- - Wednesday, January 6, 2021

A key element of the ongoing war on terror has been the collaborative efforts by CIA and the U.S. military working on what are termed “covert” or “clandestine” operations against terrorists around the world.

Often the CIA’s Special Activities Center carries out such covert operations with its own paramilitary force, acting independently, but relying on the Defense Department’s military assets for transportation and logistical support. In the field, they also rely on special forces for assistance in various counterterrorism operations.

According to a recent report, the Pentagon informed the CIA that it would be ending the majority of the military support it provides to the agency’s counterterrorism missions. Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller is reported to have sent a letter to CIA Director Gina Haspel outlining the decision, which is both surprising and unprecedented.

Such a decision would certainly impact the CIA’s worldwide counterterrorism missions that frequently rely on the military where military personnel are detailed to support the CIA’s operations. Over the last two decades such joint and cooperative operations have been a successful and high point in overall U.S. counterterrorism activities. As terrorist activities around the globe have escalated, U.S. presidents have all supported such operations as an essential element of U.S. policy.

A CIA spokesperson has stated that “there is no stronger relationship nor better partnership than that between CIA and DOD,” and “that partnership has led to accomplishments that significantly advanced U.S. national security, and we are confident that DOD and CIA will continue this close collaboration for years to come.”

At the Defense Department, their spokesperson indicated that the possible shift away from supporting the CIA’s counterterrorism missions was in line with the National Defense Strategy that pushes the military’s focus away from the regional wars in the Middle East toward near-peer competitors like Russia and China. Here the intent behind the move is to see if DOD personnel “detailed” to the CIA should be diverted from counterterrorism missions and toward missions related to competition with Russia and China. Such a concept would “better align its allocation of resources with the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s shift to great power competition.”

In reality, however, the types of DOD personnel detailed to support CIA counterterrorism operations have little to do with competition with Russia and China. Nothing in fact. A careful reading of the 2018 National Security Strategy shows this approach to be largely nonsense. It is simply a political stunt being undertaken for some largely unknown reason. These highly trained and specialized forces are not needed for other missions and removing them from support to counterterrorism operations only serves to harm U.S. interests.

Taking such actions by DOD would be a serious setback to a very strong and effective relationship between the DOD and CIA, that has resulted in numerous successes over the past two decades in the area of counterterrorism, including the operations against Osama bin Laden and al-Baghdadi, as well as many others that will never be disclosed.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently disclosed that a CIA paramilitary officer was killed in Somalia and had previously served in the military as a Navy SEAL. Removing DOD support to critical counterterrorism operations could increase the risk to CIA officers and may need to be addressed by the incoming administration. If it is not reversed, the CIA needs increased personnel and funding to make up for the difference to continue their critical missions.

On a related note, the DOD announced that President Trump had ordered the withdrawal of most of the 700 U.S. military personnel in Somalia, though the department stated that it would continue to carry out counterterrorism missions against al-Shabab, the al Qaeda affiliate. Presumably, the removal of most of those troops from Somalia would already have had an impact on the CIA’s counterterrorism operations in that country.

One of the great success stories of the DOD over the past several decades has been the area of “special forces” where organization, training and equipment have all contributed to what are now outstanding capabilities. Here these forces have repeatedly served on missions which are within the DOD mission areas as well as joint operations with their CIA counterparts. 

The relationship between the DOD and CIA has grown exponentially over the last two decades not only in high-profile missions, but daily operations that most often go unnoticed. Those familiar with these activities note that the relationships on the ground and within the ranks are on solid ground, and that any effort to remove this support would be “akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face.” At least one former high-ranking CIA official described the DOD plans as “highly irregular” given that the CIA’s counter-terrorism missions can no longer be executed by the CIA without U.S. military support.

Exactly how or why this state of affairs came about so quickly at the end of the Trump administration remains a mystery. It should be a high priority for the incoming Biden administration to review what has taken place and ensure that policy going forward supports the decades of highly successful joint operations between the DOD and CIA in the counterterrorism area. This has never been a partisan issue, and administrations from both parties have all worked to create a capability that serves the nation in a most critical area. Maintaining this capability rather than wrecking it is essential for the country.

• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC Staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

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