UPDATE 3: David Axe responds in the comments. Updates 1 and 2 at end of story.

SF teams haven’t invaded North Korea lately. So why is the press full of the story?

Well, as usual, the press is full of something. This time it begins with one David Axe, a sometime fellow traveler of the Internet Tough Guys at Wired magazine’s childishly-named (and generally childish) Danger Room military-affairs blog, now blogging for some Japanese blog no one ever heard of before, The Diplomat. Like his former Danger Room cribmates, Axe is very prone to exaggerate and sensationalize routine military stories.

It may have diplomats (probably not), but it doesn’t have editors, as Axe’s post saying US and ROK Special Forces were regularly conducting Strategic Reconnaissance missions inside the North Korea denied area wouldn’t have gotten past one.

Hatchet Job: Axe’s original story, now discredited and retracted, lives forever in this screenshot — and in the 190,000 websites that quoted it, not realizing it was untrue.

Or maybe it would. This single-source story made it to the Daily Caller, the Telegraph, and various other publications that ought to have known better. The only one that bothered to call for corroboration — and get a denial — was the Washington Post. CWCID.

It went down like this: at an annual Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict symposium in Tampa, run by the National Defense Industrial Association (aka the lobbying arm of the Military/Industrial Complex), one of the panels comprised the officers commanding the US’s geographically-oriented Theater Special Operations Commands. These one- and two-star generals and admirals described the challenges their operators face in combat or training, and talked a little about the gadgets they’d like to have. Some of those theater SOCs have big areas of responsibility — others have small, but hard areas. Each one is responsible for all the joint service special operations forces, and their operations, in his area of responsibility. That includes, for example, OEF combat operations against Al-Qaeda terrorists (which have taken place worldwide, not just in the Centcom AOR) but it also includes Joint Combined Exercise Training where SEALs or SF train with host nation counterparts and multinational exercises which might see an SF team going split-team with a European or Asian team. In the split-team scenario, the two teams merge and then yield two integrated international operational entities —  almost like cellular mitosis.

In any event, none of the generals said anything too remarkable until Axe, and Axe alone of all the people in the room (including other reporters), swears he heard BG Neil Tolley say US and ROK Special Forces teams are operating in North Korea.

But that’s not what he said. He clearly described how the biggest special-ops-soluable problem in his theater was the lack of “ground truth” intelligence on Nork facilities. And the way to get that, once the balloon goes up, is to put eyes on the targets.

Again, once the balloon goes up, these hypothetical SR teams could use some equipment that maybe the NDIA guys in the audience, who are the real world Tony Starks who put the magic gadgets in our men’s hands, could make for him. Specifically, he’d like some kind of standoff sensor that would see into caves and tunnels, communications radios that are not vulnerable to direction-finding, and a wireless long-range power transmission system that would liberate the teams from heavy batteries — and risky battery resupplies.

Somehow, Axe heard this as an announcement that these teams were going north now, and regularly.

No one else in the room heard that, just Axe. For example, a reporter for the Tampa Bay Tribune who sat in the same panel clearly heard BG Tooley’s comments as conditional, and his story’s all about the things the panelists said with no ZOMG SF CHUTES INTO PYONGYANG!!1! breathless tone.

Even Axe, while defensive about his ethics and integrity, is wobbly about defending his story now, according to the Post article. Update: There’s a weasel-worded retraction on The Diplomat site now. Axe is now claiming that a Pentagon spokesman, Jim Gregory, is backing Axe against the general (because, says Gregory — according to the less-than-trustworthy Axe — “I don’t want you to be without a job.”) [ /Update]

But the bull is all over the internet. Sadly, apart from the abovementioned Washington Post, no one checked. Typical newsmen! It was sensational, so it was too good to check. We emailed the editor of the Daily Caller who ran the story; he neither deigned to reply, nor to correct his false story, which is still there, blasting Teh Stoopid out to the public.

And stop and think what this story means for the men who actually will have to go do this in the event of a limited strike or actual war with North Korea. We’ll tell you what it means: increased probability increased probability of mission failure, injury, capture, dismemberment or death.

All from the carelessness or dishonesty of one reporter.

Update 1: US Forces Korea have categorically denied the report,

Brig. Gen. Tolley recently participated in a theater special operations command commander panel discussion at a Special Operations Forces industry conference.  Some reporting has taken great liberal license with his comments and taken him completely out of context. Quotes have been made up and attributed to him.  No U.S. or ROK forces have parachuted into North Korea. Though special reconnaissance is a core special operations force mission, at no time have SOF forces been sent to the north to conduct special reconnaissance. The use of tunnels in North Korea is well documented. Several of the known tunnels along the DMZ are visited by tourists every day.

Update 2: Apparently in conjunction with the bitter “Clarification” retraction mentioned above, The Diplomat appears to have nuked Axe’s original false story. It’s still available in Google Cache for a while (a late version with the USFK statement appended) and we’ve saved a screenshot and attached it to this article. It was also copied into or linked by almost 200,000 web pages and blog posts while it was live, and many of them haven’t corrected it. On the Internet, your bullshit quickly comes apart, but the aroma spreads forever.

Axe, on his blog, appears to be half mortified he got it wrong and half defensively furious at people for calling him on it, which makes us suspect it was actually an error — even if an error of wishful thinking — on his part, rather than a cold fabrication. Well, the lesson’s got to be hurting him, but maybe this will help him grow as a reporter. (He looked remarkably like a mall ninja, insisting to the Washington Post that he was an expert on war and the military. The guy has less time in service than John Giduck!)

Also David Martosko of the Daily Caller has belatedly prepended a correction on his retype of Axe’s story.

This entry was posted in Lord Love a Duck, Media vs. Military on by Hognose.

About Hognose

Former Special Forces 11B2S, later 18B, weapons man. (Also served in intelligence and operations jobs in SF).

6 thoughts on “Lord love a duck: No, we’re not invading Nork [Updated][x2]

Hognose Post author

K —

I think this is the link you meant to post, and you meant to post it in our post on Ryan Byther.

Our post on this skunk is here but comments may be closed (they close automagically after 30 days). I’ll check with the local reporter and see about following up the Byther story. As we frequently say about wannabes here at WeaponsMan.com, “it’s never just one fraud with these guys.” There’s usually a long trail of hearbreak and empty pockets behind them; the same facile gift of gab that lets them con veterans lets them con women even more so. That is why to post here we must take a sacred vow to use our personal gift of gab only for the good of mankind.

David Axe

The full statement from LTC Gregory re: USFK’s assertion that I misquoted Tolley is this:

“The bottom line is there are no U.S. boots in North Korea.

There is no attack on David Axe. I don’t want you to feel that’s what [Pentagon spokesman George Little] is doing.

We are in agreement that the words you heard came out of his [Brig. Gen. Neil Tolley’s] mouth. I don’t believe what you wrote is inaccurate. … I heard him say those words.

They [U.S. Forces Korea] are waking up. I believe they are going to re-look [at their statement.] I can’t get into defending what U.S. Forces Korea said.

I get where you’re coming from. I heard the same words you heard. I don’t want you to be without a job. Hopefully you can hang tough. Everyone here is doing the best they can in the absence of a transcript. It is a bit of a mind-stretch. … The general may have said that and, in his mind, he was thinking hypothetically.”

If you don’t believe me, please check with LTC Gregory yourself: [email protected]

Hognose Post author

Thanks for your comment, David, and sorry for taking 7 hours to approve it. I’ll take you at your word that you believed that BG Tolley was making a statement of fact, and note your explanation that his isn’t your AO, so you didn’t think anything special about it.

I’ll also note that LTC Gregory, too, is speculating that “the general may have said that.” Beware of the Dunning-Kruger effect: your exposure to and knowledge of special operations is birdbath deep and garden wide. The story is never as sensationalistic as you and your former associates at the pathetic “Danger Room” make it out to be. The real magic happens in very subtle ways over a great deal of time.

You ought to be aware of who in the US Governmenthas doctrinal responsibility for intelligence gathering under which circumstances, and when and how the balance of responsibility shifts where around the interagency. It said in the Washington Post you’re an expert on these things.


‘Wired’? Some of the Sophisticati Best & Brightest who are too best & bright to actually … you know … serve in the armed forces , but they are military experts. Too right. Sometimes their military articles give the truth a glancing blow, but I regard them as privileged blowhards.

As for the story itself, has anyone ever gone North? If they say it hasn’t been done lately, fine, I’ll believe it. I won’t speak to the US participation in any such endeavor, but the old ROK 5th Special Forces Brigade (now the Special Missions Group) has had a whiff of that cachet.

Hognose Post author

Not our area, although we and I personally know all too much about the SR missions of the 1980s in Europe and the wartime plans for same. The plans involved multiple methods of projecting SR and SIGINT elements forward as well as preparing stay-behind SR and UW elements to go to ground and emerge after being overrun, in areas we did not have confidence about holding.

Entire nations had clandestine organizations on standby because they expected to be occupied again. Most of these orgs were exposed and rolled up circa 1992, the exposure shook a few governments at the time.

Anyone that served in the 10th or 11th SFG(A) in the 1980s can put his finger on the map where his team was going to go and say what they were going to do there. He probably won’t, because OPLAN 4304 and his place in it were classified SECRET at the time and have not been declassified as far as I know. The overall plan speaks strategically to wartime intelligence sources and methods, so its declassification is unlikely. However, you can study the unconventional war element of World War II to get a general idea… there are only so many ways to skin the denied-area cat.