ON A TRAIN SOMEWHERE ON THE EAST COAST: Imagine a soldier, wearing mufti, traveling through Syria in a rattletrap taxi. He’s a spy, dressed in a suit, going to meet an agent who says he can offer rebels the Syrian government’s order of battle.
The soldier, an Army intelligence officer fluent in Syrian and Iraqi Arabic, has spent 18 months cultivating the source, a senior official in the telecommunications company owned by the brother of Syria’s president. The son of a general, the agent has grown disillusioned by two years of civil war and wants to help end his country’s agony. His information could help the rebels break the regime’s back.
That’s the kind of operation the Pentagon hopes its agent might be able to execute if they are given authority they’ve requested from Congress. It would substantially increase the Defense Intelligence Agency’s authority to build covers, create businesses and to run them for long periods.
“Expansion of this authority is necessary to permit DOD to conduct revenue-generating commercial activities to protect such operations and would provide an important safeguard for U.S. military forces conducting hazardous operations abroad,” the request for legislation says. It was first reported by my colleagues at Inside Defense.
But a former senior intelligence official with years of experience handling a wide array of covert operations is skeptical that DIA, which has never run such operations before, will be able to pull this off.
“Having commercially-covered military collectors is easy to say and conceptually makes sense but would be very difficult to do well. Commercially-covered operations are cost-ineffective and require a long-term view and lots of patience. It is a non-trivial task, and as far as I know DIA has no experience in this area,” the ex-official told Breaking Defense.
On top of DIA’s inexperience in running such ops, there is the basic question of why they need to do this and how they would coordinate with their colleagues at CIA, questions certainly not answered by the legislative proposal.
The CIA has long handled business operations, not to mention all intelligence activities overseas. “Under the DCID5/1 [directive which governs "Coordination of US Clandestine Foreign Intelligence Activities Abroad"] all intel and CI [counter-intelligence] issues/activities overseas are under the purview and authority of the CIA. And as long as that regulation is observed, then having military collectors is fine,” the former intelligence official said. Of course, that doesn’t mean Congress should give them the authority without a good scrubbing of the whys and wherefores.
Since CIA already runs such operations, why does DIA suddenly feel the need to start doing this? The proposal argues that combatting terrorists and “other developments, have required the regular conduct of small-scale clandestine military operations to prepare the battlefield for military operations against terrorists and their sponsors.”
The proposal argues that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wants this authority. Since Mike Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, oversees this stuff and Panetta wants it to happen, the Pentagon argues that “the current statutory mandate for an oversight office in DIA [is] an unwarranted limitation on the discretion of the Secretary and the Under Secretary in managing and overseeing the commercial activities program.”
If I were a congressional expert on intelligence or a lawmaker, that statement would set off alarm bells and I would have many questions for the Pentagon.