Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher C. Miller has only been on the job for 10 days, but he is already making big waves. With announcements of major reductions in U.S. troop deployments and a reorganization of the oversight structure for special operations, Miller’s short tenure has been met with suspicion and sharp critiques from defense experts. But the move to revamp the oversight of special operations deserves further consideration, because Miller just may have landed on a valuable reform. Far from being a Trump power grab, it’s more likely that Miller’s moves on special operations oversight are the culmination of reforms he had long contemplated and can now oversee during his short tenure leading the Department.
The suspicion directed toward Miller is understandable. His ascension to the acting Secretary slot came after the unceremonious dismissal of Mark Esper, who opposed the President’s desire to invoke the Insurrection Act in response to the summer’s racial justice protests, while the President has continued to pursue longshot lawsuits and authoritarian-esque plays for holding onto power. Miller’s move to the Pentagon also coincides with a series of moves to put Trump loyalists – including some that are known for misrepresenting the House’s Russia investigations and for their vindictive actions targeting career professionals – in senior defense roles. All of this suggests ominous timing and raises questions of ulterior motives from the Trump team.
As to policy, the moves to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to 2,500 per theater and to dramatically reduce the 700 troops in Somalia have been sharply criticized by retired generals and other defense experts. Even some who are skeptical of continued U.S. deployments in service of the Forever Wars have questioned Trump’s approach to troop withdrawals, which is abrupt, poorly coordinated with allies and partners, and largely untethered from diplomatic discussions or strategic objectives. Yet, when faced with Trump’s apparent preferred alternative of complete abandonment, this decision is not all bad. The fact that the military is not drawing down to zero leaves the Biden administration with warm platforms and the decision space to continue drawdowns or scale back up. And if one favors finally ending the Forever Wars or believes they were never worth fighting – as war-weary majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and veterans all do – at least Trump is moving in the right direction.
The Miller move that is decidedly a step in the right direction is his Wednesday announcement that he would be making the top civilian overseer of Special Operations Forces (SOF) – the Assistant Secretary of Defense (ASD) for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (SO/LIC) – report directly to him. As with the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia moves, the SO/LIC announcement was met with suspicion. Historian Michael Beschloss tweeted ominously about the timing of the announcement, with prominent journalists echoing him. Why would Miller want to reorganize the shadowy world of special operations this late in the administration?
The decision is more complicated than the innuendo that surrounded it, and it was nothing like some shot out of the blue from a Trump loyalist bent on furthering anti-democratic aims. For the past four years, SO/LIC has been working to fulfill a series of congressionally-directed reforms to the oversight of SOF. Section 922 of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act directed, among other things, that SO/LIC report directly to the Secretary on administrative, readiness and organization, resources and equipment, and civilian personnel matters and that the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) work through SO/LIC on these issues. Defense officials developed a list of 166 recommendations and 87 critical actions designed to implement the Section 922 oversight requirements. DOD’s early efforts mostly focused on increasing SO/LIC’s oversight of SOCOM programs and budget, establishing a Special Operations Policy and Oversight Council that ASD SO/LIC chairs, and creating a new Deputy Assistant Secretary and staff exclusively dedicated to more muscular oversight of SOF policy, programs, and the organizing, training, and equipping of SOF.
Yet despite some progress, in May 2019, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessed that significant challenges remained. DOD had still not implemented 31 of the 87 critical actions, and there were no clear timetables for most of the incomplete actions. This includes critical activities like overseeing SOF acquisitions and personnel policies. GAO also dinged SO/LIC for delays in staffing up to the level they need to properly oversee SOCOM. Meanwhile, several outside voices, including two former Assistant Secretaries for SO/LIC, called for going further on these reforms, including proposing to elevate SO/LIC to an Under Secretary role with a full set of service-like responsibilities for overseeing the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the SOF community.
In his remarks this week, Miller appeared to go well beyond Section 922, stating without caveat that he had “directed the special operations civilian leadership to report directly to [the Secretary] instead of through the current bureaucratic channels.” Until we see an official directive on the reorganization, we don’t know what all that entails or what it requires in terms of coordination with other parts of the Pentagon.
Miller has deep experience in SO/LIC, having served in a key leadership role within the organization while still in uniform, working on other SOF oversight issues at the National Security Council, and then leading SO/LIC in an acting capacity as a civilian. Prior to that, he spent 30 years in the Army, including 20-plus years as a Special Forces officer. I worked very closely with then-Colonel Miller when we were both in SO/LIC, and I know him to be an apolitical professional who has quietly worked his way to the top amid the churn of a tumultuous administration. Concerns about his ulterior motives on the SO/LIC reorganization are misplaced.
Miller knows that additional oversight of SOF is sorely needed. Over the past 19 years, SOF have led our global fight against al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups, doing extraordinary things like capturing and killing top terrorist leaders, rescuing hostages, and evacuating U.S. citizens from harm’s way. There are few more effective organizations within our government, and the military leaders in the community are truly some of the most impressive patriots our country has produced.
Yet in building its operational strength, the community has also become a bureaucratic behemoth that often overpowers and outflanks the civilians that oversee it. SOCOM has a substantial headquarters staff that dwarfs what even the robust SO/LIC envisioned by Section 922 may bring to bear. SOF lead a dizzying array of counterterrorism-focused task forces, which serve an operational purpose but also give SOF heft with civilian agencies. SOCOM has liaison officers on the Hill and across the interagency, ensuring that it has backchannels to do things like shape authorizations and appropriations and cultivate relationships with civilian policymakers under the radar of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Within the Pentagon, SOCOM has at times run roughshod over SO/LIC in securing its budget and priority programs. SOF commanders have put forward audacious operations and then attempted to secure their approval by directly briefing them to agencies outside of DOD, often before SO/LIC was briefed or the Secretary had approved them. The Obama administration’s oversight of SOF, imperfect as it may have been, was greatly reduced in the first year of the Trump administration, resulting in a marked increase in operations as well as the deaths of special operators in the Sahel, Somalia, and Yemen.
The President-Elect and his team have already signaled clear national security priorities, which include drawing down the Forever Wars and shifting toward great power competition. Both of these will require strong oversight of SOF, primarily to ensure that the counterterrorism machine it has built over the past two decades doesn’t continue to run on its own inertia. SOF will likely play a key role in addressing remaining terrorist threats, though overall operational tempo needs to decline. SOF will also have a growing role in great power competition and the capabilities they employ there are likely to be different from what they brought to the counterterrorism fight. The Secretary’s senior civilian staff should play a big role in molding SOF in this direction. Further, as the National Security Council likely shifts its focus toward great power competition, cyber, pandemic response, and an array of other contemporary threats, it will likely do less of the policy oversight of operations that was prevalent during the Obama administration. It will be important that the Secretary of Defense has an empowered SOF oversight staff, able to oversee the day-to-day of special operations.
The key question is whether Miller’s move will actually increase civilian oversight of SOF operations. Certainly, the decision to have the organization report directly to the Secretary means that it can immediately raise issues to the Secretary’s attention and it can have a larger role in budget, strategy, and resource discussions. My colleague and former SO/LIC boss Will Wechsler makes a persuasive case for why elevating SO/LIC is a positive change.
Although I applaud the intent, I’m not as confident as Wechsler that this is a good move. First, elevating the office is not the only way to achieve the desired outcomes. The Secretary can grant ASD SO/LIC direct access on select issues, and the Secretary can issue guidance requiring SO/LIC participation and concurrence in oversight of SOF budgets, programs, and operations. These do not confer the same organizational heft on SO/LIC, but they can be targeted remedies for persistent problems.
There is also a risk that giving the official responsible for SOF oversight direct access to the Secretary actually results in less civilian oversight of special operations. Special operations almost always carry strategic and policy risks. A decision to target terrorists, for example, must be nested within a larger strategy for addressing terrorism in a given region. A small operational mistake can spiral into a political or public affairs crisis, and policy officials need to be ready for these risks going in. SO/LIC also plays a key role in formulating U.S. counterterrorism policy, both within DOD and across the interagency. And decisions about SOF force planning need to be closely coordinated with OSD Policy’s Assistant Secretary for Strategy, Plans, and Capabilities office. Maintaining SO/LIC within Policy helps ensure deliberate consideration of operations and policy and that the Under Secretary is making or advising on policy decisions with full knowledge of the competing operational and foreign policy equities.
Finally, there is the human element. Working with SOF always presents the risk of capture, in that SO/LIC is often staffed with former SOF and SOF admirers, who are not always eager to exert control over operations that may not align with existing policy or the Secretary’s priorities. As a young staffer in SO/LIC, I remember distinctly how difficult it was to tell a seasoned Special Forces or Navy SEAL combat veteran, somebody who had made me feel like I was a part of their extended team, why I was advising my leadership to oppose their proposed operation. Miller’s decision runs the risk that SO/LIC leans more into its advocate role, and this means that SOF activities could receive less scrutiny than if it were nested among other institutional actors in Policy. These risks argue for keeping at least large parts of SO/LIC’s SOF oversight responsibilities with the Under Secretary for Policy.
Of course, Miller’s decision could be reversed or modified by the next administration. After careful review of the Section 922 reforms and SO/LIC, the Biden administration may well decide that breaking out SO/LIC makes sense. But further organizational reforms should be built on certain foundational pillars, beginning with naming a well-qualified and Senate-confirmed ASD SO/LIC with more staying power than the seven men who have filled the role under Trump. The Biden administration can also ensure the ASD has the confidence of the Secretary and the White House, establish and reinforce clear processes for SOF oversight, and resource the office with sufficient personnel and expertise to oversee the massive SOCOM enterprise. Getting the fundamentals of personnel and process right will always trump carefully crafted org charts.
Acting Secretary Miller may not be long for his role, but he has already forced us to grapple with the important issue of special operations oversight. Whether or not his 11th hour organizational change sticks, it’s an important dialogue that deserves his and the next Secretary’s attention.
Photo credit: Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller during a briefing at the Pentagon, Nov. 17, 2020 (Air Force Staff Sgt. Jackie Sanders, DOD).