Pentagon to explain, or deny, new spy plan

Pentagon's Strategic Support Teams Spark Controversy


Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A recent article in the Washington Post revealed the existence of a new type of battlefield intelligence group, referred to by the Pentagon as "Strategic Support Teams". The military in the field are using these units to improve their intelligence gathering capabilities.

The news of the existence of these units has sparked controversy over the manner in which they were created as well as the manner in which they are used. According to the original report in the Washington Post, these units have been in operation for two years. They deploy small teams of caseworkers, linguists, interrogators and technical specialists to work alongside Special Operations forces. This is readily acknowledged by the Pentagon.

However, there is some dispute as to the accuracy of other items mentioned in the Washington Post report. According to the Post, the units were designed to report directly to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield, and use "reprogrammed" funds, or funds not appropriated with Congressional authority or oversight.

The Pentagon, however, denies these accusations. In a statement made by Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita, "There is no unit that is directly reportable to the Secretary of Defense for clandestine operations as is described in The Washington Post". Mr. DiRita went on to say, "Further, the Department is not attempting to 'bend' statutes to fit desired activities, as is suggested in this article."

Pentagon officials told reporters that the funding and other arrangements for these new units had been worked out in close coordination with the CIA and that appropriate congressional committees had been fully informed. One defense department official explained that part of the reason for the controversy might be that lawmakers contacted by the Post or other news organizations for information may not have recognized the new name given to the units, "Strategic Support Teams". According to this official, when these lawmakers were originally briefed on these new intelligence units they were referred to as "Humint Augmentation Teams" (Humint is short for Human Intelligence, referring to information gathered by human operatives). The Pentagon later changed the official name of the units to Strategic Support Teams. The official spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

Many Democrats, such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) and Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif) are calling for congressional hearings to investigate the matter.

"While I fully support improving the ability of our men and women in the field to get accurate real time intelligence, the creation of this unit raises a number of questions that this committee has a duty to examine," Tauscher said.

Many Republican lawmakers have stated their opposition to such hearings, such as the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif).

"The notion by some that various steps taken by the Department of Defense to enhance such intelligence is somehow sinister and illegitimate is nonsense," Hunter said.

The Undersecretary of Defense, Stephen A. Cambone, met with the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner (R-Va) and the panel's top Democrat, Carl Levin (D-Mi) for more than an hour on Monday. Warner said he was satisfied by the briefing and would ensure that other committee members were briefed fully as well.

"In my opinion," he said, "these intelligence programs are vital to our national security interests, and I am satisfied that they are being coordinated with the appropriate agencies of the federal government."