The leader of a new Pentagon espionage unit has resigned his position, shortly after public disclosure that the Defense Department is expanding into clandestine operations traditionally undertaken by the CIA.
The Strategic Support Branch and its departing leader are controversial among the elite special operations forces assigned to work with them on high-risk intelligence missions overseas, some of whom aired complaints in a Jan. 23 Washington Post story about deficits in the training and performance of the unit's officers. Defense officials with firsthand knowledge said the unit's leader, reserve Army Col. George Waldroup, surprised his staff in the first week of February with an announcement that he was stepping down immediately.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, subordinates said, is pressing ahead with plans for independent Pentagon intelligence operations around the world. The Post disclosed last month that Rumsfeld has reinterpreted U.S. law to grant him broad authority to dispatch clandestine teams into friendly and unfriendly nations, whether or not conventional war is in prospect. Designed to help cure what Rumsfeld described as his "near total dependence on CIA," the Strategic Support Branch gathers intelligence alongside newly empowered forces from the military's Joint Special Operations Command.
In Congress, the House and Senate intelligence committees have held closed briefings in the past two weeks with senior defense officials, including Undersecretary for Intelligence Stephen A. Cambone. In sometimes heated exchanges, witnesses said, members of both parties complained to Cambone about learning from a newspaper account that the Pentagon created a new espionage team more than two years ago, using funds "reprogrammed" from congressional appropriations. Members of Congress also asked about Pentagon legal theories under which defense personnel could conduct "routine" and "traditional" operations without notifying Congress.
Republicans, in public, have said Cambone's answers reassured them, and chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services committees have expressed support for the program.
"I asked very direct questions and got answers to those questions that are satisfactory to me," said Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), a former Air Force officer who chairs the subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence.
On the condition of anonymity, two Republicans said Cambone did not adequately answer some of the questions about the plans, legal basis and operations of the Pentagon's new intelligence arm. One Republican committee member said Rumsfeld is rushing to create independent capabilities before the arrival of a director of national intelligence, a position created by Congress in December to oversee the 15 U.S. intelligence departments and agencies. Democratic colleagues echoed that sentiment.
"We have just passed a law reorganizing our intelligence capability, and standing up what may be a new operation at DoD, under the radar, could not only undermine the legal requirements to inform Congress but also the new architecture we set up under the intelligence reform bill," said Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee. "I start with the fact that the combination of special operations forces and human intelligence specialists are useful capabilities. However, there's an enormous potential for misuse, especially if Congress is cut out."
In news briefings late last month, defense officials stressed that funding for the unit in its current form was approved by Congress in the 2005 budget, and said they had no intention to evade congressional oversight.
They said confusion had arisen about the program because the name of the effort had changed over time. They also emphasized that the Pentagon was working cooperatively with the CIA in developing the program, not trying to bypass it. After Rumsfeld's initiative was publicized, Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, the Defense Intelligence Agency director, advised employees in an internal memorandum on Jan. 27 to ignore "innuendos and disparaging remarks" about the agency's new clandestine intelligence branch from critics who "don't know our mission." Jacoby's "Message to the Workforce," a copy of which has been obtained by The Post, acknowledged that after recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, "we recognized that DIA needed to improve HUMINT [human intelligence] support to combatant commanders." It will take time, he said, for the Strategic Support Branch to "increase our ability" to conduct those missions.
During the same week, defense officials said, Jacoby began asking subordinates to account for reported deficiencies in the new organization. Waldroup announced his departure a few days later.
One colleague said Waldroup, who had held the job since summer, blamed enemies in Congress and in what was then known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, where he spent most of his civilian career. "He was told he needed to hand over his duties," the colleague said.
Waldroup did not reply to messages left by telephone and e-mail.
Don Black, a spokesman for the DIA, said Waldroup, an Army reservist, returned to civilian life last weekend after an initial period of active duty expired. He acknowledged that Waldroup's status was renewable.
"I would not say that it was at anyone's initiative," Black said. "His . . . activation was over, so he was allowed to depart."
Meanwhile, the DIA has stepped up a recruiting campaign for candidates with "outstanding foreign language skills" and "a background in hard science or special operations."
"You are the unseen and hear the unspoken," said one advertisement placed in the Army Times and other newspapers with large military readerships. "You could be anybody, anywhere. You are Intelligence. Be DIA." The accompanying illustration depicts two men in silhouette, conversing at a darkened table with a cityscape featuring an Abrams tank out the window. The job being advertised is "DIA field HUMINT collector," requiring willingness "to fulfill short-term deployments and worldwide assignment."
On the DIA's Web site, an "open continuous" announcement of the same vacancies -- posted Jan. 26 -- called for graduates of the CIA's Field Tradecraft Course or the military's "special mission units," the clandestine squadrons reporting to the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa.
Leaders of those units -- including the squadrons formerly known as Delta Force -- are escalating their complaints about DIA plans to base the Strategic Support Branch at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. The special operations teams are based at four locations including Norfolk and the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, about 1,500 miles away.