“Dude, I don’t need to play these stupid games. I know what you’re trying to do.” With that, Major Matthew Robert Bockholt hung up on me.
More than a month before, I had called US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) with a series of basic questions: In how many countries were US Special Operations Forces deployed in 2013? Are manpower levels set to expand to 72,000 in 2014? Is SOCOM still aiming for growth rates of 3 percent to 5 percent per year? How many training exercises did the command carry out in 2013? Basic stuff.
And for more than a month, I waited for answers. I called. I left messages. I emailed. I waited some more. I started to get the feeling that Special Operations Command didn’t want me to know what its Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs and Delta Force commandos—the men who operate in the hottest of hotspots and most remote locales around the world—were doing.
Then, at the last moment, just before my filing deadline, Special Operations Command got back to me with an answer so incongruous, confusing and contradictory that I was glad I had given up on SOCOM and tried to figure things out for myself.
I started with a blank map that quickly turned into a global pincushion. It didn’t take long before every continent but Antarctica was bristling with markers indicating special operations forces’ missions, deployments and interactions with foreign military forces in 2012–13. With that, the true size and scope of the US military’s secret military began to come into focus. It was, to say the least, vast.
A review of open-source information reveals that in 2012 and 2013, US Special Operations forces (SOF) were likely deployed to—or training, advising or operating with the personnel of—more than 100 foreign countries. And that’s probably an undercount. In 2011, then-SOCOM spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told TomDispatch that Special Operations personnel were annually sent to 120 countries around the world. They were in, that is, about 60 percent of the nations on the planet. “We’re deployed in a number of locations,” was as specific as Bockholt would ever get when I talked to him in the waning days of 2013. And when SOCOM did finally get back to me with an eleventh-hour answer, the number offered made almost no sense.
Despite the lack of official cooperation, an analysis by TomDispatch reveals SOCOM to be a command on the make with an already sprawling reach. As Special Operations Command chief Admiral William McRaven put it in “SOCOM 2020,” his blueprint for the future, it has ambitious aspirations to create “a Global SOF network of like-minded interagency allies and partners.” In other words, in that future now only six years off, it wants to be everywhere.