Congress is set to impose new restrictions on the use of Special Operations Forces that for the first time will require a presidential order before deploying commandos in routine but hidden activities.
The restrictions are contained in the classified Senate report accompanying the current version of the intelligence authorization bill for fiscal 2004.
The restrictions were added to the report by members of the Senate Intelligence Committee after consultations with Stephen Cambone, the defense undersecretary for intelligence, according to current and former U.S. officials and documents obtained by The Washington Times.
The new rules, if contained in the final version of the bill, would add a burden to the military’s deployment of Special Operations Forces by requiring the Pentagon to first obtain a presidential “finding,” or directive, similar to those required for covert-action intelligence operations.
Findings are declarations that the president “finds” a secret activity is in national interest.
A former special-operations officer said the committee language would redefine traditional military activity as a covert action.
“What that means is that things that special ops used to do will now require sending a finding to [Capitol Hill] before doing anything,” said the former officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The restrictions are being called the “Cambone understanding” and would replace earlier intelligence report language from 1991 that excluded Special Operations Forces from the legal finding requirements.
Currently, so-called traditional military activities, where the U.S. military’s role is hidden, do not require a finding by the president.
“We want to be able to deploy [special-operations commandos] in minutes and hours instead of days and weeks,” said the former special-operations officer. “And this will get us delays. It will make it hard to kill terrorists by turning over deployment decisions to the Senate.”
A senior U.S. intelligence official said the new report language undermines the efforts of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and CIA Director George J. Tenet to loosen restrictions on covert action in the war on terrorism since the September 11 attacks.
The senior official said the report language was inserted based on misunderstandings that resulted from conversations between Mr. Cambone and several senators, who were not identified.
“This hurts both CIA and [the Department of Defense],” the official said.
A spokesman for the Senate Intelligence Committee had no comment.
The restrictions are not included in the House intelligence authorization report. A joint House-Senate conference will be held after Congress returns in September to work out differences between the House and Senate intelligence bills.
Covert-action findings are reported to Congress and in many past cases were disclosed to the public by officials opposed to the operations.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the authorization bill, produced in June, says that secret military activities in countries where the role of U.S. forces is known to the public are considered “traditional military activities.”
However, those same activities when carried out in a nation where the presence of U.S. military forces is kept secret are to be treated as covert actions and require a presidential finding, the report states.
The Senate report also says that “the committee commends the designee for undersecretary of defense for intelligence for agreeing to these conditions.”
The new restrictions are opposed by most U.S. intelligence and defense officials.
Larry DiRita, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said he could not discuss any details of the classified Senate report.
“We’re confident that by the time Congress has finished acting on this, they won’t do anything that will make it more difficult to fight the war on terrorism,” Mr. DiRita said. “What we’re finding now is that fighting that war requires more flexibility in a number of areas, not more restrictions.”
A senior Pentagon official would not say whether Mr. Rumsfeld would recommend that the president veto the bill if the report language is part of the final legislative package.
Army Special Forces, along with Navy and Air Force special operators, played a key role in the rapid U.S. military victory in ousting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Special-operations troops also were key to the victory in Iraq. They were used in western Iraq to seize airfields and monitor any use of short-range missiles by Iraqi forces.
“What we’ve been saying is that special operations are not covert action,” another official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “If you put a clandestine agent inside Iran to prepare for a hostage rescue, that’s traditional military activity, not covert action.”
Mr. Rumsfeld told Congress in February that the Bush administration is expanding the use of Special Operations Forces and has added $1.5 billion to its budget and nearly 2,000 more troops.
The Defense Department’s office of general counsel sent a memorandum to Mr. Cambone on June 18 that explained the differences between clandestine military activities that require a presidential finding and those that do not.
The memo states that “covert actions are conducted by the CIA and require presidential findings.”
“Clandestine activities conducted by [the Department of Defense] are part of traditional military activities and do not require presidential findings,” the memo states.
“Covert action does not include ‘traditional military activities’ or routine support to such,” the memo states.
The memo also notes that “traditional military activities by statute are understood to encompass almost every use of uniformed military forces to include hostage rescue, apprehension of individual terrorists, [and] counternarcotics activities.”
Traditional military activities include routine support, such as unilateral support for U.S. military forces.
Covert action was defined in the memo by the general counsel’s office as U.S. government activities “to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad where it is intended that the role of the United States government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.”
The covert-action definition specifically excludes traditional intelligence and counterintelligence work and “traditional diplomatic or military activities or routine support to such activities,” the memo states.