By TARA McKELVEY
A senior-level officer stood next to a desk at U.S. Special Operations Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida and twirled a black, KA-BAR knife in his right hand. “The tip of the spear,” said the officer, a former Army Ranger, “it kind of signifies Special Operations.” Those special operators — “the rock stars of the military,” as the officer described them — are fighting on the front line against terrorists. On any given day, he explained during a briefing, these men and women are conducting operations in 72 countries around the world.
U.S. Special Operations has been an integral part of the military for decades, and its role became particularly important after the terrorist attacks of 2001. Funding for Special Operations increased dramatically after 9/11, and its range of duties also expanded. The most important area for U.S. Special Operations now is Afghanistan, which is known in the military as a Special Ops War. “Afghanistan has always been an intelligence-driven war,” said James Gordon Meek, a former Washington correspondent for the New York Daily News who has covered counterterrorism and U.S. Special Operations for more than a decade. “The fighting has been done primarily by Special Ops.”
A database of Special Operations that was created for this project includes accounts of about 350 operations — half of them unfolding in Afghanistan. The database is not a scientific study, but nevertheless it shows the breadth of the missions and demonstrates that these operations have become an integral part of the military undertaking in Afghanistan.
With the dramatic growth in Special Operations and its increasingly visible role in Afghanistan, the media coverage of this aspect of the military has never been more important; journalists play a role both in recognizing the valuable work that is being done by special operators in Afghanistan and in other countries around the world and also in exposing misdeeds committed by the special operators and holding them accountable for their actions.
At the same time, many journalists are daunted by the subject; indeed, the world of Special Operations may seem as exotic as a foreign country and remains a subject that is closed off to much public discussion. The goal of this project is to shed light on the work of Special Operations, as well as its culture, history, and background, and in this way to show journalists how they can approach the subject and make it accessible to a wider audience.
Journalists may view U.S. Special Operations as impenetrable, and in turn special operators tend to see journalists as people encroaching on their territory. The relationship between the military and the media is fraught with tension and misunderstandings. The one between journalists and special operators is even more difficult, especially since special operators are trained to carry out missions in a quiet, and often secretive, way.
The senior-level officer who worked at the Special Operations Command headquarters agreed to meet with me, but later asked me not to quote him by name. His reserve was typical of those in the field. During the interview, I referred to an internal investigation that was being conducted by U.S. Special Operations and made a light-hearted comment. He shot me an angry look.
“I was joking,” I said.
“You’re joking around, and you have a notebook and a pen in your hand, and you’re writing everything down,” he said.
“But you have a knife,” I said, glancing at the blade that was lying on his desk.
“What you have is more dangerous,” he said.
The officer was not being terribly serious, but nevertheless the exchange reflected a suspicion on both sides and showed that journalists and special operators often see each other in an exaggerated manner or even as caricatures. The other side is armed and dangerous, at least in a metaphorical sense, and overcoming these psychological and cultural barriers is a challenge. Yet for journalists the importance of overcoming these barriers and covering U.S. Special Operations has only increased over time.