- Sprawling and secretive military operations over the past two decades have been a target for criticism.
- With a new House Armed Services subcommittee, Congress hopes to provide more scrutiny.
- “The landscape has changed in terms of what threats are out there,” Rep. Ruben Gallego told Insider.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
The US military’s special-operations units have fought around the world over the past two decades, a period during which their successes have been marred by scandals and misconduct.
Now, with a new subcommittee on the House Armed Services Committee, lawmakers hope to exercise greater oversight over those shadowy operations and other emerging challenges.
“The landscape has changed in terms of what threats are out there and what the capabilities of our near-peer competitors are,” Rep. Ruben Gallego told Insider.
Gallego, the highest-ranking person of color on the Armed Services Committee, a Marine veteran, and progressive Democrat, will chair the new subcommittee.
“We’re right now having to be able to continue with the traditional roles [of the] military but then also having to figure out how to deal with hybrid warfare,” Gallego added.
Gallego and committee chairman Rep. Adam Smith announced the new subcommittee, officially called the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations, on February 3.
ISO emerges from a split of the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, along with the Subcommittee on Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems.
“A lot of the work in warfare that’s going to be coming up is going to be found in these two subcommittees,” Gallego said.
‘Very serious and sticky situations’
The ISO subcommittee is responsible for military and national intelligence, countering weapons of mass destruction, counterterrorism, and special-operations forces. Special operations and military intelligence are likely to get the most attention.
“They both feed into each other” and “into the bigger portfolio in terms of preparing us for the great-power competition,” Gallego said. “We’re going to not neglect our actions in other areas, but making sure that those two areas are primed and ready to go, I think, is going to be really important.”
Demand has grown for more oversight of military operations conducted under the banner of counterterrorism. Special-operations forces, such as the Navy SEALs, are a minority among troops overseas but carry out many of those missions.
The lack of clarity about what they’re doing and the legal justification for it has been a major point of criticism.
“It definitely is a problem,” Gallego said of that opacity. “They are special operators, but they are still under the purview of civilian authority, and I also don’t appreciate that they’ve been essentially used to … go around Congress’s ability to wage war.”
“So we are going to bring that under control as much as possible. We want to see more transparency when it comes to their usage,” Gallego said. “At the same time, we also want to make sure that we guard their usage, because their consistent rotations, I think, [are] actually debilitating towards their effectiveness.”
Lawmakers have expressed concern about that high operational tempo. Like other troops, special operators face increasing mental and physical strain from frequent deployments. That strain, plaudits heaped upon those forces, and a lack of accountability have been blamed for repeated cases of misconduct – especially among SEALs.
Those units’ high profile may help recruiting, Gallego said, but it can also make policymakers “more likely to use them in very serious and sticky situations that they don’t necessarily want ‘normal’ forces in.”
In January, the Pentagon announced an evaluation of whether US Special Operations Command, which oversees those forces, and US Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, implemented programs to reduce potential violations of the laws of war and whether violations that did occur were reported.
Policymakers have a habit of deploying those forces without public debate, hoping that “they never get ‘caught’ or create situations where then they have to answer to the public,” Gallego said.
In that respect, the Pentagon’s review “will be extremely important,” Gallego added, pointing to Congress’ inquiries after the October 2017 ambush in Niger that killed four US Army Special Forces members. (That incident prompted a restructuring of special-operations leadership to allow more civilian oversight, which was implemented by the Trump administration and is now being reviewed by the Biden administration.)
“Members of Congress were surprised that we had military in Niger,” Gallego said. “The fact that it is that pervasive, abuse of our military, that even people in the Armed Services Committee did not know that we were actively involved there is a problem.”
‘Toe-to-toe with any military’
While special operations will be a priority for the subcommittee, challenges related to intelligence-gathering, cyber intrusions, and disinformation loom large after the 2016 and 2020 elections.
In a joint statement announcing the new subcommittee, Gallego and Smith singled out “the disruptive impact of disinformation attacks” among the “unprecedented threats” the US faces from “adversaries and competitors.”
Disinformation is a particular challenge because it spans “the civilian-military divide” and is created by both domestic and international actors, Gallego said.
“We are going to have to address it. How we address it with the assets that we have currently on deck, I think, is going to be really important,” Gallego added. “We have the capability. We have the talent. We don’t necessarily have the authorities nor the true understanding of how deep and problematic this is.”
Gallego mentioned the Defense Intelligence Agency as a partner for the subcommittee. DIA is one of 18 organizations in the US intelligence community, the size of which has been a source of internal confusion and external criticism.
The community’s size isn’t the problem but rather its responsiveness, Gallego said.
“If you’re big and you don’t move, that’s a problem. If you’re small and you don’t move, that’s still a problem,” Gallego added. “So I’d love to be able to work with all these different elements and make sure that they are interoperable, they’re talking to each other, and they actually want to have action and operations, instead of just informing the military … and us what’s going on.”
The Trump administration resisted assessments from those agencies about the role foreign influence operations had in the 2016 election. Disputes about those assessments persist, and domestic actors, including Republican lawmakers, continue to invoke baseless allegations about the integrity of the 2020 election.
Gallego said he didn’t see that as an obstacle to working with Republicans on matters before his subcommittee.
“I think that was very much a Trump administration-led problem,” Gallego told Insider. “Now that Trump has gone, I think that is no longer an issue, and I think people want to work together across party lines to make sure we take care of that serious threat.”
The new subcommittee was announced a day before the Pentagon announced a review of the US military’s “footprint, resources, strategy, and missions” around the world, which Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said will inform his advice to President Joe Biden “about how we best allocate military forces in pursuit of national interests.”
The relevance of that review extends to information warfare and emerging technologies, Gallego told Insider.
“I’m sure we can go toe-to-toe with any military when it comes to man-to-man, hand-to-hand combat, but are we going to be able to win the hacking war of the next 20 years? Are we going to be able to win the quantum-computing competition that we may be already losing right now? What happens if China turns the corner when it comes to AI?” Gallego said. “These are the things that would have to have a full review.”