Small Wars Journal

Who Should Lead Paramilitary Operations? – Picking the Right Fight

Mon, 02/22/2021 - 5:11pm

Who Should Lead Paramilitary Operations? – Picking the Right Fight


By Ian McConnell

Arguments over who should lead paramilitary operations avoids the bigger issue: what policy does the United States want to achieve?

"But in war, as in life generally, all parts of a whole are interconnected and thus the effects produced, however small their cause, must influence all subsequent military operations and modify their final outcome to some degree. In the same way, every means must influence even the ultimate purpose." ~ Clausewitz “On War” 

Recently, the Department of Defense (DoD) has been in the news over Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller’s decision to curtail or end DoD support to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) covert action programs, which may include paramilitary operations (PMO).  The decision, and very public discussion about typically guarded matters, also comes at an inflection point for the United States as it wrestles with core policy matters during transition between two very different administrations.  Many thoughtful (and strong) positions have been argued in response that special operations forces should take ownership of paramilitary covert action.  Instead of loaning resources to the CIA, who some accuse of having a questionable track record of operational success, some argue that United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) taking ownership of paramilitary operations will remedy what has surely been the cause of policy shortcomings: organizational performance.  To think ownership change for PMO will correct quality shortfalls, completeness gaps, or leaps in logic within strategy (policy) is an unfair burden to place on USSOCOM, and an unwarranted charge against the CIA’s professionalism.

To think ownership change for paramilitary operations will correct quality shortfalls, completeness gaps, or leaps in logic within strategy (policy) is an unfair burden to place on USSOCOM, and an unwarranted charge against the CIA’s professionalism.

In preparation for a new administration which brings new cabinet leaders, and likely public engagement in policy debates, it is important to ensure healthy discussion based on a common framework of understanding.  First, it is important to understand what the law has to say about covert action, the CIA, and military activity.  Secondly, and to the point about who gets what resources or is “in charge”, it is important to grasp a singular reality up front: no amount of perfectly executed precise tactics on the ground, by anyone, will achieve the results desired if the directing policy, and supporting strategy, are themselves flawed.  Lastly, as James Madison said in Federalist Paper 53 “No man can be a competent legislator, who does not add to an upright intention and a sound judgment, a certain degree of knowledge of the subjects on which he is to legislate.” As the public that elects and holds to account those in elected office, we too should add to our own understanding of what our nation wants and its ways and means for how it goes about gaining it.

In his article “Passing the Paramilitary Torch from the CIA to Special Operations Command” (SWJ, September 2nd, 2019), author Douglas Livermore advances public discourse by asserting that the responsibility for the U.S. Government’s (USG) PMO should be transferred from the CIA to the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). Building on the fact that such a transfer was one of the major recommendations from the 9/11 Commission that was never implemented, the author presents several reasons why such a transfer would be prudent.  However, while the author’s argument may appear valid given the number of and specific sources cited, he fails to take into account several factors which serve to dispute his recommendation – many of which may have led the Bush Administration to reject the commission’s recommendation in the first place.   

To set the stage for this conversation, it’s important to revisit the salient points of the author’s position.  By providing a series of real-world examples of Russia and China advancing their national interests via declared or undeclared forces, he asserts the USG’s ability to compete below the threshold of open conflict has been ineffectual.  Further, he asserts it has been unimpressive because of what he describes as an incapable CIA, fraught with struggles that include poor tactics, organizational leadership, and inability to ensure operational security (OPSEC) which protects intelligence and operations from unwarranted exposure.  By placing PMO under the leadership of USSOCOM and a couple key policy and leadership changes in Pentagon architecture, he asserts the listed deficiencies will be corrected and USG policy goals will advance more confidently.  These positions are regular features of conversation in the halls of various USG institutions, but not the way the author is suggesting. 

It is critical to correct a fundamental error made in equating special operations forces’ military activities, specifically unconventional warfare, with paramilitary activities.  While the two share many common characteristics to the point of being indistinguishable at the tactical level, there are important legal and policy distinctions that must be addressed.  This confusion was exacerbated with the 9/11 Commission Report recommendation to shift control of US Government “paramilitary operations” to Department of Defense. However, by definition and design, U.S. military forces do not conduct paramilitary operations – they conduct military operations. Conversely, the CIA is the USG proponent for foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, and covert action.  Former CIA executive level leader Mark Lowenthal articulates covert action activities as ranging from propaganda, to political action, to economic action, to sabotage, to coups, and finally to PMO[1].  Critically, it’s important to understand the level of deniability of these activities (core to “covert” designation) incrementally decreases from propaganda across the spectrum to PMO[2]


Lowenthal defines PMO as “involving the equipping and training of large armed groups for a direct assault on one’s enemies.  They do not involve the use of a state’s own military personnel in combat units, which technically would be an act of war.”[3]   The most important takeaway is the status of the action: covert deniability or act of war.

Covert Action Laddder
Figure A “Covert Action Ladder” taken from Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy by Mark Lowenthal



The 9/11 Commission and the author would have been better advised to use precise language in their recommendations, e.g., to shift responsibility for surrogate–enabled warfare (a more precise term for the actions Mr. Livermore is discussing) from the CIA’s paramilitary officers to Department of Defense military forces.  This precise language is critical for a number of reasons.  They include: the legal status of military forces and personnel conducting military operations in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict, policy considerations limiting the use of military forces, and the legitimacy of US military operations to our allies, partners, and adversaries.  For simplicity and clarity, Traditional Military Activities (TMA), which the Geneva Convention is concerned with, is defined by the US Congress in legislative history as  

“activities by military personnel under the direction and control of a United States military commander (whether or not the U.S. sponsorship of such activities is apparent or later to be acknowledged) preceding and related to hostilities which are either anticipated (meaning approval has been given by the National Command Authorities for the activities and or operational planning for hostilities) to involve U.S. military forces, or where such hostilities involving United States military forces are ongoing, and, where the fact of the U.S. role in the overall operation is apparent or to be acknowledged publicly. In this regard, the conferees intend to draw a line between activities that are and are not under the direction and control of the military commander. Activities that are not under the direction and control of a military commander should not be considered as “traditional military activities [emphasis added].”[4]

The bottom line is that the President directs the CIA to conduct paramilitary operations because he specifically does not want military forces conducting those activities at a specific place and specific time.  While the CIA and the military may use very similar tactics to accomplish a certain task, sometimes the Commander in Chief must have the option of avoiding military boots on the ground.  By asserting a change in organizational lead for the activities as the panacea for better effects ignores and endangers the critical distinction between PMO and TMA: status of forces and deniability.  At best it is naïve, at worst causes profound legal quagmires that distract from sound policy formulation and execution. 

In the land of strategy articulation, the common lexicon is ends, ways, and means.  At the national level, PMO is a means (a specific tool of statecraft).   UW, or even more aptly: irregular warfare, is a way the USG can coordinate and synchronize military and non-military elements of national power for a defined end.  The military’s role is bound within a “military end state” which should directly support the USG’s overall desired ends.   The ends in all cases are politically derived policy positions.[5] 

It's important to settle the matter that appears to be the core issue, and then address the actual core issue. The imposter core issue is which department or agency is best suited to execute a tool of statecraft: PMO (by which Mr. Livermore appears to really mean surrogate-enabled warfare).  In Mr. Livermore’s argument, PMO is used interchangeable with covert action.  PMO is just one tactic, or method influence, under covert action.  It is not the summation of covert action.  Covert action is codified in US code (USC) Title 50, section 3093, paragraph E wherein it states a definition of:

“an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly, but does not include…traditional military activities or routine support to such activities.”[6]

Having already defined TMA, it is clear that Congress intended covert action to be separate from military matters as a matter of standing departmental duties.  Also included in the code is the mandatory reporting requirement of the President to Congress of any covert action in what is called a “Finding”.  Funding for all these actions is appropriated by Congress in custom-approved budgets.  Therefore, the executive, and legislators, are all active participants in these actions.[7]  The assertion that any covert action is not being properly overseen by necessary components of government is a fallacy and an irrelevant basis of argument for this discussion.

Just as command responsibility of commissioned military officers is codified in USC[8], Title 50 section 3093 states “Any employee, contractor, or contract agent of a department, agency, or entity of the United States Government other than the Central Intelligence Agency directed to participate in any way in a covert action shall be subject either to the policies and regulations of the Central Intelligence Agency, or to written policies or regulations adopted by such department, agency, or entity, to govern such participation.” This is important and unique language to study.  USC Title 10, section 167 codifies unconventional warfare as a special operations activity which SOF-designated forces are to prepare for, and execute either under authority of a Geographic Combatant Commander (GCC) or USSOCOM as directed by POTUS or SECDEF in a military chain of command.  Title 50 Section 3093 allows for any member of the USG to be written into covert action with the stipulation they fall under CIA policies and regulations, or those adopted by the parent department or agency in support of such activities.  Purposefully missing is mention of a military chain of command – by law the military only conducts TMA. 

Any office or person within the USG apparatus is technically an available option for covert action within the defined requirements.  This distinctive separation between TMA and covert actions is critical to understanding the core issue – not who conducts surrogate-enabled warfare.  As an aside, the author presents various units and their forces as support to his position.  Without distracting from the core matters, it is important to understand that by law only operational commands can employ forces, the other commands are force generating commands.  They do not have the authority to conduct operations.  USSOCOM, GCC’s, Theater Special Operations Commands, and designated Task Forces can employ forces.  Components within USSOCOM that provide forces, such as United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) and its member units including Office of Special Warfare (OSW) are not operational commands.  A small but important legal detail in Mr. Livermore’s position.

The frustration and actual core issue at hand is strategy: understanding what strategy is, is not, and the distinction between strategy and tactics.

Therefore, if anyone can be designated as a participant in a finding for covert action, then why is there so much frustration with our nation’s history of PMO actions? Mr. Livermore isn’t alone with this. I submit the issue is not simply vignettes of poor CIA mission execution such as the Bay of Pigs (which also pre-dates the Church Committee and significant changes in covert action policy).  You don’t have to look past today’s headlines to find fault within SOF formations either.  The frustration and actual core issue at hand is strategy: understanding what strategy is, is not, and the distinction between strategy and tactics.  Colin S. Gray has written several times on this topic and is a recognized leader of thought in this field.  He wrote the following:

Military strategy is the direction and use made of force and the threat of force for the purposes of policy as decided by politics…tactics are actual military behavior, most especially though not only, directly in combat.[9]

Separately, in an article written by Dr. John Breen – formerly the Commandant’s Distinguished Chair for National Intelligence Studies at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College – he expounds on many of the exact same covert action failings Livermore articulates.  However, Breen doesn’t find blame with the CIA or who led the missions on the ground that manifested in poor outcomes.   He articulates how PMO itself is, at best, only disassociated from the U.S. by a “fig leaf”.  He asserts all planning must include an “assumption of U.S. involvement accepted as a constant risk.”[10]  If national leaders assumed too much risk with poorly defined requirements then poor outcomes are predictable.  Breen invokes CIA’s chief historian David Robarge’s analysis on what effective covert action requires.  Employing a lengthy list of 14 elements of an “evaluative framework,” Robarge evaluated 49 declassified covert action missions spanning political influence to PMO and determined a success rate that of a basic “flip of the coin”[11].  By listing “Strategically conceived as part of an overall policy”[12] as the first element, Robarge is emphatically stating no quality of mission execution can make up for an absent or ill-conceived policy the covert action is intended to support.

This idea is logically elementary and acceptable at face value.  It is deceivingly difficult to conceive a sound strategy that transcends from political position to unified action across the USG departments and agencies that tolerates effects over time, not election cycles.  Lawrence Freedman in his seminal work, “Strategy: A History”, says this of strategy – “there is rarely an orderly movement to goals set in advance.  Instead, the process evolves through a series of states, each one not quite what was anticipated or hoped for, requiring a reappraisal and modification of the original strategy, including ultimate objectives.”[13]

Countless articles, journals, and publications written by military leaders and academics comment on the challenges of military planning.  Richard Bissell, former Deputy Director for Plans in the CIA during Bay of Pigs stated “Most covert-action operations (like military operations) are directed at short-term objectives.  Their success or failure must be judged by the degree to which these objectives are achieved.  Their effectiveness must be measured by the degree to which achievement of the short-term objectives will contribute to the national interest.  It can be argued that, although few uncompromised operations actually failed, the successful achievement of their short-term results made only a limited contribution to the national interest.”[14]

Competing below the threshold of conflict is only a thing when there is a guiding theory for competition: a strategy

In Livermore’s article, so much labor and analysis were invested in articulating who should own a tactic, a tool of statecraft.  Competing below the threshold of conflict is only a thing when there is a guiding theory for competition: a strategy.  Any strategy would be strained by notable concerns if the armed forces were openly tasked as the owners of covert action.  Examples include the Geneva Convention status of our armed forces if openly tasked as the owners of covert action, accusations of perfidy, and risk to partnerships our military enjoy with so many other quality national forces.   I submit while those are critical considerations, they are downstream from the primary matter: the USG’s protection of vital interests and response to threats is not a WHO does it question, but a WHAT question.  What policy needs to be accomplished or protected.

Rather than argue about which organization is better suited to conduct surrogate-enabled warfare or other similar missions, we should instead celebrate the continuous improvement of unified action across the USG.  An example for this discussion would be the CIA-USSOCOM partnership in Afghanistan in late 2001 as a model of how both organizations working together, and leveraging one another’s strengths,  can achieve amazing results when (1) senior policymakers provide clear guidance and objectives, (2) both CIA and military operational forces are provided appropriate authority and autonomy to make and carry out decisions on the ground, and (3) senior leaders within the Pentagon, CIA, White House, and Congress avoid parochial battles over who is in charge and focus on working together toward a common endstate.

I have the distinct pleasure of working in the presence of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known across the USG enterprise.  Whether in uniform or not, they are all patriots and care deeply about accomplishing our nation’s objectives.  If you want to throw the challenge of more effective competition below the threshold of conflict at anyone’s feet, I would guide you to the relevant Congressional committees and the principals who sit around the table within the National Security Council, including the President.  The duty, and burden, of mapping a cogent policy to guide our nation’s functions rests with them.  By placing PMO under military oversight (regardless of command talent) only acts to limit options, not enhance or add to them.  

Back to Madison and his discourse on an informed legislator (I’ll stretch that to the Executive branch as well), he continues in Federalist paper 53 to state “affairs of the union will become more and more objects of curiosity and conversation among the citizens at large.”  That’s why this discussion is so important to have often, with many, and consider much. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.



[1] (Lowenthal 2017, 257)

[2] Ibid

Figure A – Ibid 257

[3] Ibid 258

[4]  See U.S. Congress, Senate, “Authorizing Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1991 for the Intelligence Activities of the U.S. Government, the Intelligence Community Staff, the Central Intelligence Agency Retirement and Disability System, and for other Purposes,” report to accompany S. 1325, 102nd Cong., 1st sess., June 19, 1991, S.Rept. 102-85, p. 46.

[5] Similar to the impetus for this response paper, David S. Maxwell wrote a fantastic article on the dire need for better professional understanding and employment of UW.  For further discussion on the role of UW beyond seeing it as “just” a tactical task (as written in doctrine), please see Maxwell’s article (listed in references) that further articulates the value of UW if understood in a way that properly appreciated what it is, is not, and nesting it with national strategy.  The point I am trying to make here in this article is that UW, and broadly Irregular Warfare, is much more than “simply” training, advising, assisting, and equipping of armed surrogate forces.  It’s a part, like indirect fires are to combined arms maneuver, if the mission requires it and it can be employed effectively within the laws of armed conflict.

[6] (U.S. Government 2015, SEC 3093.e.)

[7] (Daugherty 2006, 93-110)

[8] (U.S. Government 2007, SEC 3583)

[9] (Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice 2010, 18)

[10] (Breen 2017, 109)

[11] Ibid 113

[12] Ibid 110

[13] (Freedman 2013, XI)

[14] (Bissell 1996, 151)



Bissell, Richard. Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of PIgs. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

Breen, John G. "Covert Action and Unintended Consequences." Interagency Journal (Arthur D. SImons Center for Interagency Cooperation) 8, no. 3 (2017): 106-122.

Crumpton, Henry A. The Art of Intelligence: Lessons From a Life in the CIA's Clandestine Service. New York: Penguin Group, 2012.

Daugherty, William J. Executive Secrets: Covert Action & the Presidency. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

Freedman, Lawrence. Strategy: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Gray, Colin S. Tactical Operations for Strategic Effect: The Challenge of Currency Conversion. JSOU Special Report, MacDill AFB: Joint Special Operations University Press Publications, 2015.

—. The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Livermore, Douglas A. Passing the Paramilitary Torch from the CIA to Special Operations Command. September 8, 2019. (accessed September 9, 2019).

Lowenthal, Mark M. Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy, 7th edition. Los Angeles: CQ Press, 2017.

Maxwell, David S. "Small Wars Journal." Do We Really Understand Unconventional Warfare? n.d. (accessed December 15, 2019).

U.S. Government. "United States Code Title 10 SEC 167." Vers. 2012 Edition. January 6, 2017. (accessed September 5, 2019).

—. "United States Code Title 10 SEC 3583." January 3, 2007. (accessed November 3, 2019).

—. "United States Code Title 50 SEC 3093." Vers. 2012 Edition, Supplement 2. Government Publishing Office. January 5, 2015. (accessed September 22, 2019).

U.S. Senate. "Legal Resources: Public Law 102-88." U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. August 14, 1991. (accessed September 22, 2019).



About the Author(s)

Ian McConnell is a U.S. Army Special Forces officer assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command – Central.  


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Both articles outline excellent cases; however neither addresses most likely the most compelling reason the USSOCOM should NOT be given the PMO portfolio - its unwieldy and cumbersome bureaucracy that has prevented implementation of a national defense strategy published three years ago...

For USSOCOM to take this portfolio, it would have to create a narrowly scoped task force (similar to existing ones), tailored to the forms of warfare outlined in both articles or re-establish the criteria for agency support.

A better option might also be to detach ASD-SO/LIC from the DoD, separating and reducing the size of Army Special Forces and MARSOC, and perhaps other select forces outside of the DoD's and SOCOM's tendency to fight through outdated traditional military mindset & activities. If the USG is going to better compete and conduct irregular warfare, it likely needs a department that can be agile like the CIA but bring additional capability like the military while reducing the bureaucratic stranglehold on implementing its own national defense strategy.