The Intercept divulges exclusive documents that detail classified 127e operations.
According to private documents and interviews with more than a dozen current and former government officials, small teams of US Special Operations personnel are engaging in a low-profile proxy war operation on a significantly larger scale than previously recognized.
New documents confirm that at least 14 127e programs were active in the greater Middle East and the Asia-Pacific as recently as 2020. In total, US commandos conducted at least 23 separate 127e programs internationally.
A former Army general, Joseph Votel, verified the existence of previously unknown 127e “counterterrorism” initiatives in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.
Another senior defense official confirmed an earlier version was in place in Iraq. Other documents entail a program in Tunisia while a declassified secret memo released to The Intercept gives insight on the program’s trademarks, including the use of the power to enable access to places of the world that would otherwise be unreachable even to the most elite US forces.
The records and interviews paint the most complete picture yet of a secret financial authority that authorizes American commandos to execute alleged “counterterrorism” operations throughout the world “by, with, and through” foreign and irregular partner forces. Even most members of relevant congressional committees and important State Department staff are unaware of basic details concerning these operations, such as where they are carried out, their frequency and targets, and the foreign troops on whom the US relies.
The cost of the 127e operations between 2017 and 2020 was $310 million.
The United States arms, trains, and supplies intelligence to foreign armies via 127e. 127e partners are then dispatched on US-directed operations, targeting US opponents to achieve US interests, under the guise of “counterterrorism” operations, in contrast to standard foreign aid programs, which are largely meant to create local capacity. “The foreign participants in a 127-echo program are filling gaps that we don’t have enough Americans to fill,” according to a former senior Pentagon official engaged with the program. “If someone were to call a 127-echo program a proxy operation, it would be hard to argue with them.”
According to experts, using little-known authority causes accountability concerns and may potentially violate the constitution.
Previous reporting by The Intercept and others showed 127e operations in a number of African nations, including a collaboration with a notoriously abusive section of the Cameroonian military that lasted long after its members were implicated in horrific murders.
After the White House failed to comment on the operations, SOCOM spokesperson Ken McGraw told The Intercept that “we do not provide information about 127e programs because they are classified.”
Critics of 127e argue that, in addition to the risk of unexpected military escalation, 127e-related hostilities may lack congressional authorization.
Katherine Ebright, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, said, “That kind of unauthorized use of force, even through partners rather than U.S. soldiers themselves, would contravene constitutional principles.”
The program was first initiated in Afghanistan and the early days of the Iraq invasion.
Gen. Richard D. Clarke, the current Special Operations commander, had previously testified before Congress in 2019 that the program was allegedly beneficial for disrupting terrorist cells and led to the capture and killing of thousands of terrorists.
However, his claims were unsupported when a SOCOM spokesperson told The Intercept that figures on those captured or killed are not kept.
He also mentioned previously unreported 127e projects in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Egypt, code-named Enigma Hunter, where US Special Operations soldiers collaborated with Egyptian armed forces to target ISIS members in the Sinai Peninsula.
Selling endless war
Relevant reports needed by law are classified in such a way that most legislative personnel cannot access them.
According to an official source who spoke on condition of anonymity, just a few officials on the Congress’ armed services and intelligence committees see such reports. Congressional foreign affairs and relations committees, although having the main responsibility for deciding where the United States is at war and has the ability to employ force, do not receive them.
Most congressional lawmakers and employees having access to the reports are unaware of how to request them.
“It’s true that any member of Congress could read any of these reports, but I mean, they don’t even know they exist,” the government official added. “It was designed to prevent oversight.”
Officials at the State Department with appropriate experience are frequently clueless as well. While 127e requires the chief of mission in the nation where the program is conducted to sign approval, comprehensive information is rarely provided to officials in Washington by those diplomats.
“It’s State not knowing what they don’t know, so they don’t even know to ask. It’s the ambassadors being sort of wowed by these four-star generals who come in and say, ‘If you don’t let us do this, everyone’s going to die,’” the official said.
Sarah Harrison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee “appear opposed to increasing oversight of 127-echo. They are not inclined to change the statute to strengthen State’s oversight, nor are they adequately sharing documents related to the program with personal [congressional] staff.”
Stephen Semler, co-founder of the Security Policy Reform Institute, said, “The Special Operations community likes autonomy a lot. They don’t like going through bureaucracy, so they always invent authorities, trying to find ways around having their operations delayed for any reason.”
He added that “there should be more attention paid to these train-and-equip authorities, whether it’s special forces or DOD regular because it’s really kind of a PR-friendly way to sell endless war.”