Secrets are weapons in turf battles over DoD spies
There's something awfully familiar about this week's tizzy over the Pentagon's ideas for covert operations.
“U.S. Is Said to Expand Secret Actions in Mideast,” the New York Times reported on its front page Tuesday.
The headline almost says it all, but the key word in the body of the story is “military.”
“The top American commander in the Middle East,” reporter Mark Mazzetti wrote, “has ordered a broad expansion of clandestine military activity in an effort to disrupt militant groups or counter threats in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and other countries in the region, according to defense officials and military documents.”
“The secret directive” was said to have been signed by CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus last September.
Putting aside the question of whether Petraeus even has the authority to issue such an order -- probably not -- the gist of the story was not entirely surprising.
In fact, for many years now, exposés of Pentagon spying operations have popped up in the news pages with the regularity of going-out-of-business rug sales ads.
Here’s a story from 15 years ago, in Time magazine, headlined “Soldier Spies”:
“In the past six years, the military has deployed its clandestine units of spies in Panama, the Persian Gulf and Somalia, among other places,” the magazine reported on May 29,1995.
The tip of the dagger, Time reported, was a “new” Defense Humint Service -- “humint” meaning intelligence gathered by human agents -- inside the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Never mind that the military services had been fielding clandestine case officers -- people who recruit spies -- since 1776.
The fact is, as a longtime Pentagon covert action specialist says, "DoD can legally engage in both covert and clandestine operations."
But he maintains, "For the most part, DoD does not choose to be involved in covert operations [which] require plausible denial and a presidential finding along with congressional [oversight] reporting. And that combination makes DoD averse to engaging in covert operations."
Just the thought of soldiers in mufti, however, provokes some heavy breathing at the CIA.
Time correspondent Douglas Waller caught the agency's attitude back in 1995.
"They'll send a lot of guys out who just look like military men in suits," one veteran CIA officer “sniffed.”
As it turned out, resistance from the CIA and State Department in the mid-1990s, along with inept leadership by the DIA’s then-chief, James R. Clapper (among those rumored to be the next Director of National Intelligence), put the military spies back in their military place.
Not that they didn’t keep trying.
In 2005, a Washington Post headline announced: “Secret Unit Expands Rumsfeld's Domain.”
The defense secretary wanted to end his "near total dependence on CIA" for human intelligence, Post reporter Barton Gellman wrote.
In ensuing years, stories surfaced about Pentagon spies skulking around in countries without notifying the American ambassador, and in one case, shooting a man to death in Paraguay.
Now toggle back to Tuesday’s New York Times story.
The Pentagon still has dependence issues.
“In broadening its secret activities, the United States military has also sought in recent years to break its dependence,” the paper said, “on the Central Intelligence Agency and other spy agencies for information in countries without a significant American troop presence.”
The secret sources battle it out: The CIA is wanting, the Pentagon is overreaching.
You don’t need the NSA to crack the code here: It's about money and power.
Still, and predictably, many readers will complain about the media, once again, irresponsibly publishing military secrets.
But the fact is the spy services come running to us with secrets when their turf is at stake.
Have you heard any official calls for a leak investigation?
Not yet, and it’s not likely. The only time the spy agencies really get upset is when whistleblowers reveal waste, fraud and abuse, not to mention crimes.
Indeed, it was hard to keep a straight face when I asked one high national security official whether the administration would call for an investigation into the "leak" to the Times.
Appropriately, he just laughed.
| May 26, 2010; 4:54 PM ET
Categories: Intelligence, Military | Tags: CIA, DIA, Defense Humint, Donald Rumsfeld, State Department
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