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SecDef Austin reverses Trump admin order on spec ops leaders

Then-Defense Secretary nominee Lloyd J. Austin III before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C. Jan. 19, 2021. (EJ Hersom/DOD)
May 05, 2021

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin partly reversed an order made in the final weeks of President Donald Trump’s term that required civilian special operations leaders to report directly to the defense secretary.

In a press statement, the Pentagon announced the top civilian leader overseeing special operations, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (ASD(SO/LIC), “now rejoins the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy organization, but retains its direct reporting chain to the Secretary for its administrative chain of command role over U.S. Special Operations Command.”

The policy was put in place in November by then-Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller. At the time, Miller said the Trump-era policy would “streamline information flow, enhance decision making” and support commanders.

Announcing the reversal of Miller’s November order, the Pentagon said on Wednesday that Austin’s latest decision would “optimize” the organizational role the ASD(SO/LIC) plays in the Special Operations leadership structure.

“This change ensures that Special Operations policy is fully integrated into all aspects of the Department’s policies,” the Pentagon statement reads.

Politico reported that Miller’s move put the civilian leaders overseeing U.S. special operations troops on par with the civilian leaders of the various U.S. military branches, such as the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

Austin’s new order will keep some aspects of Miller’s order. For matters like dealing with sexual assault and increasing diversity in the ranks, the Pentagon special operations position will continue in a “Principal Staff Assistant” role similar to the various service secretaries, Politico reported. Austin’s order will, however, have the ASD(SO/LIC) answer to the Pentagon policy chief, the undersecretary of defense for policy, on policymatters such as counterterrorism and warfare.

Miller’s policy decision came from an assessment that the existing civilian oversight of the special operations community had not kept pace with the expanding mission of the various special operations unis, which expanded after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the ensuing Global War on Terror.

Miller’s decision followed calls for increased oversight of U.S. special operations troops at the time. Pentagon investigators determined a series of failures and “deficiencies” played a key role in an October 2017 ambush in Niger that resulted in the deaths of four U.S. Army Special Forces Green Berets. The U.S. House of Representatives has already established a new Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations to provide greater oversight of special operations units.

While Austin’s reversal decision is a mostly bureaucratic move within the department, it does continue a trend of reversing Trump-era defense policies. In one of his first moves in office as President Joe Biden’s defense secretary, Austin supported a decision by Biden to reverse a Trump-era order banning transgendered individuals who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria from serving in the U.S. military. Austin most recently canceled Pentagon funds used for wall construction along the U.S.-Mexico border, in line with another order from Biden.