Pentagon's intelligence role rising

The Senate hearing begins Thursday for General Hayden as CIA director.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If the recent past is any guide, Thursday's Senate hearing to consider Gen. Michael Hayden for the post of CIA director will spend no small amount of time examining the nominee's military ties.

At any point during the past few decades, the plan to put a military man at the head of America's premier civilian spy agency would probably have caused some controversy. But the nomination of General Hayden comes at a time when the Pentagon is already working to dramatically expand its role in intelligence operations.

For their part, experts widely agree that Hayden is independent and not likely to be bullied by the Department of Defense. But the issue points to how the war on terror is reshaping the US intelligence structure - and whether it is wise for the Pentagon to take more of the nation's spying needs upon itself.

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Perhaps more than in past conflicts, success in the war on terror depends upon good intelligence and prompt action, so "it's only natural that the Department of Defense wants to have more control," says Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The issue becomes: Where do you draw the line?"

As in all matters that involve clandestine intelligence gathering, the outlines of who does what are not immediately clear. America's intelligence structure is a tangled bureaucracy of 16 civilian and military agencies.

Yet traditionally, the Pentagon had focused its sensors and satellites mostly on enemy militaries, and some 80 percent of the annual intelligence budget has gone to agencies under the Pentagon's umbrella. Other missions, most notably counterterrorism, have fallen to other agencies such as the CIA.

But current Pentagon officials have put greater emphasis on intelligence. In 2003, for instance, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld created the post of undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and made it the third most senior civilian position.

Moreover, the Pentagon has shown a willingness to make inroads into what was previously CIA territory. Before the US invasion of Afghanistan, Secretary Rumsfeld was reportedly troubled by having to wait on the CIA to make contact with important local warlords. Since then, numerous reports suggest that the Pentagon is sending teams of intelligence specialists abroad to work with special- operations forces in the war on terror.

The apparent goal is not to replace the CIA, but simply to lessen the military's reliance on the CIA for information that directly impacts operations.

Part of this, some say, is simply a product of the nature of the current conflict. "At a time when you are trying to use covert operations for more quick, rapid-response strikes, you have to have better intelligence," says Dr. O'Hanlon.

Other longer-term trends also come into play. The CIA's ability to carry out the sort of paramilitary operations central to the war on terror "atrophied" during the 1990s, says analyst John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org - while the military's capabilities have been on an "upward trajectory" since the Iran hostage crisis.

But he and others worry that the Pentagon may be trying to push too far. In the past, the CIA has been responsible for "covert" operations - actions where United States sponsorship is not detectable. These require congressional authority. The military, meanwhile, has been at liberty to conduct "clandestine" operations - actions that are simply hard to detect, and do not need congressional authority.

The concern is that the Pentagon will broaden - or already has - its definition of clandestine operations to include covert activities. "You wind up provoking [your enemies]," says Mr. Pike. "They regard it as retaliation, but to the American people [who know nothing of the covert operations], it looks like an unprovoked attack."

The Pentagon insists that it has followed the laws for intelligence gathering. But even if it has, say others, there's a risk that the Pentagon and the CIA will knock heads as they both pursue the same types of missions. "[Military leaders] have a legitimate interest in having a strong military- intelligence capability, so it's important that civilian intelligence works closely with defense intelligence," says John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA. "It's important that they not bump into each other."

He suggests a civilian director, outside the CIA, to oversee and coordinate all human intelligence-gathering activity. Nominee Hayden would also play a part. His job, if confirmed, is to implement the vision of the director of national intelligence and carve out a distinct space for the CIA in the US intelligence community. A major part of that could be warding off an exuberant Pentagon.

"He is an intelligence professional first and foremost," says O'Hanlon. "The fact that he comes out of the Department of Defense makes him more likely to stand up to the Department of Defense."

Yet in a post-9/11 world where the needs and uses of intelligence have changed dramatically, deciding which agency should do what will still be a work in progress. "This is going to have to be worked out in practice," says Mr. McLaughlin. "They're still sorting out all the roles and responsibilities."

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