Defense Department officials acknowledged yesterday that the Pentagon has created new clandestine teams to gain better human intelligence for military commanders but emphasized that the program was developed with the cooperation of the Central Intelligence Agency, not to bypass it.
The Strategic Support Branch, housed within the Defense Intelligence Agency, was created to give high-level military officers more control over "actual intelligence" that they can use while making operational military plans, according to two defense officials who briefed reporters on the condition that their names not be used. They said that the program is a joint effort between officials at the Pentagon and CIA and that its organization has been running in its current form since October under funding authorized for this fiscal year.
The existence of the Pentagon's new espionage arm was first disclosed publicly in a Washington Post article on Sunday, which said the program grew out of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld 's desire to end his dependence on the CIA for intelligence gathering. The article reported that officials said that elements of the new unit have been operating in secret for two years in Iraq, Afghanistan and in some undisclosed countries, and was designed to improve Pentagon abilities in what is called human intelligence -- activities such as prisoner interrogation, scouting and recruiting foreign spies.
At the CIA, an official who declined to be named said of Pentagon intelligence initiatives that "they've got the same objectives we do." Defense intelligence units, the official said, are especially well suited to collecting battlefield information on "bridges and tunnels and things like that, and frankly we don't always want to be pulling the CIA resources to do those."
On broader missions not directly related to combat operations, the official emphasized that the CIA has to have the final say. New Pentagon internal guidelines say a mission will be deemed "coordinated" with the CIA after 72 hours' notice to the agency. "It's critical not only to have coordination, but . . . we strongly believe the [CIA] chief of station has to be responsible" for intelligence activities in each country, the official said.
The disclosure of the program evoked widespread discussion on Capitol Hill yesterday, with some legislators unsure whether the program is something they had authorized, and others defending the merits of the effort. The defense officials said confusion arose because the program was authorized within the FY05 budget under a different name -- Humint Augmentation Teams -- and was later changed.
The chairmen of both the House and Senate Armed Services committees said yesterday they support the programs.
"In my opinion, these intelligence programs are vital to our national security interests, and I am satisfied that they are being coordinated with the appropriate agencies of the federal government," Sen. John R. Warner (R-Va.) said in a statement released after a private briefing with Stephen A. Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence. "The committee records indicate that the appropriate budget documents were sent up by the department, reviewed by the committee, and authorizations relative to these programs were incorporated in the FY05 bill."
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) agreed.
"The war on terrorism has made it clear that we need to urgently improve our nation's human intelligence capabilities, including those of the Department of Defense when conducting military operations," he said in a statement. Some Democrats, however, said the new intelligence program should be the subject of hearings.
Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said lawmakers have a duty to examine the program. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked the Senate intelligence committee to look into the issue.
"I've been asked a number of questions, questions which I cannot answer, about reports that the Department of Defense has created new intelligence special forces and has changed the guidelines for reporting to Congress," Feinstein said. "I think that it is within the oversight responsibility of the intelligence committee to have answers to these questions."
Staff writer Chuck Babington contributed to this report.