The State Department is restricting the roles of some special operations troops who have been assigned secretly to U.S. embassies to gather intelligence on al Qaeda and other Islamist terror groups, defense sources say.
The Pentagon has been placing Green Berets and other special operations forces in embassies, under diplomatic cover, to enhance the United States’ ability to locate al Qaeda cells and prepare to attack them. The undercover troops are referred to as operational command elements (OCE).
The mission is generally called “operational preparation of the battle space.” It is basic spy work — setting up a network of sources and identifying safe houses and landing zones.
But according to the two defense sources in the special operations community, State Department embassy personnel, in some instances, are placing restrictions on what the undercover commandos can do. In one case, said a source, a Green Beret is not allowed to work outside the embassy.
The source declined to specify the embassy. But another source said the OCE program has run into problems in Africa, where al Qaeda is striving to set up cells and overthrow secular governments.
“There are certain ambassadors who don’t want them there,” this second source said. The officials described a culture within the State Department’s Foreign Service that is opposed to non-State officials working out of embassies.
“It’s the ‘you’re not one of us’ kind of thing,” the official said.
Traditionally, American ambassadors have a big say in what types of Pentagon operations are allowed in their country.
The restrictions on commando operations has angered senior Pentagon officials, who complain the rules have bogged down their plans in the global war on terrorism. The two sources say the issue has been raised at interagency meetings between State and Pentagon policy-makers.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment for this story.
A State Department official provided The Washington Times with a statement.
“As a matter of policy, the State Department does not comment on intelligence matters. That said, each U.S. ambassador has, as his top priority, keeping the United States safe from terrorists. All our ambassadors are dedicated to doing everything in their power to achieve that end.
“The State Department here in Washington and our embassies overseas have tirelessly supported the Department of Defense as it plays its important role in the fight against terrorism.”
The insertion of commandos into embassies is part of an aggressive agenda set by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for U.S. Special Operations Command (SoCom) in Tampa, Fla.
On July 22, 2002, Mr. Rumsfeld signed a memo stamped “secret” that greatly empowered SoCom to conduct manhunts against al Qaeda.
“The objective is to capture terrorists for interrogation or, if necessary, to kill them, not simply to arrest them in a law-enforcement exercise,” the signed memo said.
SoCom, Mr. Rumsfeld decreed, “will be responsible for conducting operational preparation of the battle space required in this aspect of the war against terrorism.”
It was after this authorization that SoCom began dispatching commandos to embassies overseas.
The defense secretary’s goal is to develop the kind of “actionable intelligence” that has led to the killing or capturing of significant al Qaeda figures and of Saddam Hussein and his two sons.
In January 2003, Mr. Rumsfeld announced that he had elevated SoCom from being a “supporting” command to a “supported” command — meaning it can plan and execute its own war plans.