In the final six weeks of President Trump’s administration, political appointees at the Pentagon are reviewing the Pentagon’s support to the CIA, including the use of counterterrorism operators detailed to a division of the agency that has been involved in some of the most high-profile clandestine counterterrorism missions in the last two decades.
The idea is to determine whether Defense Department personnel “detailed” to the spy agency should instead be used for missions related to competition with Russia and China, rather than counterterrorism, according to multiple former and current administration and military officials.
Critics see a potentially dangerous effort to yank critical Defense Department support to agency efforts in terrorism hotspots across the globe.
Few details on the scope of the review process, including how broad it is, were available on Wednesday. Two sources familiar with the matter said that Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller has sent a letter to CIA Director Gina Haspel saying that a longstanding arrangement offering DOD support to the agency is in jeopardy.
The review is the pet project of Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Ezra Cohen-Watnick, one of several top-level political appointees assigned to acting roles in the Pentagon in the wake of Trump’s Election Day loss. Several of those officials, including Cohen-Watnick, are seen as Trump loyalists.
At least on the surface, the goal of the review is part of a larger policy debate about the role special operations force should or can play in what the Defense Department terms “competition” with Russia and China. In 2018, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis rolled out a national defense strategy announcing that the United States would prioritize so-called near-peer competitors over the counterterrorism missions of the last 20 years. The strategy was embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike, but the precise role of special operators in this new paradigm has remained a point of debate and academic study.
Some former officials fiercely question the utility of what they see as an effort to curtail the Defense Department’s counterterrorism support to the agency.
“I think it’s fair for the DOD to say, ‘I’d like some of our detailees to be involved in these higher-level missions’ — and they are — but it’s going to be very few, because there’s very few involved in those missions anyway,” said one former administration official. “If they go, ‘We don’t want to help you with the CT missions’ — well, somebody has to do it.”
The Defense Department provides a variety of kinds of support to the agency around the globe, including vital logistics assistance and a backbone of physical security in Afghanistan and other active combat zones.
“Other departments and agencies don’t need to be as large because DoD supports a ton of other functions across government,” said one former military official. “Imagine all the additional resources the CIA would need if they couldn’t rely on DOD for support!”
The Pentagon also routinely lends special operations forces to the agency’s Special Activities Center to be used in clandestine or covert operations that the United States doesn’t want to publicly claim. The military detailees officially come under CIA authority, and become “a permanent houseguest,” the former administration official said. The division provides support to both CIA and Defense Department operations, often working alongside local partner forces in places like Afghanistan.
Those who believe the review is laying the groundwork to snip DOD’s counterterrorism detailees to the SAC worry that it could endanger the remaining CIA officers still active in combat zones from which the U.S. military is withdrawing — at least until President-elect Joe Biden comes into office on Jan. 20.
“It’s basically going to ask the CIA to carry the burden for two-and-a-half months and pull the rug out from under them at the same time,” said the former official. “If they start dying in Afghanistan, this is going to be a big deal.”
No decisions have yet been made, and some officials say that view is alarmist.
But rumors surrounding the review have burned through the Pentagon in a moment of profound upheaval in the E-Ring. At least some counterterrorism officials feared at one point — incorrectly — that the authorization for the counterterrorism detail program would not be renewed as normal this month, hinting at the degree of anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the murky initiative.
That three-year authorization has since been signed, but the broader review of Defense Department support to the agency is ongoing.
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