For decades, the Department of Defense has relied on secret and classified special operations troops to open doors and attack high-value targets around the world. The ministry’s Office of the Inspector General may be looking for the first time to whether these obscure strike forces committed war crimes along the way.
The office sent a memo Monday to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Special Operations Command, informing them that it was beginning an investigation into whether the forces overseen by the command, which include Navy SEALs, the Delta Force army, marine raiders, and other elite commandos, have programs in place to ensure that they follow the law during combat and report troops when those laws are broken.
The four paragraph note, which was first reported by Task & Purpose, could have a seismic impact on the special operations community, according to current and former commandos and military legal experts.
The Pentagon has come to rely heavily on Special Operations Troops, who often conduct missions with little oversight, backed by an army and nation that often idolizes elite fighters. The responsibility has sometimes been insufficient.
For example, in 20 years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite repeated reports that Navy SEALs needlessly beat and kill civilians in war zones, only a handful of members of the SEAL team have been accused of such acts. abuse and none were convicted.
The announcement of the investigation comes less than a week after President Biden took office, suggesting that his administration wants to take a very different approach to war crimes than its predecessor.
Among other things, former President Donald J. Trump intervened in military prosecutions and discipline of special operators, granted clemency to eight service members and military contractors accused or convicted of killing civilians, and told the crowds at his rallies that torture like waterboarding was fine, but “not tough enough”.
“Looks like Biden wants to show the world and our troops that he is breaking with Trump’s obstructionist approach to war criminals and the rule of law,” said Rachel VanLandingham, professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. Angeles and retired Air Force lieutenant. colonel who was senior adviser to the senior commanders of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush and Obama administrations, covering issues related to respect for the law of armed conflict.
Special operations troops in general, and members of the SEAL team in particular, have been repeatedly accused of covering up killings and other crimes under the guise of classified missions and a grounded tribal culture. on loyalty and silence, Ms VanLandingham said.
“I was hearing things about SEALs that were just outrageous, and I was trying to pull a thread to try to find out more, and everyone would stop talking,” she says. “It was almost impossible to really investigate, as they were operating in hot and dangerous areas. Plus, the SEALs were so deified by the military and society that no one really wanted to pursue them.
Now that can change, she said.
After several high-profile murder cases and reports of rampant drug use in the ranks, the SEAL’s commanding general wrote to his subordinates in 2019: “We have a problem. This problem has become more pressing in recent years after the International Criminal Court opened an investigation into possible war crimes committed by US troops in Afghanistan.
The Trump administration retaliated against the actions of the International Court last fall by imposing economic sanctions and travel restrictions on court investigators.
By opening a Department of Defense investigation, the Biden administration could try to signal that the United States is willing to look at the allegations independently and hold criminals accountable, VanLandingham said.
Accountability is also just good international and domestic policy, she added: “The United States does not want to be seen as a lawbreaker. The rule of law is a reason people look up to us and an important tool of soft power. “
The Special Operations Command declined to comment on the new investigation Thursday, referring the questions to the Inspector General’s office.
In a statement, the inspector general said the assessment started this week was routine and part of the office’s “planned oversight work, in accordance with its usual protocols.”
Yet lawyers said they had seen nothing like it during the longest period of armed conflict in U.S. history.
The Defense Ministry has given no indication of the size and scope of the new investigation. But a recent independent investigation in Australia of that country’s elite commando force, the Special Air Service, shows that such an effort could go back decades and examine hundreds of missions.
The four-year investigation in Australia interviewed 510 potential witnesses and reviewed 20,000 documents. Its final report revealed dozens of unlawful killings and a warrior culture within the ranks that prompted SAS commandos to glorify atrocities. Nineteen soldiers have since been fired for criminal investigation.
In the US Navy, said a senior SEAL officer, a small but equally twisted subculture has formed since 2001. Asked about the important differences between Australian commandos and US SEALs, the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak publicly, replied: “The Australians have been investigated.”
Three active-duty enlisted SEALs said in interviews that a small subculture of rogue operators has spread across SEAL teams, protected by a fierce code of loyalty and the reluctance of their fellow SEALs to s’ express and risk tarnishing the reputation of their elite fraternity.
The SEALs said their leaders also often remained silent. One cited the example of Chris Kyle, a former SEAL sniper who died in 2013. In his widely read memoir, “American Sniper,” Mr. Kyle wrote that overseas, he had been repeatedly investigated for questionable killings in Iraq and had been returned. of duty at some point.
He wrote that he shot so many people that the men serving under him joked that he must have glued a tiny silhouette of a gun into his sniper scope, so that every Iraqi he targeted appears to be armed and therefore an acceptable target under the rules of engagement.
Despite these alarming accounts, the book was cleared for publication by the Department of Defense and adopted by SEAL management, the public and Hollywood.
“The military – civilians too – often they see us as demigods, and that has created a problem,” said SEAL, who spoke about the book.
After a number of questionable killings came to light, special operations leaders ordered a thorough assessment in 2019 of commando culture and ethics. A report of the findings, released six months later, found “no systematic ethical issues,” but said repeated deployments to war zones had created a culture that favored “the employment of forces and mission accomplishment versus routine activities that ensure leadership, accountability and discipline. “
The Navy said discipline and responsibility have always been a high priority for SEAL teams. In recent years, the service has increased training in ethical decision making and moral leadership for special operators.
The senior SEAL officer said he had hoped the 2019 assessment would include the kind of unwavering look at individual crimes committed in Australia, but as has been done internally by Special Operations Command , it was not really independent.
This week’s brief memo of the Inspector General’s investigation was open, he said. This could be the start of a major investigation or produce a bland examination of bureaucratic reporting processes. Yet, he added, “SEALs have been treated like heroes for too long – they need real responsibility.”