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Shed more light on JTF2 secrets

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The Canadian Special Operations Forces Command has recently produced a well-done three-minute video that shows its men and women operating in the air, at sea, and on land.

We see the soldiers rappelling from helicopters, using fast boats and clearing buildings, and the overall image is of highly competent troops doing difficult jobs with great skill. Near the end, the words "we will find a way" appear, a near-perfect description of the Special Operations role.

The Command comprises four units: Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2); the Canadian Special Operations Regiment; the 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron; and the Canadian Joint Incident Response Unit, which is highly trained to deal with chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear incidents.

JTF2 is at once the best- and least-known of the command's units. Members deployed to Afghanistan, for example, before the end of 2001 and are believed to be still operating there. Many observers think JTF2 had a role in Libya and in Mali, and its members are sometimes visible on protective duties when the prime minister travels abroad to dangerous areas.

The unit also staged a demonstration during recent Arctic exercises, and now there is the video that must be intended as a recruiting tool.

In fact, recruiting JTF2 soldiers appears to be difficult enough that the unit website features a page, unrevised since 2008, on the "Myths Regarding JTF2."

The first myth raised: "JTF2 is a paramilitary organization." No, it is a unit of the Canadian Armed Forces created in 1993 from personnel from a wide range of military occupations. The members can come from combat arms and supporting elements, all carefully screened and can include women "who complete the JTF2 selection process." That process is rigorous, "scientifically designed and validated."

The standards "are not gender-specific and encompass the individuals' physical abilities, professional skill sets, integrity, psychological profile, mental aptitude, discipline and maturity."

Perhaps JTF2 protests its gender neutrality too much, but the website is careful to state that, contrary to myth, applicants do not need to know someone in the unit to get in.

But can you be married and be in JTF2? And if so, will the divorce rate be higher than average? Will your family ever be told where you are serving?

All myths, we are told. JTF2 soldiers can be single or married and, the website carefully answers, "divorce rates are comparable to those of Canadian Forces averages," which may well be higher than the Canadian norm but "many of the missions assigned to JTF2 in support of Canadian security necessitate a stringent operational security policy.

As such, many unit missions require JTF2 members "provide little to no deployment details to their family." That policy will surely be hard on spouses and children, even if "every opportunity is made to ensure adequate communication between unit members and their family during deployments."

Then, slipping slightly into silliness, the myths page dispels the notion that tattoos might make a volunteer ineligible for JTF2: "physical identifiers do not have any bearing on a Canadian Forces' member's eligibility for service."

Moreover, once in JTF2, it is possible to leave the unit, contrary to the apparent received wisdom that there is no escape: "Although time served... varies from member to member, regulations require... a minimum amount of time with the unit."

Finally, JTF2 is careful to note it is not true that the unit operates outside the law. "All JTF2 activities are conducted within the bounds of Canadian law," the website notes, and the government authorizes the overall missions and tasks.

The unit, moreover, is accountable to the chief of the defence staff, who in turn is accountable to the minister of national defence and then to the prime minister.

All this helps dispel misconceptions. But the striking thing is that Joint Task Force 2, much like the entire Canadian Special Operations Forces Command, has operated in such secrecy that myths began to develop. The Americans, British, and Australians have capable special operations units too, and somehow they push the bounds of operational secrecy open just enough to reveal something of their work.

The film Zero Dark Thirty on the killing of Osama bin Laden is merely the most recent U.S. example.

Operational secrecy is a necessity, and the identity of JTF2 personnel needs to be protected.

But after-the-fact details on successes and failures should be offered to the public. That way, the myths will not build up; that way, a website debunking them will never be necessary.

J.L. Granatstein is a distinguished research fellow

of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2013 A13

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