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The Secret War;
Frustrated by intelligence failures, the Defense Department is dramatically
expanding its 'black world' of covert operations
The Los Angeles Times
Oct 27, 2002; William M. Arkin;
The development of the Pentagon's
covert counter-terror capability has its roots in the 1979 Iran hostage
crisis. The Army created a highly compartmentalized organization that
could collect clandestine intelligence independent of the rest of the
U.S. intelligence community and follow through with covert military action.
old commands are being morphed into new ones for the covert war. The two
Joint Interagency Task Forces in the United States previously devoted
to fighting drugs now have the war on terrorism as their highest priority.
of the Pentagon's covert operations remains the North Carolina-based Joint
Special Operations Command, often referred to as Delta Force. The super-secret
command is still not officially acknowledged to exist. Its two-star commander,
Army Maj. Gen. Dell L. Dailey, who spent much of the Afghan war in Oman,
has no public biography.
SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. -- In what
may well be the largest expansion of covert action by the armed forces
since the Vietnam era, the Bush administration has turned to what the
Pentagon calls the "black world" to press the war on terrorism
and weapons of mass destruction.
The Defense Department is
building up an elite secret army with resources stretching across the
full spectrum of covert capabilities. New organizations are being
created. The missions of existing units are being revised. Spy planes and
ships are being assigned new missions in anti-terror and monitoring the
"axis of evil."
The increasingly dominant
role of the military, Pentagon officials say, reflects frustration at the
highest levels of government with the performance of the intelligence
community, law enforcement agencies and much of the burgeoning homeland
security apparatus. It also reflects the desire of Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld to gain greater overall control of the war on terror.
Insulated from outside
pressures, armed with matchless weapons and technology, trained to
operate below the shadow line, the Pentagon's black world of classified
operations holds out the hope of swift, decisive action in a struggle
against terrorism that often looks more like a family feud than a war.
Coupled with the enormous
effort being made throughout the government to improve and link
information networks and databases, covert anti-terror operations promise
to put better information in the hands of streamlined military teams that
can identify, monitor and neutralize terrorist threats.
preemption are ... the only defense against terrorism," Rumsfeld
said in May. "Our task is to find and destroy the enemy before they
The new apparatus for covert
operations and the growing government secrecy associated with the war on
terrorism reflect the way the Bush administration's most senior officials
see today's world:
First, they see fighting
terrorism and its challenge to U.S. interests and values as the 21st
century equivalent of the Cold War crusade against communism. Second,
they believe the magnitude of the threat requires, and thus justifies,
aggressive new "off-the-books" tactics.
In their understandable
frustration over continued atrocities such as the recent Bali attack,
however, U.S. officials might keep two points in mind.
Though covert action can
bring quick results, because it is isolated from the normal review
processes it can just as quickly bring mistakes and larger problems.
Also, the Pentagon is every bit as capable as the civilian side of the
government when it comes to creating organization charts and bureaucracy
that stifle creative thinking and timely action.
The development of the
Pentagon's covert counter-terror capability has its roots in the 1979
Iran hostage crisis. The Army created a highly compartmentalized
organization that could collect clandestine intelligence independent of
the rest of the U.S. intelligence community and follow through with
covert military action.
Known as the Intelligence
Support Activity, or ISA, when it was established in 1981, this unit
fought in drug wars and counter- terror operations from the Middle East
to South America. It built a reputation for daring, flexibility and a
degree of lawlessness.
In May 1982, Deputy Secretary
of Defense Frank Carlucci called the ISA "uncoordinated and
uncontrolled." Though its freelance tendencies were curbed, the ISA
continued to operate under different guises through the ill-starred U.S.
involvement in Somalia in 1992 and was reportedly active in the hunt for
Bosnian Serbs suspected of war crimes.
Today, the ISA operates under
the code name Gray Fox. In addition to covert operations, it provides the
war on terrorism with the kind of so-called "close-in" signals
monitoring -- including the interception of cell phone conversations --
that helped bring down Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
Gray Fox's low-profile
eavesdropping planes also fly without military markings. Working closely
with Special Forces and the CIA, Gray Fox also places operatives inside
In and around Afghanistan,
Gray Fox was part of a secret sphere that included the CIA's paramilitary
Special Activities Division and the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations
These commands and
"white" Special Forces like the Green Berets, as well as Air
Force combat controllers and commandos of eight different nations report
to a mind-boggling array of new command cells and coordination units set
up after Sept. 11.
An Army brigadier general
commands the Joint Interagency Task Force at Bagram air base north of
Kabul to coordinate CIA, Defense Department and coalition forces in
Afghanistan. A new Campaign Support Group has been established at Ft.
Bragg, N.C. The Special Operations Joint Interagency Collaboration Center
has been created in Tampa, Fla.
In Europe, the Joint
Interagency Coordination Group handles information-sharing and logistical
support with NATO. Hawaii's Pacific Command stood up a Joint Interagency
Counter-Terrorist Group this summer.
Meantime, old commands are
being morphed into new ones for the covert war. The two Joint Interagency
Task Forces in the United States previously devoted to fighting drugs now
have the war on terrorism as their highest priority.
The epicenter of the
Pentagon's covert operations remains the North Carolina-based Joint
Special Operations Command, often referred to as Delta Force. The
super-secret command is still not officially acknowledged to exist. Its
two-star commander, Army Maj. Gen. Dell L. Dailey, who spent much of the
Afghan war in Oman, has no public biography.
Among Dailey's assets is a
fleet of aircraft specially equipped for secret operations --
conventional and covert military planes and helicopters, and even former
Soviet helicopters. The bulk of those craft, including the reconfigured
Russian choppers, fly from airfields in Uzbekistan and from two Pakistani
air bases, Shahbaz and Shamsi.
The Air Force and the CIA
collect additional intelligence from unmanned Predator and Global Hawk
drones. They also have low- profile reconnaissance assets that look like
transport planes and operate under such code names as ARL-Low, Keen Sage,
Scathe View and Senior Scout.
Not to be left out, the
Navy's Gray Star spy vessel, reminiscent of the old Pueblo, captured by
North Korea in 1968, now sweeps up sophisticated -- and obscure --
"measurements and signatures intelligence" to monitor the
ballistic missile capabilities of Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
Even with all this, the
Pentagon wants to expand covert capabilities.
Defense Science Board 2002 Summer Study on Special Operations and Joint
Forces in Support of Countering Terrorism says in its classified
"outbrief" -- a briefing drafted to guide other Pentagon
agencies -- that the global war on terrorism "requires new
strategies, postures and organization."
The board recommends creation
of a super-Intelligence Support Activity, an organization it dubs the
Proactive, Preemptive Operations Group, (P2OG), to bring together CIA and
military covert action, information warfare, intelligence, and cover and
Among other things, this
body would launch secret operations aimed at "stimulating
reactions" among terrorists and states possessing weapons of mass
destruction -- that is, for instance, prodding terrorist cells into
action and exposing themselves to "quick-response" attacks by
Such tactics would hold
"states/sub-state actors accountable" and "signal to
harboring states that their sovereignty will be at risk," the
briefing paper declares.
Never to be outdone in
proposing hardware solutions, the Air Force is designing its own Global
Response Task Force to fight the war on terrorism. The all-seeing,
all-bombing Air Force envisions unmanned A-X aircraft capable of
long-range, nighttime gunship operations and an M-X covert transport, as
well as hypersonic and space-based conventional weapons capable of
delivering a "worldwide attack within an hour."
Who says the arms race is
over? Rumsfeld's science board warns against overemphasis on equipment
even as it recommends more. Washington is well on its way to an arms race
And for those who worry that
all these secret operations and aggressive new doctrines will turn the
United States into the world's policeman, there is a ray of hope.
Rumsfeld is now the field
marshal of the war on terrorism, but the Pentagon is also creating new
layers of bureaucracy that may save it from itself. Not to mention the
rest of us.
(no caption); PHOTOGRAPHER: Robert Neubecker For The Times
Credit: William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst
who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail: email@example.com