Small teams of U.S. Special Operations troops are turning up in a number of American embassies around the world. The Defense Department is denying reports that the teams are taking on a growing intelligence gathering role normally performed by other agencies.
Since 2004, the U.S. military has placed small teams of Special Operations troops in the U.S. embassies of more than a dozen countries around the world.
The New York Times, which first reported the story Wednesday, quotes unidentified U.S. officials who say the teams are part of an effort to give the military a more active role in the gathering of intelligence in the war on terrorism. But the officials quoted by the Times say the teams are seen by other U.S. intelligence organizations, including the Central Intelligence Agency, as an infringement on their overseas operations.
U.S. military officials, who spoke to VOA, say the teams are not deployed to act as intelligence agents or to act as spies.
Pentagon Spokesman Army Major Paul Swiergosz says the deployments of one- to three-man teams called Military Liaison Elements are part of Defense Department efforts to beef up the military's role in the campaign against terrorism.
"When people talk intelligence, they usually think about wiretapping and putting a glass up to the door or something rather dubious of that nature, and that's just not what's going on here," said Major Swiergosz. "These people are there to immerse themselves in the culture, to immerse themselves in the society and be able to take snapshots in time perhaps of what's going on, to be able to see whether or not there's any potential for terrorism to take hold, take root."
He said the troops are not there to take any kind of direct action against terror threats. Major Swiergosz also said the deployments should not be seen as an expansion of the military's intelligence operations.
"This is not a quest for greater authorities," he said. "This is not searching for a way to usurp power or anything from anyone else. This is a way to come up with a better means for being able to fight the global war on terror and protect the United States of America, so we're going to do the very best we can, and work with everyone in the interagency and the government to do that."
But, according to The New York Times, putting Special Operations troops in foreign countries has already generated some controversy in diplomatic circles. In Paraguay a 1.5 years ago, the Times says Special Forces members were removed from the South American nation after they killed a robber armed with a pistol who attacked them as they stepped out of a taxi. The incident is reported to have embarrassed senior embassy officials, who said they did not know the team was operating in the country.