After a rough couple of months for special operations scandals in the news, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command is opening up a review into the entire command’s culture and ethics, according to a memo released Monday.
The review will begin immediately and conclude some time in the fall, Army Gen. Richard Clarke wrote.
“Recent incidents have called our ethics and culture into question and threaten the trust placed in us,” he said.
Most recently, Naval Special Warfare has been under scrutiny, as an entire SEAL Team 7 platoon was sent home from Iraq in July after a debacherous July 4. That same month, a Navy Times report revealed that SEAL Team 10 had been investigated for cocaine use and fraudulent urinalyses.
And though he was acquitted of murder charges, Chief Special Warfare Operator Eddie Gallagher was convicted in July of posing for a photo with the corpse of an ISIS fighter.
“Some of our subordinate formations have failed to maintain good order and discipline and as a result and for good reason, our NSW culture is being questioned," Rear Adm. Collin Green, the Navy’s top SEAL, wrote in a July 25 letter to his command. “I don’t know yet if we have a culture problem, I do know that we have a good order and discipline problem that must be addressed immediately.”
Clarke is the second SOCOM chief to call his command’s ethics and professionalism into question in less than a year. Before he handed over command late last year, former commander Army Gen. Tony Thomas publicly issued guidance to the force.
“A survey of allegations of serious misconduct across our formations over the last year indicate that USSOCOM faces a deeper challenge of a disordered view of the team and the individual in our SOF culture,” he wrote in his own memo.
Clarke’s review would be the second such assessment of the command this year, as the Defense Department in March fulfilled a requirement of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act by reviewing compliance with ethics and professionalism training.
DoD reported everything was all good.
"Overall, the report determined U.S. Special Operations Command and its components are full and active participants in the military services’ and Department of Defense’s ethics programs — meeting or exceeding standards in every area reviewed,” Pentagon spokeswoman Cmdr. Candice Tresch told Military Times in March.
Though SEALs have been in the spotlight lately, the Army’s Special Forces and Ranger communities have also seen damning headlines, as have the Marine Raiders.
One Raider, along with a SEAL, faces murder charges in the strangling death of a Green Beret in Mali in 2017. In recent years, Green Berets have been convicted of smuggling cocaine, domestic abuse and child sexual abuse.
Currently, Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn is fighting a murder charge that he broke rules of engagement and killed an Afghan national in 2010. And in 2018, a brand new Ranger murdered a woman at a Washington state motel before taking his own life.
Army Special Operations Command boss Lt. Gen. Frank Beaudette wrote a memo of his own in November.
“It is incumbent upon our leadership down to the team-room level to intensify our emphasis on SOF values and character,” he wrote. “Service is a privilege, and this privilege is grounded in a culture of accountability and professionalism that extends far beyond program compliance.”
Those stories are on top of countless anecdotes and allegations swarming around the special operations forces community, of swashbuckling operators engaging in illicit substance use, sexual misconduct, financial schemes and war crimes, with little or no accountability brought down by their chains of command.
At the same time, SOF forces have become more and more popular in the kind of assymetric warfare the U.S. is still waging in the Middle East.
Special operations units are specially trained to help local forces beat back insurgencies with a small footprint, while at the same time not having to announce their deployments or publicly report their numbers in countries like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The command’s budget ballooned to more than $13 billion in 2018, up $2 billion from the previous year. Several billion a year is spent in purchasing and maintaining SOF-specific weapons, equipment and services.
“In addition to an overall assessment of SOF culture and ethics, the review will focus on our recruitment, how we assess and select SOF professionals, how we grow leaders, how we educate and train our force to operate ethically with the same excellence with which we operate tactically, and how we address ethical failures when they occur.”
Unit visits are forthcoming, Clarke wrote, encouraging his troops to be “open and candid” with their feedback, the results of which will be published and “discussed broadly.”
“This is about making us better," he wrote.
Editor’s note: This story has been changed to indicate that although SEAL Eddie Gallagher was convicted by a military panel of his peers for posing next to a corpse in a photo, he was not stripped of his trident by a review board.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.