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Officials: Pentagon Moves Into Overseas Spy Operations

Reuters | Jan 24 2005

The Pentagon, edging into foreign spy operations traditionally handled by the CIA, is now using its own intelligence support group to work directly with U.S. special forces troops in world trouble spots, defense officials said on Monday.

But the White House and Pentagon suggested that the group was a part of military changes sparked by the 2001 attacks on America and was not an attempt by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to grab authority over intelligence operations.

One veteran private analyst told Reuters the Pentagon unit, which has been operating for nearly two years in Iraq and Afghanistan, made sense and apparently did not violate U.S. law.

"This is just a common sense way of getting more tactical intelligence value out of military deployments," said Loren Thompson of the private Lexington Institute.

"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.

Defense officials, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters that the support unit in question -- including linguists, interrogators and case officers -- was for "tactical analysis" and had been operating with elite military units for nearly two years in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

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

WHITE HOUSE DENIAL

"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.

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.

"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.

Defense Department spokesman Lawrence DiRita said in a statement responding to the Post article that 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."

"It is accurate, and should not be surprising, that the Department of Defense is attempting to improve its long-standing human intelligence capability," he said.

But DiRita denied that Rumsfeld -- who has voiced frustration over U.S. intelligence -- created any unit reporting directly to him or was trying to circumvent rules that have traditionally given the CIA control over foreign spy operations.

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

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

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Sunday that he was not aware of the unit, but did not think it would violate U.S. law.

He told CBS's "Face the Nation" he would raise the question at hearings before the Armed Services Committee.



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