Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Reports on Pentagon's New Spy Units Set Off Questions in Congress

The New York Times
January 25, 2005
Reports on Pentagon's New Spy Units Set Off Questions in Congress

WASHINGTON, Jan. 24 - Senior members of Congress said Monday that they would seek to determine whether the Pentagon had overstepped its bounds by creating new secret battlefield intelligence units within the Defense Intelligence Agency.

A senior military officer and a senior Defense Department official confirmed at a hastily called Pentagon briefing on Monday, after news reports had disclosed the existence of the expanded intelligence operations, that small teams of civilian intelligence specialists were being created to work with Special Operations forces and other troops worldwide on secret missions, including counterterrorism operations.

The officials said the teams had been formally established in the fiscal year 2005 defense budget using existing authority to replace ad hoc defense intelligence units that had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan for more than two years.

In interviews, however, members of Congress from both parties questioned whether the secret missions being carried out by the units might amount to covert actions - a legal definition for missions in which the United States government denies any role and that can be undertaken only by presidential directive and with formal Congressional notification.

Some members also said the House and Senate intelligence committees had not been fully informed about the new approach, even though they oversee the Defense Intelligence Agency.

"To cut out Congress and set up an under-the-radar capability which Congress doesn't know about is not O.K.," Representative Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said in an interview.

But Senator John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who heads the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that the intelligence teams were "vital to our national security interests" and that their existence was included in Pentagon budget documents that the committee reviewed and approved.

The Pentagon officials said Congress had been informed about the teams during the budget discussions late last year, but they said the names of the units had been changed during the budget process, to Strategic Support Teams from Human Augmentation Teams, possibly explaining the confusion.

The teams are financed with Defense Department money in the National Foreign Intelligence Program, a portion of the Pentagon budget administered by the director of central intelligence, the officials said. But they declined to give exact budget figures.

Officials said the units would have about 10 members each, consisting of case officers, linguists, interrogators and other specialists from the Defense Human Intelligence Service, a branch of the Defense Intelligence Agency. While the missions they would take up would be secret, the intelligence units would not use covert methods like false identities or nationalities, the senior military officer said.

The briefing was organized late Monday in response to an article in The Washington Post on Sunday and an article in The New York Times on Monday. The Pentagon spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, said officials giving the briefing on Monday must stay unidentified because intelligence matters were being discussed.

Stephen A. Cambone, the under secretary of defense for intelligence, and Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, were sent to Capitol Hill on Monday afternoon to answer a flurry of questions from lawmakers of both parties.

In general, Democrats and Republicans expressed support for the idea of assigning intelligence officers from the D.I.A. to work alongside Special Operations forces in wartime situations like the ones in Iran and Afghanistan. They said the Pentagon could also contribute much needed additional resources to the task of recruiting spies, traditionally the domain of the Central Intelligence Agency.

"Simply put, enhancing human intelligence will save American lives," Representative Duncan Hunter of California, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a written statement. "The notion by some that various steps taken by the Department of Defense to enhance such intelligence is somehow sinister and illegitimate is nonsense."

In a telephone interview, Senator Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who is chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said, "Everybody in the intelligence community must be a major player; no one has a monopoly." While saying the Pentagon had kept the committee staff "well informed" about its plans, Senator Roberts said the panel would seek "additional briefings sooner rather than later."

But Ms. Harman and others said the size and scope of the Pentagon operation remained murky. Some expressed concern that the Pentagon would define the battlefield in a broad way, as part of the larger global struggle against terrorism, to justify spying operations far outside combat zones like Iraq and Afghanistan and to carry out operations in which the American role would be disguised.

"I'm not at all convinced that they have properly informed us, and I'm deeply concerned about the fact that they are potentially undertaking things which we have an absolute responsibility to know, and that we don't," Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said in a telephone interview.

A Republican Congressional official said the Pentagon had "done a good job of keeping us informed of efforts to expand human intelligence operations." But the official said Congressional committees were aware that more aggressive intelligence-gathering by the Pentagon might "cross into the realm of covert action," which has historically been carried out primarily by the C.I.A. instead of the military.

In general, the secret missions carried out by the military have been defined as clandestine operations, which are not intended to be officially deniable and are subject to less rigorous rules for approval and oversight.

In interviews, Congressional officials declined to discuss the precise operations being undertaken by the new units, saying the details were classified. But they said the Pentagon had defined them all in such a way that they did not require explicit presidential approval or Congressional notification.

Before the news accounts of the program were published this weekend, to the extent that the Pentagon had informed Congress at all about the effort, it did so in briefings provided to committee staff members, including sessions held earlier this month, Congressional officials said.

Some members of Congress, including at least one member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, received their first classified briefing on the issue on Monday, the officials said.

In the telephone interview, Senator Rockefeller expressed concern that the Pentagon's approach was too dismissive of the need for formal Congressional notification. "I don't take lightly the distinction between clandestine and covert," Senator Rockefeller said. "It makes all the difference in the world."

Senator Roberts, the Kansas Republican, said he believed that the military's intelligence-gathering responsibilities should extend beyond current combat zones. "In today's environment, basically what you want to have is the groundwork for intelligence operations in any country which you deem to be a national security threat," he said. "I don't think the military should be wandering all over the globe, but I don't think they're doing that."