Why Is the State Department Speaking for JSOC?

Interesting chain of command issues seem to be emerging in the official "denials" being offered about my story in The Nation magazine on Blackwater and the Joint Special Operations Command operations in Pakistan. A few hours before the piece was published, I received a call — unprompted — from the office of Admiral Mike Mullen, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I had not called them. The representative that called would not officially — named and on-the-record — deny the story. Instead, I was offered a comprehensive denial from a "defense official" on "background." The DoD spokesman Geoff Morell was asked about it on Tuesday. He said the appropriate agency to address this was the State Department, but he did characterize the story as "conspiratorial":

REPORTER: Thank you for taking the question.  Does the Pentagon have any comment on a report in The Nation today that, puts Blackwater, now Xe Services, firmly at the center of a covert operation in Karachi in Pakistan, from an anonymous source within the military.  And my question is —
MR. MORRELL:  Yes, I — I —
REPORTER:  The question is, you keep denying covert operations in Pakistan, but isn’t this yet more evidence of one?
MR. MORRELL:  Okay, the best person to address this would be the State Department spokesman, who has already put out a statement, or a correction, basically saying these accusations are entirely false. Okay?  But I — for more clarity and more specificity, I urge you to talk to them.
As for what we are doing in Afghanistan — or in Pakistan, rather, I think we have been incredibly forthright about this.  And we have basically, I think, a few dozen forces on the ground in Pakistan who are involved in a train-the-trainer mission.  These are Special Operations Forces.  We’ve been very candid about this.  They are — they have been for months, if not years now, training Pakistani forces so that they can in turn train other Pakistani military on how to — on certain skills and operational techniques.  And that’s the extent of our — our, you know, military boots on the ground in Pakistan.
Despite whatever conspiratorial theories that, you know, magazines or broadcast outlets may want to cook up, there is nothing to it. And obviously, we’ve also made it perfectly clear that we are willing and able and happy to help the Pakistani military in any other ways that they may see fit.  But at this point, that’s the extent to which they would like our help, in terms of American boots on the  ground.  And so we are totally respectful of that.  And that’s what it’s limited to at this point.

Since when is the State Department spokesman the official spokesperson for JSOC? Since when is the DoS the appropriate party to address allegations regarding US military operations? Nonetheless, the State Department spokesperson, Ian Kelly, was asked about it in the first question at his briefing Tuesday:

REPORTER: Do you have any response to the report in The Nation regarding what it says was a joint operation between the Joint Special Operations Command in Pakistan and Xe Services, nee Blackwater?
MR. KELLY: I do not. I have not seen this article.
REPORTER: So you have no response to that?
MR. KELLY: Well, I don’t know. I’m sorry, you’ve – I just am not aware of this article. We’ll look at it and we’ll see if we can get a response for you.

On Wednesday, the US embassy in Islamabad issued a "correction" saying that the report was "completely false":

There is no secret operating base in Karachi or anywhere else in Pakistan being run, occupied, or otherwise operated by U.S. military personnel of any command or organization.  The article’s assertions about U.S. government collusion with Blackwater or any other contracting firm are equally baseless and false.

"U.S. government programs for Pakistan are open and transparent and function in partnership with the Government of Pakistan," said Ambassador Anne W. Patterson.  "U.S. personnel and programs in Pakistan have only one purpose – to assist the government and people of Pakistan as they face the complex challenges confronting their nation."

The way in which the US military and the Administration have chosen to "deny" this story raises several issues, but chief among them is this: Why is the US embassy in Islamabad now the appropriate source to confirm or deny clandestine military operations that are coordinated out of a task force in Afghanistan? Moreover, as Col. Lawrence Wilkerson stated clearly in The Nation story, going back years, these JSOC missions were done without the knowledge of the US ambassadors in the countries where they operate and were done outside the traditional military chain of command.

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Author: Jeremy Scahill

Independent journalist Jeremy Scahill is author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He is a frequent contributor to The Nation magazine and a correspondent for the national radio and TV program Democracy Now! He is currently a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at The Nation Institute.