Rumsfeld seeks to evade Congress

It’s time for Congress to regain control over a wayward Defense Department.

Waging a bureaucratic turf war is a time-honored tradition in the highly charged political arena of Washington. But Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld did more than step on the CIA’s toes when he set up his own espionage branch two years ago to collect human intelligence.

In conveniently neglecting to inform Congress, Rumsfeld turned what should have been a public decision made by elected leaders into an administrative decree issued in private. That should prompt Congress to hold hearings and reassert control. Rumsfeld established the secret agency, called the Strategic Support Branch, in an effort to end his reliance on the CIA for human intelligence. The new unit works with special operations forces on counterterrorism missions.

Whether the Defense Department or the CIA conducts most of the human-intelligence missions might seem like small potatoes. Nothing could be further from the truth. U.S. law requires the executive branch to provide Congress with timely notification of all intelligence activities, with the exception of intelligence supporting routine military activities. It’s that clause Rumsfeld is spinning in his own favor.

The result is an espionage branch effectively operating beyond Congress’ purview. By running human-intelligence missions from the Pentagon, Rumsfeld escapes more-stringent oversight applied to the CIA. Little wonder, then, that prominent members of Congress, including longtime intelligence community figures, learned of the branch from press reports.

Rumsfeld is not alone in wishing to improve the collection of human intelligence, including the recruitment of foreign spies. The nation’s reliance on satellite technology, to the exclusion of more-traditional espionage techniques, undoubtedly made it harder to uncover the Sept. 11, 2001, plot and judge whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

But human intelligence is a risky business. When missions go awry, the consequences can be far-reaching. Congressional oversight assures that spymasters remain accountable for their foul-ups. It might indeed be necessary to give the Pentagon more control over human intelligence, but that’s a decision Congress should make, not Rumsfeld.