WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon, expanding into the CIA's historic bailiwick, has created an espionage arm and is reinterpreting US law to give Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld broad authority over clandestine operations abroad, according to interviews with participants and documents obtained by the
The previously undisclosed organization, called the Strategic Support Branch, arose from Rumsfeld's written order to end his ''near total dependence on CIA" for what is known as human intelligence. Designed to operate without detection and under the defense secretary's direct control, the Strategic Support Branch deploys small teams of case officers, linguists, interrogators, and technical specialists alongside special operations forces.
Military and civilian participants said in interviews that the new unit has been operating in secret for two years -- in Iraq, Afghanistan, and places they declined to name. According to an early planning memorandum to Rumsfeld from General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the focus of the intelligence initiative is on ''emerging target countries such as Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia, Philippines, and Georgia." Myers and his staff declined to be interviewed.
The Strategic Support Branch was created to provide Rumsfeld with independent tools for the ''full spectrum of humint operations," according to an internal account of its origin and mission. Human intelligence operations, a term used in counterpoint to technical means such as satellite photography, range from the interrogation of prisoners and the scouting of targets in wartime to the peacetime recruitment of foreign spies. A recent Pentagon memo says recruited agents may include ''notorious figures" whose links to the government would be embarrassing if disclosed.
Perhaps the most significant shift is the Defense Department's bid to conduct surreptitious missions when conventional war is a distant or unlikely prospect, activities that have traditionally been the province of the CIA's Directorate of Operations. Senior Rumsfeld advisers said those missions are central to what they called the department's predominant role in combating terrorism.
The Pentagon has a vast bureaucracy devoted to gathering and analyzing intelligence, often in concert with the CIA, and news reports over more than a year have described Rumsfeld's drive for more and better human intelligence. But the creation of the espionage branch, the scope of its clandestine operations, and the breadth of Rumsfeld's asserted legal authority have not been detailed publicly before. Two longtime members of the House Intelligence Committee, a Democrat and a Republican, said they knew no details before being interviewed for this article.
Pentagon officials said they established the Strategic Support Branch using ''reprogrammed" funds, without explicit congressional authority or appropriation. Defense intelligence missions, they said, are subject to less stringent congressional oversight than comparable operations by the CIA. Rumsfeld's dissatisfaction follows struggles with then-CIA Director George Tenet over intelligence collection priorities in Afghanistan and Iraq.