Soldiers as Spies

Blackfive posts an excerpt from a Foreign Affairs article on the push within OSD to use special operators for covert intelligence missions. Matt’s take:

I would be careful of using soldiers as spies. Using Delta or Seal Team Six is one thing, but utilizing SF soldiers in that fashion might detract from the other highly valuable missions that they complete. It might more difficult to win hearts and minds when you are always suspect of espionage.

I’m a little ambivalent, mainly because I can’t quite tell what’s new here. I don’t have any problem using soldiers as human intelligence resources; indeed, it would be silly not to do that. Shooting terrorists is also just fine by me. But using them for covert missions–especially political assassination–would of course be problematic.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. roger says:

    why? i heartily disagree with the american policy against assassination. some people simly need killing.

  2. Jalal Abu Jarhead says:

    Ah yes, the most acceptable rationale for justifiable homicide in Texas: “He needed killin’.”

    Reminds me of the punchline of that joke about an American Indian, a Muslim and a Texan: “We ain’t gotten around to playin’ Cowboys and Muslims yet.”

  3. Bob Hawkins says:

    I think Blackfive is referring specifically to the Green Berets, which are officially called “Special Forces”. Their primary mission is to work closely with foreign military and civilians. They need to win the trust of the people they work with.

    If they get a reputation as the equivalent of CIA agents, that would be much more difficult, impossible in some cases.

  4. legion says:

    Youre correct in that there is a subtle but critical point of terminology here… SF, or Special Forces, are strictly the Green Berets – their primary purpose is counterinsurgency, behind-enemy-lines, vaguely CIA-like stuff to begin with. SOF, or Special Operations Forces, on the other hand, is a broader term for highly-trained combat forces. Units (from any of the services) that, for lack of a better term, the average guy on the street would call ‘elite’. This includes Rangers, SEALs, Delta, a few Marine and Air Force specialties, etc.

    While I’m sure Blackfive understands the subtlety, most people outside the military don’t, and I’m not sure if Foreign Affairs does or not.

    While using SF for these things might be a good fit, using SOF is more than just problematic… Despite the fact that they kill people and break things for a living, they are also under the authority of the Uniform Code of Military Justice – the code of laws that covers all uniformed military personnel, no matter what their mission. And there are lots of things that CIA spooks need to do that SOF is expressly forbidden from participating in.

  5. James Joyner says:


    The article uses the lowercase version–and all we have in a free preview–but I presume they’re talking about the entirety of USSCOCOM. As blackfive notes, Delta and SEAL do these type of missions routinely. And having Green Berets report intelligence they gather seems reasonable enough, as long as that doesn’t become their focus.

  6. Jem says:

    From the standpoint of military doctrine, “special reconnaissance” is one of the core missions for SOF in general, including Army Special Forces. Assassinations are anothing matter entirely–they are expressly forbidden by Executive Order 12333; however, killing terrorists is not necessarily the same as assassinating foreign leaders. The bottom line is that we don’t have the whole article to review, and we have no idea whether the author actually knows anything about the subject at hand.