A newspaper's disclosure that the Defense Department has set up a new clandestine spy unit came as a surprise to many in and out of the secret intelligence world. Such espionage has traditionally been the province of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Pentagon officials have hastened to play down any perception that the new spy unit, dubbed the Strategic Support Branch, was set up to bypass the CIA. The program was developed in cooperation with the CIA, they said, not in competition with it.
Nevertheless, say intelligence experts, its creation reflects a long-running atmosphere of distrust and rivalry between the upper ranks of the military and the inhabitants of the top floors at CIA headquarters.
Lee Strickland, who retired last year from the CIA's Senior Intelligence Service after 30 years with the agency, says the new unit is a clear reflection of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's frustration with the level and amount of intelligence coming from the CIA.
"So what you are seeing here a desire by the secretary for sort of immediate gratification,” he said. “And if he has his own intelligence agency, he is obviously going to get what he wants, when he wants, and how he wants it."
The military used to have its own clandestine intelligence capability to recruit agents overseas to provide information, just as the CIA does, and employed it widely, especially during the Vietnam War. But that capability withered away in the 1980s and the Pentagon has been forced to increasingly rely on information from the CIA's spies.
Retired Lieutenant General William Odom knows about the rivalry better than most. In the 1980s, he was the chief of Army Intelligence, then head of the supersecret National Security Agency. He says the bad blood between the CIA and the military goes back many years. He recalls how the botched rescue mission of the U.S. hostages in Iran contributed to the resentment.
"In the Iran rescue mission, for the Iran rescue mission of 1980, they could provide no intelligence whatsoever of any use,” said General Odom. “When the Army created its own little clandestine unit and actually collected some useful intelligence, the CIA never forgave them for it and spent the rest of the '80s causing trouble over that. And that is still fresh on peoples' minds as this fight wells up under Rumsfeld today."
Mr. Strickland, who is now director of the Center for Information Policy at the University of Maryland, says military and CIA operatives work well together in the field, especially in these days of contending with terrorist threats. It is the two bureaucracies, he says, that have trouble getting along.
"The rank and file cooperation and even the organizational cooperation between the military and the CIA has been superb,” he noted. “I mean, it has increased year by year. And in a way, this is a solution in search of a problem. Really in my judgment it is a bureaucratic effort at gathering more power and more authority where it is really not needed, and probably unwise, both from a legal and a bureaucratic point of view."
Of the 15 U.S. agencies that deal in intelligence, eight are under the Defense Department. The Pentagon fought a rear-guard action in Congress against provisions of an intelligence reform bill that puts all the agencies under at least the nominal control of a new Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The bill was passed last month, but most of its provisions have yet to take effect.
Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss, a loyal friend of the military, is now proposing that the military agencies be placed under a separate command.
General Odom believes the intelligence reform will do little to change the entrenched bureaucratic culture, and is doubtful that a good working relationship can be hammered out between the military and the CIA.
"I think there is a viable and effective solution to this,” said General Odom. “But Rumsfeld's bureaucratic turf imperialism probably precludes working out an effective cooperative relationship. And I think that we will see some dynamics that are not very favorable to him as the Congress begins to look into this issue.”
Members of the Republican-dominated Congress have expressed support for the new Pentagon spy unit, although some members have voiced concern about its potential for intruding on the CIA's traditional turf.