The U.S. Defense Department says efforts to enhance its intelligence operations helped lead to the capture of Saddam Hussein just over a year ago, but that press reports of a new, secret intelligence-gathering unit are wrong. Department officials say both the Congress and the CIA knew about plans for a new intelligence unit that is just now starting its operations, and has not been working around the world for two years, as news reports have said.
Senior Defense Department Spokesman Lawrence DiRita said the U.S. military has long been working to improve the intelligence capability of battlefield units. He said that effort increased in recent years in response to calls for better "human intelligence" after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
"It's a set of skills that the Defense Human Intelligence service provides, and that's interrogation capabilities, some analysis, some linguistics (foreign language) capabilities, that's the kind of skill sets that we're trying to provide to the military commanders," he said.
Mr. DiRita and other officials say until now the effort involved bringing in individual experts with such skills to help in specific situations. They say one man who was brought in to help search for Saddam Hussein developed a key piece of information that led to the former Iraqi leader's capture in December of 2003. The officials say that man was scheduled to leave his post the following day, and was not going to be replaced.
Mr. DiRita said the Department wants to make that type of help more readily and consistently available to military commanders. "We've got a range of human intelligence capabilities, but what we're trying to do is make it a capability that can be more rapidly deployed and more attached to ongoing military operations. What we're looking to do is have a standing capability to do this, and to do it in teams and do it in a way that can be sustained over time for a long-term operation, such as searching for somebody like Saddam," he said.
Mr. DiRita says these capabilities do not include covert operations, such as working in disguise to infiltrate anti-U.S. organizations or conducting sabotage operations.
Mr. DiRita and other officials were responding to a report in the Washington Post newspaper that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has created a secret intelligence-gathering unit reporting directly to him that can work more freely than operatives of the Central Intelligence
Agency. Officials say the unit is not secret and that it does not report to the Secretary. Rather, they say the creation of what is now called the Strategic Support Branch was coordinated with the CIA and approved by the Congress as part of the regular intelligence budget for the current fiscal year, which started last October.
The name of the unit was changed recently, which officials indicated could account for members of Congress telling reporters in recent days that they were not briefed on the plan.
A senior military officer says the plan is to put together teams of about 10 people - mainly civilians - that can be deployed to combat units. Officials say this will lead to more consistent and relevant intelligence being available to the commanders. The senior officials say the Strategic Support Branch will train and equip the teams, under the direction of the Defense Intelligence Agency, but the field commanders will control their operations. A senior military official says the first teams should be deployed by September.
The Pentagon spokesman, Mr. DiRita, says the War on Terror requires this type of more closely integrated intelligence and military operations. But he and other officials denied the suggestion in the Washington Post story that more intelligence gathering is being moved into the Defense Department in order to circumvent laws designed to maintain congressional control on U.S. government intelligence activities.
The Washington Post quoted what it calls an 'early planning memo' for the new intelligence teams as saying target countries could include Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia, the Philippines and Georgia. But the paper did not say operations are actually under way in those countries, and on Monday officials spoke only of Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. DiRita specifically said Iran is not a target of the new human intelligence teams.