Defense Secretary Robert Gates is considering a plan to curtail the Pentagon's clandestine spying activities, which were expanded by his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, after the 9/11 attacks. The undercover work allowed military personnel to collect intelligence about terrorists and to recruit spies in foreign countries independently of the CIA and without much congressional oversight.
Former military and intelligence officials, including those involved in an ongoing and largely informal debate about the military's forays into espionage, said that Gates, a former CIA director, is likely to "roll back" several of Rumsfeld's controversial initiatives. This could include changing the mission of the Pentagon's Strategic Support Branch, an intelligence-gathering unit comprising Special Forces, military linguists, and interrogators that Rumsfeld set up to report directly to him. The unit's teams work in many of the same countries where CIA case officers are trying to recruit spies, and the military and civilian sides have clashed as a result. CIA officers serving abroad have been roiled by what they see as the Pentagon's encroachment on their dominance in the world of human intelligence-gathering.
A former senior intelligence official who knows Gates said that the secretary wants to "dismantle" many of the intelligence programs launched by Rumsfeld and his top lieutenants, Stephen Cambone, the former undersecretary for intelligence, and Douglas Feith, who was Rumsfeld's policy chief. The former official added that the Defense Intelligence Agency, which has also expanded its human spying efforts, could be returned to a more analytical role.
The official noted that Gates doesn't intend to eliminate the Strategic Support Branch but said that its mandate will change. The unit arose from a written order by Rumsfeld to end the "near total dependence on CIA" for intelligence-gathering, and agency officials viewed it as a competitor.
Much of what Donald Rumsfeld set up at the Pentagon after 9/11 could be dismantled or altered.
Gates headed the CIA under President George H.W. Bush and was the only director in the agency's history to rise through the ranks from entry-level employee. He has criticized the Defense Department's ascendant role in espionage. In a May 2006 op-ed in The Washington Post, he wrote, "More than a few CIA veterans -- including me -- are unhappy about the dominance of the Defense Department in the intelligence arena and the decline in the CIA's central role." In written responses to senators' questions before his confirmation hearing, Gates said, "Clearly, if confirmed, this will be an area that I would look into."
The precise details of how Gates could move the military out of the CIA's espionage territory, while satisfying combat commanders' desire for on-the-ground intelligence, are still being worked out, former officials said. But the contours now taking shape strike the balance that Gates has indicated he wants: giving primary authority for human intelligence-gathering to the CIA, which falls under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Asked about Gates's plans, a spokesman for the Defense secretary's office said he was "not aware of any planned changes at this time."
A senior defense consultant who works on human intelligence issues for the Pentagon cautioned that the plan's details are changing rapidly and that nothing has been formally put in place. Congressional staff members said that the House and Senate Intelligence committees had not received any formal proposal, but they added they expected that Gates would not follow Rumsfeld's approach.
Those tracking the debate said they don't foresee any formal action by Gates until retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper is confirmed as Defense undersecretary for intelligence. Gates selected Clapper, who was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in the early 1990s, in January, but a date for his conformation hearing hasn't been set.
A former intelligence official who knows Clapper well said he's also concerned that the Pentagon has overstepped its bounds. "I think Jim is as uncomfortable with it as anyone is in the intelligence community," the former official said. "The feeling on this one is that this was a Rumsfeld-created exercise... by people who really didn't understand intelligence."
The high level of interest in and speculation about Gates's plans show how eager intelligence officials are, particularly in the CIA, to settle the turf war that Rumsfeld helped to spawn.
The Defense Department has had its own human intelligence service since 1993. But it was never as expansive as the CIA's operations directorate, which has since been renamed the National Clandestine Service and is legally designated as the lead human intelligence agency.
When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the CIA had marshaled rebel forces to help overthrow the Taliban. Rumsfeld recognized that the military's long-standing reliance on the CIA for on-the-ground intelligence could keep his department in a subordinate role in the war on terrorism. It was well known that the CIA's spying capabilities, particularly in the Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries that were then of top concern, had degraded in the wake of major intelligence cutbacks after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Neither the CIA nor the military had enough spies to wage a new war on terrorism.
Rumsfeld wanted the military to take a leading role in the global hunt for terrorists, so he expanded the Defense Department's own capabilities to gather intelligence and to recruit spies abroad. This led to creation of the Strategic Support Branch and the clandestine deployment of small Special Forces teams to U.S. embassies. There, in civilian clothes, they worked as intelligence operatives, recruiting sources within governments or Islamic groups.
But those efforts upset CIA officials, particularly station chiefs, who are supposed to run the spy networks in their assigned countries. Many experts criticized the military's espionage efforts as bungled attempts by ill-trained personnel.
In December, the Los Angeles Times reported that members of one Special Forces spying team, known as a military liaison element, or MLE, shot and killed an armed assailant trying to rob them outside a bar in Paraguay. In East Africa, MLE members were arrested by a local official after their spying was exposed.
Those incidents reinforced a long-held opinion among civilian intelligence professionals that military personnel aren't suited for clandestine spying. "Most people regarded Defense human intelligence services as a group of bozos," said one former CIA official. "They were incompetent. Their training tended to be substandard."
Military intelligence officials counter that the CIA hasn't always met their needs for tactical intelligence in war zones. "When I was in the Balkans, I was not confident that the CIA would provide what I needed on the ground," said retired Maj. Gen. James (Spider) Marks, who ran the Army Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., the service's training school, and was the senior intelligence officer for all U.S. ground forces during the Iraq invasion.
Marks said that coordination between the CIA and the military improved after the 9/11 attacks. "The agency was bending over backward to be cooperative" and to allow military commanders to "dip into their capabilities," meaning they could see what intelligence the CIA had collected on certain people and targets.
But the military still needs its own teams, Marks insisted. "The bottom line is, we don't have enough tactical human intelligence capabilities. We need guys in Humvees." Marks said he doesn't know any details about how Gates might change the military's role, but he was skeptical about any rollbacks. "If Gates wants to transfer those responsibilities back to CIA and say, 'You own the responsibility of being first in theater and providing the human intelligence backbone, source structuring, and vetting,' that's good. But I would never trust that."
Intelligence experts said they don't expect Gates to reduce the military's or the Defense Department's abilities to collect tactical intelligence in war zones.
"There are things that the Defense Department can do with targeting that are tactically going to be needed within DOD," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., the ranking member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence. Hoekstra acknowledged that "the military wasn't satisfied" with the quality of intelligence it received from the CIA before 9/11. "But the answer to that is not going off and creating a parallel universe," he said. "The answer is working with CIA and telling them what they need and where they're coming up short.... The problem I have is that every time Rumsfeld didn't get the support he needed, he said, 'Screw it. I'll do it myself.' "
Hoekstra, like other experts, said that Gates could make intelligence changes under his own authority without approval from Congress. "I don't think he necessarily has to brief us on it. Not formally."
Others predicted that if Gates reins in the Pentagon's spymasters, it will trigger a storm of opposition. "In the six years since 9/11, the military intelligence community has developed a sense of bureaucratic ownership," said Matthew Aid, an intelligence historian. "They spent a lot of money developing their own sources and capabilities. There will be a great deal of opposition to giving the CIA these resources."
--Mark Ambinder, associate editor of The Hotline, contributed to this report.