Admiral Eric Thor Olson: The most important man you never heard of. But is he being bypassed?
From Wikimedia Commons

In my most recent diary, I discussed the command structure within the Department of Defense for the war effort in Afghanistan. What is clear from that diary and the links within it is that a number of the most significant activities in Afghanistan have been intentionally carved out of the official command area for General Stanley McChrystal, who is now Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, answering to the US Central Command under General David Petraeus.

Key secret activities appear to be under the control of the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. But who is in control of JSOC? The current head of JSOC is Vice Admiral William McRaven, who previously reported to McChrystal when McChrystal headed JSOC. Under the command structure I described in the previous diary, JSOC is within US Special Operations Command, which is currently headed by Admiral Eric T. Olson. Olson appears to have kept a very low profile in his career. The only biography I could find is here and it has very little real information about him.

The question of control above JSOC has a very interesting history for the time in which McChrystal was JSOC commander. For example, we have this from Jeremy Scahill:

While JSOC has long played a central role in US counterterrorism and covert operations, military and civilian officials who worked at the Defense and State Departments during the Bush administration described in interviews with The Nation an extremely cozy relationship that developed between the executive branch (primarily through Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) and JSOC. During the Bush era, Special Forces turned into a virtual stand-alone operation that acted outside the military chain of command and in direct coordination with the White House. Throughout the Bush years, it was largely General McChrystal who ran JSOC. "What I was seeing was the development of what I would later see in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Special Operations forces would operate in both theaters without the conventional commander even knowing what they were doing," said Colonel Wilkerson. "That’s dangerous, that’s very dangerous. You have all kinds of mess when you don’t tell the theater commander what you’re doing."

Wilkerson said that almost immediately after assuming his role at the State Department under Colin Powell, he saw JSOC being politicized and developing a close relationship with the executive branch. He saw this begin, he said, after his first Delta Force briefing at Fort Bragg. "I think Cheney and Rumsfeld went directly into JSOC. I think they went into JSOC at times, perhaps most frequently, without the SOCOM [Special Operations] commander at the time even knowing it. The receptivity in JSOC was quite good," says Wilkerson. "I think Cheney was actually giving McChrystal instructions, and McChrystal was asking him for instructions." He said the relationship between JSOC and Cheney and Rumsfeld "built up initially because Rumsfeld didn’t get the responsiveness. He didn’t get the can-do kind of attitude out of the SOCOM commander, and so as Rumsfeld was wont to do, he cut him out and went straight to the horse’s mouth. At that point you had JSOC operating as an extension of the [administration] doing things the executive branch–read: Cheney and Rumsfeld–wanted it to do. This would be more or less carte blanche. You need to do it, do it. It was very alarming for me as a conventional soldier."

Olson took over SOCOM on July 9, 2007, replacing General Bryan Brown. The bypassing of SOCOM Wilkerson describes clearly began during Brown’s tenure. Olson was second in command at SOCOM at that time, however. In a very interesting article in Air Force Times published on March 6, 2006, Sean D. Naylor offered a revealing glimpse inside the discussion of the reporting structure for JSOC:

Structural changes in the Joint Special Operations Command will give its chief more authority and influence in dealing with other leaders and give his headquarters greater ability to simultaneously lead multiple task forces, said several sources familiar with the report.

But the Pentagon rejected another recommendation to temporarily pull JSOC out of its parent organization, U.S. Special Operations Command, and have it report directly to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

So, there was talk in 2006 of actually formalizing the structure that Scahill described, where McChrystal was taking orders directly from Rumsfeld and Cheney. The Naylor article reports that the changes he was describing were the result of a task force Rumsfeld assigned to study JSOC after Olson reported that "his command’s capabilities had declined," apparently setting Rumsfeld off on one of his famous tirades.

Here is more from Naylor on the changes in JSOC implemented in 2006:

"Before 9/11, JSOC was essentially seen as a hostage-rescue unit or ‘render-safe’ unit," said the retired Special Forces lieutenant colonel. "You train, you train, you train, then all of a sudden you get on a plane and you go somewhere, do a mission, it’s over in 36 hours, and you come back."

Now the command is deployed somewhere "24/7," he said. Since the Iraq war began, JSOC has kept at least one task force, and sometimes two, deployed there, with another in Afghanistan.

The command has shifted to "continuous operations," added the Washington source familiar with the Downing report.

So the question remains, who is directing McRaven and JSOC? Olson has direct command responsibility, but he was second in command when McChrystal began his practice of working around SOCOM and there appear to have been no negative consequences to McChrystal for what should have beeen seen as insubordination. In fact, McChrystal has instead been promoted and praised, while JSOC has been given more influence and funding. Here is Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in an article in Foreign Affairs published during the time he was chosen to remain in office as President Obama took over from President Bush:

As secretary of defense, I have repeatedly made the argument in favor of institutionalizing counterinsurgency skills and the ability to conduct stability and support operations. I have done so not because I fail to appreciate the importance of maintaining the United States’ current advantage in conventional war fighting but rather because conventional and strategic force modernization programs are already strongly supported in the services, in Congress, and by the defense industry. The base budget for fiscal year 2009, for example, contains more than $180 billion for procurement, research, and development, the overwhelming preponderance of which is for conventional systems.

Apart from the Special Forces community and some dissident colonels, however, for decades there has been no strong, deeply rooted constituency inside the Pentagon or elsewhere for institutionalizing the capabilities necessary to wage asymmetric or irregular conflict — and to quickly meet the ever-changing needs of forces engaged in these conflicts.


…I just want to make sure that the capabilities needed for the complex conflicts the United States is actually in and most likely to face in the foreseeable future also have strong and sustained institutional support over the long term. And I want to see a defense establishment that can make and implement decisions quickly in support of those on the battlefield.

In the end, the military capabilities needed cannot be separated from the cultural traits and the reward structure of the institutions the United States has: the signals sent by what gets funded, who gets promoted, what is taught in the academies and staff colleges, and how personnel are trained.

Clearly, the increased responsibility and funding for JSOC and the promotion of McChrystal to head ISAF show that Gates, the Pentagon establishment and Obama approve of the covert actions JSOC and McChrystal have carried out.

It seems likely to me, then, that McRaven’s JSOC may well be taking a page from McChrystal’s playbook in bypassing SOCOM and Olson. Rather than Cheney or Rumsfeld, however, it seems more likely that McChrystal would be the one providing direction to McRaven, his former subordinate. That would give McChrystal the advantage of making his public pronouncements aimed at public relations regarding night raids, civilian imprisonment, secret prisons and target choices for drone strikes, but still having a hand in the more free-wheeling style he pioneered when he ran JSOC. At the very least, it is now unlikely that McChrystal will be unaware of McRaven’s JSOC actions in the way that previous CENTCOM representation in the field was unaware of McChrystal’s JSOC actions.

Of course, Petraeus is just as "politicized" as Wilkerson described McChrystal to Scahill. That gives us then a complete link down from Gates through Petraeus to McChrystal and then McRaven for the secret activities in Afghanistan and the surrounding area, even though it should go from Gates through Olson to McRaven, with McChrystal and Petraeus only being supported, not being in control. Ultimate responsibility in this chain, however, eventually flows all the way up to Obama. How involved is he in decisions relating to JSOC operations?

Although Olson may be the most important person you never heard of, he might also be left entirely out of the loop on decisions that the command structure says should be his.

Postscript: In a number of recent diaries, I have discussed how Obama’s executive order closing secret prisons appeared directed at the CIA and not JSOC. Here is the relevant section of the order itself, which I had not yet quoted:

Sec. 4. Prohibition of Certain Detention Facilities, and Red Cross Access to Detained Individuals.

(a) CIA Detention. The CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and shall not operate any such detention facility in the future.

(b) International Committee of the Red Cross Access to Detained Individuals. All departments and agencies of the Federal Government shall provide the International Committee of the Red Cross with notification of, and timely access to, any individual detained in any armed conflict in the custody or under the effective control of an officer, employee, or other agent of the United States Government or detained within a facility owned, operated, or controlled by a department or agency of the United States Government, consistent with Department of Defense regulations and policies.

So, yes, the order directs the CIA to close its detention facilities and says nothing about JSOC. Further, in instructing government agencies to make prisoners available to the ICRC, note that such disclosure is to be "consistent with Department of Defense regulations and policies". That also seems to me to leave a loophole for JSOC, since it is DoD policy that the bulk of JSOC actions are classified.