WASHINGTON—Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts on Monday downplayed recent news reports that the Pentagon was trying to "circumvent" oversight of its intelligence activities with a secret, new espionage operation.
Responding to recent stories in The New Yorker magazine and The Washington Post, Roberts, a Kansas Republican, said that the committee staff has been briefed by the Department of Defense on its efforts to improve the collection of human intelligence.
"I am not aware ... of anything DOD is doing that is either improper or inappropriate," he said in an interview.
Roberts also dismissed concerns that the Pentagon was trying to undercut the Central Intelligence Agency by expanding onto its turf and "rustling its cattle." He said that several investigations since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks concluded that the intelligence community needed to vastly upgrade its human intelligence operations.
"It is DOD's responsibility, as it is of all intelligence agencies, to step up to the plate and do a better job," Roberts said. "I'm not surprised that there may be some concern and frustration and pique at CIA. But there is not a rogue elephant operation at work here. I just don't see that."
The stories, based on anonymous sources, outlined the development of a group within the Defense Department called the Strategic Support Branch. They reported that it was created to free the department from having to rely on the CIA for human intelligence.
Besides creating teams of linguists and other specialists, the group would also include special operations teams that would report to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the stories said.
They also suggested, based on sources, that the teams' clandestine activities could be outside the realm of accountability and congressional oversight.
The Defense Department issued a statement Sunday denying that any such special military units existed.
The Post also reported that unnamed Pentagon officials said they set up the secret espionage operation by using "reprogrammed" funds—money appropriated for other purposes—without congressional authority.
Roberts said that wasn't the case and that the committee knew where the money was going.
"They've (DOD) been keeping us posted," he said. ... "Our obligation is to make sure that we get better and effective intelligence. It has to be legal, it has to be appropriate, and it has to be properly coordinated."
Roberts also downplayed a central allegation of The New Yorker story—that in expanding the war on terrorism, the Bush administration was secretly planning a campaign involving Iran.
"I think we have contingency plans all over the world," he said, adding that he wasn't aware of any briefings about "imminent plans of attack."
The intelligence committee chairman did express concern about The New Yorker's claim that President Bush had, at Rumsfeld's urging, signed several secret findings and executive orders authorizing the use of military commandos to conduct anti-terrorist operations overseas.
The administration refused comment, saying it doesn't discuss intelligence issues.
Roberts said he was unaware of such orders, and that as a member of the so-called "gang of eight," at least for intelligence matters, he would have to be informed.
Besides himself, he said that the group would be comprised of the Senate majority and minority leaders, their House counterparts, the ranking member of his committee and the chairman and ranking member of the House Intelligence committee.
"That would be a problem, that would be a big problem," Roberts said of them being left out of the loop on such a crucial decision. The president "has an obligation. We will be making inquiries."
(Goldstein reports for The Kansas City Star.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Pat Roberts
Need to map