The Pentagon, expanding into the CIA’s historic bailiwick, has created a new espionage arm and is reinterpreting U.S. 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 newly empowered special operations forces.
Pentagon officials emphasized their intention to remain accountable to Congress, but they also asserted that defense intelligence missions are subject to fewer legal constraints than Rumsfeld’s predecessors believed. That assertion involves new interpretations of Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which governs the armed services, and Title 50, which governs, among other things, foreign intelligence.
Under Title 10, for example, the Defense Department must report to Congress all “deployment orders,” or formal instructions from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to position U.S. forces for combat. But guidelines issued this month by Undersecretary for Intelligence Stephen A. Cambone state that special operations forces may “conduct clandestine HUMINT operations . . . before publication” of a deployment order, rendering notification unnecessary. Pentagon lawyers also define the “war on terror” as ongoing, indefinite and global in scope. That analysis effectively discards the limitation of the defense secretary’s war powers to times and places of imminent combat.
Under Title 50, all departments of the executive branch are obliged to keep Congress “fully and currently informed of all intelligence activities.” The law exempts “traditional . . . military activities” and their “routine support.” Advisers said Rumsfeld, after requesting a fresh legal review by the Pentagon’s general counsel, interprets “traditional” and “routine” more expansively than his predecessors.
“Operations the CIA runs have one set of restrictions and oversight, and the military has another,” said a Republican member of Congress with a substantial role in national security oversight, declining to speak publicly against political allies. “It sounds like there’s an angle here of, ‘Let’s get around having any oversight by having the military do something that normally the [CIA] does, and not tell anybody.’ That immediately raises all kinds of red flags for me. Why aren’t they telling us?”
According to written guidelines made available to The Post, the Defense Department has decided that it will coordinate its human intelligence missions with the CIA but will not, as in the past, await consent. It also reserves the right to bypass the agency’s Langley headquarters, consulting CIA officers in the field instead. The Pentagon will deem a mission “coordinated” after giving 72 hours’ notice to the CIA.
Four people with firsthand knowledge said defense personnel have already begun operating under “non-official cover” overseas, using false names and nationalities. Those missions, and others contemplated in the Pentagon, skirt the line between clandestine and covert operations. Under U.S. law, “clandestine” refers to actions that are meant to be undetected, and “covert” refers to those for which the U.S. government denies its responsibility. Covert action is subject to stricter legal requirements, including a written “finding” of necessity by the president and prompt notification of senior leaders of both parties in the House and Senate.
O’Connell, asked whether the Pentagon foresees greater involvement in covert action, said “that remains to be determined.” He added: "A better answer yet might be, depends upon the situation. But no one I know of is raising their hand and saying at DOD, ‘We want control of covert operations.’ "
One scenario in which Pentagon operatives might play a role, O’Connell said, is this: “A hostile country close to our borders suddenly changes leadership. . . . We would want to make sure the successor is not hostile.”
What could possibly go wrong?
It gets better. Here’s the guy in charge.
Waldroup spent most of his working life as a midlevel manager at the INS, where he became embroiled in accusations that he participated in deceiving a congressional delegation about staffing problems at Miami International Airport in June 1995. The Justice Department inspector general’s office, which concluded its probe the following year, quoted in its report sworn statements from subordinates that Waldroup, then assistant district director for external affairs, helped orchestrate a temporary doubling of immigration screeners on the day of the visit, instructed subordinates not to discuss staff shortages and physically confronted a union leader to prevent him from reaching members of Congress. Waldroup told the investigators that he was following an order from a superior in Washington to withhold information.
During the investigation, according to the inspector general’s final report, Waldroup refused to disclose the password to his e-mail files, refused to sign an affidavit summarizing his testimony and, in a subsequent interview, “stated that he would not answer any questions” because “he wished to protect himself from exposure to criminal sanctions.” The authors of the Justice Department report found insufficient evidence to file charges but said they were troubled by “recurrent failures to provide documents.”
And here are his guys in action, as described by real special forces troops.
Internal Pentagon briefings describe Strategic Support Branch members as experienced intelligence professionals with specialized skills, “military operations backgrounds,” and the training to “function in all environments under adverse conditions.” But four special operations soldiers who provided information for this article, directly or through intermediaries, said those assigned to work with them included out-of-shape men in their fifties and recent college graduates on their first assignments.
“They arrived with shiny black kneepads and elbow pads, shiny black helmets,” said one special forces officer who served with Waldroup’s men in Iraq. “They brought M-4 rifles with all the accoutrements, scopes and high-end [satellite equipment] they didn’t know how to use.” An older member of Waldroup’s staff “became an anchor because of his physical conditioning and his lack of knowledge of our tactics, techniques and procedures. The guy actually put us in danger.”
Another special forces officer, who served with the augmentation team members in Afghanistan, said some of the intelligence officers deployed with his unit were reluctant to leave their base and spoke only to local residents who ventured inside. “These guys can’t set up networks and run agents and recruit tribal elders,” he said.