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A House for Ghosts: The Reconsolidation of Intelligence and Special Operations Forces

With chameleon-like security adversaries challenging the US today, it may be worth considering a recreation of the OSS model, with intelligence and special operations forces (SOF) under one roof - the "Directorate of Strategic Services."

Cover Image for A House for Ghosts: The Reconsolidation of Intelligence and Special Operations Forces
Special Operations Forces Photo Credits: army.mil
Article byRule Johnstone
April 14, 2022

Both the CIA and US Special Operations Command trace their lineage to the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS.[1] America was the last major nation to establish a spy service, but despite the fledgling OSS’ inexperience in the shadow world, “the United States turned out to be really good at it.[2]” But with chameleon-like security adversaries challenging the US today, it may be worth considering a recreation of the OSS model, with intelligence and special operations forces (SOF) under one roof. Not only is such a move – the reconsolidation of intel and SOF into a Directorate of Strategic Services (DSS) – practical, but would also reflect strategic realities already occurring on the ground.

Despite widespread public awareness of intel and SOF cooperation during the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden, perhaps the most effective example of coordination occurred in Iraq in the mid-2000s. General Stanley McChrystal and Task Force 714’s defeat of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is notable for dismantling a frustratingly nebulous enemy: “AQI’s organization was not modelled on a hierarchical structure...organizationally, it was decentralized and widely dispersed, compromising a plethora of networks and nodes.[3]” Equally challenging was retooling US operational efficiency, as “traditional methods of operating were too deliberate and too hierarchical to dismantle Iraq’s fast-paced and networked insurgency. A highly compartmentalized and top-down military organization could not accomplish that mission.[4]” To do that, JSOC needed “to become more of an intelligence organization than an operations organization,[5]” an innovation which would require both battlefield and bureaucratic savvy to execute.

By combining three-letter intelligence agencies and other assets with his JSOC commandos, McChrystal succeeded in creating an “intelligence-driven, problem-solving organization[6]” that defeated AQI, largely through targeting the middle managers of AQI’s network, rather than just senior leadership. Another catalyzing innovation was changing his strategic role as an officer; since the Army’s commanding officers are “trained as chess masters[7]” seeking to control the whole battlespace, McChrystal morphed into a “gardener, enabling rather than directing.[8]” Recognizing this and other intel-SOF collaborative efforts, Bin Laden raid commander Admiral Bill McRaven exclaimed that “not since World War II has there been such a lethal combination of intelligence officers and special operations warriors...I'm here tonight to tell you that the OSS is back![9]

McRaven is not alone in recognizing the operational advantages of decentralized intel-SOF collaboration. Security writer Max Boot has opined that “to re-create OSS by bringing together under one roof not only Army [special operations forces]…CIA's paramilitary Special Activities Division…[in a] joint civil-military agency…[to] bring together in one place all of the key skill sets needed to wage the softer side of the War on Terror.[10]” This sentiment is echoed by former CIA team lead in the invasion of Afghanistan Gary Berntsen, who, with extensive experience, believes “a DSS would greatly enhance US ability to deal with the broad need for unconventional skillsets.[11]

For an indication of why such unconventional skillsets are necessary, consider Russia, where hybrid war architect Valery Gerasimov, the man who once said “war in general is not declared. It simply begins[12]” and reformed Russia’s military strategy: “primary tools of Russia's ‘new generation war’ would include a heavy dose of intelligence efforts, special operations, and information activities. It was irregular warfare.[13]” Similarly, the late Qassem Soleimani established Iran’s formidable irregular warfare capabilities in the Quds Force: “Iran projected power not through conventional capabilities like tanks and fighter jets, but through support to nonstate partners, covert action, espionage, and cyber operations. Soleimani was much more like Sun Tzu than like Carl von Clausewitz.[14]” This is not even mentioning China, who have mobilized their entire state for long-term unconventional conflict. We need to give our professionals a home and resources to focus on the strategy and craft of countering these asymmetric capabilities.

To counter such threats, fewer administrative roadblocks could provide the institutional support needed. When considering the utility of a DSS, take for example the operator in Afghanistan who, preceding a changeover in command to the Army lamented: “SOF were able to operate in an unconventional or, at least, innovative fashion when they worked for the CIA. This arrangement would quickly end, as would the ability to operate innovatively.[15]” The advantages of such a reorganization are primarily to empower our professionals on the ground to make decentralized decisions – thereby enabling greater effectiveness and efficiency. Retired elite CIA paramilitary operator Ric Prado writes that going back many decades, his job always demanded a hybrid skillset, calling it “surveillance with teeth.[16]” Such descriptions reinforce the reality that the actual work of intelligence and special operations is already intermingled in our current threat environment. As Prado emphasizes, “human intelligence, or HUMINT, is the essence of our work.[17]” The practical reality is that close intel-SOF cooperation is already occurring, despite the lack of formal institutions.

A reconsolidated DSS would also make sense operationally, considering the view of former CIA clandestine service chief Jack Devine on what the role of the Agency should be: “a hybrid approach works best, with both strong intelligence collection and covert action as essential levers of U.S. foreign policy. Frank Wisner, the CIA's second director of operations and an accomplished spymaster, saw this approach as ‘intelligence in action.’[18]” Even some in the DoD leadership want to cloister the “shadow warriors, operating near the edges of legitimate and lawful action. It [is] best to separate them from the large U.S. military units and the overarching defense infrastructure...they could focus on clandestine missions and operate as a sort of ghost militia.[19]” However, this does not mean that the US must compromise our national principles. In referring to our foes’ asymmetric capabilities, security expert David Kilcullen states “their methods are neither good nor bad in themselves. Western democracies could adopt or modify some of them without compromising our values and ethics or destroying the things that make our societies worth fighting for.[20]

Kilcullen refers to the need for a capability, which in turn requires both core strategy and a housing institution. Our shadow professionals have shown informally that hybrid practices are already being utilized. If the US could only collectively cease to “regard hybrid operations as abnormal or problematic activities outside the bounds of acceptable practice in war and instead diving into them as a new, potentially very advantageous operating environment ripe for exploitation[21]” all that would remain is a formal institution to house these principles. Perhaps there is hope on the horizon, as in addition to General McChrystal, current CIA chief Bill Burns has stated his view of leaders as “gardeners,[22]” tilling operational soil more than commanding. A DSS would formalize best practices and create a structure where “we will do the lurking,[23]” enabling our spies and operators to reinforce Orwell’s notion of what allows us to sleep peaceably in our beds at night.

[1] Collins, N.W. Grey Wars: A Contemporary History of U.S. Special Operations. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2021. Pg. 86.

[2] Olson, James M. Fair Play: The Moral Dilemmas of Spying. Potomac Books, 2006. Pg. 36.

[3] Schultz, Richard H. Transforming US Intelligence for Irregular War: Task Force 714 in Iraq. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2020. Pg. 155.

[4] Shultz, 189.

[5] Shultz, 155.

[6] Shultz, 158.

[7] Shultz, 191.

[8] Shultz, 191.

[9] Devine, Jack. Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014. Pg. 261.

[10] Peterson, Zachary M. Rumsfeld, Goss previously rejected idea: CIA again rejects shifting paramilitary units, after Boot touts idea. Inside the Navy, Vol. 19, No. 26 (July 3, 2006), P. 13. Inside Washington Publishers.

[11] Berntsen, Gary. Human Intelligence, Counterterrorism, and National Leadership: A Practical Guide. Potomac Books: 2008. Pgs. 99-100.

[12] Kilcullen, David. The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West. New York, Oxford University Press, 2020. Pg. 163.

Jones, Seth G. Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran, and the Rise of Irregular Warfare. New York: Norton, 2021. Pg. 60.

[14] Jones, 125.

[15] Rothstein, 176.

[16] Prado, Ric. Black Ops: The Life of a CIA Shadow Warrior. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2022. Pg. 333.

[17] Prado, 135.

[18] Devine, Jack. Spymaster’s Prism: The Fight Against Russian Aggression. Potomac Books: 2021. Pg. 156.

[19] Collins, 55.

[20] Kilcullen, 241.

[21] Kilcullen, 245.

[22] Burns, William J. The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and The Case for its Renewal. New York: Random House, 2020. Pg. 407.

[23] Kilcullen, 246.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent that of the IWAB platform.