US used Kashmir quake to send killer-spies into Pakistan

New York: The Pentagon used the Kashmir earthquake of 2005 to send operatives from the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC — the secretive, über-elite military unit that killed Osama bin Laden - into Pakistan, reveals a new book.

The JSOC has proven to be the most lethal weapon in the President's arsenal, write D.B Grady and Marc Ambinder in their just-published eBook The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army. President Obama and the Pentagon leadership have increasingly made Navy Seals from the JSOC their military tool of choice. The JSOC’s counterterrorism units are credited with capturing or killing many of the most wanted terrorists and insurgent leaders, including Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

According to The New York Times, the JSOC has about 54,000 active-duty personnel from four branches of the armed services. The Navy Seals are one of the most celebrated units under its umbrella. This book comes at a time when Admiral William H McRaven, who leads the JSOC, is pushing for a larger role for his elite units who have traditionally operated in the dark corners of American foreign policy.

 US used Kashmir quake to send killer-spies into Pakistan

The JSOC has proven to be the most lethal weapon in the President's arsenal. Reuters

The book credits the secretive JSOC, which functions in a grey area, with having done more to degrade the capacity of terrorists to attack the United States than any other single entity. Counter-terrorism is only one of its many missions. It is only because of high-profile missions such as Operation Neptune Spear, which resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, that the JSOC, which is shrouded in secrecy, has attracted public attention.

Did the US use the 2005 Kashmir earthquake to send JSOC operatives into Pakistan? That’s the bold-faced charge the authors make in The Command. They say that the US intelligence community “took advantage of the chaos to spread resources of its own” into Pakistan.” Using valid US passports and posing as construction and aid workers, dozens of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives and contractors flooded in without the requisite background checks from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency.

“Al-Qaeda had reconstituted itself in the country's tribal areas, largely because of the ISI's benign neglect. In Afghanistan, the ISI was actively undermining the US-backed government of Hamid Karzai, training and recruiting for the Taliban, which it viewed as the more reliable partner. The political system was in chaos. The Pakistani army was focused on the threat from India and had redeployed away from the Afghanistan border region, the Durand line, making it porous once again… A JSOC intelligence team slipped in alongside the CIA,” says the book.

The book cover.

The authors have detailed the JSOC team’s goals in Pakistan. One was prosaic: team members were to develop rings of informants to gather targeting information about al-Qaeda terrorists. Other goals were extremely sensitive: JSOC needed better intelligence about how Pakistan transported its nuclear weapons and it wanted to penetrate the ISI and target Pakistani officers who were hand-in-glove with the terrorists.

“Under a secret program code-named Screen Hunter, JSOC, augmented by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and contract personnel, was authorized to shadow and identify members of the ISI suspected of being sympathetic to al-Qaeda. It is not clear whether JSOC units used lethal force against these ISI officers; one official said that the goal of the program was to track terrorists through the ISI by using disinformation and psychological warfare,” reveals the book.

The Obama administration finally curtailed the Screen Hunter programme after Pakistan slammed the covert US presence inside the country. Still, Pakistani outrage didn’t stop the JSOC from rotating teams of Navy Seals from DEVGRU Black squadron, aided by Rangers and other special operations forces, and establishing a parallel terrorist-hunting capability called 'Vigilant Harvest'.

“They operated in the border areas of Pakistan deemed off limits to Americans, and they targeted courier networks, trainers, and facilitators. (Legally, these units would operate under the authority of the CIA any time they crossed the border.),” said the book.

“A senior Obama administration official said that by the middle of 2011, after tensions between the United States and the Pakistani government had reached an unhealthy degree of danger, all JSOC personnel except for its declared military trainers were ferreted out of the country. (They were easy to find using that same secret cell phone pinging technology.) Those who remained were called Omegas, a term denoting their temporary designation as members of the reserve force. They then joined any one of a dozen small contracting companies set up by the CIA, which turned these JSOC soldiers into civilians, for the purposes of deniability,” added the book.

According to media reports, unassuming office buildings around the Washington area and beyond have become “unlabeled spy centers that process untold volumes of information” extracted from JSOC’s hunting missions, with such a rapid analytic turnaround time that the “shooters” of the unit can quickly begin planning their next kills. In fact, Ambinder reports in The Command that the “integration of tactical spying within JSOC is so thorough” that it’s hard to distinguish “shooters” from analysts.

The JSOC has grown since September 11 as the US military focusses on combating terrorism. As defence secretary, Donald H Rumsfeld wanted the JSOC to work unilaterally so that it could be more aggressive in hunting down terrorists. There are concerns, however, that the JSOC operates with practically no accountability. In Iraq, they reportedly ran a torture chamber at a place called Camp Nama. In 2004, Rumsfeld gave the US military the go-ahead to carry out secret offensive strikes in more than a dozen countries, and JSOC operatives carried them out in Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Updated Date: Feb 14, 2012 13:08:23 IST