Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold hearings on a Washington Post report that the Defense Department is reinterpreting U.S. law to give the secretary broad authority over clandestine operations abroad.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has created a new espionage unit called the Strategic Support Branch, according to the news report, but McCain, speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation," said he doubts Rumsfeld has broken any laws.
"I'm always sorry to read about things in The Washington Post when they affect a committee that I am a member of," McCain said.
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence T. DiRita issued a carefully worded statement yesterday that appears to dispute parts of the Post article.
"There is no unit that is directly reportable to the secretary of defense for clandestine operations as is described in the Washington Post," he said. In addition, DiRita said, "the Department is not attempting to 'bend' statutes to fit desired activities, as is suggested in this article."
At the same time, DiRita said: "It is accurate and should not be surprising that the Department of Defense is attempting to improve its long-standing human intelligence capability."
DiRita said the war on terror necessitates "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."
The Strategic Support Branch, according to The Post, was designed to expand the Pentagon's use of "humint" or human intelligence operations, including the recruitment of spies and interrogation of prisoners. The recruited agents could include "notorious figures" whose ties to the United States would be embarrassing if revealed, according to a Pentagon memo.
-- Thomas B. Edsall