Covert Ops Revisited

COVERT OPS REVISITED….I mentioned yesterday that I thought the most notable part of Seymour Hersh’s latest article in the New Yorker was his description of how covert ops are being moved from the CIA to the Pentagon in order to avoid traditional congressional oversight. Jennifer Kibbe wrote about this issue last year in Foreign Affairs, explaining that although the 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act requires both a presidential finding and congressional notification prior to covert operations by either the CIA or the Pentagon, there’s an exception for “traditional military activities”:

Although the act itself does not define “traditional military activities,” the phrase, according to the conference committee report, was meant to include actions preceding and related to anticipated hostilities that will involve U.S. military forces or where such hostilities are ongoing….

The problem, however, lies in the interpretation of the word “anticipated,” since if future military hostilities are anticipated, no finding or notification is required. Actions in support of anticipated fighting are most commonly thought of in the literal sense, as those undertaken to “prepare the battlespace.” Indeed, the conference committee report of the 1991 law defines “anticipated” hostilities as those for which operational planning has already been approved. But according to a knowledgeable Pentagon official, some in the Defense Department believe that the act gives them the power to undertake activities “years in advance” of any overt U.S. military involvement.

The unconventional nature of the war on terrorism already makes “traditional military activities” harder than usual to define, and Donald Rumsfeld apparently wants to take full advantage of that ambiguity by changing both the size and reporting structure of Special Operations Command (SOCOM):

Rumsfeld began building up the military’s unconventional forces last year after being incensed by their inability to enter Afghanistan until after the CIA had prepared the ground for them.

….Rumsfeld also significantly increased SOCOM’s authority by changing it from a “supporting command,” which can only contribute to other combatant commands’ missions, into a “supported command,” which can plan and execute its own independent operations (if authorized by the secretary and, if necessary, the president). This change removed a layer in the chain of command governing special operations forces. The previous chain of command ran from the secretary to a regional unified command (European Command, for instance) and then to SOCOM; now, under the new system, the secretary of defense and SOCOM are directly linked. In giving Rumsfeld more control over special operations, however, the change reduced the number of people reviewing proposed missions. And by cutting out regional commands, it also increased the risk that special forces units will plan missions without properly considering (or being reminded of) possible local repercussions.

The editors of Foreign Affairs have kindly posted the entire essay online, and it’s worth reading to get a full flavor of what’s going on. It’s notable, for example, that the SOCOM commanders themselves have considerable misgivings about their new role.

For myself, I don’t think there’s any question that special ops teams have ? and should have ? an increased role to play in today’s world of asymmetrical warfare. At the same time, though, it’s simple reality that their very nature makes covert operations prone to abuse. If Congress wants to surrender its oversight of these operations and let the Pentagon run loose, and if the American public is OK with that, that’s one thing. But to allow its oversight to lapse by default is quite another. This is a transformation that should be decided by a full and public debate, not a shadowy bureaucratic end run. Save the shadows for the covert operations themselves.