Context of the Korea Special Forces Story


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Some folks have accused me of “fabricating” quotations I attributed to Army Brig. Gen. Neil Tolley regarding U.S. surveillance operations in North Korea. See the original story here … and skepticism here and here.

The context was a panel featuring theater Special Operations Forces commanders at the SOFIC conference in Florida the week of May 21. Tolley spoke on the record to an audience of hundreds of industry, government and media representatives.

If he was speaking hypothetically, he did not say so. He spoke in the present tense … and at length. (Probably five minutes or so.)

Update #1: Oops. Actually, don’t take Paul McLeary at Defense News as corroboration. He has a different spin on the story. And besides, I forgot that he and I used some of the same notes — my notes. But my notes have Tolley saying what I attribute to him in the story.

Look people, Korea’s not my usual beat. Far from it. I don’t always know what’s news and what isn’t in Korea. But I was in the room at the conference. I took notes. There were many hundreds of witnesses — and cameras, too, I think.

Update #2: People are telling me that surely Tolley was speaking hypothetically. If so, he did not specify. Or if he did, I did not hear him. I heard him describing the technical challenges of conducting human surveillance in North Korea. He described the problem, and his solution to the problem, and the challenges incumbent in the solution. Sounded pretty concrete to me.

Update #3: Comment from U.S. Forces Korea:

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 #4: Frankly, I’m relieved to hear the military say we’re NOT sending troops into North Korea. Some observers wonder how I could ever believe that we HAD — after all, that would be an act of war. Yes, but we routinely strike military and terror targets in foreign countries in ways that could be construed as acts of war. Pakistan, anyone? Korea watchers are SHOCKED at Tolley’s comments, whatever the general’s true meaning was. I guess I wasn’t as shocked because I’m accustomed to creeping American warfare.

By the way, I’m beginning to realize what a big deal this all is. Wish I’d realized that earlier. But all that doesn’t change what Tolley said, according to my notes.

Update #5: I got to say, I’m hating this. I honestly had no idea this tiny little story would be such a big deal. Yes, the news was “surprising” to me. But a lot of news is a surprise to me … that’s why it’s news.

Update #6: I really hope someone has a transcript of this panel. Are my handwritten notes inaccurate? Was the general vague in his comments? A third-party written record will help clear this up. Anyone?

Update #7: So I’m attaching photos of my notes. Hard to read, I know. And yes, I could FAKE notes. So I realize these won’t necessarily convince anyone who thinks I’m a North Korean agent trying to incite a war. For what it’s worth …

Update #8: Any other reporters who want clarity on this chain of reporting, contact me at I’m in U.S. eastern time.

Update #9: Can I reiterate please how much I’m hating this? I’ve been shot at and blown up and even kidnapped without feeling as crappy as I do about this. I’m in this weird vortex where so many people are telling me I could not possibly have heard what I said I heard that part of me is beginning to believe them. I keep re-reading my notes, as though looking for something new. I’m a reliable note-taker and a fairly seasoned reporter (I think) but I can only write down what I hear and what I understand. Did I really screw something up here? Am I being snowed by a general who said something he shouldn’t have and now fears for his career? Is it all a misunderstanding? I have no idea any more. I just have these two sheets of paper in my hand … and a lot of people telling me I’m about to start a war.

Update #10: I’ve emailed the conference organizers asking for a transcript. Hoping they have one … and can clarify what’s happening here. I’ve spoken to several reporters tonight who are trying to suss out the truth. It’s been a long sleepless night — and it’s not nearly over.

Update #11: The kicker? My power is mostly out at home, so I’m trying to manage this crisis in, ahem, less than optimal conditions. This sucks.

Update #12: Talking to U.S. Forces Korea, trying to get SPECIFIC remarks from them regarding exactly what quotations I “made up.” Several hours into this hoopla, I’m actually starting to get mad. I was in the room when the general spoke. I took notes, for crying out loud. I discussed the general’s comments with other people after the fact. I’m not perfect. But I’m also not crazy.

Update #13: National Defense Magazine was in the room — and published their story a week before my own. Their wording makes Tolley’s comments seem hypothetical, I think.

Update #14: Still waiting on U.S. Forces Korea to call back. My sense at this point is that Tolley found himself saying more than he really wanted to, but can claim he was only speaking hypothetically. Allow me to be clear: if he was speaking hypothetically, it was not at all clear from his comments.

Also, it’s not clear to me he knew there were reporters in the room. I was fully accredited for the conference and wearing a bright orange badge identifying me as press. (There were at least a dozen reporters at the event at any one time.) The orange badge granted me access to some speeches and activities, but not others. Before Tolley’s speech, I was actually turned away from the auditorium by a guard who insisted press were not allowed. I checked with event organizers. They said press were allowed, and escorted me back into the room. Did Tolley know there were reporters in the room? I’ll ask once USFK calls me back.

Update #15: Okay, I think it boils down to these words: “We have to put humans there.” (Both my notes and National Defense‘s story include this quotation.) When Tolley said this, was he saying we might have to put humans there in North Korea, or we already are? I understood him to mean we already are. He apparently claims otherwise.

Update #16: I spoke to USFK Col. Jonathan Withington. “I don’t have his transcript in front of me,” Withington said. “The important thing is at no time have Special Operations Forces gone north into North Korea.”

I told The Diplomat I will step down as a regular contributor. I want to spare them any additional damage. But let me be clear: Tolley did not state that he was speaking hypothetically. And he described in detail his need (either at present or eventually, conditionally — he did not specify) to “leap” forces north with ever-lighter and better equipment. I’m told that represents a present or potential violation of the Koreas’ armistice. Which, apparently, USFK takes very seriously … though Pyongyang does not.

Update #17: There is news.

I have info from another reporter who was in the room. They say they are told no transcript of Tolley’s comments will be available, contrary to what I was told earlier. Plus, this is what the reporter says Tolley said:

Concealment of their entire military infrastructure is hidden from satellites and other aerial  reconnaissance and that is an issue for us, so our ISR platforms are not as effective as we need them to be. So we put humans in there. Without going into too much detail on our war plans, we send ROK soldiers, Koreans, to the north, and U.S. soldiers, to do the old special reconnaissance mission. We used to do it in the 80s in Europe. It’s roughly the same kind of thing.

Sounds pretty concrete to me. And matches what I reported, minus the hemming and hawing on the “We send” line.

The other reporter asked Tolley for clarification and PRIVATELY — and not to me — he said this:

No, no, no, I meant future war plans, i.e. in the event of future all-out hostilities, I would send up USSOF-ROK teams behind enemy lines and they’d need to gather intelligence without much logistical support. The whole country is already starving and if there is all-out war, my people will need to carry in their own supplies, and use equipment that is self-sustaining, where it is solar  or battery powered.

It’s clear now that Tolley misspoke and USFK is in damage-control mode. At my expense. USFK’s claim I “made up” Tolley’s quotations is a LIE. I will be demanding a retraction of USFK’s statement.

Update #18: Another reporter who was in the room has corroborated the quotations I attributed to Tolley.

Update #19: Pentagon Press Secretary George Little is saying on TV that I “contorted, distorted and misreported” Tolley’s comments. Not true. See VoA’s Steve Herman: “An experienced military reporter in the room in Tampa May 22 tells me @daxe did NOT misquote BGEN Tolley on SOF into #DPRK.” I have contacted Pentagon media officer LTC James Gregory demanding comment. I sent him multiple accounts of Tolley’s comments.

Update #20: Reporter Sean Naylor: “I was there. Maybe a misspeak but Tolley clearly said ROK and US troops were going into NK for recon, as @daxe reported.”

Update #21: For the record, I have been sitting in front of my computer and iPhone for 15 hours, with a two-hour nap. Damage control from 11 PM last night to now 2 PM EST. And there’s no end in sight.

Update #22: I’ve contacted LTC James Gregory again. He can be reached at

LTC Gregory,

You’ve seen all my corroboration. Is the Pentagon going to retract its accusations against me or not? To repeat, I’ve been accused of “making up” and “contorting” open comments by BG Tolley. Two other reporters in the room say I did not do so. What is the Pentagon’s response?


David Axe

Update #23: Dino Pignotti from the National Defense Industrial Association, which hosted Tolley at SOFIC, has not responded to my query regarding transcripts of the event. I hear through a couple sources that there will be no transcripts. Hoping that’s not true. [Update: Dino wrote to say my note had been funneled into spam, hence the delay. He added that no, there is no transcript.]

To Gen. Tolley: It’s now 5:30 AM in Seoul, so you’re probably awake. How about a comment? You’re surely an impressive officer, but are you also a decent person? I have been thorough and utterly transparent in laying out the facts as I see them. I’ve posted my notes. I’ve gotten corroboration from other people who heard you speak. So now it’s your turn to answer for your command’s claim that I “made up” quotations in my story. You’re a soldier. Now be a man.

I called back LTC Gregory seeking comment. I had told him earlier that if I didn’t get anything back from him by the close of business today, I would consider it a “no comment.” I left my number. He has my email. If I don’t hear back in 45 minutes, then the official response from the Pentagon is “no comment.” They repeatedly accused me of misquoting someone — including on on national TV. They refuse to release a transcript. They ignore the two other reporters who corroborate my reporting. And still … “no comment.”

Update #24: Victory! LTC Gregory called to say that I was accurate in my quoting of Tolley — and U.S. Forces Korea’s statement accusing me of “making up” Tolley’s comments cannot be defended. Read Gregory’s statement here.

Update #25: From U.S. Forces Korea: “After reviewing the remarks made by Brig. Gen. Neil Tolley at a Special Forces Industry Conference on May 22 in Tampa, it is evident there were opportunities for attendees to draw the wrong conclusion from what he said.”

Update #26: From Voice of America’s Steve Herman: “BGEN Tolley in statement: “After further review of the reporting, I feel I was accurately quoted” (by @daxe).”

Update #27: A former Navy SEAL named Brandon T. Webb wrote a suicide note in my name and posted it to his blog. After a few hours he added a disclaimer stating it was satire.

Update #28: BG Tolley has been fired, has stepped down voluntarily or, at the very least, is being rotated into a different position.

Update #29: Steve Herman at VoA reports that Tolley’s replacement was long planned.


52 Responses to “Context of the Korea Special Forces Story”

  1. David says:

    For the most part, the U.S. military have been wholly unreasonable in branding you a liar and trying to cover their tracks afterwards without using the truth.

    You reported what Gen Tolley said and frankly if he was not aware there were reporters in the room, who were granted access, then that is not the reporters’ fault. It is the interpretation of his remarks that seems to have caused the most upset.

    I don’t think that Tolley’s remark “We have to put humans there,” indicated that this was already taking place. This type of sentence commonly indicates future and hypothetical actions. Of course, it commonly indicates actions in the present tense as well.

    I just think clarification of those remarks would have been a good idea, if only to cover yourself against the possibility of what happened after your story was published.

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