WASHINGTON – Has anyone noticed that CIA Director Leon Panetta has said a lot more about the Navy commandos' killing of Osama bin Laden than has the Pentagon chief, who, after all, is second in the military chain of command behind President Barack Obama?
The reason Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said exactly nothing about the raid is that the CIA, not the Pentagon, ran the operation.
That fact speaks volumes about the government's rarely noticed post-9/11 melding of military might with intelligence craft.
It's gotten a lot harder lately to distinguish between soldier and spy. The blending of the two missions can blur the definition of an act of war, raise questions about oversight and accountability, and create a clash of military and intelligence cultures.
The CIA helps gather information on military targets such as bin Laden. It also runs its own shadowy commando force and flies its own killer drones under written presidential authority. The military gathers information to be exploited by the CIA, such as the trove of computer drives and similar material the Navy SEALs scooped up in bin Laden's Pakistani safe house.
Top military leaders, including the current Afghanistan war commander, Gen. David Petraeus, believe that blending the traditional roles of the armed services and intelligence agencies is key to future success in defeating al-Qaida.
Petraeus was named last week as the next CIA chief. Panetta, meanwhile, will take over from Gates as Pentagon boss.
Yet it has taken billions of dollars, bureaucratic makeovers, and trial and error in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, to get to the point where a president could score arguably the most dramatic counterterror victory in U.S. history.
It is not uncommon for the elite of the elite among the military's special operations forces — top-drawer "special mission units" such as the Navy's SEAL Team Six and the Army's Delta Force — to be assigned to covert operations under CIA control. But rarely is it acknowledged so publicly as in the case of Monday's helicopter-borne raid on bin Laden's secret lair.
Gates was visible in official White House photos of Obama and his national security team monitoring Monday's daring raid, but he has not spoken publicly about the operation. Panetta, in contrast, has done interviews on NBC "Nightly News" and elsewhere this week, talking about his marching orders from Obama, the prospect of releasing a photo of bin Laden's corpse and other details.
In the arrangement established by Obama for the bin Laden mission, Panetta was, in essence, the commander rather than Gates, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive matters of intelligence. The legal authority for this is known as Title 50, and although the president can empower the secretary of defense to run a Title 50 mission, Gates has preferred that it be done by the CIA, according to special operations officials who have worked on such missions.
The military is capable of leading a counterterror operation like the bin Laden raid, but putting the CIA in charge avoided potential controversy over legal questions.
The CIA has the necessary legal authorities and the expertise to gather intelligence and conduct operations which, under domestic and international law, would be considered by many to be highly questionable if not illegal if conducted by the military without explicit authorization from the president, a former U.S. intelligence official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive intelligence matters.
In the bin Laden mission, the chain of command extended from Obama to Panetta to Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, himself a SEAL. McRaven is commander of the military's Joint Special Operations Command. That is the secretive outfit in charge of SEAL Team Six and the military's other specialized counterterrorism units.
Panetta's order to McRaven was "find Osama bin Laden." And if the al-Qaida leader turned out not to be present at the Abbottabad compound, the CIA chief directed, "Get out quickly and safely."
When he announced Sunday evening in Washington that bin Laden had been killed, Obama spoke about his longer-term approach to eliminating the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The president said that shortly after taking office he directed Panetta to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of the U.S. war against al-Qaida, along with a broader effort to dismantle bin Laden's network.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said there was good reason to put the CIA in charge. The hunt for bin Laden, Rogers said in an interview, "resembled more an investigation than tracking a target."
The military and the CIA have had close ties since the spy agency's creation in 1947, but the degree of collaboration — and the capabilities of special operations forces — have grown dramatically since 9/11. For example, the military's Special Operations Command has seen its budget more than quadruple — from about $2.3 billion in 2001 to $9.8 billion today. And its manpower has expanded from 45,500 a decade ago to 61,500 today, according to Pentagon figures.
In striving for closer cooperation, the CIA and the military sometimes have butted heads. The CIA, for example, used harsher interrogation methods on captured insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan than the military believed was useful.
Robert Burns can be reached at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP
Kimberly Dozier can be reached at http://twitter.com/kimberlydozier