Wednesday, August 13, 2003

The Pentagon is working to block Congress from adopting restrictions that would make it more difficult to deploy Special Operations Forces on clandestine missions, a spokesman said yesterday.

“It would clearly not be helpful for additional — any kind of additional restrictions to be placed on the ability to engage in the global war on terrorism, using the kinds of capability that the United States has across the board,” said Larry Di Rita, the chief Pentagon spokesman.

Mr. Di Rita was commenting to reporters at the Pentagon on a report in yesterday’s editions of The Washington Times. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has drafted rules that would restrict the military’s use of Special Operations Forces by extending covert action intelligence rules to cover some clandestine military operations.

The new rules mandate a presidential “finding,” or directive, before sending special-operations troops to nations where the U.S. role is hidden.

They are contained in the intelligence committee’s classified report accompanying the fiscal 2004 intelligence authorization bill. That bill is being reconciled in a House-Senate conference with a House version that does not contain the restrictions.

Critics of the change said the proposed rules would make it more difficult to deploy special-operations commandos in the war on terrorism and in other secret military operations.

The intelligence panel’s report, produced in June, stated that the committee credited Stephen Cambone, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, for agreeing to the covert action rules change.

Asked yesterday if Mr. Cambone had agreed to the new rules, Mr. Di Rita said: “I just would refer you to him on how he feels, but I can say that he wouldn’t knowingly have agreed to something that’s been interpreted the way that it’s being interpreted.

“And we’re engaged with the committees to make sure that that’s clearly understood,” Mr. Di Rita said.

Rules from a 1991 intelligence authorization report exclude military activities, including special-operations missions, from the requirement to obtain a presidential finding in advance.

The term “finding” for the directive comes from language that begins “the president finds” that it is in the U.S. national interest to conduct a covert operation.

“It’s a complicated issue. It’s one that deserves scrutiny, and it gets it a lot. We clearly need the kinds of flexibilities that we’ve seen in use in Afghanistan, in Iraq, to be able to be agile and quick and capable of sort of short-notice targeting of enemy activities. And we wouldn’t be seeking any undue restrictions on our ability to do that,” he said.

Mr. Di Rita said it is “way too early to say what the Congress will do in this particular matter.”

Asked if the Pentagon is opposed to the proposed Senate rules changing the older language, Mr. Di Rita said: “The Pentagon will remain engaged on the issue with the committees involved, and I think we have been.”

Mr. Di Rita said the rules governing clandestine military activities are complicated and overlap with the authorities of several congressional committees, and that report language stating Mr. Cambone had agreed to the rules change “may be that committee’s view.”

“But more broadly speaking, we would just wait to see how the full Congress might speak to the issue,” he said.

Mr. Di Rita said Mr. Cambone has helped special-operations commandos “think about the future of warfare in their particular area.”

Mr. Cambone “has been very involved in that, is one of the real original thinkers in that area and, I think, has the respect of the special-operations community from that standpoint,” he said.

“I think to interpret whatever he may have been up to the committee talking about in the way that it appears to have been interpreted in the report language is probably a stretch.”

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