Big Risks Lurk in Obama’s Marriage of the CIA and Pentagon

  • Share
  • Read Later

The Wall Street Journal today has a detailed piece on the planning of the raid to kill or capture Osama bin Laden.

Perhaps more importantly, the article uses the planning process as a vehicle to explore the increasingly close relationship between the CIA and the Pentagon’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command, a know-profitable relationship that also poses deep risks for the White House.

A Wall Street Journal reconstruction of the mission planning shows that this meeting helped define a profound new strategy in the U.S. war on terror, namely the use of secret, unilateral missions powered by a militarized spy operation. The strategy reflects newfound trust between two traditionally wary groups: America’s spies, and its troops.

The bin Laden strike was the strategy’s “proof of concept,” says one U.S. official.

The Journal also accurately notes that:

 Their ties mark a significant historical shift. During the Cold War, there was little interaction between the Pentagon and CIA, as the military focused on planning for a land war with the Soviets and the spy community focused on analysis. That started changing in the 1990s, but only the past few years have the CIA and military begun working particularly closely.

Sources in the special operations community have been happily surprised by the Obama White House’s embrace of their unique capabilities. Teaming the special operators up with the CIA has some obvious advantages – and seems to have led to a successful mission to get Osama bin Laden.

This marriage, however, comes with serious risks. So-called “covert actions” by the CIA require sign off by the president, called a “presidential finding,” and require the intelligence community to notify the congressional intelligence committees. Not so for military activities.

The Congressional Research Service summed up the potential problem in a report just last month:

 Defense officials have asserted that none of DOD’s current counterterrorism intelligence activities constitute covert action as defined under the law, and therefore, do not require a presidential finding and the notification of the intelligence committees. Rather, they contend that DOD conducts only “clandestine activities.” Although the term is not defined by statute, these officials characterize such activities as constituting actions that are conducted in secret but which constitute “passive” intelligence information gathering. By comparison, covert action, they contend, is “active,” in that its aim is to elicit change in the political, economic, military, or diplomatic behavior of a target.

Some of DOD’s activities have been variously described publicly as efforts to collect intelligence on terrorists that will aid in planning counterterrorism missions; to prepare for potential missions to disrupt, capture or kill them; and to help local militaries conduct counterterrorism missions of their own.

CIA Director Leon Panetta, is slated to become the new Secretary of Defense. Meanwhile a military man, Gen. David Petraeus, is headed over to the agency. The relationship between the Pentagon and CIA is only going to get closer, further blurring the reporting requirements and lines of oversight.

These reporting requirements for the intelligence community were designed, in part, to ensure that the intelligence community doesn’t go freelance and undertake untoward operations – the making of major scandals for decades. Obama is tinkering with dangerous stuff here. At least if a major national security scandal does erupt on his watch Obama’s denial that he knew anything might not just be plausible, it will be true.