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JSOC: Black Ops Brain Trust

U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on Operation Neptune's Spear, a mission against Osama bin Laden, in one of the conference rooms of the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011.

President Obama and Vice President Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on Operation Neptune's Spear in one of the conference rooms of the Situation Room of the White House, on May 1, 2011. (View larger version)

Photograph by The White House

By Patrick J. Kiger

Published

After the catastrophic failure of a mission to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran in 1980, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) was set up to make sure that future missions had a better chance to succeed. JSOC, which is headquartered at Fort Bragg, NC, brings together the Army, Navy, and Air Force's most secretive counter-terrorist forces in an effort to avoid the sort of planning and communications breakdowns that plagued the Iran mission. The success of the mission to kill Osama bin Laden is evidence of just how effective—and to our enemies, lethal—JSOC can be.

In a Nation magazine article on JSOC, Col. W. Patrick Lang, a retired special forces officer with extensive Middle East experience, characterized JSOC as the Pentagon's licit equivalent of Murder, Incorporated, the infamous Brooklyn-based hit men of the 1920s and 1930s. "They're in the business of killing Al Qaeda personnel." Retired anti-drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey has called JSOC's personnel "the most dangerous people on the face of the Earth."

Not surprisingly, considering the sort of business JSOC is in, it's one of the most secretive units of the U.S. military. The organization doesn't have a public website, and most of its activities are classified. Most of what we know about it comes from the fragmentary details that slip into news reports of its higher-profile missions. The organization's reach and mandate are apparently far-reaching. Globalsecurity.org, a website, a website that amasses dossiers on clandestine organizations, speculates that JSOC may even have been secretly exempted from the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prohibits the U.S. military and law enforcement agencies from operating jointly.

According to Globalsecurity.org, JSOC units have been involved in a range of missions over the past several decades, including the rescue of hostages aboard the Achille Lauro in the 1980s and searching for Serbian war criminals in the 1990s. But since the 9/11 attacks, JSOC's main focus has been going after Al Qaeda and its leader. A unit called Task Force 11 was sent to Afghanistan to search for Taliban and Al Qaeda fugitives. Ultimately, the job of killing bin Laden was assigned to SEAL Team Six, the unit that killed the Somali pirates who seized the Maersk Alabama and its crew in April 2009.

According to journalist John Bergen’s account of the hunt for bin Laden, the head of JSOC was notified of the plans to raid the Abbottabad compound in late January 2011. During this time U.S. intelligence agencies kept the compound under continuous satellite surveillance. JSOC reportedly used that data to construct a computer model of the compound, and then built an actual full-scale replica of it at a secret location in North Carolina, so that commandos were able to practice in the most realistic situation possible. During those months of training, the team was able to reduce the completion time for the assault to just 30 minutes. The raid took just eight minutes longer in real life. The mission was so secret that it wasn't until several weeks before the operation that the SEALs were told that their mission would be to target the bin Laden compound.

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