WASHINGTON — The US Defense Department’s desire to create an unprecedented cadre of military spies is one step closer to becoming a clandestine reality.
A legislative provision rolled out Tuesday erects a relatively low bar Pentagon officials would have to clear to establish the proposed Defense Clandestine Service (DCS).
The lone hurdle put forth in a House Armed Services Committee (HASC) subcommittee’s portion of the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill is a defense secretary certification that the clandestine unit would meet needs that are “unique” to the military.
At issue is a Pentagon plan to expand the size and scope its top intelligence arm, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), by adding 1,600 covert operatives. For decades, the CIA has carried out America’s global espionage efforts. The current size of the DIA’s covert corps appears to be classified.
In the 2013 version of the final National Defense Authorization Act, lawmakers put the brakes on — but did not block — the Pentagon’s clandestine unit plans.
In a portion of HASC’s 2014 defense authorization bill unveiled Tuesday by its Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee, the panel mostly green-lights the plan.
The legislation, which will eventually become part of the House’s 2014 defense authorization bill, “would prohibit the use of 50 percent of the funds” eventually authorized for the DCS until the secretary certifies to several congressional panels “that the Defense Clandestine Service is designed primarily to fulfill requirements of the Department of Defense that are unique to the Department of Defense or otherwise unmet; and provide unique capabilities to the intelligence community,” according to the bill.
Because such certifications are standard practice for the Pentagon, the bill signals that the HASC’s Republicans are inclined to support creation of the DCS.
The subcommittee’s portion of the House’s authorization bill also calls on the Pentagon to “design metrics that will be used to ensure that the Defense Clandestine Service is employed in the manner certified; provide annual assessments for [five] years based on the metrics established; submit prompt notifications of any significant changes; and provide quarterly briefings on deployments and collection activities.”
Like the requirements certification, those mandates would not block Pentagon officials from moving ahead with setting up their clandestine force.
While the legislation shows HASC Republicans are mostly on board, the proposed unit could face resistance in the Senate.
Asked on Dec. 18 by Defense News whether senior defense lawmakers adopted the restrictions over worries about a “slippery slope” on which the nation’s covert spycraft could eventually become overly militarized, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., replied sternly: “Absolutely.”
That is one reason members of a House-Senate conference committee included the upper chamber’s language in the 2013 defense policy bill that required the Pentagon to submit stacks of information about the proposed DIA changes before the plan could be fully implemented.
“We just think that it’s important that we have significant oversight of what they’re doing,” McCain said. “We’re not saying they shouldn’t do it. We’re not saying they can’t do it. We’re saying we want to make sure if there’s any increase that we’re fully informed. ... More about the fact that if you’re going to expand ... a covert capability, we have oversight responsibilities.”
The Senate Armed Service Committee is scheduled to take up its version of the authorization bill next month.
Meantime, the HASC subcommittee’s portion of the legislation also would, if enacted, require the Pentagon to establish a new policy that spells out all “defense intelligence priorities.”
A provision in the section of the authorization bill would mandate Pentagon brass to “establish a written policy governing the internal coordination and prioritization of intelligence priorities of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the combatant commands, and the military departments to improve identification of the intelligence needs of the Department of Defense.”
The subcommittee wants DoD officials to highlight “any significant intelligence gaps” within the military.