WASHINGTON – The top Pentagon job overseeing the secret special operations war on terrorist groups has been offered to former U.S. counterterrorism ambassador Michael Sheehan, according to two senior U.S. officials.
If he accepts and is confirmed, Sheehan would have one of the most powerful civilian jobs in America's covert war against al-Qaida and its offshoots, helping coordinate clandestine special operations raids and covert drone strikes arrayed against militants operating from Pakistan to Afghanistan to Yemen.
The post, currently held by CIA veteran Michael Vickers, comes with the cumbersome title of assistant secretary of defense for special operations / low-intensity conflict & interdependent capabilities. It is critical in overseeing black operations by both U.S. special operations and the intelligence community.
Sheehan, a retired U.S. Army Green Beret, did not return calls to his New York-based consulting firm, the Lexington Security Group. But the offer was confirmed by the officials, who insisted on anonymity because White House officials had not yet announced the choice. The White House, which has final say over the post, declined to comment Monday.
Vickers is running the office while awaiting his own confirmation hearing for the Pentagon's top intelligence job, his spokesman said.
Mentioned by the officials as a potential deputy to Sheehan was retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Nagl, the president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank that has produced many top Pentagon officials in the Obama administration.
Another potential deputy, according to the officials, was former National Security Council chief of staff Mark Lippert, who has spent the past year on active duty as a Naval intelligence officer reservist. However, one of the officials said that Lippert has turned down the job.
Neither Nagl nor Lippert could be reached for comment.
Increasingly, the sensitive operations Sheehan would oversee are performed by personnel from a number of different agencies, including the U.S. military's elite Joint Special Operations Command, the CIA and other members of the defense, intelligence and law enforcement community. Special operations personnel assigned to JSOC include Navy SEALs, U.S. Army Rangers and Green Berets.
Despite efforts to foster inter-agency cooperation, U.S. officials from the intelligence and military side of the house have sometimes been at odds, complaining about "food fights" between groups going after the same target.
A West Point graduate, Sheehan served as a U.S. Army Special Forces officer, with peacekeeping stints in Somalia and Yemen. While in uniform, he served as a National Security Council aide in both the Bush and Clinton administrations. He later served as the State Department's counterterrorism ambassador, held a senior peacekeeping role at the U.N. and, most recently, served as the head of counterterrorism for the New York City Police Department.
Sheehan wrote the 2008 book "Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves," which included a blurb by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who died last month.
"Mike Sheehan is the person I would most want at my side when trying to stop terrorists," Holbrooke wrote, calling the book "a primer for the next president."