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Elite Troops Get Expanded Role on Intelligence

THOM SHANKER and SCOTT SHANE / New York Times | March 8 2006

The military is placing small teams of Special Operations troops in a growing number of American embassies to gather intelligence on terrorists in unstable parts of the world and to prepare for potential missions to disrupt, capture or kill them.

Senior Pentagon officials and military officers say the effort is part of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's two-year drive to give the military a more active intelligence role in the campaign against terrorism. But it has drawn opposition from traditional intelligence agencies like the C.I.A., where some officials have viewed it as a provocative expansion into what has been their turf.

Officials said small groups of Special Operations personnel, sometimes just one or two at a time, have been sent to more than a dozen embassies in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America. These are regions where terrorists are thought to be operating, planning attacks, raising money or seeking safe haven.

Their assignment is to gather information to assist in planning counterterrorism missions, and to help local militaries conduct counterterrorism missions of their own, officials said.

The new mission could become a major responsibility for the military's fast-growing Special Operations Command, which was authorized by President Bush in March 2004 to take the lead in military operations against terrorists. Its new task could give the command considerable clout in organizing the nation's overall intelligence efforts.

The Special Operations command reports to Mr. Rumsfeld, and falls outside the orbit controlled by John D. Negroponte, the newly established director of national intelligence, who oversees all the nation's intelligence agencies. An episode that took place early in the effort underscored the danger and sensitivity of the work, even for soldiers trained for secret combat missions.

In Paraguay a year and a half ago, members of one of the first of these "Military Liaison Elements" to be deployed were pulled out of the country after killing a robber armed with a pistol and a club who attacked them as they stepped out of a taxi, officials said. Though the shooting had nothing to do with their mission, the episode embarrassed senior embassy officials, who had not been told the team was operating in the country.

One official who was briefed on the events, but was not authorized to discuss them, said the soldiers were not operating out of the embassy, but out of a hotel.

Now, officials at the Special Operations Command say, no teams may arrive without the approval of the local ambassador, and the soldiers are based in embassies and are trained to avoid high-profile missteps.

Under guidelines established by Mr. Negroponte, the C.I.A. station chief assigned to most American embassies coordinates American intelligence in those countries.

Most embassies also include defense attachés, military personnel who work with foreign armed forces and report to the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. But the new special operations personnel have a more direct military role: to satisfy the military's new counterterrorism responsibilities, officials said.

Special Operations forces include the Army Green Berets and Rangers, the Navy Seals, the Marines and special Air Force crews that carry out the most specialized or secret military missions. Their skills range from quick strikes to long-range reconnaissance in hostile territory, military training and medical care.

The creation of the Military Liaison Elements, and the broader tug-of-war over the Special Operations Command's new role, appear to have exacerbated the disorganization, even distrust, that critics in Congress and the academic world have said permeates the government's counterterrorism efforts.

Officials involved in the debate say the situation may require President Bush and his senior national security and defense advisers to step in as referees, setting boundaries and clarifying the orders of the military and other intelligence agencies.

Many current and former C.I.A. officials view the plans by the Special Operations Command, or Socom, as overreaching.

"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," said John O. Brennan, a 25-year C.I.A. officer who headed the National Counterterrorism Center before retiring last year. "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."

Mr. Brennan, now president of the Analysis Corporation, an intelligence contractor in Virginia, said that if Socom operations were closely coordinated with host countries and American ambassadors, "U.S. interests could be very well served."

But, he added, "if the planned Socom presence in U.S. embassies abroad is an effort to pave the way for unilateral U.S. military operations or to enable defense elements to engage in covert action activities separate from the C.I.A., U.S. problems abroad will be certain to increase significantly."

Paul Gimigliano, a spokesman for the C.I.A., gave a measured response to the program, but emphasized the importance of the agency's station chief in each country.

"There is plenty of work to go around," he said, adding: "One key to success is that intelligence activities in a given country be coordinated, a process in which the chief of station plays a crucial role."

A State Department official said late Tuesday, "We don't have any issue with D.O.D. concerning this," using the initials for Department of Defense. The State Department official said the Military Liaison Element program was set up so that "authority is preserved" for the ambassador or the head of the embassy.

The Special Operations Command has not publicly disclosed the Military Liaison Element mission, and answered questions about the effort only after it was described by officials in other parts of the government who oppose the program.

"M.L.E.'s play a key role in enhancing military, interagency and host nation coordination and planning," said Kenneth S. McGraw, a spokesman for the Special Operations Command, based in Tampa, Fla. The special operations personnel work "with the U.S. ambassador and country team's knowledge to plan and coordinate activities," he added.

Officials involved with the program said its focus is on intelligence and planning and not on conducting combat missions. One official outside the military, who has been briefed on the work but is not authorized to discuss it publicly, said more than 20 teams have been deployed, and that plans call for the effort to be significantly expanded.

In a major shift of the military's center of gravity, the Unified Command Plan signed by President Bush in 2004 says the Special Operations Command now "leads, plans, synchronizes, and as directed, executes global operations against terrorist networks," in addition to its more traditional assignment to train, organize and equip Special Operations forces for missions under regional commanders.

Recently, Gen. Bryan D. Brown, the Socom commander, and his staff have produced a counterterrorism strategy that runs more than 600 pages. It is expected to be presented to Mr. Rumsfeld in the next few weeks for final approval.

According to civilian and military officials who have read or were briefed on the document, it sets forth specific targets, missions and deadlines for action, both immediate and long-term.

One goal of the document is to set the conditions for activity wherever the military may wish to act in the future, to make areas inhospitable to terrorists and to gather the kind of information that the Special Operations Command may need to operate.

The problem is difficult in nations where the American military is not based in large numbers, and in particular where the United States is not at war. Thus, the Military Liaison Elements may not be required in notable hot spots, like parts of the Middle East, where the American military is already deployed in large numbers.

During recent travels abroad, General Brown has sought to explain the program to C.I.A. and F.B.I. officials based at embassies. Joining him for those talks is a political adviser on full-time assignment from the State Department.

Socom also held a conference in Tampa last summer to brief Special Operations commanders from other nations, followed by a session in October for Washington-based personnel from foreign embassies on a range of counterterrorism issues.

One former Special Operations team member said the trick to making the program work is to navigate the bureaucratic rivalries within embassies — and back at the command's headquarters. "All you have to do is make the ambassador, the station chief and Socom all think you are working just for them," he said on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Lee H. Hamilton, who served as vice chairman of the national commission on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said that conflict between the C.I.A. and the Defense Department over paramilitary operations has occurred periodically for decades, and that the 9/11 commission had recommended that the Defense Department be given the lead responsibility for such activity.

But he said the embassy program raised a different issue. "If you have two or three D.O.D. guys wandering around a country, it could certainly cause some problems," Mr. Hamilton said. "It raises the question of just who is in charge of intelligence collection."

The cold war presented the military with targets that were easy to find but hard to kill, like a Soviet armored division. The counterterrorism mission presents targets that are hard to find but relatively easy to kill, like a Qaeda leader.

General Brown and the Special Operations Command now work according to a concept that has become the newest Pentagon catchphrase: "find, fix, finish and follow-up" — shorthand for locating terrorist leaders, tracking them precisely, capturing or killing them, and then using the information gathered to plan another operation.

"The military is great at fixing enemies, and finishing them off, and exploiting any base of operations that we take," said one Special Operations commander on condition of anonymity, because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. "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."

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