Greg Miller / Los Angeles Times – 2006-12-18 22:31:55
WASHINGTON (December 18, 2006) — US Special Forces teams sent overseas on secret spying missions have clashed with the CIA and carried out operations in countries that are staunch US allies, prompting a new effort by the agency and the Pentagon to tighten the rules for military units engaged in espionage, according to senior US intelligence and military officials.
The spy missions are part of a highly classified program that officials say has better positioned the United States to track terrorist networks and capture or kill enemy operatives in regions such as the Horn of Africa, where weak governments are unable to respond to emerging threats.
But the initiative has also led to several embarrassing incidents for the United States, including a shootout in Paraguay and the exposure of a sensitive intelligence operation in East Africa, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter. And to date, the Special Forces espionage effort has not led to the capture of a significant terrorism suspect.
Some intelligence officials have complained that Special Forces teams have sometimes launched missions without informing the CIA, duplicating or even jeopardizing existing operations. And they questioned deploying military teams in friendly nations — including in Europe — at a time when combat units are in short supply in war zones.
The program was approved in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and is expected to get close scrutiny by his successor, Robert Gates, who takes over today and has been critical of the expansion of the military’s intelligence operations.
Senior officials at the CIA and the Pentagon defended the program and said they would urge Gates to support it. But they acknowledged risks for the United States in its growing reliance on Special Forces troops and other military units for espionage.
“We are at war out there and frankly we need all the help that we can get,” said Marine Maj. Gen. Michael Ennis, who since February has served as a senior CIA official in charge of coordinating human intelligence operations with the military. “But at the same time, we have to be very careful that we don’t disrupt established relationships with other governments, with their liaison services, or (do) anything that would embarrass the United States.”
Ennis acknowledged “really egregious mistakes” in the program, but said collaboration has improved between the CIA and the military.
“What we are seeing now, primarily, are coordination problems,” Ennis said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “And really, they are fewer and fewer.”
The issue underscores the sensitivity of using elite combat forces for espionage missions that have traditionally been the domain of the CIA.
After Sept. 11, the Bush administration gave expanded authority to the Special Operations Command, which oversees the Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other elite units, in the fight against terrorism. At the same time, Rumsfeld, who lacked confidence in the CIA, directed a major expansion of the military’s involvement in intelligence gathering to make the Pentagon less dependent on the agency.
Officials said this led to the secret deployment of small teams of Special Forces troops, known as military liaison elements, or MLEs, to American embassies to serve as intelligence operatives. Members of the teams undergo special training in espionage at Fort Bragg and other facilities, according to officials familiar with the program.
The troops typically work in civilian clothes and function much like CIA case officers, cultivating sources in other governments or Islamic organizations. One objective, officials said, is to generate information that could be used to plan clandestine operations such as capturing or killing terrorism suspects.
In a written response to questions, a spokesman for the Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., described MLEs as “individuals or small teams that deploy in support of (regional military commanders) in select countries, and always with the US ambassador and country team’s concurrence and support.”
But critics point to a series of incidents in recent years that have caused diplomatic problems for the United States.
In 2004, members of an MLE team operating in Paraguay shot and killed an armed assailant who tried to rob them outside a bar, said former intelligence officials familiar with the incident. US officials removed the members of the team from the country, the officials said.
In another incident, members of a team in East Africa were arrested by the local government after their espionage activity was discovered.
“It was a compromised surveillance activity,” said a former senior CIA official familiar with the incident. The official said members of the unit “got rolled up by locals and we got them out.” The former official declined to name the country or provide other details.
He said it was an isolated example of an operation that was exposed, but that coordination problems were frequent.
“They’re pretty freewheeling,” the former CIA official said of the military teams. It was not uncommon, he said, for CIA station chiefs to learn of military intelligence operations only after they were under way, and that many conflicted with existing operations being carried out by the CIA or the foreign country’s intelligence service.
Such problems “really are quite costly,” said John Brennan, who was director of the National Counterterrorism Center before retiring from government last year. “It can cost peoples’ lives, can cost sensitive programs and can set back foreign-policy interests.”
Brennan declined to comment on specific incidents.
On at least one occasion, a team tracked an Islamic militant in Europe. “They were trying to acquire certain information about a certain individual,” said a former high-ranking US intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official declined to name the country, but said it was a NATO ally and that the host government was unaware of the mission.
Critics said such operations risk angering US allies with a dubious prospect for payoff. In some countries where MLE teams are located, “There’s not a chance … we’re going to send somebody in there to snatch somebody unilaterally,” said a government official familiar with the program.
Ennis, whose position at the CIA was created last year, said the agency and the Pentagon are developing a more rigorous system for screening proposed military intelligence operations.
“Like a pilot with a checklist,” CIA station chiefs will be required to sign off on all aspects of a proposed military intelligence operation before it is allowed to proceed, Ennis said. The CIA station chief, he added, “would look at the risk in terms of embarrassment to the government. Do they have the right level of training to do what they claim that they want to do, and is this already being done somewhere else?”
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