Recently we called out the Durango Herald for a laughably bad piece about an alleged Delta Force Soldier who could have been outed with just a little fact checking. In the case of The Command there isn’t a need to call anyone out. Marc Ambinder and D.B. Grady make a serious effort to dig through the layers of classification that deliberately obscure the highly sensitive activities of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which is the umbrella under which Delta Force and SEAL Team Six exist.
In doing this they turn up some amazing information on previously undisclosed operations and activities. However, they also slip up more than once. This critique is intended as professional rather than personal criticism, but it is needed criticism. Because of OPSEC, not every incorrect statement made in The Command can be corrected.
This may sound like a cop out and maybe it is. It is also certain that the following is not a full critique as the author is not aware of every program and mission mentioned in Ambinder and Grady’s work and can’t comment on it one way or the other.
Some of the mistakes in The Command could be corrected with a careful reading of open source materials such as Mark Bowden’s Killing Pablo. Take for instance the statement that Delta Force was “…in Panama where it allegedly pursued Pablo Escobar.” Pablo Escobar was allegedly pursued by Delta Force in Pablo’s home country of Colombia. However, Delta Force did participate in the 1989 invasion of Panama.
Other elements of The Command take some careful scrutiny to recognize as being somewhat off target. The authors detail Admiral McRaven’s approach to the Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq and how JSOC had to adapt to the new Iraqi legal system. Ambinder and Grady make it out as if JSOC intelligence analysts, Delta Force operators, and SEAL Team Six members routinely provided testimony to Iraqi judges in order to secure warrants for High Value Targets.
In reality, this was a very rare event. More often, a member of Iraqi Counter-Terrorist forces would provide the testimony on behalf of JSOC. This is one way that JSOC was able to mitigate the Status of Forces Agreement.
It is also necessary to subject the sources used in The Command to closer scrutiny. For example, the New Yorker article Getting Bin Laden by Nicholas Schmidle is cited extensively as a source of information.
The New Yorker article in question has been derided by SEALs and Schmidle himself had to admit that he spoke to none of the SEALs involved in the raid, contrary to how he presented himself in the article. When asked about Schmidle’s work, veteran SEALs call it “a work of fiction.”
There are also smaller, but numerous errors throughout the book. Ambinder and Grady identify the sniper rifles used by SEALs on the Maersk Alabama hostage rescue operations as M-110 rifles when they were actually SR-25′s. They write that Intelligence Support Activity (ISA) is a Tier Two Special Operations element even though it is a Tier One unit within JSOC.
The authors incorrectly state that there are about 300 DEVGRU and 450 Delta operators. My advice to journalists is to simply stop guessing at the size, strength, and disposition of these two units.
Additionally, there are other mistakes such as mixing up Task Force names, and some content that I find highly questionable. For instance, they write that JSOC conducted less then a dozen raids in April of 2004. I find this highly suspect based on the amount of operations conducted by other Special Operations units during this time frame.
Mention is made to the killing of Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, Osama Bin Laden’s son-in-law who was assassinated in Madagascar in 2007. According to The Command, a JSOC team infiltrated into the country to carry out the killing.
Much is left hanging in the air in regards to this claim. Witnesses to the killing describe a gang of 20-30 men who bludgeoned Khalifa to death at the gem mine he owned. No mention is made of foreigners. No doubt, Khalifa was on JSOC’s target deck, whether or not there was American involvement in his death is debatable until further evidence is presented.
Perhaps the most shocking claim made in The Command is that Delta Force infiltrated into China to conduct a recon operation on Chinese satellite transmission facilities to determine how to knock them out if it ever became necessary in the future.
Without further knowledge of this alleged operation, I find it highly suspect. You can knock out a telemetry station with a cruise missile, no need for a high-risk recce operation that violates the sovereignty of a nuclear power like China. Could the recce mission have actually been about acquiring SIGINT intercepts? It is unlikely that Delta would be used for this mission, and frankly, and it is doubtful that this mission ever took place to begin with.
The authors describe how hesitant Washington was to send operators into Somalia, a lawless failed state in which essentially zero political fallout would occur in the context of international politics if an operation was compromised, yet the authors still believe that these same politicians blessed off on an incursion into China? Not likely.
Ambinder and Grady make a strong effort at uncovering the classified activities of JSOC, and present some amazing revelations in the process, but they also stumble over themselves more than once. We can be sure that JSOC is more than happy with that. I look forward to future works from these authors and will continue to follow them but humbly ask that they tighten up their shot group a bit.
At this time, I would not recommend The Command to the lay person who is interested in learning more about Special Operations. For the researcher who is willing to double and triple source the claims made by the authors, it may be of some use.
The true history of JSOC and the Special Operations community has yet to be written, and as long as we have Soldiers serving overseas, maybe we should all be grateful for that fact.