A glossary of terms that are commonly used by men and women who work in U.S. Special Operations and by journalists who cover these operations.
Classified missions or operations. In most cases, the missions are “clandestine,” which means that they are kept secret to protect Americans and allied forces that are involved in an operation – i.e. capturing a Taliban leader. Afterwards, the mission is no longer secret; it is often reported on in the media, featuring interviews with some of the people who carried out the mission. In contrast, some of the black operations are “covert,” which means that U.S. government can deny that they are involved in these operations and therefore these operations must remain secret even after they have been completed. (See definition below.)
Some officials, such as Lieutenant General John Mulholland Jr., who has served as commanding general of Special Operations Command Central at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., believe that journalists exaggerate the importance of the distinction between black and white operations, since on many occasions these operations meld together. “It’s almost a false analogy,” Mulholland told a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. “It’s not one or the other. It’s how you blend all of our nation’s capabilities to achieve a certain effect on the battlefield. The discussion is much more nuanced than people like to make it.”
Benjamin Abel, a former public affairs officer at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, told me that their world has a variety of shades. “There’s black and white – and there’s grey,” he explained. “The army does a lot of grey.”
Some terrorism analysts, however, are skeptical about the classification of many black operations. “They say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. Black operations.’ It means – ‘I’m hot shit,’” Marc Sageman, the author of Understanding Terror Networks, said. “This whole system is geared to make outrageous claims.”
Civil Affairs Operations.
Activities that help develop relationships between American military personnel and local civilians and military forces in other countries, often carried out be reservists who are bankers, city planners, and managers in their civilian lives. “That’s us interacting with the populace to determine their needs, whether they are roads, dental care, or medical clinics,” says a senior-level officer at U.S. Special Operations Command headquarters. “In Afghanistan, [special operators] go into a village and determine whether they would do better if they used solar power rather than water power — because there is no water, but there is sun.”
“The instrument of a nation’s id – the desire of a government to do certain things without having to explain, defend, or justify them,” wrote Thomas Powers in Intelligence Wars. These operations are also a way to advance policy goals; indeed, they “are extraordinary steps, something between the states of peace and war,” wrote Mark Lowenthal in Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy.
Some Special Operations are covert but, according to a Special Operations Field Manual, these missions require a declaration of war or a specific finding that has been approved by the President or Secretary of Defense. In recent years, the military has apparently undertaken covert operations in Pakistan in an effort to capture or kill Taliban militants and Al Qaeda leaders; since these missions are covert, the U.S. government, and the Pakistani government, can later claim that they were not involved in them.
Not to be confused with “clandestine” operations, which are military actions that are temporarily kept secret in order to protect Americans and their allies. “One hides the act,” explains a senior-level officer at U.S. Special Operations Command headquarters. “The other hides the actor.”
U.S. Special Operations soldiers and officers who go through an Army training program similar to the one offered to CIA paramilitaries.
Missions undertaken in order to “seize, destroy, capture, exploit, recover or damage designated targets,” according to U.S. Special Operations guidelines, “against the enemy’s critical operational or strategic targets.” Or, as a senior-level officer at U.S. Special Operations Command headquarters puts it, “The Rambo-type stuff.”
Foreign Internal Defense.
“Its primary intent is to help the legitimate host government address internal threats and their underlying causes,” according to U.S. Special Operations guidelines, in an effort to “build indigenous defense and intelligence capabilities.”
Assessing chemical or biological hazards or acquiring information about enemies. “The ability to go into remote areas and to provide information back to forces that may have to deploy there,” explains a senior-level officer at U.S. Special Operations Command headquarters. “Someone will say ‘We think there is a training camp there.’ Well, these guys go into a country and do reconnaissance.”
Military commanders say that special operators pursue terrorists, militants, and extremists –known as High Value Targets– but the soldiers do not get involved in targeted assassinations. “High value is combat,” one former commander of a covert military unit explained to me. “Benazir Bhutto is assassination. We’re not into the Benazir Bhutto stuff.” Terrorism analyst Marc Sageman, however, disagrees with his terminology.
“Well, of course it’s targeted assassination. It’s targeted. It’s assassination,” Sageman says. “Otherwise it’s random killing. They’re so blinded by obfuscating words that they don’t see anything.”