Secret Unit Expands
New Espionage Branch Delving Into CIA Territory
By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2005; Page A01
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.
Military and civilian participants said in interviews
that the new unit has been operating in secret for two
years -- in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places they declined
to name. According to an early planning memorandum to
Rumsfeld from Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, the focus of the intelligence initiative
is on "emerging target countries such as Somalia,
Yemen, Indonesia, Philippines and Georgia." Myers
and his staff declined to be interviewed.
The Strategic Support Branch was created to provide Rumsfeld
with independent tools for the "full spectrum of
humint operations," according to an internal account
of its origin and mission. Human intelligence operations,
a term used in counterpoint to technical means such as
satellite photography, range from interrogation of prisoners
and scouting of targets in wartime to the peacetime recruitment
of foreign spies. A recent Pentagon memo states that recruited
agents may include "notorious figures" whose
links to the U.S. government would be embarrassing if
Perhaps the most significant shift is the Defense Department's
bid to conduct surreptitious missions, in friendly and
unfriendly states, when conventional war is a distant
or unlikely prospect -- activities that have traditionally
been the province of the CIA's Directorate of Operations.
Senior Rumsfeld advisers said those missions are central
to what they called the department's predominant role
in combating terrorist threats.
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.
But the creation of the espionage branch, the scope of
its clandestine operations and the breadth of Rumsfeld's
asserted legal authority have not been detailed publicly
before. Two longtime members of the House Intelligence
Committee, a Democrat and a Republican, said they knew
no details before being interviewed for this article.
Pentagon officials said they established the Strategic
Support Branch using "reprogrammed" funds, without
explicit congressional authority or appropriation. Defense
intelligence missions, they said, are subject to less
stringent congressional oversight than comparable operations
by the CIA. Rumsfeld's dissatisfaction with the CIA's
operations directorate, and his determination to build
what amounts in some respects to a rival service, follows
struggles with then-CIA Director George J. Tenet over
intelligence collection priorities in Afghanistan and
Iraq. Pentagon officials said the CIA naturally has interests
that differ from those of military commanders, but they
also criticized its operations directorate as understaffed,
slow-moving and risk-averse. A recurring phrase in internal
Pentagon documents is the requirement for a human intelligence
branch "directly responsive to tasking from SecDef,"
The new unit's performance in the field -- and its latest
commander, reserve Army Col. George Waldroup -- are controversial
among those involved in the closely held program. Pentagon
officials acknowledged that Waldroup and many of those
brought quickly into his service lack the experience and
training typical of intelligence officers and special
operators. In his civilian career as a federal manager,
according to a Justice Department inspector general's
report, Waldroup was at the center of a 1996 probe into
alleged deception of Congress concerning staffing problems
at Miami International Airport. Navy Vice Adm. Lowell
E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency,
expressed "utmost confidence in Colonel Waldroup's
capabilities" and said in an interview that Waldroup's
unit has scored "a whole series of successes"
that he could not reveal in public. He acknowledged the
risks, however, of trying to expand human intelligence
too fast: "It's not something you quickly constitute
as a capability. It's going to take years to do."
Rumsfeld's ambitious plans rely principally on the Tampa-based
U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, and on its
clandestine component, the Joint Special Operations Command.
Rumsfeld has designated SOCOM's leader, Army Gen. Bryan
D. Brown, as the military commander in chief in the war
on terrorism. He has also given Brown's subordinates new
authority to pay foreign agents. The Strategic Support
Branch is intended to add missing capabilities -- such
as the skill to establish local spy networks and the technology
for direct access to national intelligence databases --
to the military's much larger special operations squadrons.
Some Pentagon officials refer to the combined units as
the "secret army of Northern Virginia."
Known as "special mission units," Brown's elite
forces are not acknowledged publicly. They include two
squadrons of an Army unit popularly known as Delta Force,
another Army squadron -- formerly code-named Gray Fox
-- that specializes in close-in electronic surveillance,
an Air Force human intelligence unit and the Navy unit
popularly known as SEAL Team Six.
The Defense Department is planning for further growth.
Among the proposals circulating are the establishment
of a Pentagon-controlled espionage school, largely duplicating
the CIA's Field Tradecraft Course at Camp Perry, Va.,
and of intelligence operations commands for every region
Rumsfeld's efforts, launched in October 2001, address
two widely shared goals. One is to give combat forces,
such as those fighting the insurgency in Iraq, more and
better information about their immediate enemy. The other
is to find new tools to penetrate and destroy the shadowy
organizations, such as al Qaeda, that pose global threats
to U.S. interests in conflicts with little resemblance
to conventional war.
In pursuit of those aims, Rumsfeld is laying claim to
greater independence of action as Congress seeks to subordinate
the 15 U.S. intelligence departments and agencies -- most
under Rumsfeld's control -- to the newly created and still
unfilled position of national intelligence director. For
months, Rumsfeld opposed the intelligence reorganization
bill that created the position. He withdrew his objections
late last year after House Republican leaders inserted
language that he interprets as preserving much of the
Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, deputy undersecretary for
intelligence, acknowledged that Rumsfeld intends to direct
some missions previously undertaken by the CIA. He added
that it is wrong to make "an assumption that what
the secretary is trying to say is, 'Get the CIA out of
this business, and we'll take it.' I don't interpret it
that way at all."
"The secretary actually has more responsibility
to collect intelligence for the national foreign intelligence
program . . . than does the CIA director," Boykin
said. "That's why you hear all this information being
published about the secretary having 80 percent of the
[intelligence] budget. Well, yeah, but he has 80 percent
of the responsibility for collection, as well."
CIA spokeswoman Anya Guilsher said the agency would grant
no interviews for this article.
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
The enumeration by Myers of "emerging target countries"
for clandestine intelligence work illustrates the breadth
of the Pentagon's new concept. All those named, save Somalia,
have allied themselves with the United States -- if unevenly
-- against al Qaeda and its jihadist allies.
A high-ranking official with direct responsibility for
the initiative, declining to speak on the record about
espionage in friendly nations, said the Defense Department
sometimes has to work undetected inside "a country
that we're not at war with, if you will, a country that
maybe has ungoverned spaces, or a country that is tacitly
allowing some kind of threatening activity to go on."
Assistant Secretary of Defense Thomas O'Connell, who
oversees special operations policy, said Rumsfeld has
discarded the "hide-bound way of thinking" and
"risk-averse mentalities" of previous Pentagon
officials under every president since Gerald R. Ford.
"Many of the restrictions imposed on the Defense
Department were imposed by tradition, by legislation,
and by interpretations of various leaders and legal advisors,"
O'Connell said in a written reply to follow-up questions.
"The interpretations take on the force of law and
may preclude activities that are legal. In my view, many
of the authorities inherent to [the Defense Department]
. . . were winnowed away over the years."
After reversing the restrictions, Boykin said, Rumsfeld's
next question "was, 'Okay, do I have the capability?'
And the answer was, 'No you don't have the capability.
. . . And then it became a matter of, 'I want to build
a capability to be able to do this.' "
Known by several names since its inception as Project
Icon on April 25, 2002, the Strategic Support Branch is
an arm of the DIA's nine-year-old Defense Human Intelligence
Service, which until now has concentrated on managing
military attachés assigned openly to U.S. embassies
around the world.
Rumsfeld's initiatives are not connected to previously
reported negotiations between the Defense Department and
the CIA over control of paramilitary operations, such
as the capture of individuals or the destruction of facilities.
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."
Researcher Rob Thomason contributed to this report.