What tangled webs we spies can weave…


Richard Moore

Original source URL:


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
Times Staff Writer

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

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 

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
Š 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 Š 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."


Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times

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