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Congress eyes once-secret Pentagon unit

Warner and Levin briefed on Strategic Support Branch

The Pentagon has had a clandestine intelligence unit since 2002.
Defense Intelligence Agency
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Top members of the Senate Armed Services Committee met with the Pentagon's intelligence chief Monday amid reports that the Defense Department has been running a beefed-up intelligence-gathering unit.

The meeting between Stephen Cambone, the Bush administration's undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and Sens. John Warner and Carl Levin follows revelations that the Defense Intelligence Agency has run a previously unknown covert operations unit since 2002 with the authority to operate clandestinely anywhere in the world.

Warner, a Virginia Republican and the committee's chairman, said in a statement issued after the meeting that he was convinced the unit's operations were "vital to our national security interests" and had been coordinated "with the appropriate agencies of the federal government."

Warner said he and Levin, the committee's ranking Democrat, would give other members a briefing.

A senior defense official said Sunday the role of the unit -- now known as the Strategic Support Branch, or SSB -- is to "provide an intelligence capability for field operation units," including the military's secretive special operations forces, in support of anti-terrorism and counterterrorism missions.

The Washington Post reported on the unit Sunday. Members of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees said they had not been aware of the unit's existence, and one Democrat on the Intelligence Committee called for hearings into the matter by that panel.

"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?" Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said in a written statement.

A senior defense official told CNN the SSB reports to Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Its policies are set by Cambone, one of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's most senior aides, the official said.

The official said Congress was told about the formation of "this kind of activity," but might have been told of the program several months ago when it had a different name.

The SSB sends Defense Intelligence Agency personnel into the field and recruits agents to provide intelligence.

Its role is to provide a human intelligence capability for units that in many cases will be composed of special forces also operating clandestinely in such countries as Iraq and Afghanistan, the official said.

While some of this type of work has been carried out by the DIA in the past, the official said the SSB is "more robust in terms of who it operates with and its level of activities."

He said the SSB was formed in response to Rumsfeld's ongoing concerns expressed at the highest levels of the department that the Pentagon did not have the capability to gather intelligence in the field on its own.

The unit was set up after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, "to have as much flexibility as possible," he said.

When SSB teams are deployed in the field, as a practical matter, they report to the combatant commander, or the commander of the region -- though the official could not say this happens all the time.

For example, in Iraq, the unit would be under the supervision of Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command.

The official acknowledged that some observers may view the SSB as an effort by Rumsfeld to expand Pentagon intelligence operations at the expense of the CIA, which customarily has conducted clandestine intelligence operations.

He said that although SSB operations do not require permission from the CIA, the military still coordinates with the CIA.

CIA: 'Much ado about nothing'

CIA officials Monday called suggestions that the Pentagon was moving in on the CIA's turf "much ado about nothing."

A U.S. official said all such efforts are coordinated with the agency to avoid duplication of effort.

"There is more than enough work to go around," she said.

Officials say military intelligence collection tends to be designed to assist war fighters with tactical information, whereas CIA efforts are more often aimed at collecting intelligence on political or diplomatic matters.

But the senior Pentagon official also acknowledged that sending DIA personnel into the field with special operations forces has caused bureaucratic stress.

SSB personnel are on the missions to gather intelligence, but he noted that special operations personnel want everyone on their teams to be fully capable in all special combat skills -- which the DIA personnel might not be.

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita said the Pentagon is not trying to "bend" the law "to fit desired activities, as is suggested in this article."

"It is accurate and should not be surprising that the Department of Defense is attempting to improve its long-standing human intelligence capability," DiRita said in a statement issued Sunday.

He added, "The demands of the global war on terror necessitate a framework by which military forces and traditional human intelligence work more closely together and in greater numbers than they have in the past.

"These actions are being taken within existing statutory authorities to support traditional military operations and any assertion to the contrary is wrong.

"The department remains in regular consultation with the relevant committees in Congress and with other agencies within the intelligence community, including the CIA," he said.

CNN's Barbara Starr, David Ensor and Joe Johns contributed to this report.

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