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Special Forces Enter CIA Territory With a New Weapon

Times Staff Writer

Moving into an area of clandestine activity that has traditionally been the domain of the CIA, the Pentagon has secured new authority that allows American special operations forces to dole out millions of dollars in cash, equipment and weapons to international warlords and foreign fighters.

Under the new policy, the U.S. Special Operations Command will have as much as $25 million a year to spend providing “support to foreign forces, irregular forces, groups or individuals” aiding U.S. efforts against terrorists and other targets. Previously, military units were prohibited from providing money or arms to foreign groups.

Pentagon officials said the new capability was crucial in the war on terrorism, enabling America’s elite soldiers to buy off tribal leaders or arm local militias while pursuing Al Qaeda operatives and confronting other threats.

But the idea of entrusting soldiers with a job traditionally reserved for spies has raised concerns that the program might lead to abuse. Even those who support it say they worry that it could be used to fund and arm unsavory foreign elements that might later use their U.S.-provided weapons and equipment against American interests.

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“In the right circumstances, like Iraq and Afghanistan, this makes sense,” said one congressional official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “In the wrong circumstances it could lead us into some pretty bad stuff.”

Current and former intelligence officials noted that military units were not subject to the same requirements as the CIA, which typically must secure a presidential directive before providing aid or arms to foreign groups. They also expressed concern that the measure could be a first step toward a more aggressive encroachment on CIA turf by the secretary of Defense and the military.

“If this plugs holes to meet valid national security concerns or problems, that comes first,” said Jim Pavitt, who retired in August as director of operations at the CIA.

“If it’s the first step in an effort to duplicate what already exists in the [CIA’s] clandestine service, I don’t think we as a nation need it, and I don’t think we can afford it.”

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The new authority is contained in a little-noticed provision in the Defense Department authorization bill that was signed by President Bush on Friday.

The changes are designed to make Special Forces units less dependent on the CIA in securing the support of -- and supplying arms to -- individuals and militias, including those not controlled by foreign governments.

The Pentagon had been lobbying for the changes since the aftermath of the war in Afghanistan, where the military’s extensive reliance on the CIA became a source of frustration to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and special operations commanders.

Senior military officials praised the changes, saying they would strengthen the U.S. Special Operations Command -- known as SOCOM -- based at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

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“We think it’s very significant,” said one defense official involved in special operations policy. “This would improve SOCOM’s ability to carry out one of its key missions: unconventional war.”

The new authority is in keeping with Rumsfeld’s decision nearly two years ago to give special operations forces the leading role in the military’s counter-terrorism mission.

The $25 million set aside for the program is a fraction of the Pentagon’s annual budget of about $450 billion. But military officials said the activities envisioned for Special Forces -- the elite military units that include Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs -- did not require large budgets.

“For the kind of stuff they want to do -- buy AK-47s, pickup trucks, stuff like that -- this is a lot of money,” said retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing, the former commander in chief of the U.S. Special Operations Command. “If they can slip someone $100,000 to buy information or buy support [from foreign individuals or groups], then that would be very useful.”

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Several military officials said such capability would have been particularly useful in Afghanistan, where the CIA passed out an estimated $70 million in cash, equipment and arms to the Northern Alliance and other allied groups. Special Forces could not do the same. Although CIA officers were often working alongside U.S. commando teams, there were breakdowns when the intelligence agency was not immediately on hand.

Col. Kathryn Stone, who was the senior legal advisor to commanders of the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan during the early part of the war, described one case in which a local warlord was making demands that the military couldn’t meet.

The warlord, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, had captured thousands of prisoners at Mazar-i-Sharif, and was willing to let U.S. forces screen them. In exchange, he wanted the U.S. to pay for cold-weather clothing and other gear for his soldiers, and for food for the prisoners.

When a special operations officer asked if the military could cut such a deal, “I had to tell this officer that we didn’t have the fiscal authority to do that,” Stone said. “I said, ‘You need to go find your other government agency and see if they can help you out here.’ ” The term “other government agency,” or OGA, commonly refers to CIA.

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Stone said the Special Forces’ new authority was “a great tool,” but pointed to problems that had cropped up when the United States armed foreign groups in the past. American forces in Afghanistan confronted Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters who had been armed by the CIA during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, she said.

Stone warned that warlords would undoubtedly try to double dip -- seeking payoffs from the CIA and Special Forces at the same time. She also questioned who would serve as referee in situations when the CIA and special operations commanders disagreed on whether a foreign fighter or irregular militia should get U.S. support.

Michael Vickers, a military analyst who served as a CIA operative and a Special Forces officer, said the new authority would fix a serious flaw in U.S. capabilities. Previously, he said, the only way to get arms to foreign groups was through the CIA or a separate, “ridiculously cumbersome” program managed by the State Department.

“If you send me in to do guerrilla warfare and you have no mechanism to give the guerrillas weapons, you’ve got a [flawed] system,” Vickers said.

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However, the history of misdeeds by the CIA, including botched attempts to assassinate foreign leaders dating back 40 years, have fueled concerns.

“The danger is when you’re doing this stuff in peacetime -- as the CIA does -- and you get out ahead of your political masters either in the executive branch or, more importantly, in Congress,” Vickers said.

A former overseas CIA officer added a further caution. “If there is a disaster, a dust-up, a whole bunch of people do something really stupid, this will come and bite somebody,” he said.

Anticipating concerns, Congress included language in the bill warning that it did “not constitute authority to conduct a covert action,” meaning the Pentagon could not use the money for CIA-style operations in which the U.S. sought to deny involvement.

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Lawmakers also built in certain safeguards: The authority will expire in September 2007 unless Congress votes to extend it; the Pentagon’s request for $50 million a year was cut in half; and the secretary of Defense is required to notify Congress within 48 hours whenever the authority is used.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Rumsfeld and CIA leaders have frequently praised the cooperation between the military and the agency. But there has also been friction between the two sides, and considerable jostling over resources and assignments.

The Pentagon set up its own intelligence analysis unit when military policymakers became frustrated with CIA assessments that they considered too cautious on Baghdad’s ties to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Many of the Pentagon unit’s claims have been disputed or discredited.

More recently, the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks recommended that responsibility for covert paramilitary operations should be taken away from the CIA and given to the Defense Department.

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CIA officials have opposed the idea, arguing that the CIA’s special activities division is more nimble than the military’s Special Forces and is designed for covert missions in which the United States never wants to acknowledge a role.

Under Rumsfeld, the Pentagon has coveted the CIA’s spying capabilities, with some officials saying that Rumsfeld would like to create his own cadre of overseas spies.

A former U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity said he had seen such ideas outlined in slides during military briefings in recent years. However, when the CIA called attention to the particular slide in the briefing, Pentagon officials downplayed it, quickly moving to the next image.

Rumsfeld’s office recently drafted a directive -- a copy of which was obtained by The Times -- that urged expanding the military’s role in intelligence gathering.

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The directive called for a “transformation of Defense human intelligence capabilities to provide sustained coverage and deep penetration” in nations where the U.S. might conduct future military operations.

Another stated Pentagon goal was to “reduce the reliance” on the CIA’s practice of rapidly deploying case officers to war zones like Afghanistan by developing a similar capability within the military.

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Times staff writer Mark Mazzetti in Washington contributed to this report.

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