When Donald Trump enters the Oval Office, awaiting him will not only be his own private air assassination corps (those CIA drones that take out terror suspects globally from a White House “kill list”), but his own private and remarkably secret military. Ever since John F. Kennedy first made the Green Berets into figures of military glamour, there’s always been something alluring to presidents about the U.S. military’s elite special ops forces.
Still, that was then, this is now. In the twenty-first century, the Special Operations Command, which oversees those elite forces cocooned within the regular military, has gained ever more power to act in ever more independent and secretive ways. In those same years, the country’s elite troops, including those Green Berets, the Navy SEALs, and the Army’s Delta Force, have grown to staggering proportions, while ever more money has poured into their coffers. There are now an estimated 70,000 of them — a crew larger than the actual armies of some reasonably sizeable countries — and from trainers to raiders, advisers to hunter-killers, they now operate yearly in an overwhelming majority of the nations on this planet. Moreover, they generally do so in remarkable secrecy and (as once might have been said of the CIA) their most secretive part, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), responsible for the killing of Osama bin Laden, is in essence the president’s private army.
In these last years, President Obama, who gained a reputation for being chary of war, has nonetheless taken on with evident relish both those special ops forces and the drone assassins, while embracing what Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently termedthe role of “covert commander in chief.” Now, in these last weeks of his presidency, his administration has given JSOC new powers to “track, plan, and potentially launch attacks on terrorist cells around the globe” and to do so “outside conventional conflict zones” and via “a new multiagency intelligence and action force.” As a result, whatever this new task force may do, it won’t, as in the past, have to deal with regional military commands and their commanders at all. Its only responsibility will be to the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and assumedly the White House; even within the military, that is, it will gain a new patina of secrecy and power (while evidently poaching on territory that once was considered the CIA’s alone, no small thing at a moment when President-elect Trump is not exactly enamored with that agency).