The U.S. Defense Department is reported to be broadly expanding clandestine military intelligence activity in the Middle East and Horn of Africa. The expansion was ordered in a secret directive signed by the top American commander in the Middle East, General David Petraeus, and first revealed in the New York Times. The move is believed to reflect the military's desire for intelligence that it believes it cannot get from other agencies, including the CIA.
According to the published report, the order authorizes the dispatch of U.S. special operations troops to countries of the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Horn of Africa to conduct clandestine operations against al-Qaida and allied militant groups. The idea, says the news story, is to disrupt al-Qaida activity and to also gather intelligence for any possible future military action.
Exactly what kinds of operations are authorized remains secret. But former advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff Policy and Plans Directorate Charles Dunne says the directive appears to be part of the military's move to assert more direct operational control over intelligence, particularly as it affects any ongoing contingency planning on Iran.
"It looks to be as though you have a bureaucratic gap, not an operational gap, and that you have the CIA doing one set of things, and doing it actually pretty effectively, but the military looking to establish more control so that they can have that in their line of operations and they can call the shots," Dunne said.
The military is more interested in the kind of intelligence that would affect a potential battlefield, whereas the CIA focuses its intelligence collection on broader policy issues.
A retired senior military intelligence officer with long experience in special operations, Anthony Shaffer, says the military does not trust the CIA to get the kind of special intelligence it needs.
"Frankly, the issue has to do with the fact that CIA does not do a good job of collecting [intelligence] in those areas, especially relating to military operations," Shaffer said. "I have worked before embedded with CIA, and what I would call cutting-room floor information - information that does not directly address policy or policy making issues - they often do not bother to worry about.
While there is no indication whatsoever that any military action is being readied against Iran, officials say the Pentagon needs to be prepared for any contingency that might arise. Charles Dunne, now with the Middle East Institute, says the issue of gathering relevant military intelligence on Iran is particularly pressing for the Defense Department.
"If you are talking about a contingency dealing with Iran in which the U.S. military would be involved, that would be a situation in which the military would want to have complete control over the operations and not want to run the risk of another agency trying to do its business for them," Dunne said.
There has long been bureaucratic rivalry between the Defense Department and the CIA in competition for funds and operations. The CIA gets more attention, has a more glamorous image, and, most significantly, has the ear of the president. But the Defense Department agencies, which include, among others, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, actually have a larger overall intelligence budget than the CIA.
But the intelligence community's stock has slipped recently due to several lapses in counterterrorism, such as the Christmas Day attempted airline bombing and the abortive Times Square bombing plot. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, the titular head of the intelligence community, lost his job.
Analyst Anthony Shaffer, with the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, says the leak of the Petraeus order may also be a bid to raise the Pentagon's stature on intelligence, following the intelligence shortfalls.
"I think a lot of us are concerned by the fact that some of this stuff should have been detected," Shaffer said. "And, frankly, CIA was the one who really had the lead. So there is some concern here, are they really doing their job to stop things? So I think that is one of the reasons you are seeing this re-insinuation of DOD. And along with that, now is the time to state our ability and objectives by the fact that the government is going to be constrained. It is going to be cut back relating to military operations and overseas activities. So this is a way of saying, this is one area that we have got to emphasize. Perhaps we have got to cut some other things, but this is one thing we cannot cut."
Advocates say such special operations are cheaper and more effective than large conventional military operations, or as Shaffer puts it, give more bang for the buck.