Pentagon’s New Spy Unit?

Pentagon Sends Its Spies to Join Fight on Terror (NYT, p. 1)

The Pentagon has created battlefield intelligence units that for the first time have been assigned to work directly with Special Operations forces on secret counterterrorism missions, tasks that had been largely the province of the Central Intelligence Agency, senior Defense Department officials said Sunday. The small clandestine teams, drawn from specialists within the Defense Intelligence Agency, provide the military’s elite Special Operations units with battlefield intelligence using advanced technology, recruit spies in foreign countries, and scout potential targets, the officials said. The teams, which officials say have been operating in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries for about two years, represent a prime example of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s desire to expand the Pentagon’s ability to collect human intelligence – information gathered by spies rather than by technological means – both within the military services and the Defense Intelligence Agency, whose focus is on intelligence used on the battlefield.

“It is accurate and should not be surprising that the Department of Defense is attempting to improve its longstanding human intelligence capability,” the Pentagon spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, said in a statement on Sunday. “A principal conclusion of the 9/11 commission report is that the U.S. human intelligence capability must be improved across the board.” Mr. Di Rita’s statement came in response to an article in The Washington Post on Sunday that disclosed the existence of the clandestine units.

Some intelligence experts said the creation of the units was the latest chapter in a long-running battle for intelligence dominance between Mr. Rumsfeld’s Defense Department and the C.I.A., a battle that has only intensified since the 9/11 commission recommended creating the job of national intelligence director to oversee all intelligence programs. “This is really a giant turf battle,” said Walter P. Lang, a former head of the Defense Human Intelligence Service, a branch of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Among the C.I.A.’s concerns, former intelligence officials have said, are that an expanded Pentagon role in intelligence-gathering could, by design or effect, escape the strict Congressional oversight imposed by law on such operations when they are carried out by intelligence agencies.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said on the CBS News program “Face the Nation” that the Senate Armed Services Committee would hold hearings on the intelligence units.

But other analysts said the teams were merely the latest incarnation of intelligence units that the Army, Navy and Air Force operated throughout the cold war to recruit spies, debrief defectors and gather information about foreign weapons systems in countries like China and the Soviet Union. “D.O.D. is not looking to go develop strategic intelligence,” said one senior adviser to Mr. Rumsfeld who has an intelligence background. “They’re looking for information like, where’s a good landing strip? Who’s going to get our guys in and out of the country? Who will rat out the activities of home countries’ military and intelligence services?”

The intelligence teams are made up of case officers, linguists, interrogators and other specialists from the Defense Human Intelligence Service. Within the Defense Intelligence Agency, these teams are known as the Strategic Support Operations Group, said a senior Pentagon official who has been briefed on their activities. The group is headed by Col. George Waldroup, an Army intelligence reservist and former midlevel manager at the Immigration and Naturalization Service. These front-line teams can be deployed more often, and closer to front lines, than other D.I.A. units called national intelligence support teams, which are groups of technical experts sent to commanders’ wartime headquarters to provide analytical advice.

Pentagon Denies News Report Of New Spy Unit (USA Today, p. 2)

The Pentagon acknowledged Sunday that it is trying to improve its network of spies abroad but denied a published report that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had reinterpreted U.S. law to create an espionage unit under his control. Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said it was “accurate and should not be surprising†that the Pentagon would try to improve its human spying capability, an area that the 9/11 Commission concluded was inadequate. As part of that effort, he said, the Defense Intelligence Agency “has been taking steps to be more focused and task-oriented for the global war on terror.†DiRita said the Defense Department “remains in regular consultation†with congressional committees, the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

DiRita denied that Rumsfeld controls a secret group of spies. “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 a statement. “Further, the Department is not attempting to ‘bend’ statutes to fit desired activities, as is suggested in this article.â€

The Post said a new spy unit is called the Strategic Support Branch. In a written order quoted by the newspaper, Rumsfeld expresses frustration after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks over the Pentagon’s “near total dependence on CIA†for human intelligence. The Post said the organization was designed to operate without detection and under Rumsfeld’s direct control. It has operated for two years in deploying small teams of caseworkers, linguists, interrogators and technical specialists to work alongside special operations forces, the newspaper said. The newspaper said the unit was established “using ‘reprogrammed’ funds without explicit congressional authority or appropriation.†Under U.S. law, Pentagon intelligence missions are subject to less rigorous congressional oversight than similar operations carried out by the CIA.

McCain Expects Hearings On Defense Intelligence Unit (WaPo, A02)

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.

DeRita is right that it’s hardly surprising that DoD would want such intelligence. However, this would appear in direct contradiction of the new policies toward consolidation of the intelligence community. Certainly, too, senior members of the Senate Intelligence Committee should not find out about such things in the Washington Post.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    Interesting how this story centers on the two biggiest pains in the ass… CBS, and McCain.

  2. DC Loser says:

    CBS and McCain only in that McCain was on Face the Nation. The big story broke on the front page of the WaPo yesterday morning. I think a lot of this comes from CIA people pissed their turf is being invaded by the DoD. Sour grapes on their part.

  3. Jem says:

    Point of order: the Services have had human intelligence capabilities since before there was an OSS, much less CIA (okay, the Air Force is an exception because it was founded at the same time as the CIA). The Defense Human Intelligence (HUMINT) Service (DHS) was formed several years ago to coordinate these services in much the same way the NSA handles Signals Intelligence. Forming SSBs is just an analogue to the support teams DIA, NSA, and NGA have provided to combatant and joint force commanders for years now. This is NOT some nefarious activity where the Pentagon is usurping anyone else’s responsibilities–it’s just a mechanism to place existing DoD HUMINT capabilities at the service of the commander via these liaison teams.

    Sheesh! As rarely as the Press gets anything like this right, we ought to be a lot less willing to take the bait represented by their shoddy reporting of the Intelligence Community. This story is much ado about nothing.

    As for McCain, I haven’t figured out whether he’s playing to the cameras or just poorly informed by his staffers. Or maybe, it’s a bit of both…

  4. DC Loser says:


    I’m not sure how current you are with what’s going on at DHS, but they’re undergoing lots of changes like everybody else. There was an interesting but very little noted article in the NYT about a month ago on Defense intelligence transforming into something bigger under the intel reorganization, aloing the lines of DHS providing actionable intelligence, or this concept of “fighting for intelligence.”