The Pentagon, expanding into the CIA's historic bailiwick, has created an espionage arm and is reinterpreting US law to give Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld broad authority over clandestine operations abroad, according to interviews with participants and documents obtained by the Washington Post.
The previously undisclosed organization, called the Strategic Support Branch, arose from Rumsfeld's written order to end his “near total dependence on CIA” for what is known as human intelligence. Designed to operate without detection and under the defense secretary's direct control, the Strategic Support Branch deploys small teams of case officers, linguists, interrogators, and technical specialists alongside special operations forces.
The Pentagon has a vast bureaucracy devoted to gathering and analyzing intelligence, often in concert with the CIA, and news reports over more than a year have described Rumsfeld's drive for more and better human intelligence.
What's this about? More intelligence is good, right? Yezida smelled a rat, but couldn't identify it. But I think I can.
See, I followed the Valerie Plame story pretty closely for a while. In brief: Plame was a CIA spook whose cover was blown by conservative journalist Robert Novak. Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, had very publicly debunked the president's “sixteen words” claim in the State of the Union that
the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa
Lefties suggested that the outing of Plame was political retribution against Wilson. The administration made no serious effort to track down the person who leaked Plame's secret spy identity, which is bad because
- Plame was working on preventing nuclear proliferation, which is, y’know, kind of important, and leaking her identity not only destroys her effectiveness, it burns all of her contacts
- A government official who leaks the identity of a “NOC” undercover agent has committed a felony
On the face of it, this is bad enough, but I've learned an important rule: with the Bush administration, it always turns out to be even worse than I first think, even after compensating for the fact that it's even worse than I first think. Following the story, it became apparent that it was the manifestation of a deeper conflict. As Kos summed up
... the Plame Affair is just a symptom of continuing warfare between the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA.
Neoconservatives, in particular, have accused the Agency of having failed the nation, permitting planning for the attacks of 9-11 to go undetected. They were furious, too, that the CIA’s intelligence didn’t provide strong evidence that Iraq was the imminent threat that the neocons vociferously claimed it was. The dispute between the neocons and the established intelligence community didn’t begin when the World Trade Center towers crashed into lower Manhattan, however. The wrangling dates back to the 1980s when the Committee on the Present Danger was saying the Soviet Union was much more dangerous than the CIA claimed and publishing annual reports to prove it. Reports that turned out to be ... exaggerations. Just like their “reports” on Iraq.
Once you start to look for it, the feud between the hawks at the Pentagon and cooler heads at the CIA (and State) becomes apparent. The centerpoint is over the Iraq invasion. Recall that the CIA doubted that Iraq was an imminent threat, while the administration was cooking the books on intelligence to justify the war. Since the CIA turned out to be right and the Pentagon and President turned out to wrong, our President, bad CEO that he is, invited correct-but-disloyal CIA Director Tenet to spend more time with his family while fortifying wrong-but-loyal Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.
So I read the news about a growing Pentagon intelligence operation from the standpoint that Bush wants an intelligence group that understands that their job is to justify what he believes and support his conclusions. But remember the rule: With the Bush administration, it always turns out to be even worse than I first think, even after compensating for the fact that it's even worse than I first think.
Sy Hersch is, of course, on the case, and tells us how.
The President has signed a series of findings and executive orders authorizing secret commando groups and other Special Forces units to conduct covert operations against suspected terrorist targets in as many as ten nations in the Middle East and South Asia.
The President’s decision enables Rumsfeld to run the operations off the books—free from legal restrictions imposed on the C.I.A. Under current law, all C.I.A. covert activities overseas must be authorized by a Presidential finding and reported to the Senate and House intelligence committees. (The laws were enacted after a series of scandals in the nineteen-seventies involving C.I.A. domestic spying and attempted assassinations of foreign leaders.) “The Pentagon doesn’t feel obligated to report any of this to Congress,” the former high-level intelligence official said. “They don’t even call it ‘covert ops’—it’s too close to the C.I.A. phrase. In their view, it’s ‘black reconnaissance.’ They’re not even going to tell the CINCs”—the regional American military commanders-in-chief. (The Defense Department and the White House did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)
In my interviews, I was repeatedly told that the next strategic target was Iran. “Everyone is saying, ‘You can’t be serious about targeting Iran. Look at Iraq,’ ” the former intelligence official told me. “But they say, ‘We’ve got some lessons learned—not militarily, but how we did it politically. We’re not going to rely on agency pissants.’ No loose ends, and that’s why the C.I.A. is out of there.”
So it's not just about cooking intelligence, it's about conducting operations. The President wants a big team of spooks to go around the world doing nasty shit without Congressional oversight. Lovely.
Update: Kurt Eichenwald writing for the New York Times reports that pre-9/11 CIA briefings strongly suggest that the feud between the CIA and Pentagon predated the 9/11 attacks.