The Pentagon is planning to assemble its own network of spies who will be posted around the world to collect intelligence on terrorist organizations and other military targets, moving squarely into a cloak-and-dagger realm that has traditionally been the domain of the CIA, according to Department of Defense officials familiar with the plans.
Officials said the aim is to form a deep roster of intelligence operators capable of handling a range of assignments -- from reconnaissance for military operations to long-term clandestine work in which Pentagon spies would function like CIA case officers, working undercover to steal secrets and recruit informants.
The number of spies is expected to be in the hundreds, although officials cautioned it could be years before a force that size is in position.
The program would be managed by the Defense Intelligence Agency, a little-known Pentagon spy shop that mostly conducts intelligence analysis. Recruits would be drawn from all four branches of the military, with an emphasis on attracting those with special forces backgrounds. All would undergo the same training as CIA case officers at the agency's southern Virginia training facility for clandestine service, known in intelligence circles as the Farm.
The effort stems in large part from frustration within the Pentagon over the extent to which the military was forced to rely on the CIA in the opening stages of the war in Afghanistan. It also reflects concern that there are too few CIA officers deployed around the world, and that they are not adequately focused on collecting intelligence that is useful to the military, several officials said.
"The CIA doesn't have the number of assets to be doing what the secretary of Defense wants done," said one Pentagon official familiar with the plans. "This is a capability the secretary wants the Department of Defense to have."
Pentagon officials stressed that the plans are being pursued in close coordination with the CIA, and that Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and CIA Director George J. Tenet have discussed the matter. Officials at the agency declined to comment.
Still, the Pentagon effort marks a particularly aggressive incursion by the military at a time when the Pentagon and the CIA are increasingly encroaching on one another's turf.
"The predominant effort will be" with the CIA, said Richard L. Haver, a special assistant to Rumsfeld on intelligence matters. But he and others made it clear that the Pentagon wants its own people in global hot spots.
Alluding to the military's lack of presence in Afghanistan before the war there began, Haver said, "We can't have a situation where the military sits there in total ignorance."
Haver indicated that budgeting for the Pentagon spy program is already taking shape. "I've seen budget lines, billet numbers, etc.," though he declined to be more specific, saying he "wouldn't want to tell the enemy too much about exactly what we're doing here."
Congressional aides said intelligence committee members in the Senate and House have yet to see details of the plans. But they noted that there is broad support among lawmakers for expansion of the nation's ability to collect human intelligence -- an area identified as a major shortfall by investigators of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Intelligence experts said the new program is a logical step at a time when the Sept. 11 attacks and the ongoing terrorist threat have exposed inadequacies in the nation's intelligence capabilities. But some said there is also cause for caution.
"There is an institutional concern about locating intelligence functions in a mission-oriented agency," said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence policy analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, "because often the result is you get intelligence that is influenced or deformed by the mission."
Though the CIA increasingly conducts its own paramilitary operations, the agency's fundamental mission is to serve as an unbiased gatherer of intelligence to inform policymakers. The Pentagon exists to carry out operations, and may seek to gather intelligence that justifies those missions.
Recasting the old saying that to a hammer, everything looks like a nail, Aftergood said, "when you've got a Stealth fighter, everything looks like a target."
Indeed, officials said a major objective of the new spy plan is to produce more "actionable intelligence," a Pentagon buzzword for information leading to military operations. Last year, Rumsfeld gave the U.S. Special Operations Command -- which includes the Army Green Berets and the Navy SEALs -- the lead among military organizations in the hunt for Al Qaeda.
The capture in Pakistan on Saturday of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, an Al Qaeda leader, was a credit to the CIA and the FBI. But many in the spy community say that Rumsfeld is frustrated with the performance of intelligence agencies on a number of fronts, including the pace in finding other Al Qaeda figures and the lack of information on the whereabouts of biological and chemical weapons in Iraq.
Rumsfeld, who came into the job convinced of the need for significant reform in the intelligence community, has engineered a number of spy community shake-ups.
Last year, he pushed through Congress the creation of a new senior position at the Pentagon, undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, that will have broad authority over most of the 14 separate agencies that constitute the intelligence community.
Although the CIA director is nominally in charge of coordinating the efforts of those agencies, the Pentagon controls about 85% of the nation's spy spending, including the budgets of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency.
Some see the move as an effort by Rumsfeld to consolidate control over the nation's spy community at a time when some lawmakers, considering post-Sept. 11 reforms, were pushing to give expanded authority to the CIA director.
The Pentagon has made other recent moves to challenge the CIA's influence. Last year, the department set up a separate intelligence analysis unit to study links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, at a time when the CIA was more skeptical that there were such links.
But the CIA is also expanding into turf that has traditionally belonged to the military. The agency is in the midst of a major expansion of its own paramilitary force, known as the Special Operations Group, for which it often lures away members of the military's special forces.
The CIA's firing of a hellfire missile on a car full of terrorist suspects in Yemen in November also served as a reminder that the Pentagon no longer has a monopoly on striking targets from the sky.
The military has always had human intelligence-collection capabilities, traditionally built into each branch of the service. The various programs were consolidated in the early 1980s into what is known as the Defense Human Intelligence Service, a component of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Pentagon officials said the so-called Humint service now accounts for about 1,000 of the agency's 7,000 employees. But only a portion of the officers in the service work overseas, and the vast majority of those are military attaches -- diplomatic officials who work in embassies recognized by their host countries, and overtly gather information on other nations' militaries.
A tiny fraction of those in the Humint service are covert or clandestine operators, working undercover to steal secrets. That is the segment poised for major expansion in a program run by Maj. Gen. Keith Dayton, director of intelligence operations at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Dayton was formerly a military attache in Moscow.
Officials said the plans reflect a recognition that the military had become too reliant on satellite imagery, electronic intercepts and other technical means of collecting information.
Officials said those techniques worked well during the Cold War but are of limited use in penetrating terrorist networks that don't have tank columns to track and can communicate by messenger or encrypted e-mail.
The CIA is in the midst of its own major expansion of its clandestine service. Officials say recent recruiting classes have been among the largest in agency history. Still, former CIA officials said there are probably no more than 500 or so CIA case officers positioned around the world. Pentagon officials said that simply isn't enough.
The consequences of the shortage came to a head in the early going in Afghanistan, when the CIA had to dip into the ranks of retirees to find officers to send to the country to link up with Northern Alliance leaders and coordinate their efforts with U.S. air support.
The agency had "a cadre of people that could do that," Haver said. "The problem was that cadre wasn't huge. You wanted to do X, Y and Z but found out you couldn't get to Z because you didn't have enough assets to connect up with the right people in the right way."
Even if there were an abundance of CIA case officers, Haver said they aren't always focused on the military's priorities.
A network of spies drawn from the armed services "will know intuitively what to look for," Haver said. "Instead of looking for how the economy is performing, or whether the steel industry is producing advanced steel or not, which is the sort of thing the CIA [collects], we're talking about whether bridges can withstand" the weight of U.S. tanks.
Former CIA officers acknowledged that they rarely focused on collecting intelligence of tactical value for the military, and that an expanded roster of Pentagon spies could fill key gaps.
"Maybe that means getting eyes on some terrorist place in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon," one former official said. "Whereas we would try to recruit a guy who sells fruit near the terrorist's house to give us a report on what's going on there, these [Pentagon] guys would just go in there and look at it from a soldier's perspective. When do the guards change? Who goes in and out?"
An Arab American soldier might slip in and out of such locations disguised as a tourist or dressed as a native. The problem may come, however, if the military begins competing with the CIA for positions in U.S. embassies or other cover arrangements in global trouble spots.
"You cannot just establish yourself in a country without having a reason to be there," the former CIA official said. "What are they going to do? Set up shop in Damascus? As what? The only cover we have in Damascus is the embassy, and that's about the size of a breadbox."
Pentagon spies could pose as arms dealers or use other cover arrangements to build contacts with warlords and strongmen around the world. But they would likely be shunned by foreign intelligence services, many of which quietly cooperate with the CIA but could not afford the political fallout if their citizens learned they were linked to the U.S. military. As Haver said, "Spying on them is one thing; dropping 2,000-pound bombs on their heads is another."
The Pentagon's plan may also face internal, cultural impediments. As one Pentagon official said, the long-standing view of many in the military has been that the fastest course to advancement is to be a "trigger-puller," that is, directly involved in the execution of offensive operations. Traditionally, military intelligence assignments have been considered career detours.
The detours could last a decade or longer if recruits for the new program are required to undergo intelligence training and language training and then be stationed for years in a far-off locale, the minimum time commitment required to master cultural nuances and become an effective spy.
While Pentagon officials said the program is still in the planning stages, the Defense Intelligence Agency is already making other changes to raise its profile in the war on terrorism. The agency is recruiting a new contingent of counter-terrorism analysts who have special forces training, enabling them to work alongside commando units as they execute missions.
Special Forces units have always had intelligence officers in their ranks, but the new analysts are said to be equipped to link directly to national intelligence centers in suburban Virginia using secure satellite communications and other technologies.