WASHINGTON — Congress is giving only halfhearted support to a Pentagon effort to broaden military espionage operations beyond war zones.
The Pentagon created the Defense Clandestine Service in April 2012 to recruit sources and steal secrets around the globe, just as the CIA does. The new service relies on several hundred operatives from the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s main source of human intelligence and analysis.
But senior defense officials failed to convince key members of Congress, especially those on committees that oversee Pentagon and intelligence operations, that the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and the 15 other U.S. intelligence agencies aren’t meeting military needs.
“The concern is about duplication of human intelligence collection,” said a senior congressional aide who asked for anonymity to discuss an intelligence program. “Why does (the Pentagon) feel that it has to set up its own mini CIA?”
As a result, a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act withholds half the allocated money for the new spy service until Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proves it is collecting useful intelligence. The budget figures are classified.
The House and Senate approved the legislation, and it is awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature.
Pentagon officials said there have been no major problems. “We are pleased with the progress” of the spy service, a Pentagon spokeswoman, Navy Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost, wrote in an email. “The success of DCS remains one of the Department of Defense’s priorities.”
But the teething problems are real.
“Over the last year, somewhat quietly, their aspirations have become less ambitious, and budget actions this year will sort of cement that,” a second senior congressional aide said.
The Defense Intelligence Agency grew steadily during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, assigning hundreds of case officers to each war zone.
With all U.S. troops gone from Iraq and steady withdrawals from Afghanistan, the clandestine service gave the agency’s operatives a chance to continue their work elsewhere overseas.
But a June 2012 report by the Senate Armed Services Committee concluded the agency had a poor record of collecting human intelligence, known as “Humint.”
It cited “inefficient utilization of personnel trained at significant expense to conduct clandestine Humint; poor or nonexistent career management for trained Humint personnel; cover challenges; and unproductive deployment locations.”
The Pentagon “needs to demonstrate that it can improve the management of clandestine Humint before undertaking any further expansion,” it added.
One of the architects of the new spy service is Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who heads the Defense Intelligence Agency. In 2010, Flynn wrote a report sharply criticizing military intelligence in Afghanistan as too focused on tactical threats and not enough on broader challenges.
Another backer is Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. Vickers helped lead the CIA’s program to arm Islamist militants fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Pentagon declined to make Flynn or Vickers available for an interview.