Monday, January 24, 2005
Recently there have been [reports] that a new Department of Defense intelligence unit tasked with covert operations and human intelligence collection has been formed.
These news stories have been far from accurate. While there may be a "Strategic Support Branch" within DoD or the Office of the Secretary of Defense, it is highly unlikely that it's role is intelligence collection.
During the 1990s the Defense Intelligence Agency, which reports to both the DoD and CIA's Director of Central Intelligence, created the Defense HUMINT Service for collecting human intelligence to support military operations. While it's activities themselves are secret, the organization is not. DIA's funding is controlled by DoD and in turn Congress, while at least on paper it is lead by the Director of Central Intelligence. On paper, this is true of all the intelligence community, while in practice DoD organizations are largely controlled by DoD, since that is where their money comes from - the DCI has no control over who gets enough money this year, but supposedly can tell them what to do. This is one of the things that makes the new restructuring of the intelligence community a farce - they are not making real changes, they are in fact centralizing control just as it is supposedly set up now.
A "Strategic Support Branch" is likely a consolidation of DoD intelligence materials to support ongoing military operations such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, to get intelligence from DIA, NSA, and other DoD assets to warfighters quickly.
As far as a covert unit for intelligence collection is concerned, the organization described as the "SSB" in recent news articles is in fact an Army/SOCOM unit that has been around since the late 1970s. Originally formed as part of the Iran hostage rescue effort, the Intelligence Support Activity has been involved in a number of conflicts since then. Mark Bowden's book "Killing Pablo" is the only real exposure that unit has seen, though it focused primarily on their signals intelligence capabilties. ISA, however, does much more than SIGINT. More than half of their organization is devoted to human intelligence gathering to support special operations units such as Delta Force. This falls under tactical intelligence, rather than the kind of strategic intelligence that CIA has traditionally specialized in. Delta Force kicks down the doors and rescues people, while ISA is the component that tells them what door the people are behind. They are critical to the success of those kinds of special operations.
If DoD had the kind of intelligence organization that is being described in the news - a virtual replacement of CIA human intelligence networks - it would clearly be breaking a number of US laws that separate intelligence from military operations. ISA and DIA's Defense HUMINT Service do not violate those laws, and have been subject to both public and private scrutiny over the years.
If anything, this should be an opportunity for DoD to bring ISA out of the "black", and officially acknowledge their existance and work. Now, more than ever, ISA provides the US with a critical capability.
ISA and the Defense HUMINT Service are well documented. Those who publish news stories on "new" DoD human intelligence gathering would do well to try a Google search, which would lead them straight to the National Security Documents archive at George Washington University:
[History of Defense HUMINT}
Bit of trivia: After the September 11th attacks, I was surprised to see someone who was formerly in the field with ISA as a commentator on CNN, though much of his CNN bio is blank.
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