Sunday, January 23, 2005

McCain to Raise Questions on Secret Spy Unit
McCain to Raise Questions on Secret Spy Unit
Senator Says He Will Present Issue to Senate Armed Services Committee

Sunday, January 23, 2005; 3:54 PM

WASHINGTON - A Republican lawmaker said Sunday his Senate committee would look into a reported move by the Pentagon to reinterpret U.S. law to give Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld broad authority over spy operations abroad.

Responding to the report in The Washington Post Sunday, Senate Armed Services Committee member John McCain, an Arizona Republican, told CBS's "Face the Nation" program he would raise the question at hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Post, citing Pentagon documents and interviews with participants, reported that Rumsfeld had created a unit called the Strategic Support Branch to end "near total dependence" on the CIA for human intelligence.

The unit, which has been operating for two years, deploys teams of case officers, linguists, interrogators and technical specialists with special operations forces, The Post said. The department contended the defense intelligence missions were subject to fewer legal constraints, the newspaper added.

Defense Department spokesman Lawrence DiRita, however, said there was "no unit that is directly reportable to the secretary of Defense for clandestine operations as is described in The Washington Post article."

"Further, the department is not attempting to 'bend' statutes to fit desired activities, as is suggested in this article," he added in a statement.

McCain said the move was "a product of the frustration with the CIA of a failure to have decent human intelligence."

"Should the Armed Services Committee look at it? Yes. And should we know more about it? Yes. And I'm always sorry to read about things in The Washington Post when they affect a committee that I'm a member of."

The Pentagon statement said the war on terrorism necessitated "a framework by which military forces and traditional human intelligence work more closely together and in greater numbers than they have in the past."

"These actions are being taken within existing statutory authorities to support traditional military operations and any assertion to the contrary is wrong," DiRita said.

A CIA spokesman said the agency had no immediate comment.

The unit has operated in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other undisclosed locations, the newspaper reported. The group's focus, according to an early planning document, was on Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia, Philippines and Georgia, The Post said.

The Strategic Support Branch was established with "reprogrammed" funds and without explicit authority from the U.S. Congress, the newspaper reported, quoting unnamed Pentagon officials.