Armed Services Committee Hearing - Washington
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) is seen during a House Armed Services Committee hearing to discuss the Department of Defense in civilian law enforcement on Thursday, July 9, 2020 in Washington, D.C., Photo by Greg Nash/Pool/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

Congress now has yet another intelligence oversight committee, but this one with a distinction: It’s headed by an Iraq war veteran who’s actually had to depend on timely intelligence in combat.

Ruben Gallego, a fourth term Democrat from Arizona, was a grunt with the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, which took comparatively heavy losses during his 2005-2006 deployment: 46 Marines and two Navy corpsmen (called medics in the Army) in his company died. One was his best friend.

So, intelligence work is personal for Gallego, who also went on special missions to kill or capture “high value targets” on the U.S. counter-terror Most Wanted list. And as chairman of the new House Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations, he aims to prod the Defense Intelligence Agency into more direct, timely support of combat operations over writing situation reports.

He also thinks U.S. Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and other spec ops units need to be withdrawn from some regions and assignments and get ready for “some kind of conflict with China should the balloon go up.”

“We want to make sure that they’re also being able to keep their training or get retrained for the bigger competition may have in the future with China,” Gallego told SpyTalk in an interview.

For starters, he says, the DIA needs to beef up its HUMINT, or human intelligence, spying capabilities. For over a decade during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military services trained hundreds of case officers, or agent handlers, in the arts of  recruiting and running spies against communist units and personalities. But the practice fell out of favor in Afghanistan and Iraq, as military commanders came to rely more on electronic intercepts of enemy communications. The problem was, the enemy knew it.

“HUMINT, in my opinion, is always better than signals intelligence,” Gallego said. “But gathering human intelligence, which is what I was able to do once in a while with my work in Iraq, didn’t mean much if I had to coordinate, analyze, and then actually be able to do actions on it [myself], right? So, my overall goal is to help DIA become more actionable, more than just an observation organization.”

Meanwhile, Gallego says, U.S. special operations troops need a break from foreign deployments and training missions.

“They’re stretched too thin,” he said. “It causes a lot of family problems. These guys are special forces, but they’re not super human.”

“We are basically overusing them to the point where I think a lot of our special forces are really just, absolutely just tired,” he added. “Not only that, but because they’re already being used on CT missions in, for example, CENTCOM (the U.S. Central Command, responsible for the Middle East), their skill set is only really focused on that.” They need to be retooled, he says, as an adjunct to main force units in a bigger, head-on conflict.

The Big Hurt

During the last “great power competition,” World War II and to a lesser extent Korea and Vietnam, special ops teams conducted behind-the-lines spying and sabotage missions, to varied success. Green Berets on horseback led local troops against the Taliban in the early weeks of the war in Afghanistan. It’s hard to envision how special ops troops would be used in an open military conflict with China, most likely to be fought mainly at sea with cyber weapons, missiles, and warplanes.

Nevertheless, he says, the Pentagon should start drawing down special ops troops from joint training operations in places like Africa and the Arctic and retooling them for a future conflict in Asia. They could be replaced in most cases, he says, by regular active duty and National Guard units. NATO members’ special ops troops could pick up the slack for foreign counterterror and training missions.

“We actually have some really good state national guard relationships with a lot of countries that actually train forces,” he says, citing Minnesota National Guard maneuvers with Norwegian forces. “So, it’s not an uncommon thing to do. And again, you don’t necessarily need your most well-trained men to be training basic infantrymen. You can use other forces for that type of work.”

Retooling Pentagon policy is like trying to turn around an aircraft carrier battle group at full flank speed. The House Armed Services Committee merely sent up a flare by dissolving the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee and replacing it with Gallego’s intelligence and special ops oversight panel and another to focus on Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems, chaired by Congressman James Langevin, a Democrat from Rhode Island. It’s yet to be seen how these new committees will mesh—or conflict— with the plethora of other intelligence panels in the House and Senate. Gallego says he has only five staff dedicated to the subcommittee’s work. His eventual budget is yet to be determined. It may turn out the ambition of the former Marine, who grew up dirt poor but managed to graduate from Harvard, far exceeds his resources.

Meanwhile, he’s also got extremists in spec ops and military intelligence units in his sights. A retired senior intelligence official recently told SpyTalk that some spec ops troops “don’t even bother to hide” their sympathies for white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.

“We’re going to address it system-wide, including the special forces,” says Gallego. “And part of that is that also, the special forces have to diversify. We’re operating in so many different parts of the world, but our special forces are largely white and male when most of the world that we’re operating in is neither white nor male.”

He’s also taken note of ex-U.S. special ops troops like Erik Prince, the former Navy SEAL who founded the notorious Blackwater security firm, hooking up with foreign governments to conduct legally dubious operations.

“Certainly, whatever we can do to make sure that we stop some of our former operators from joining any type of illegal activity, we should be looking into that. But once it crosses over into domestic enforcement, it really is the responsibility of the [Justice Department] to do that. I don’t want military personnel and military money being used to enforce civilian laws.”

During our interview, Gallego, 41, was in a car with his talkative young child and they finally stopped at a shop for a treat of hot chocolate.

“Look, I was in the military,” he said, getting out of the car, “and I saw extremism in the Marine Corps, too. Of course, it’s not a vast representation of the military, but you still can’t have it. And we need to root it out.”

Jeff Stein

Follow Jeff on Twitter @SpyTalker. Jeff Stein is a veteran National Security reporter and the founder of SpyTalk, the Substack where this article first appeared. He previously worked at Newsweek, The Washington Post, was the founding editor CQ/Homeland Security and has written for numerous publications. He was an Army Intelligence case office during the Vietnam War.