The Pentagon, edging into foreign spy operations traditionally handled by the CIA, will soon begin using its own special intelligence teams to work with U.S. military forces in world trouble spots, senior defense and military officials admitted Monday.
The officials told reporters that a new Strategic Support Branch under the Defense Intelligence Agency was a change sparked by 2001 attacks on America and not an attempt by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to grab authority over intelligence operations.
The Pentagon detailed the program after the Washington Post on Sunday revealed its existence, sparking charges from some Washington critics that Rumsfeld was trying to circumvent the CIA and may even have avoided necessary congressional oversight. Some Democrats called for congressional hearings.
The officials, who asked not to be identified, said at a briefing that Pentagon groups of interrogators, linguists and others had been operating in Iraq and Afghanistan on an ad hoc basis for two years but are now being organized into 10-member civilian teams for deployments on request this year.
The move “is being done completely in coordination with and full knowledge and participation” of the Central Intelligence Agency, a senior military official said.
A senior defense official said one U.S. defense expert had helped analyze information that was directly responsible for the capture of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in December 2003 and that the move gave impetus to the new plan.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA has been criticized for not having enough intelligence agents on the ground and for lack of sharing of intelligence information.
WILL NOT ANSWER TO RUMSFELD
The officials told reporters that the Pentagon teams, previously drawn quickly from around the world as needed, will now be on call at all times from the DIA, and will answer to regional military commanders and not Rumsfeld.
They said Congress had been briefed on the plan earlier but that the name of the operation had then been changed and that top officials were sent to Capitol Hill on Monday to brief lawmakers about confusion over the issue.
“This is just a common sense way of getting more tactical intelligence value out of military deployments,” said Loren Thompson, a private military analyst with the Lexington Institute think tank.
“I don’t see where they are breaking any rules. Rumsfeld’s initiative is understandable, given the cautious and unreliable performance of the Central Intelligence Agency in similar operations,” Thompson said.
The Washington Post, citing Pentagon documents and interviews with participants, reported that Rumsfeld had created the Strategic Support Branch to end “near total dependence” on the CIA for human intelligence.
“There is no unit that is directly reportable to the secretary of defense for clandestine operations as described in the Post article,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters on Monday.
He said the 9/11 Commission report on the attacks on America had stressed the need to expand and enhance human intelligence and that Rumsfeld and the Pentagon had moved to do so.
“Generally speaking, the president is aware of the Department of Defense’s efforts to expand and enhance human intelligence capabilities,” McClellan added. “We support efforts by the Department of Defense to collect intelligence to enhance battlefield capabilities.”
The Post, citing an early planning document, said the group’s focus was also on Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia, the Philippines and Georgia.