Monday, September 18, 2006

The Pentagon’s top special operations policy-maker is quitting in a move that several Bush administration sources say is the first negative fallout from a major reorganization of advisers in the office of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Thomas W. O’Connell, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict (SOLIC), has told Eric Edelman, undersecretary of defense for policy, that he will leave in several months. Administration officials said the generous lead time is partly political. The Pentagon does not want to be without its top special operations adviser during the November elections at a time when covert warriors are playing a leading role in hunting and capturing al Qaeda terrorists.

Mr. O’Connell’s resignation comes as Mr. Edelman is instituting a reordering of his policy shop, which advises Mr. Rumsfeld on the war on terrorism, Iraq and Afghanistan, and on military relations with allies and adversaries alike.

A second of four assistant secretaries in the policy shop, former Rep. Paul McHale, who oversees homeland defense, also has informed his bosses that he will leave, although no date has been set. Officials say his departure is not be related to the reorganization.

Responding to The Washington Times, Mr. O’Connell said in an e-mail that any speculation about a change “can do harm to the incumbent and prospective replacements and cause unnecessary anxiety on the part of the work force.”

He added, “Any decisions taken by me were well in advance of any announcement of a [reorganization]. So there is no connection with ‘unhappiness’ to anything to do with SOLIC.”

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said, “Before the policy transformation was announced, Mr. O’Connell provided notice of his intent to depart by the end of the year.”

Two sources said Mr. O’Connell’s decision was influenced by the plan, which took away some responsibilities and added others to SOLIC, an office created by Congress in the late 1980s to bolster the status of special operations inside the Pentagon.

“A lot of it is based on the reorganization,” said a senior administration official, who asked not to be named.

In the reorganization, SOLIC lost its advisory role on counternarcotics, such as ongoing missions in Afghanistan and Colombia. It kept overall responsibility for special operations and gained two new missions — strategic capabilities and force transformation. The latter had been handled in a special office under Mr. Rumsfeld.

Critics say these new duties are largely unrelated to special operations and will dilute SOLIC’s powers.

One of Mr. Rumsfeld’s pet projects since the September 11, 2001, attacks by al Qaeda was to greatly expand the operational role of U.S. Special Operations Command (SoCom) to turn it into a terrorist hunter. In the past, it was a supporting organization that trained and equipped Navy Seals and Army Green Berets, Rangers and the super-secret Delta Force.

Mr. Rumsfeld turned SoCom into a combatant command that can plan and execute its own operations and handed it the top job of hunting Osama bin Laden. U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, at Fort Bragg, N.C., which includes Delta Force, played a major role in tracking down al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, who was killed by an Air Force strike in June in Iraq.

Administration officials say SOLIC, however, did not especially grow in influence to match the rise of SoCom. Mr. Rumsfeld, it is often said inside the Pentagon, is his own top adviser on special-operations matters and often talks directly to its commander, Gen. Bryan “Doug” Brown.

Mr. Edelman announced the reorganization last month. It adds a new assistant secretary for global security affairs and rearranges the portfolios for the assistant secretaries who make policy for Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

Mr. O’Connell is a former Army infantry officer who directed intelligence operations for Joint Special Operations Command and worked at the CIA. He assumed his current post in July 2003.

“I continue to enjoy the very high honor that allows me to associate with America’s finest warriors, and if and when I depart, I really would like any departure message to be a tribute to those magnificent souls that have done so much for the nation,” he said in his e-mail.

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