WASHINGTON – The Obama administration has ramped up its secret war on terror groups with a new military targeting center to oversee the growing use of special operations strikes against suspected militants in hot spots around the world, according to current and former U.S. officials.
Run by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, the new center would be a significant step in streamlining targeting operations previously scattered among U.S. and battlefields abroad and giving elite military officials closer access to Washington decision-makers and counterterror experts, the officials said.
The center aims to speed the sharing of information and shorten the time between targeting and military action, said two current and two former U.S. officials briefed on the project. Those officials and others insisted on condition of anonymity to discuss the classified matters.
The creation of the center comes as part of the administration's increasing reliance on clandestine and covert action to hunt terror suspects as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have tested the country's patience and pocketbook. The White House has more than doubled the numbers of special operations forces in Afghanistan alone, as well as doubling the CIA's use of missile strikes from unmanned drones in Pakistan and expanding counterterror operations in Yemen.
JSOC's decision-making process in counterterror operations had previously been spread between special operations officials at Pope Air Force base in North Carolina, top officials at the Pentagon and commanders on the battlefield.
Now located at a classified address a short drive from the Pentagon, the center is staffed with at least 100 counterterror experts fusing the military's special operations elite with analysts, intelligence and law enforcement officials from the FBI, Homeland Security and other agencies, the U.S. officials said.
The new center is similar in concept to the civilian National Counterterrorism Center, which was developed in 2004 as a wide-scope defensive bulwark in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to share intelligence and track terrorist threats.
But the new military center focuses instead on the offensive end of counterterrorism, tracking and targeting terrorist threats that have surfaced in recent years from Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia and other hot zones. Its targeting advice will largely direct elite special operations forces in both commando raids and missile strikes overseas.
The data also could be used at times to advise domestic law enforcement in dealing with suspected terrorists inside the U.S., the officials said. But the civilian authorities would have no role in "kill or capture" operations targeting militant suspects abroad.
The center is similar to several other so-called military intelligence "fusion" centers already operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those installations were designed to put special operations officials in the same room with intelligence professionals and analysts, allowing U.S. forces to shave the time between finding and tracking a target, and deciding how to respond.
At the heart of the new center's analysis is a cloud-computing network tied into all elements of U.S. national security, from the eavesdropping capabilities of the National Security Agency to Homeland Security's border-monitoring databases. The computer is designed to sift through masses of information to track militant suspects across the globe, said two U.S. officials familiar with the system.
Several military officials said the center is the brainchild of JSOC's current commander, Vice Adm. Bill McRaven, who patterned it on the success of a military system called "counter-network," which uses drone, satellite and human intelligence to drive operations on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While directly run by JSOC, the center's staff is overseen by the Pentagon, while congressional committees have been briefed on its operations, officials said.
Locating the center in Washington has the advantage of tying in special operations forces officials to the NSA's electronic data and to the White House's decision-making arm, the National Security Council, said Brookings Institute's Michael O'Hanlon. "There's ready access to the NSC for face to face decision-making," he said.
O'Hanlon, who specializes in national security and defense policy, predicts positive U.S. public reaction to the military's expanding use of special operations forces in counterterrorism strategy. "After spending a trillion dollars on two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, with so far questionable result, people will say, heck yeah. This is the only tool of foreign policy where we can see immediate, positive results," he said.
Officials said Afghanistan has been a proving ground for both the military's growing use of special operations forces in raids against militants and in honing its "counter-network" system.
Over the past year, the numbers of special operations forces and commando raids against militants have surged in Afghanistan. Two strike forces have grown to 12, according to an intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.
"We've gone from 30-35 targeted operations a month in June 2009 now to about 1,000 a month," said NATO spokeswoman Maj. Sunset Belinsky. "More than 80 percent result in capture, and more than 80 percent of the time we capture a targeted individual or someone with a direct connection."
The raids have often come at night, when civilians are indoors and U.S. night vision equipment gives the American raiders the advantage in what military officials often describe as finding, fixing and finishing a target. The raids are aimed at capturing or killing militants, but despite the military's emphasis on capturing suspects to bolster intelligence on the enemy, the killings have often attracted the most attention.
The night raids have been a source of constant complaint by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who calls them a violation of Afghan sovereignty. U.S. officials insist the night raids always have a small team of Afghan security forces in the lead. Gen. David Petraeus, the overall Afghan commander, now briefs Karzai on the raids almost weekly to reassure him, according to a senior U.S. official in Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss high-level conversations.
The emphasis on capturing militants and quickly sifting through evidence left at their capture scene was developed under now-retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal. He commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan until he was dismissed last June by President Barack Obama after unflattering comments by the general's staff about the White House appeared in a Rolling Stone magazine story.
McChrystal's intelligence chief, Brig. Gen. Michael Flynn, recognized early innovations by special operations forces in the field and then refined the intelligence sharing process among the military into the "counter-network" system.
Under that system, U.S. special operations forces have acted as police crime scene investigators, quickly combing for evidence after capturing or killing their targets. They bring their data back to a team of defense intelligence analysts who work with interrogators questioning captured suspects. Their teamwork, officials said, speeds up the targeting of new terror suspects.
Similarly, the military's new targeting center near Washington will rely on a steady flow of information and evidence from the field, which will then by analyzed by special operations experts and their civilian counterparts.
A tip from Africa that suspected militants are planning a strike in the United States, for example, would lead to the names of those suspects being fed into the cloud-computing network. The computer would compare the information with U.S. and international border and flight information, mined from the database of watch lists from the Counterterrorism Center, DHS and the FBI.
If the targets surface overseas, for example, in a country such as Somalia, where special operations forces have already staged snatch-and-grab raids against militants, the military forces would likely be chosen to pursue the targets.
But if the suspected militants turned up inside the U.S., the FBI and other domestic law enforcement would take the lead, officials said.