The NYT is out today with a lengthy report, on the growing role of U.S. Special Operations Forces in gathering intelligence on suspected terrorists and planning operations to disrupt them --while operating out of U.S. embassies around the world.
According to the Times, small SF elements have been deployed to "about a dozen" embasssies in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa, in areas where terrorists are believed to be operating. While attached to the embassy, the SF troops gather information to assist in planning counterterrorism missions, and aid local military forces in conducting counterterrorism missions of their own. The effort is part of President Bush's plan to let U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) take the lead in military operations against terrorists. With control of special operations units from all branches of the armed services, SOCOM is a logical choice for the leadership role.
But, as the NYT points out, SOCOM's embassy operations put it on a potential collision course with the CIA, which (traditionally) has directed intelligence activities from the nation's diplomatic outposts. As readers of every third-rate spy novel know, the CIA has a "station" in virtually every U.S. embassy around the world, which serves as a hub for local intelligence collection and counter-intelligence efforts. And, predictably, there's some whining from anonmyous, former agency operatives. They complain that the SOCOM effort is "overreaching" and worry about the potential problems, if the local ambassador and station cheif aren't aware of the SF mission. In one case, a SF element had to be pulled from a country after members killed a criminal who tried to rob them. The U.S. ambassador was reportedly unaware of the SF team's presence before the incident.
The following quote, from retired CIA officer John O. Brennan (former chief of the National Counterterrorism Center) nicely captures agency "objections" to the SOCOM program:
"The Department of Defense is very eager to step up its involvement in counterterrorism activities, and it has set its sights on traditional C.I.A. operational responsibilities and authorities... "Quite unfortunately, the C.I.A.'s important lead role in many of these areas is being steadily eroded, and the current militarization of many of the nation's intelligence functions and responsibilities will be viewed as a major mistake in the very near future."
While Brennan did suggest that U.S. interests might be well-served "if SOCOM activities are well-coordinated with host countries and American ambassadors," he also raised the spectre of "unilateral, military covert actions," seperate from the CIA, that could cause U.S. problems overseas to increase significantly.
On the record, spokesmen for the CIA, the State Depatment and SOCOM indicated that the program is going well, and there have been few conflicts or turf battles between the agencies and the military. One CIA representative observed that "there's more than enough work to go around," and suggested that agency station chiefs can play an important role in coordinating efforts among their operatives, and SOCOM personnel.
But the expanded role for these special forces military liaison elements also reflects continuing problems within the CIA's clandestine service. As various investigative panels have reported, the agency's HUMINT capabilities remain lacking, particularly in areas where terrorists congregate. One SOCOM commander put it bluntly:
"The military is great at fixing enemies, and finishing them off, and exploiting any base of operations that we take...But the 'find' part remains a primitive art. Socom can't kill or capture the bad guys unless the intel people can find them, and this is just not happening."
In other words, SOCOM is putting people on the ground (in part) because the CIA is still unable to mount effective HUMINT operations in many global hotspots, leaving the shooters with significant intelligence gaps. Rebuilding the operations directorate at Langley is proving to be a prolonged and painful process; unfortunately, the War on Terrorism can't wait for the CIA to overcome decades of intertia and neglect in rebuilding its agent networks. Enter SOCOM.
With proper coordination, I believe the SOCOM program can be highly effective, particularly in assisting host nation forces with counter-terrorism operations. And while the SF operators are not career "spooks" they can observe and report events--particularly in military circles--that are missed by local CIA operatives. SOCOM operators can be especially valuable in locations where the U.S. doesn't have a major military presence, and our collection capabilities are limited, including the areas listed in the Times article.
And, contrary to the assertions of program critics, my greatest concern is not "rouge" SF operators working independently of the local embassy or CIA station, but elements at Langley attempting to undermine the program, as they have with other initiatives in the War on Terror. In one regard, today's NYT article was the proverbial "first shot across the bow," and more leaks about the SOCOM program are likely in the days ahead, as the "old guard" from Langley jealously guards its territory. In bureaucratic wars, hanging onto a mission (and the associated resources) are everything, even if your effectiveness in that mission is now sorely lacking.