Spies R Us

Last week, we got word that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has his own secret spy units made up of 10-member teams of operatives from special-forces personnel, plus a number of civilians with skills in intelligence gathering, linguistics and interrogation. A Washington Post article revealed that Rumsfeld was set to deploy these teams—under the auspices of a new Strategic Support Branch (SSB)—on counterterrorism missions across the globe. Subsequently, it was learned that some such teams already have been operating in the Middle East.

The story shocked members of both parties in Congress who hadn’t heard about the Pentagon operating spy units. Espionage duties typically reside within the domain of the CIA. The military had its own covert intelligence capability during the Vietnam War, but since the 1980s, the Pentagon has relied on the CIA in the intelligence realm.

On the heels of the Post story, the Pentagon went into backpedal mode, insisting that some members of Congress actually had approved the SSB teams last year, only under a different name—i.e., Human Augmentation Teams (HAT). (Note to Rumsfeld: HAT might have proved a smarter moniker, considering that labeling a secret team something like “SS” evokes an image of brutal, brown-shirted, Nazi thugs.) Regardless of the HAT excuse, the fact remains that most of Congress—and certainly the American people—knew nothing about the existence of spy teams that answer to Rumsfeld and effectively operate beyond congressional oversight.

How did he get away with it? U.S. law requires the executive branch to provide Congress with timely notification of all military-intelligence activities, and some suggest the Pentagon has reinterpreted this provision in the law so as to give Rumsfeld “legal” authority over the group’s secret operations. No amount of damage control by the Pentagon has convinced us yet that this isn’t exactly what was done.

It’s no secret that a long-standing rivalry exists between the CIA and the Pentagon. Rumsfeld, particularly, has been vocal about his frustration at the Pentagon’s “near total dependence” on the CIA for intelligence gathering in the war on terror.

It’s no wonder he’s upset. Anyone paying attention knows that the CIA is a flawed agency with a history of foul-ups and agents who seem unable to communicate effectively with each other. Experts say the CIA is also too reliant on satellite technology and, pre-9/11, had de-emphasized field personnel to a fault. But the solution to these problems isn’t to recruit and deploy your own spy teams! For Rumsfeld to have done this is flat out wrong and an obvious end run around Congress and the democratic process.

We agree with Senator Dianne Feinstein and others who seek to investigate this matter further and, for starters, make Rumsfeld explain himself and the SSB fully before Congress. If new secret spy teams are to exist, that’s for our elected leaders to decide. Not the secretary of defense.