127e Program – How Pentagon Wage Secret Proxy Wars

One of numerous mostly unheard-of powers that US Congress has granted to the Defense Department over the past 20 years allows American commandos to undertake operations on the periphery of conflict with little external supervision. This is the history of the 127e Program and how the Pentagon wages secret proxy wars.

127e Program How Pentagon Wage Secret Proxy Wars

According to private documents and interviews with more than a dozen current and former government officials, small teams of U.S. Special Operations soldiers are engaging in a low-profile proxy war program on a much larger scale than was previously acknowledged.

A new document obtained through the Freedom of Information Act provides the first formal verification that at least 14 127e programs were also active in the greater Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region as recently as 2020, in addition to the multiple African nations about which The Intercept and other media outlets have previously reported on the Pentagon’s use of the covert 127e authority. U.S. commandos carried out at least 23 distinct 127e programs worldwide between 2017 and 2020.

Independently, Joseph Votel, a retired four-star Army general who oversaw Central Command and Special Operations Command, which coordinates American military operations in the Middle East, confirmed the existence of hitherto unrevealed 127e “counterterrorism” initiatives in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.

An earlier iteration of the 127e program had also been implemented in Iraq, according to a second former senior defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a secret program. Another collection of documents obtained by The Intercept reveals that a 127e program in Tunisia, code-named Obsidian Tower, which has never been confirmed by the Pentagon or previously recognized as a use of the 127e authority, resulted in combat by American soldiers alongside local surrogates in 2017. The program’s hallmarks are revealed in a third document, a classified memo that was redacted and declassified for release to The Intercept. These features include the use of the authority to grant access to regions of the world that would otherwise be inaccessible, even to the most elite U.S. troops.

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The information in the records and interviews paints the clearest image yet of a mysterious financial mechanism that enables American commandos to carry out terrorist operations “by, with, and through” foreign and irregular partner forces all around the world. Even the majority of members of the pertinent congressional committees and important State Department employees lack basic knowledge about these missions, including where (read below) they are carried out, how frequently they occur, what targets they have, and which foreign forces the United States uses to execute them.

The U.S. supplies weapons, training, and intelligence to foreign armies through Executive Order 127e. 127e partners are then sent on operations that are directed by the United States and target American foes in order to further American objectives, in contrast to standard foreign assistance programs that are largely meant to enhance local capability. A former senior defense officer connected in the program told The Intercept that “the foreign participants in a 127-echo program are filling gaps that we don’t have enough Americans to fill.” “If someone were to call a 127-echo program a proxy operation, it would be hard to argue with them.”

“If someone were to call a 127-echo program a proxy operation, it would be hard to argue with them.”

Retired generals with extensive knowledge of the 127e program, also known as “127-echo” in the military, claim that it is quite effective in pursuing militant organizations while posing less of a threat to American forces. However, experts told The Intercept that using the obscure power presents serious issues with accountability and supervision and might even be unconstitutional.

The cost of 127e operations between 2017 and 2020, according to one of the documents obtained by The Intercept, is estimated to be $310 million; while this represents a small portion of U.S. military spending during that time, it represents a significant increase from the $25 million budget allotted for the program when it was first approved, under a different name, in 2005.

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Source: Pentagon documents and former officials.Graphics: Soohee Cho for The Intercept
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Source: Pentagon documents and former officials.Graphics: Soohee Cho for The Intercept

While detractors claim that 127e programs run the risk of entangling the United States in international conflicts and human rights violations without the knowledge of Congress or the American people, former commanders assert that the 127e authority is essential to fighting terrorism.

“I think this is an invaluable authority,” Votel told The Intercept. “It provides the ability to pursue U.S. counterterrorism objectives with local forces that can be tailored to the unique circumstances of the specific area of operations.”

The 127e authority came under intense criticism for the first time after four American soldiers were murdered in an ambush by Islamic State fighters in Niger in 2017 and a number of senior senators expressed ignorance about American activities there. The Intercept and others have previously reported on 127e activities in several African nations, including a collaboration with a notoriously abusive Cameroonian military unit that persisted long after its soldiers were linked to horrific atrocities.

The White House has remained silent for more than a year regarding U.S. commando operations outside of typical war zones, and they have been particularly silent about the use of 127e programs. Patrick Evans, a spokesman for the National Security Council, responded, “These all fall under the Department of Defense,” when asked for a general remark regarding the usefulness of the 127e authority and its part in the administration’s terrorist policy. Special Operations Command and the Pentagon both decline to comment on the 127e authority. Because they are secret, “we do not provide information about 127e programs,” SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw told The Intercept.

Critics of 127e caution that some activities may constitute an unlawful use of force in addition to the danger of unplanned military escalation and the possible expenses of participating in up to a dozen conflicts around the world. 127e-related hostilities may not have the congressional authorization required by the U.S. Constitution because most members of Congress, including those specifically tasked with overseeing foreign affairs, have no say and little knowledge of where and how the programs are run, claimed Katherine Ebright, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“There’s reason to suspect the Department of Defense has used 127e partners to engage in combat beyond the scope of any authorization for use of military force or permissible self-defense,” Ebright told The Intercept, noting substantial confusion at the Pentagon and in Congress over a stipulation that 127e programs support only authorized ongoing military operations. “That kind of unauthorized use of force, even through partners rather than U.S. soldiers themselves, would contravene constitutional principles.”

Global Proxy War

The 127e program’s beginnings can be found in the early stages of the American invasion of Afghanistan, when commandos and CIA personnel sought to aid the Afghan Northern Alliance in their conflict with the Taliban. Army Special Operations Command quickly came to the conclusion that it was unable to pay its new proxies directly and was instead need to rely on CIA funds. In response, SOCOM made a larger drive to establish the capability of assisting foreign forces in pretended missions, acting as the military equivalent of the CIA’s use of militia stand-ins. According to a former senior defense official, the authority, which was once known as Section 1208, was also used in the early years of the Iraq invasion. In the end, it became a part of American law.

One of numerous mostly unheard-of powers that Congress has granted to the Defense Department over the past 20 years allows American commandos to undertake operations on the periphery of conflict with little external supervision. While 127e is primarily concerned with “counterterrorism,” other laws permit elite forces, such as Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, and Marine Raiders, to conduct covert intelligence and counterintelligence operations or support foreign forces in irregular warfare, primarily in the context of so-called great power competition. A new “Vision and Strategy” framework was released by top Special Operations officers in April, and it appears to support continued dependence on the 127e idea by utilizing “burden sharing partnerships to achieve objectives within an acceptable level of risk.”

127e programs “directly resulted in the capture or killing of thousands of terrorists, disrupted terrorist networks and activities, and denied terrorists operating space across a wide range of operating environments, at a fraction of the cost of other programs,” according to Gen. Richard D. Clarke, the current Special Operations commander, in testimony before Congress in 2019.

The statements made by Clarke are unverifiable. The command does not have statistics on persons seized or killed during 127e missions, a SOCOM spokeswoman told The Intercept. A former defense official confirmed to The Intercept that there have been U.S. casualties, despite the fact that U.S. troops are typically expected to remain behind “last cover and concealment” during a foreign partner’s operations. It is also unknown how many foreign forces and civilians have been killed in these operations.

According to the materials that The Intercept was able to get, the authority is crucial for giving American special operators access to inaccessible locations. One 127e program allegedly offered “the only human physical access to areas,” with local partners concentrating on “finding, fixing, and finishing” enemy forces. Commandos may similarly project “combat power into previously-inaccessible VEO [violent extremist organization] safe havens” owing to another 127e operation aimed at Al Qaeda and its affiliates.

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General Joseph L. Votel, U.S. Central Command Commander, meets members of the Lebanese Armed Forces during his visit to the Amchit military base August 23, 2016. Photo: U.S. Embassy Beirut

It can be challenging to determine the nations where the programs were conducted and the forces that the United States collaborated with because certain papers obtained through FOIA have been substantially blacked. The infamous Cameroonian military unit with whom the United States conducted a 127e program was identified by The Intercept as the BIR, or Rapid Intervention Battalion, in a prior report. The U.S. cooperated with the G2 Strike Force, or G2SF, an elite special unit of the Lebanese military, to attack ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates in Lebanon. This collaboration was previously unknown, according to The Intercept.

Votel revealed that the codename for the 127e in Lebanon was Lion Hunter. 127e programs, code-named Yukon Hunter in Yemen, Enigma Hunter in Egypt, where American Special Operations personnel collaborated with the Egyptian military to target ISIS extremists in the Sinai Peninsula, were also mentioned by him. He claimed that the head of the Egyptian military intelligence organization gave Enigma Hunter “strong support” and that, unlike other African nations, American forces did not go into battle alongside their local allies in Egypt.

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A heavily redacted memorandum on the 127e program obtained via FOIA. Screenshot: The Intercept

Although the U.S. has historically provided military support to both the Egyptian and Lebanese militaries, the use of those forces as stooges for American terrorist missions constituted a significant change in those relationships, according to various scholars.

The G2SF is a top-secret, largely intelligence-focused force, according to two experts on Lebanese security, so it is not surprising that U.S. Special Operations chose them for the 127e program given their previous positive connection. One person said the squad was “far less politicized” than other parts of the nation’s security forces.

In Egypt, where the military has relied on billions in U.S. security support for decades but has opposed American efforts to monitor how that assistance is used, the issue is more complicated.

Human rights organizations have reported severe Egyptian military atrocities in Sinai, including “arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings, and possibly unlawful air and ground attacks against civilians,” despite the region’s near total media ban.

“There are legitimate issues with the U.S. partnering with some units of the Egyptian military,” said Seth Binder, director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy. “There has been great documentation, by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, of numerous human rights abuses in the Sinai by the Egyptian military. Are these the same units we’re partnering with to carry out operations? That’s a real concern.”

However, in a joint statement last fall, U.S. and Egyptian officials committed to “discussing best practices in reducing civilian harm in military operations” — a tacit admission that civilian harm remained a problem. The Egyptian Embassy in the United States did not respond to a request for comment. The Iraqi, Tunisian, and Yemeni embassies as well as the Ministry of Defense of Lebanon did not respond to requests for interviews.

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U.S. Army Gen. Richard D. Clarke, center, takes command of the U.S. Special Operations Command from U.S. Army Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, right, during a ceremony in Tampa, Fla., on March 29, 2019. Photo: Lisa Ferdinando/DoD

No Vetting, No Oversight

While The Intercept’s documents provide some information about the parameters of the 127e program, the general public and members of Congress still do not know much about it. The majority of congressional staffers are unable to obtain relevant reports that are mandated by law due to their level of classification. Only a few members of Congress’s armed services and intelligence committees, according to a government person with knowledge of the program who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss it, read such reports. Despite having the primary duty for determining where the United States is at war and has the right to use force, the Congressional Foreign Affairs and Relations Committees do not receive them. Additionally, the majority of congressional lawmakers and staff members with access rights are unaware of how to get the reports. “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.”

But it is not just Congress that has been mostly kept in the dark about the program; State Department officials with the necessary knowledge are frequently in the dark as well. Despite the fact that 127e needs approval from the head of mission in the nation where the program is implemented, ambassadors there rarely give officials in Washington comprehensive details.

Because of the great secrecy with which defense officials have protected their power over the program — and the paucity of opposition they have encountered — there is a lack of oversight at all levels of the U.S. government. “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 government official said. “DOD views this as a small, tiny program that doesn’t have foreign policy implications, so, ‘Let’s just do it. The less people get in our way, the easier.’”

That opinion was shared by Sarah Harrison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group who was formerly an associate general counsel at the Defense Department’s Office of General Counsel, International Affairs. “HASC and SASC 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,” she said, using the acronyms of the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee. “This may seem like an arcane, bureaucratic issue, but it really matters for oversight of the 127-echo program and all other programs that are run in secret.”

Among those initiatives is Section 1202, a provision that was first included in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act and which grants “support to foreign forces, irregular forces, groups, or individuals” who engage in unconventional warfare and are specifically targeted at so-called near-peer competitors. Under 10 USC § 127f, also known as the “127 foxtrot,” the secretary of defense is also permitted by Congress to “expend up to $15,000,000 in any fiscal year for clandestine activities for any purpose the Secretary determines to be proper for preparation of the environment for operations of a confidential nature.” In response to threats of a “confidential, extraordinary, or emergency nature,” Section 1057 power also permits intelligence and counterintelligence operations.

According to Stephen Semler, co-founder of the Security Policy Reform Institute, a grassroots-funded think tank on American foreign policy, “this has been sort of the story for a lot of these DOD-run programs.” “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.”

“The problem is this stuff is so normalized,” he added. “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.”

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