Pentagon Sending Special Ops to U.S. Embassies

The Pentagon says it is sending small teams of Special Operations Forces to U.S. Embassies around the world to help fight the war on terrorism. Some members of Congress are concerned about a possible lack of coordination between the Pentagon and the Office of the National Intelligence Director, John Negroponte.

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The U.S. military has confirmed that it's putting small teams of Special Operations Forces into U.S. embassies around the world. The Pentagon has offered few details about the program except to say that it's several years old and is designed to enhance security operations. This latest expansion of Defense Department intelligence activities raises some old concerns about whether there's adequate coordination among the different U.S. intelligence agencies. NPR's Vicky O'Hara reports.

VICKY O: The New York Times first revealed the existence of the commando teams in today's edition. In confirming the story, Pentagon spokesman Brian Whitman said the teams, called Military Liaison Elements, consists of individuals or small groups operating out of embassies. Whitman said the teams report to the U.S. military commander in the region in which they're working.

BRIAN WHITMAN: They are part of a team effort. They can provide situational awareness for the geographical commanders. As you know, we have forces that are deployed throughout the world and they are able to help the combatant commander with his planning and what we call his situational awareness.

HARA: The New York Times quotes unnamed military officials as saying that the teams will gather intelligence and prepare for potential missions to disrupt, capture or kill terrorists. Whitman would not be that specific but his use of the phrase situational awareness in Pentagon parlance signals intelligence work. Normally military personnel assigned to a U.S. Embassy report to the U.S. Ambassador in that country. The commando teams will operate under the military rather than the diplomatic chain of command. But Whitman says there is full consultation with the State Department.

WHITMAN: The teams are there with the full approval and coordination of the United States Ambassador.

HARA: It's not clear if that was always the case. A spokesman for the Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida acknowledges an incident in which a commando team assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Paraguay killed a person trying to rob them. According to the Times version of the incident, senior U.S. Embassy officials in Paraguay had not been informed that the U.S. commandos were in the country. Members of Congress say this program and other expansions of Defense Department Intelligence pose a problem. Whether the new Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, is being adequately consulted about Pentagon operations. The issue came up last week when Negroponte testified on Capitol Hill. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine noted a directive issued by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last November that outlined the authorities of the three defense intelligence agencies.

SUSAN COLLINS: Some intelligence experts have viewed the November directive by the Secretary of Defense as undermining the DNI's authority over those three critical intelligence agencies, or at least creating confusion about the reporting relationships.

HARA: Collins said that when Congress passed intelligence reform legislation in 2004 its intent was very clear. That Negroponte is the leader of U.S. intelligence. Collins and other members of Congress say they do not want to duplicate the intelligence failures that led to 9/11. Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, Washington.

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