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The assignment of Maj. Gen. Joe Votel to investigate the failed hostage rescue mission that cost the life of British aid worker Linda Norgrove illustrates the challenges senior leaders face in balancing independence and expertise when picking someone to investigate Joint Special Operations Command.
JSOC is the three-star command that conducts the military's most sensitive special ops missions. Its task forces typically include elements from the Navy's SEAL Team 6, the Army's 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (or "Delta Force"), the 75th Ranger Regiment, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and other units.
Norgrove died Oct. 9 during a night mission conducted by the JSOC task force in Afghanistan. According to a detailed account in Britain's The Guardian newspaper, she was probably killed by the blast of a fragmentation grenade thrown by a member of SEAL Team 6. Votel, now chief of staff at U.S. Special Operations Command, was deputy commander of JSOC from July 2008 to July 2010, and he previously commanded the 75th Ranger Regiment, which has a prominent role in JSOC operations in Afghanistan.
Best qualified for the job
In his last JSOC assignment, Votel was deployed as the task force commander, special operations sources said. Nevertheless, most special operations community members contacted by Army Times said he was an ideal choice for the Norgrove investigation, and would be demanding and thorough, even though he would be investigating personnel and units that until three months ago were below him in his chain of command.
Indeed, that recent experience "running the show" is probably what got him the job of investigating such a high-profile incident, a senior field grade special operations officer said. "It had a lot to do with trying to make sure they had the right kind of individual with the right kind of experience," he said.
"Major General Votel was assigned because I consider him best qualified," Marine Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command said, in an e-mailed reply to questions from Army Times. Mattis, who was asked to appoint an investigator by Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, added that he had no concerns that Votel's recent assignment as deputy JSOC commander might compromise his ability to be seen as an impartial investigator.
Several special operations sources contacted by Army Times spoke up to defend Votel against any concerns that his background in JSOC might lead him to go easy on the organization or even engage in some form of coverup.
"Major General Joe Votel is extremely qualified to conduct this investigation, and his integrity is unmatched," said a senior field-grade officer who's known Votel for more than 10 years. The officer said Votel has conducted at least three major investigations previously. These include one in early 2009, while he was JSOC deputy commander, into a JSOC task force operation in which several members of an Afghan family were killed, the senior field grade officer said. "This was a Ranger Regiment operation," the officer said, noting that although Votel was a former commander of the regiment, "they [i.e., the Rangers] were shaking when they knew who was coming to do the investigation."
"Joe is a real stand-up guy with a lot of integrity," a former senior special operations official said, adding that the "really soft-spoken" Votel has "a hell of a lot of combat experience [and] a hell of a lot of experience in Afghanistan," and is a strong candidate to replace Vice Adm. Bill McRaven as JSOC commander.
However, he acknowledged that it was "an interesting sidelight" that the aftermath of the Norgrove rescue mission has shined a harsh light on the SEALs, and that both Votel's most recent boss — McRaven, the JSOC commander — and his present boss, SOCOM commander Adm. Eric Olson, are the military's two highest ranking SEALs.
The fact that Votel is investigating troops he led until about 90 days ago underlines the challenges senior military leaders face in deciding how to investigate incidents that happen under the purview of JSOC, a unique organization composed of equally unique component units.
Ideally, an investigator is far enough removed from the units or individuals he is investigating that there can be no appearance of conflict of interest. But equally important, the investigator must have enough experience in the subject at hand that he knows the right questions to ask.
"The real challenge becomes who can do this investigation," a former senior special operations official said. "You have to have some knowledge of the missions, some knowledge of the organizations and some knowledge of the tactics, techniques and procedures used, which means you have to almost go internal, not to mention it's a special mission unit, so you've got to do it with internal people to do that."
"This is not a surprise to me that they picked Joe Votel," the former senior special operations official said, adding that it was highly unlikely that someone without a JSOC background would have been picked. "They're going to go in-house."
Potential conflict of interest
While most sources for this story strongly supported Mattis' selection of Votel, a former Delta officer took issue with it both because of Votel's closeness to JSOC and his background in the Rangers, rather than in Delta or SEAL Team 6, the two units that specialize in hostage rescue.
"Joe Votel's a good guy, but you're setting him up for failure," the former Delta officer said, adding that Votel was in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.
A former JSOC staffer said that while he expected Votel to conduct "a full, diligent, thorough investigation ... certainly, to an outsider ... there'd be concern" about a potential conflict of interest.
In answer to the former Delta officer's comment that Votel's Ranger background did not give him sufficient expertise in hostage rescue operations, the senior field grade officer who's known Votel for more than 10 years said the general had all the experience necessary to ask the right questions. "He will do the most thorough job that can be done as the investigating officer," the senior field grade officer said.
Multiple sources said that because, based on published reports, the investigation was likely to focus on the actions of the SEAL assault force, rather than larger issues of planning or command and control that might implicate JSOC or the Rangers, Votel's recent history should not provoke suspicions of any coverup.
"We're not talking about a complicated affair; it sounds like an individual mistake," said a retired Army senior leader who added that he had no problem with Votel doing the investigation.
"It's not the same thing as putting a SEAL in charge," a former special mission unit commander said, adding: "I know Joe Votel and he's a really straight guy."
"Votel would be a good guy to do this," a former legal adviser to the JSOC community said. "He's got enough basis of knowledge, but because he's not a SEAL, there's a low [risk] of taint."
Votel will be joined on the investigating team by Brig. Rob Nitsch, a one-star officer who heads Joint Force Support, U.K. Forces Afghanistan. Nitsch was appointed after Mattis invited the British government to send representation to the investigating team.