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Secret Pentagon Unit

Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2005; 2:00 PM

For the past two years the Pentagon has run a secret espionage unit called the Strategic Support Branch, giving Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld authority over foreign clandestine operations.

Washington Post staff writer Barton Gellman took your questions and comments on his story about the new espionage arm of the Pentagon.


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Keswick, Va.: I see no radical change in Pentagon operations by enhancing this capability which has existed in one form or another for years.

If they are improving it, with appropriate cooordination, with other national agencies, that is a step in the right direction.

Barton Gellman: Hi, thanks for writing. The appropriate coordination -- along with appropriate congressional oversight -- are among the questions here. One is whether other agencies and branches of government had anything like full disclosure of DOD plans, and the other is whether DOD believes (as I reported) that notification constitutes coordination -- in other words, that this sort of work is within the secretary's independent power to undertake.

What DOD's public response emphasizes is continuity with longstanding tactical battlefield intelligence -- telling troops how many doors a building has, or how much weight a bridge can bear, that sort of thing. But there's a reason the new organization is named Strategic Support and paired with the scarcest, most elite special forces units in the military. Its ambitions -- in the scope of operations and in their time and place -- exceed anything the department has attempted before. The architects of it said so on the record. And it is always worth debating the cost-benefit ratio of such operations in allied nations, in principle.

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San Diego, Calif.: Are these DoD operatives superior in language, history, training, to the CIA ops in the same areas? Chain of command? Deniability?

Barton Gellman: (First, a reply to Keswick, which I accidentally deleted before posting:)

Hi, thanks for writing. The appropriate coordination -- along with appropriate congressional oversight -- are among the questions here. One is whether other agencies and branches of government had anything like full disclosure of DOD plans, and the other is whether DOD believes (as I reported) that notification constitutes coordination -- in other words, that this sort of work is within the secretary's independent power to undertake.

What DOD's public response emphasizes is continuity with longstanding tactical battlefield intelligence -- telling troops how many doors a building has, or how much weight a bridge can bear, that sort of thing. But there's a reason the new organization is named Strategic Support and paired with the scarcest, most elite special forces units in the military. Its ambitions -- in the scope of operations and in their time and place -- exceed anything the department has attempted before. The architects of it said so on the record. And it is always worth debating the cost-benefit ratio of such operations in allied nations, in principle.

(and now to San Diego)

I know only a modest amount about the qualifications of the DOD operatives. What I do know suggests less experience and training, on the whole, than the CIA's directorate of operations guys. DOD, of course, wants to improve those things.

DOD thinks the new arrangement far superior in chain of command because the secretary of defense, not director of central intelligence, sits atop it.

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Washington, D.C.: Is there any more information about the type of people working for DIA that are out there trying to recruit assests and gain information. Are they as qualified as CIA personnel?

Barton Gellman: As I mentioned, they're not all qualified as case officers. There's only one way to get that qualification now -- the Field Tradecraft Course at Camp Perry, aka The Farm. CIA controls the slots for that course, and DOD doesn't get many. That's one reason DOD is thinking of establishing its own spy school.

In general, DIA hasn't done much clandestine work. It established the Defense Human Intelligence Service in late 1995, but most of its personnel are openly assigned military attaches in US embassies abroad.

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San Jose, Calif.: I remember we had a name for a ready to go, off the shelf clandestine intelligence and operations unit that could be used by the White House without the oversight of Congress. That used to be known as the Iran-Contra scandal. How is this group any different in its raison d'etre?

Barton Gellman: Well, the secrecy there was used for covert action that may have violated US law and certainly contradicted the official policy of the government. There's no evidence of either here, but there's no public accounting either.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Do you think that this unit was specifically created to infiltrate organizations like al Queda, and will they (and the CIA) actively recruit in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia?

Barton Gellman: Among its principal purposes is prosecution of the "global war on terror," or what some DOD officials now call the "global war on extremism." Plainly infiltration of jihadist groups is desired, though also awfully hard to do. They want to operate in "emerging target countries" (as the story said) "such as Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia, Philippines and Georgia." Operating there will entail recruiting local agents.

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Long Beach, Calif.: With the civillians at the Pentagon largely responsible for pushing the "secret arm of intelligence gathering" that envisioned and carried out the abuses of Abu Ghraib outside of Karpinsky's command are we sure they are not adventuring again against the better judgment of minds in the professional military at the Pentagon?

Barton Gellman: That's an important question that has not been fully answered. If our readers have good information on this, I'm happy to accept emails to gellmanb@washpost.com and plain brown envelopes at 1150 15th ST NW, 20071. I'm quite serious about that.

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Washington, D.C.: How does DOD funding of these activities comply with U.S. statutes governing use of appropriations if DOD did not advise Congress of how DOD funds were being used?

Barton Gellman: It can be lawful to "reprogram" money to advance its broader purpose. It can also be a stretch. It's up to Congress to decide that.

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Texas:
Having spent half the Cold War in and around the CIA, I think the reported involvement of the DoD in traditional CIA Directorate of Operations (DO) human intelligence (HUMINT) operations falls into the "probably can't hurt to try" category.

The DO was famously unable to conduct HUMINT operations against such "hard targets" as the USSR and China, and the Islamist fanatics seem no easier. I'm somewhat skeptical that DoD will do much better, but it's not as if military HUMINT operations is going to endanger an existing capability.

And who knows, maybe a bit of competition will encourage CIA's DO types to try harder.

Barton Gellman: That's a plausible argument, and has support in and out of DOD. We think it's a good thing, in my business, to surface the issue for public debate.

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West Lafayette, La.: What is the possibility that this new organization may undermine a long-term CIA operation because it is seeking quicker results from the field.

Barton Gellman: There are often such conflicts in the field. Neither side's point of view is likely to be correct every time. Sometimes DOD elements want to move in and capture someone they consider a bad guy, while CIA case officers want to keep trying to get something useful from the same fellow. CIA controlled the decision before; DOD has now built the means to decide for itself.

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Alexandria, Va.: Dear Mr. Gellman,
Given Rumsfeld's history of ignoring the rule of law, it comes as no surprise that he has chosen to create a rogue military spy unit that reports only to him.

My questions for you are these:
1. What remedies exist to force Rumsfeld into obeying existing laws?
2. Can anyone require that Rumsfeld tell the truth, when asked?

Many thanks,
Not so hopeful in Alexandria

Barton Gellman: Pretty loaded question for a reporter -- and the judgment goes well beyond the evidence I've supplied -- but I'll answer the particulars:

1. It's up to Congress to provide oversight, and its main lever is control of the budget. The struggle for preeminence in national security affairs has been pretty one sided in recent years, with the whip hand in the executive branch.

2. It's unlawful to lie to Congress.

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London, U.K.: Are these assets likely to be mobilized outside of the global framework of the war against terror ?

Barton Gellman: Not sure exactly what you mean by the question. The counterterrorism mission, as the Pentagon sees it, is global. Whether other missions will be involved -- say, counterproliferation -- is unknown, at least to me.

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Rockville, Md.: Hi there,

Isn't the Strategic Support Branch similar in concept and intent to the Vietnam War-era's Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG)?

Barton Gellman: I don't know enough about that to say for sure, but there are resemblances suggested by some of my sources to Operation Phoenix and the operations that led up to the Yellow Fruit scandal. Not everything about those operations, many experts say, was a bad idea, but they certainly brought abuses with them.

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Kennesaw, Ga.: Mr. Gellman: Good afternoon and thanks for doing this chat.

It's hard to see this Strategic Support Branch outside the context of Secretary Rumsfeld's lifelong mania for winning bureaucratic battles, a leitmotif of his tenure as Defense Secretary under President Ford and even before.

Rumsfeld was frustrated in his ambition to be President. I am not surprised that he has sought the capability to act against terrorism as if he were President. I am surprised that the White House has gone along with this so passively. Most Presidents unhappy with the intelligence they get from CIA would try to change the CIA -- and Bush has had four years to do this -- not stand by while a Defense Secretary poaches on CIA's turf.

Bush has always gone to great lengths to avoid looking weak. I guess my question is whether this is just a matter of appearances, in an administration in which the President passively ratifies his Defense Secretary's policy most of the time.

Barton Gellman: This is not a president who likes to or tends to step into unresolved disputes among his cabinet-rank advisers, so they have generally fought it out themselves. Defense has won many of its battles with CIA and State, in large part because of Rumsfeld's skill and the department's control of "facts on the ground."

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Pacifica, Calif.: Do these new revelations tend to support the reporting of Seymour Hersh that the DOD is in fact conducting covert operations in Iran as we speak?

Also, it seems to me that a prime target for these types of operations would be in Pakistan, where there is obvious frustration in the DOD due to lack of access to territory that may be being used by members of the Taliban and al Qaeda and groups such as them. Does this make sense?

Barton Gellman: Hersh covered some of the territory involved in my article, but he didn't have my details and I can't confirm his. In particular I don't have information to support his description of ongoing "covert" ops. (They're not the same as "clandestine," because they involve denial of US responsibility and have stricter legal reporting requiremenets.) I have tried and failed to confirm the Iran report, and have some reason to be skeptical, but it's hard to prove a negative. Any operation by U.S. personnel in Iran or Pakistan would be exceedingly risky, and my sources doubt that the government's existing intelligence suffices to provide such spies with precise targets that are worth the risk.

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Arlington, Va.: How does The Post approach the disclosure of sensitive classified information, as in your article? Does The Post solicit the input of the government into whether publication will be harmful? Does Post management at any level attempt to consider whether publication will harm national security, or is it the paper's view that its sole duty is to publish, with the consequences to be sorted out afterward?

Barton Gellman: We approach these stories gingerly, with a lot of review. I gave the relevant authorities very detailed descriptions in writing of what I intended to publish. For instance, I specifically checked that Col. George Waldroup is not under cover or in the clandestine service before naming him. We fairly often receive government requests to withhold details, and often but not always agree. On occasion high ranking officials will call our top editor or publisher to press those requests. I can't go into anything here that I didn't print, but I can say we published nothing in this piece that the Defense Department asked us to withhold.

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Seattle, Wash.: Your story and in Seymour Hersh's piece in the New Yorker strongly suggest that one long-term goal of having DoD oversee more covert ops is to turn the CIA into a weak shell agency. That is, if this White House distrusts the CIA and blames it for 9/11 and for faulty Iraq WMD information, then Bush/Rumsfeld may prefer to create a National Director of Intel -- even as they basically gut the CIA's intel mission and allow the DoD a free hand with spying.

Do you think that's the larger point here? And if so, what are the long-term consequences?

Barton Gellman: I don't speculate on motives beyond those for which I have evidence. That's not a cagey way of agreeing; I don't, in fact, know. The motives I do know about, from documents and interviews, are (1) frustration on Rumsfeld's part that the CIA didn't always share his priorities or perform to his satisfaction and (2) his consequent desire to run his own clandestine operations.

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Washington, D.C.: Why do you think that Congress has been so willing to allow the DOD to circumvent the intelligence oversight requirements for covert action? Since when does Congress willingly cede its power to the executive?

Barton Gellman: Well, you can't oversee what you don't know about, and lots of members -- including Sen. McCain -- say they didn't know about this. Now that they do, you can watch what comes next.

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Reston, Va.: Does the new Department of Defense unit deal only with specific, tactical operations or is it also involved with larger strategic intelligence initiatives?

Barton Gellman: Both. That's the meaning of creating a unit for "the full spectrum of humint operations," as described in the story.

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Sacramento, Calif.: From the 50,000 foot level, this OP seems to have no accountability to Congress and is running outside what I consider a neutral-minded organization such as the CIA. I have visions of manufactured "intelligence" to support overt military actions, in places such as Iran or North Korea. Are there any checks or balances to address this ?

Barton Gellman: This is a concern that some critics have, in and out of government. The CIA, at least ostensibly, is in the information business and not a policymaking agency. Broader powers for the Pentagon -- which is a policymaking and operational department -- could run the risk of skewing intelligence-gathering, consciously or not, in support of policy wishes or an operational point of view that's narrower than the national interest writ large. We'd have to know a lot more about the way this thing works to judge the merits of those concerns.

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Nofolk, Va.: Any insight into whether the Chief of Mission would exercise final authority over DOD strategic HUMINT in foreign countries? Although DOS seems to be a weak player in these matters in general, and under this administration in particular, it is my understanding that the COM still has authority for non-combat related HUMINT by any agency.

Barton Gellman: Chief of Mission (that's the top officer from the CIA in a given country) has historically had the final say. The expansiveness of DOD's new interpretation of what are "routine" and "traditional" military intelligence operations -- in which DOD is fully independent -- raises doubts about that now. As the story said, DOD has decided that 72 hours' notice may be sufficient "coordination" with CIA.

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Barton Gellman: CORRECTION: Haste is the only trouble with Live Online appearances. I read right past the key word -- the question asked about Chief of Mission (U.S. ambassador), not Chief of Station (CIA station chief). In general the answer is DOD does not intend to submit to decisions of ambassador, and it's not clear to me that even consultation will be routine. It's not part of the guidance memo I wrote about. (Updated Jan. 26, 2005)

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Watertown, N.Y.: Good Afternoon:

1: Why would anyone involved talk to a repoter about this?

2: Would you describe the process you went through with editors, experts, etc to arrive at a decision concerning publishing a story about an intelligence gathering service. Thank you.

Barton Gellman: 1. There are lots of motives, potentially -- personal animus or ambition, belief that decisions are going the wrong way and desire to influence that, turf battles, budget battles, honest and public spirited belief that big social decisions need public debate, and plenty more. We don't tend to care why people talk to us so long as we understand the motives well enough to seek contrary views -- and generally find confirmation of the facts. In this case I had unusually good confirmation, in my own experience, because of the variety of documentary sourcing.

2. This story wasn't a very hard call. We weren't describing current or future operations, or tactics and technologies, in enough specificity to enable an enemy to defeat them. We were describing changes in the organizations and decisionmaking processes conducting general TYPES of operations that the US government is well known to conduct. My previous answer described some of the process we undertake. A fuller discussion is in a piece I wrote for the Nieman Reports:

http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/04-2NRSummer/40-45V58N2.pdf

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Boston, Mass.: Do we have any evidence that this new intelligence operations service was used in obtaining any pre-war Iraq Intelligence? Did they work with the DB/Rockstars mission in northern Iraq?

Barton Gellman: 1. It didn't go operational in time to supply prewar WMD intel.

2. I don't know.

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Sutter Creek, Calif.: Pentagon spokesmen today have denied that Rumsfeld in in direct command of these operations. How does that relate to your quote the this branch is "directly responsive to tasking from SecDef?"

Also, do you see any connection with the story in yesterday's New York Times about the commando unit ready with "state of the art weaponry to swing into action to protect the presidency" during the innauguration. This group was also described as "operating under "special authority" from either the President or the Secretary of Defense."

The two articles together seemed scary to me, frankly.

Barton Gellman: So glad someone asked. The Pentagon statement was disingenous. We didn't say the clandestine unit is "directly reportable to" Rumsfeld. No military unit is. For instance, the commander of the 82nd Airborne or XVIII Airborne Corps doesn't report to the secretary of defense. There's a chain of command, at which the president, by way of the secretary, stands at the top.

We said the new unit is designed to be under Rumsfeld's independent control, and quoted the memos to prove it.

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Barton Gellman: Sorry to say I'm out of time. Thanks for coming, and email me directly if you have information.

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