U.S. seeks to rein in its military spy teams

Special Forces units work in allied countries and clash with the CIA.

By Greg Miller

Los Angeles Times

December 18, 2006

WASHINGTON — U.S. Special Forces teams sent overseas on secret spying missions have clashed with the CIA and carried out operations in countries that are staunch U.S. allies, prompting a new effort by the agency and the Pentagon to tighten the rules for military units engaged in espionage, according to senior U.S. 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 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 by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, and is expected to get close scrutiny by his successor, Robert M. 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 E. 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 had improved between the CIA and the military.

"What we are seeing now, primarily, are coordination problems," Ennis said in an interview with The 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 Ft. 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.

Ennis said MLE missions were "low level" compared with those of the CIA. "The MLEs may come and go," he said, "but the CIA presence is there for the long term."

In a written response to questions from The Times, 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 U.S. 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. U.S. 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. He said that it was not uncommon for CIA station chiefs to learn of military intelligence operations only after they were underway, 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, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. "It can cost peoples' lives, can cost sensitive programs and can set back foreign policy interests."

Brennan declined to comment on specific incidents.

There have also been questions about where teams have been sent. Although conceived to bolster the U.S. presence in global trouble spots, the units have carried out operations in friendly nations in Europe and Southeast Asia where it is more difficult to justify, officials said.

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 U.S. 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 risked angering U.S. 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 who is familiar with the program.

At a time when the military is stretched thin, the official questioned the priority of using Special Forces for espionage, noting that the MLE program has not produced a significant success in terms of disrupting a plot or capturing a terrorist suspect.

"These are a highly trained, short-supply resource of the U.S. government," the official said. "What … are they doing there instead of Pakistan or Afghanistan?"

Gates, the former director of the CIA who is to run the Pentagon, has voiced concern over the military's encroachment on CIA missions. In an opinion piece published this year, Gates said that "more than a few CIA veterans, including me, are unhappy about the dominance of the Defense Dept. in the intelligence arena and the decline in the CIA's central role."

In response to such conflicts, the Bush administration previously designated the CIA director as the head of all U.S. human spying operations overseas, with CIA station chiefs serving as coordinators in specific countries.

Ennis, whose position at the CIA was created last year, said the agency and the Pentagon were 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?"

Col. Samuel Taylor, director of public affairs for the Special Operations Command, dismissed the suggestion of coordination problems with other agencies, saying, "We have an excellent, effective and productive working relationship with the CIA."