President Obama has drastically expanded the authority and reach of U.S. military special operations throughout Central Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Africa. Those operations, authorized in late 2009, can take place in nations with friendly governments, such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, as well as in hostile nations, such as Iran. This new power for military-led intelligence gathering and unconventional warfare is a drastic expansion of operations that began under the auspices of the Bush administration. It establishes the Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force (JUWTF), the operations of which were previously codenamed Avocado. Here's what the order does, what it's meant in practice, and the policy's ramifications.

  • What the Order Does The New York Times' Mark Mazzetti reports, "Its goals are to build networks that could 'penetrate, disrupt, defeat or destroy' Al Qaeda and other militant groups, as well as to 'prepare the environment' for future attacks by American or local military forces, the document said. ... General Petraeus's order is meant for small teams of American troops to fill intelligence gaps about terror organizations and other threats in the Middle East and beyond, especially emerging groups plotting attacks against the United States."
  • The Larger Mission The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder provides the big-picture. "Other 'ex-ords' signed by combatant commanders include provisions for secret American bases and operations," he writes. "Political imperatives, the threat of terrorism, and the knowledge of what the U.S. military can accomplish if its strings are cut away has slowly changed the minds of some of Obama's senior advisers. It is helpful that Congress has generally given the military a wide berth to conduct activities that intelligence agency paramilitaries would find objectionable. The authorization to write the orders allow combatant commanders to put together task forces for almost any purpose, and draw from almost any existing military unit."
  • (1) The Military Risks From Mazzetti: "The authorized activities could strain relationships with friendly governments like Saudi Arabia or Yemen -- which might allow the operations but be loath to acknowledge their cooperation -- or incite the anger of hostile nations like Iran and Syria. Many in the military are also concerned that as American troops assume roles far from traditional combat, they would be at risk of being treated as spies if captured and denied the Geneva Convention protections afforded military detainees."
  • (2) 'Blurring The Line' Between Military and Spies Liberal blogger Juan Cole worries, "the siren call of covert operations is steadily undermining the rule of law. Blurring the line between military action and spying makes it impossible to talk about the covert missions, since they are typically classiified. The same is true for predator drone strikes." He adds, "That blurring could be bad for all troops. There is already a tendency in the ME for locals to see all Americans as CIA, and giving troops a lot of covert missions will reinforce these views."
  • (3) Problem of What Constitutes Spying Conservative blogger Kenneth Anderson worries, "these clandestine activities do not require the regular covert action accountability mechanisms required of the CIA as a matter of law, although NSC is involved in anything significant. However, as these activities get closer to, well, 'spying' in the traditional sense, then the line between clandestine and covert risks becoming blurred. ... as a matter of US policy, the divisions between the various services matter over the long run, and so there are important questions as to the proper division of roles."
  • (4) Stepping In for CIA This grants the military powers that were typically limited to CIA. Liberal blogger Marcy Wheeler notes, "Mazzetti makes it clear that he's not covering this because CIA's pissed about it (which sometimes appears to be the case for his reporting). ... In fact, it appears DOD issued the directive because CIA wouldn't do whatever JSOC is now doing." Noting that the measure leads to reduced congressional oversight, she adds, "One would hope that Congress gets pissed about this, though."
  • (5) Congress Should Investigate The Nation's Robert Dreyfuss insists, "If Congress has any guts at all, it will convene immediate investigative hearings into a power grab by Petraeus, a politically ambitious general, and the Pentagon's arrogant Special Operations team, led by Admiral Eric T. Olson, who collaborated with Petraeus. And Congress needs to ask the White House: what did you know, and when did you know it?"
  • (6) Dangerous for Academics and Businessmen The Washington Independent's Spencer Ackerman warns that, because the military will now use businessmen and academics to gather intelligence in these countries, all such civilians will be "presumed" to be spies and thus "become targets."