WASHINGTON – The Pentagon (search) says the political uproar over the disclosure of a secret military intelligence group is overblown and based on misinformation about the group's makeup and mission.
Stephen A. Cambone, the Pentagon's top intelligence official, rushed to Capitol Hill on Monday after some members of Congress reacted strongly to a Washington Post report that revealed the existence of the group, which is managed by the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency (search).
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and other Democrats called for hearings, but Republicans balked.
"According to The Washington Post, the Department of Defense is changing the guidelines with respect to oversight and notification of Congress by military intelligence. Is this true or false?" Feinstein wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Feinstein and others appeared puzzled by the disclosure that the Pentagon had created a new battlefield intelligence group - "strategic support teams," in Pentagon parlance - to perform clandestine missions that had been largely the province of the CIA (search).
Some suggested Rumsfeld had skirted congressional oversight to expand his domain.
Pentagon officials told reporters, however, that the arrangement had been worked out in close coordination with the CIA and that appropriate congressional committees had been fully informed.
A senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said CIA director Porter Goss told him Monday that he had "no issue or questions or concerns" about the Pentagon arrangement.
Another defense official said lawmakers may not recognize the news media's descriptions of the intelligence group because its name was changed after they were briefed on it last year.
Now called strategic support teams (search), they were previously known as humint (search) augmentation teams, the official said, speaking only on condition that he not be further identified. (Humint refers to human intelligence, or information provided by spies.)
In an additional point of clarification, the senior military official said the intelligence teams are not to be used for covert actions, which are unacknowledged by the government and which require a legal "finding" by the president. Rather, they are for clandestine actions, which are meant to be secret but are subject to acknowledgment by the government if publicly disclosed.
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner, R-Va., and the panel's top Democrat, Carl Levin of Michigan, met for more than an hour with Cambone, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
Later, Warner said he was satisfied by the briefing and would ensure that other committee members were briefed fully as well.
"In my opinion," he said, "these intelligence programs are vital to our national security interests, and I am satisfied that they are being coordinated with the appropriate agencies of the federal government."
The teams - each with about 10 mostly civilian linguists, case officers, interrogators and debriefers - are designed to provide the military's conventional and special operations forces with more sustainable battlefield intelligence to support combat and other activities.
The defense officials said this is not a new mission for military intelligence; rather, they said, it is being structured in a new way so that it can be provided to battlefield commanders in a more standardized manner. It previously had been done in a more ad hoc way, they said.
Larry Di Rita, the chief spokesman for Rumsfeld, acknowledged the existence of the group, which he said was managed by the Defense Intelligence Agency's Human Intelligence Service.
"There is a desire to connect better intelligence to battlefield operations," Di Rita said, and the DIA unit is an example of things that can be done in support of commanders in the field.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said he was confident the Pentagon was taking the right approach.
"The notion by some that various steps taken by the Department of Defense to enhance such intelligence is somehow sinister and illegitimate is nonsense," Hunter said.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., urged hearings.
"While I fully support improving the ability of our men and women in the field to get accurate real time intelligence, the creation of this unit raises a number of questions that this committee has a duty to examine," Tauscher said.
The concept of augmenting military forces with specialized intelligence teams was born after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as a means of expanding the military's ability to collect human intelligence - information from spies as opposed to listening devices or satellites.