Corrections & clarifications: This column has been updated to correct the status of a report to Congress. It was submitted in March.
U.S. special operations forces are adored by politicians and the public, their reputations burnished by feats like the raid on Osama bin Laden, the sea rescue of the Maersk Alabama’s captain and countless other daring operations against high-value targets around the globe. But the special ops brand — brave, honorable, can-do warriors achieving the impossible — is now being undermined by reports of battlefield lawlessness, loyalty over integrity, a willingness to challenge commands and a seeming pattern of disciplinary impunity.
Just this week, the U.S. Special Operations Command called home an entire Navy SEAL platoon from Iraq "due to a perceived deterioration of good order and discipline. ... The commander lost confidence in the team’s ability to accomplish the mission."
There are numerous other public reports of special operators engaging in such derelictions, including some recently making headlines: A SEAL strangling to death a fellow U.S. soldier in Mali; SEALs allegedly beating a detainee to death in Afghanistan; a SEAL accused of stabbing the neck of a wounded Islamic State prisoner in Iraq, after reportedly indiscriminately shooting civilians — only to be acquitted of such war crimes amid allegations of command-chain cover-ups, threats against witnesses and prosecutorial misconduct; and an Army Green Beret officer charged with murdering a suspected bomb-maker after being ordered to release him.
Breakdown of discipline in elite forces
And that is what is in the public domain. Add to this list allegations of illicit drug use and sexual assault, and we could be facing a widespread breakdown in good order, discipline and accountability for this elite subsociety of the U.S. military establishment. These indicators should be deeply troubling not only to the vast majority of special operators and senior leaders serving with honor, but to Congress as well.
Where is the oversight?
Congress demonstrated some concern last year over potential corrosion of morality within our special operations forces, ordering the Defense secretary to conduct a “comprehensive review of professionalism and ethics programs for special operations forces.” The Pentagon said in a seven-page report in March that while it "did not identify any gaps" in its programs, it would undertake a "90-day focus period on core values." It's questionable whether tsuch a "focus period" will have a meaningful impact.
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Congress can’t abdicate its constitutional responsibility to oversee military discipline; it should call hearings to probe whether and how commanders of these organizations are responding to an apparent decline in good order and discipline (just as it has repeatedly done regarding sexual assault within the ranks).
Why? Because in our system of civil-military relations, Congress entrusts military commanders to make sure their units embrace the values of the nation they serve. And in moments like this, Congress must revalidate that trust.
High costs of military mishaps
The general lack of meaningful interest from Congress (and by extension the American public) might reflect a worrisome willingness to tolerate just about anything from our elite warrior class. It could be evidence of Americans feeling guilty and grateful that less than 1% of their fellow citizens are serving. They are perhaps willing to “give a pass” to alleged criminal brutality on the battlefield. Indeed, many in uniform feel Americans don’t seem to much care what they are doing on foreign battlefields — how violence is being wielded under the banner of the U.S. flag.
Americans have good reason to admire the special operators who have borne a disproportionately heavy burden through almost two decades of constant warfare. They endure an exhausting tempo of multiple deployments a year to global hot spots, with shifting (and often confusing) rules of engagement prompted by the urban battlefields preferred by today’s nonstate terrorist groups — and by political leaders who often want to pretend our wars are winding down. Yet Congress needs to recognize that indifference to departures from legal and moral fidelity has a cost.
Rules help preserve warriors' souls
Furthermore, Americans need reminding that maintaining good order and discipline in the ranks is never more vital than when engaged in combat against enemies whose illicit conduct provides “infinite provocation for the commission of acts of cruelty by junior officers and the enlisted men.” That's what President Theodore Roosevelt said in approving the court-martial conviction of a U.S. general in the Philippines for allowing subordinates to engage in waterboarding. Roosevelt knew that accountability is critical to the health of our military and mission accomplishment.
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Rules establishing whom, how and when to kill, with appropriate punishment for rule-breakers, also help preserve our service members’ souls. It helps them look in the mirror years after the nation has asked them to take lives — lives that could belong to innocent civilians put in harm's way by terrorists. They behaved lawfully, and therefore morally, and can rest at night.
We fail our military members when our laws of war are not clearly articulated and consistently enforced. In particular, we need to clarify the rules as applied to the lawless armed groups that take advantage of our commitment to the law and expose civilians to great harm. Too often, the policy rules imposed on our military operations reflect our conflicted belief that we aren’t really at war, though we are asking our service members to kill — but only as long as few or no civilians are hurt in the process.
Align US missions with US morals
Our special operators deserve clear rules of engagement that align their authority with the true nature of their missions. This will reduce the risk of them viewing the rules as absurd — a feeling that naturally contributes to violations. Congress needs to assess whether the rules of engagement imposed on these operations are so divorced from reality that they produce disdain for the law itself.
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We recognize that there have been several criminal investigations and prosecutions for operational misconduct. But occasionally prosecuting individual misconduct, while important, is insufficient to fully assess the underlying cause and responsibility for what appears to be a more widespread departure from the core values that define these special units.
Congress needs to hold immediate hearings with special operations commanders to uncover whether there is a pervasive problem of rule-flouting and lack of accountability; to examine the rules of engagement; and to explore remedial measures. Congress should also appoint an independent commission to study the legal, ethical, moral and criminal problems possibly plaguing the special operations forces communities, and to recommend reforms.
Degradation of these forces is a national security problem we ignore at our own peril.
Rachel E. VanLandingham, a professor of law at Southwestern Law School, is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former military attorney. Geoffrey S. Corn, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former military attorney and intelligence officer, is the Vinson & Elkins Professor of Law at South Texas College of Law Houston and a Distinguished Fellow for the Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy of the Jewish Institute for National Security in America. Robert “Butch” Bracknell, an international security lawyer, is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and former military attorney. Follow them on Twitter: @rachelv12, @cornjag1, @ButchBracknell
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Values crisis in special operations forces threatens national security