There’s a lot of talk about defense budgets, and some internal squabbling between Congressional liberals and Leon Panetta over balancing cuts to the military with cuts to the safety net. But I think some of this misses the larger point, that the budget that needs to be put under control is the largely secretive one, the budget of the intelligence agencies. Because it’s pretty clear that warmaking capabilities are being moved out of the Defense Department and into covert ops. In a story for Salon, Nick Turse writes about our growing secret war apparatus:

After a U.S. Navy SEAL put a bullet in Osama bin Laden’s chest and another in his head, one of the most secretive black-ops units in the American military suddenly found its mission in the public spotlight. It was atypical. While it’s well known that U.S. Special Operations forces are deployed in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it’s increasingly apparent that such units operate in murkier conflict zones like Yemen and Somalia, the full extent of their worldwide war has remained deeply in the shadows.

Last year, Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post reported that U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed in 75 countries, up from 60 at the end of the Bush presidency. By the end of this year, U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told me, that number will likely reach 120. “We do a lot of traveling — a lot more than Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said recently. This global presence — in about 60 percent of the world’s nations and far larger than previously acknowledged — provides striking new evidence of a rising clandestine Pentagon power elite waging a secret war in all corners of the world.

Special Operations Command is part of the Pentagon budget, but plenty of these capabilities have been outsourced to the CIA as well. And NSA and some of the other intelligence-gathering agencies play a role too. And most of these agency budgets are undisclosed. I’m not sure that SOCOM’s budget is fully split out either, although we know that their baseline budget has increased from $2.3 billion to $6.3 billion over the last decade, and including Iraq and Afghanistan missions, $9.8 billion.

The reason you’ve seen this explosion in budgeting on the security is not just because of the public wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s because of these below-the-radar operations across the globe. And it’s worth asking why. According to this article, there’s a 600-person special ops team in the Philippines, at the cost of about $50 million a year, engaging in counter-terrorism against insurgent groups in that country. Does that have anything to do with our national security? Is Jemaah Islamiyah or Abu Sayyaf fixing to take down a building in the US?

With SOCOM’s strength on the rise internally at the Pentagon, I believe that war fighting will become less and less accountable, with covert operations members engaging in targeted assassinations, night raids, capture/kill operations, and more. Seal Team 6 has been lionized for killing bin Laden; but would the American people consent to similar operations being carried out in 120 countries around the globe, including against some groups with only tangential connections to international terrorism? Even if they consented, shouldn’t they know about it?

David Dayen

David Dayen