A previously unknown intelligence program set up two years ago by the Pentagon has been operating in states deemed to be "emerging target countries," the Washington Post reported Sunday. Providing further evidence of the centralization of power around Donald Rumsfeld, the Strategic Support Branch was created to give the defense secretary the "full spectrum of humint [human intelligence] operations," according to Pentagon documents quoted by the paper.
The program reportedly conducts operations in friendly and unfriendly states where conventional war might not even be a distant prospect. It deploys intelligence officers, including linguists, technical specialists and interrogators, alongside secret Special Forces in countries such as Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia, the Philippines and Georgia, the Washington Post said.
The deployment of the unit further muddies the issue of accountability for covert and clandestine intelligence operations in the "war on terror." The program was established by diverting existing Pentagon funds, thus freeing it from any congressional oversight.
Recent administration guidelines suggest that the Pentagon need not report all "deployment orders" to Congress, as it did previously. Pentagon lawyers argue that by defining the "war on terror" as indefinite, global and ongoing, the defense secretary's war powers are extended beyond times of imminent combat. "Operations the CIA runs have one set of restrictions and oversight, and the military has another," a Republican member of Congress with a role in the oversight of national security told the paper.
"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?"
There has been a long turf war between the CIA and the Pentagon to determine control over intelligence operations. Rumsfeld and the Pentagon are known to see the CIA as having a slow-moving and timid culture. The White House shares their concerns, and has launched far-reaching reforms of the agency. The White House and the Pentagon also succeeded in watering down proposals in the recently passed intelligence bill that would have invested power in the new national intelligence director at the expense of the Pentagon.
The Strategic Support Branch was set up in April 2002 under the code name Project Icon. It is a branch of the Pentagon's Defense Human Intelligence Service and is intended to complement the Special Operations Command, based in Tampa, Fla.
The revelations follow allegations last week that U.S. Special Forces have been active inside Iran, identifying and helping prepare targets for possible U.S. strikes against the country's nuclear facilities.