WASHINGTON (CNN) — The Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency since 2002 has run an intelligence-gathering and support unit that has authority to operate clandestinely anywhere in the world where it is ordered to go in support of anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism missions, a senior defense official said Sunday.
The official said the role of the Strategic Support Branch — described first in Sunday’s Washington Post — “is to provide an intelligence capability for field operation units” including the U.S. military’s secretive special forces unit.
The Strategic Support Branch (SSB) got its name in 2004 after operating under a different, undisclosed name before then, said the official, who confirmed the unit’s existence and mission to CNN.
The official said the SSB, as part of the the Defense Intelligence Agency’s human intelligence operations, sends DIA personnel into the field and recruits agents to provide intelligence. The official emphasized the unit’s role is to provide a human intelligence capability for field operating units that, in many cases, will be composed of special forces also operating clandestinely in such countries as Iraq and Afghanistan.
While some of this type of work has been carried out by the DIA in the past, the official said the SSB is “more robust in terms of who it operates with and its level of activities.”
He confirmed the SSB was formed after the September 11, 2001, attacks “to have as much flexibility as possible” and in response to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s ongoing concerns expressed at the highest levels of the department that the Pentagon did not have the capability to gather intelligence in the field on its own.
The official confirmed that the SSB reports to Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, director of the DIA, but that policies are set by Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone, one of Rumsfeld’s most senior aides.
Because of Rumsfeld’s direct involvement in forming SSB, it is an area he continues to watch closely, the official said.
When SSB teams are deployed in the field, as a practical matter, they report to the combatant commander, or the commander of the region, though the official could not say this happens all the time. For example, in Iraq, the unit would be under the supervision of Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command.
The official acknowledged that some observers may view the SSB as an effort by Rumsfeld to expand Pentagon intelligence operations at the expense of the CIA, which traditionally has conducted both clandestine and covert intelligence operations. He said that, though SSB operations do not require permission from the CIA, the military still coordinates with the CIA.
The official also acknowledged that the deployment of SSB teams of DIA personnel into the field in conjunction with special forces has caused some bureaucratic stress. SSB personnel are on these missions to gather intelligence, but he notes that special forces personnel want everyone on their teams to be fully capable in all special forces combat skills, which the DIA personnel might not be.
The official said Congress had been notified about the formation of “this kind of activity,” but might have been told of the program several months ago when it had a different name.
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita issued a statement Sunday, responding to the Washington Post article, saying: “There is no unit that is directly reportable to the Secretary of Defense for clandestine operations as is described in the Washington Post article. … Further, the department is not attempting to ‘bend’ statutes to fit desired activities, as is suggested in this article.”
“It is accurate and should not be surprising that the Department of Defense is attempting to improve its long-standing human intelligence capability,” he said. “A principal conclusion of the 9/11 commission report is that the U.S. human intelligence capability must be improved across the board.
“The Department of Defense has a longstanding human intelligence capacity in the Defense Human Intelligence Service, a component of the Defense Intelligence Agency.”
DiRita also said that, “Prior to the 9/11 commission issuing their conclusion that the nation’s human intelligence capability must be improved, the Defense Human Intelligence Service has been taking steps to be more focused and task-oriented for the global war on terror. One of the objectives of this effort is to make better human intelligence capability available to assist combatant commanders for specific missions involving regular or special operations forces.
“The demands of the global war on terror necessitate a framework by which military forces and traditional human intelligence work more closely together and in greater numbers than they have in the past,” said DiRita. “These actions are being taken within existing statutory authorities to support traditional military operations and any assertion to the contrary is wrong.
“The department remains in regular consultation with the relevant committees in Congress and with other agencies within the intelligence community, including the CIA.”
Product of frustration
Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, told reporters Sunday that “the concern I always have in these matters as well as others when it comes to power in government is too much power concentrated in too few hands.”
Hagel added that he did not want one individual or one department holding too much power, and he expressed concern Congress was not being kept in the loop.
A critic of Rumsfeld, Hagel said, “That’s when a country gets into a lot of trouble, when you brush back the Congress and you don’t have oversight and you don’t have cooperation, and I see too much of that out of this Pentagon.”
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said hearings would be held on the matter.
The member of the Armed Services Committee said he understood the motivations behind creating such an infrastructure, specifically the failure of human intelligence to determine whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction just before the U.S.-led attack nearly two years ago and the war planners’ failure to predict the ferocity of the ongoing Iraqi insurgency.
“So it’s a product of the frustration with the CIA of a failure to have decent human intelligence. Should the Armed Services Committee look at it? Yes. And should we know more about it? Yes,” McCain told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”