to combatant commanders around the globe. There has been talk over the past several months that McRaven’s proposed changes would give his command more power to deploy special operators, which would be an end run around the geographic combatant commands and local U.S. embassies.
McRaven stridently denied those charges in congressional testimony earlier this year and at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference here, explaining that he wants to exert more control over funding for special operators overseas. But whatever his intentions, Clinton’s presence at the event underscores that the admiral has gained a powerful advocate in Washington.
The State Department and SOCOM are tackling a multifaceted global counterterrorism mission that includes direct action, piecing together the often opaque ties between organized crime and terrorism, and peeling back layers of the financial ties that bind this underground world. All of this comes as the mission to train and advise indigenous forces around the globe takes on increasing importance as the U.S. resets from more than a decade of grinding combat, and is looking for its partners to carry more of the load in their backyards.
This year’s conference in many ways appeared to be the coming-out party for the growing relationship between State and
SOCOM, as members of both organizations and the international special operations community discussed their unity in the counterterrorism fight.
This was on full display at the close-of-conference briefing by McRaven; the Australian special operations chief Maj. Gen. Peter Gilmore; and commander of the Colombian National Army’s 5th Division, Brig. Gen. Juan Pablo Rodriguez Barragan. The briefing also featured Karen Williams from the State Department, who works at SOCOM headquarters on McRaven’s staff.
Rodriguez said Colombia has achieved a larger degree of security in recent years due to assistance from the U.S. government and special operations forces, who provided training and equipment in reducing the threat posed by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia.
“The situation in Colombia is very different because our democracy now has support from the other countries, but especially from the United States,” he said.
He warned about the collusion among drug traffickers, organized crime and more politically or ideologically minded insurgents, however, adding that “the only way you can neutralize terrorist action” is by “integrating our intelligence and working together.”
When asked about recent reports that SOCOM was muscling in on the work that U.S. embassies and geographical combatant commanders have traditionally performed, McRaven jumped to his command’s defense.
SOCOM has “an absolutely magnificent relationship with the State Department,” he said, and “we don’t do anything that isn’t absolutely fully coordinated and approved by the U.S. ambassador and the geographic combatant commander.”
As SOCOM commander, it is McRaven’s job to look globally at the intelligence picture as it affects violent extremist networks, he said, adding that because combatant commanders tend to focus on their regions, “what I’m trying to do is give them a more global perspective” on the worldwide threat.
“This is absolutely not about the Special Operations Command running global special operations,” he said.
The State Department’s Williams was quick to add that “it’s in the context that these activities are in concert with the State Department and the embassies around the world. These are coordinated efforts.”
Clinton made the new relationship between State and SOCOM the subject of her remarks at the conference, where she touched on operations in Yemen and Central Africa. In one recent effort, an interagency team called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications countered al-Qaida propaganda on tribal Yemeni websites. The team is housed at the State Department, but is staffed by experts from the intelligence community, the Defense Department and special operations forces.
“We need to do a better job contesting the online space,” Clinton said, singling out “media websites and forums where al-Qaida and its affiliates spread propaganda and recruit followers.”
Word around the convention hall after her remarks was that some SOCOM officers were unhappy that Clinton revealed operational details, which points to the cultural difference the two outfits will have to iron out as their relationship matures.
Then there is the recent deployment of special operations forces to Central Africa to assist local forces in tracking down Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Staffers from the State Department’s new bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations were on the ground a few months before the troops arrived, Clinton said, “building relationships in local communities. Because of their work, village chiefs and other leaders are actively encouraging defections from the Lord’s Resistance Army.”
Looking across the scope of these programs, “you can begin to see the potential when soldiers and diplomats live in the same camps and eat the same MREs. This is smart power in action,” she said.