A preliminary study contracted by the Pentagon has concluded that the Defense Department should not take charge of the CIA's paramilitary functions, senior defense officials said yesterday.
The study was conducted in response to a request from President Bush that the Pentagon, the CIA and other agencies consider how to act on a recommendation by the Sept. 11 commission that lead responsibility for covert and clandestine paramilitary operations be shifted from the CIA to the Defense Department. The commission's report said the CIA lacked a robust paramilitary operation and relied too heavily on proxies. The United States could not afford to build two paramillitary arms, it said, and suggested they be consolidated under the military's Tampa-based Special Operations Command.
"Our study does not intend to take over any mission from the CIA," Thomas W. O'Connell, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said at a conference here yesterday. The Pentagon and the CIA are drafting formal proposals to submit to the White House later this month. The study's conclusion, however, reflects an emerging consensus among current and former defense, military and intelligence officials that it is more logical for the CIA to retain its relatively modest paramilitary force.
"If you take the very small paramilitary capabilities away from the CIA, in my view, it would limit their ability to conduct foreign intelligence activities which they are required by law to do," said one senior defense official familiar with the study. Moreover, "we don't have the legal authorities to be doing what the CIA does, so getting all those assets doesn't make any sense," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the issue is still unsettled.
A former senior Department of Defense official involved in the early stages of the study summed up opinions this way: "Nobody in DOD wanted to take it over, and no one in CIA wanted to give it up."
The Sept. 11 commission's recommendation prompted speculation that the Pentagon was seeking to usurp the CIA's role in covert military operations, a charge defense officials reject. "There have been repeated articles suggesting that this is a Pentagon power grab. That's not the case," one defense official said.
Legal ramifications of the transfer of the CIA's covert role was of particular concern to experts and officials. "Covert" operations are intended to allow the U.S. government to deny involvement after the fact; "clandestine" actions are secret before they take place but can be acknowledged afterward.
"I don't want the military to get into the business of lying after the fact whether they've conducted a military operation," said R. James Woolsey, a lawyer who was CIA director in the Clinton administration. Another consequence, he said, was that pressure would probably grow in Congress to subject military covert operations to the same requirements for presidential findings imposed on the CIA. "That would unnecessarily tie the hands of military forces," he said.
Officials also stressed the unique skills, capabilities and missions of the CIA and those of Green Berets and other Special Operations forces, which conduct paramilitary operations for the Pentagon.
The Pentagon-contracted study, carried out by Booz Allen Hamilton in McLean, brought together CIA and Special Operations veterans for a series of tabletop war games. The games explored how each agency's paramilitary units would respond to different contingencies, including threats involving terrorists and weapons of mass destruction and missions to train indigenous fighters or gain control of ungoverned territory.
Defense officials said the study will also provide insights into how the CIA and Special Operations forces, which are working together daily in Iraq and Afghanistan, can more smoothly conduct paramilitary actions in the future, and they suggested that the topic would be reviewed regularly.
"You have a U.S. Special Operations Command [and the CIA] with . . . differing authorities. Well, maybe it's time for laws to be changed, for directives to be changed," a defense official said.
Staff writer Dana Priest contributed to this report.