Gates unlikely to rein in Pentagon on intelligence

(Gold9472: It's easy when you don't want it to be.)

By David Morgan
Thu Dec 14, 2006 8:10am ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Robert Gates is unlikely to rein in the Pentagon's controversial post-September 11 expansion into intelligence, despite concerns the U.S. military is ill-suited for espionage outside the battlefield, experts say.

But Gates, the former CIA director who will be sworn in as defense secretary on Monday, could help heal a rift between the Pentagon and civilian intelligence agencies caused by the confrontational tactics of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld.

"You're going to have a real change in tone at the top, and the watchword will be 'practicality,'" said Robert Grenier, former director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center.

Well-known for his zeal for cooperation, Gates will make good on a public pledge to support U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte, whose 20-month-old office oversees 16 agencies, including several that are operated by the Defense Department.

"I anticipate generally smooth relations between military and civilian intelligence with Gates as secretary of defense," said former CIA acting Director John McLaughlin.

"He'll do all he can, in my view, to make the (intelligence czar) structure work well."

But experts say that does not mean Gates will pare back the expansion in Pentagon intelligence operations since the September 11 attacks and the start of the Bush administration's war on terrorism.

The Pentagon under Rumsfeld began an aggressive drive into intelligence operations traditionally reserved for civilian agencies such as the CIA. The move was viewed by some as a power grab by Rumsfeld at a time when the CIA was reeling from post-September 11 criticism and cutbacks after the Cold War.

The changes have given Special Operations forces a lead role in intelligence gathering, especially in regions such as central Africa, where military operatives seek to develop local contacts to monitor the movements of Islamist militants.

The Pentagon has also inserted elite intelligence units at U.S. embassies in about two dozen countries to gather information on potential terrorist threats.

"Under (Rumsfeld), there was a huge push to move much greater resources to Special Ops, specifically intel. But they don't have the platforms or institutional structures to sustain those kinds of relationships all around the world," said one former intelligence official.

Pentagon intelligence, which accounts for 80 percent of the overall U.S. intelligence budget, got a scathing review from the Iraq Study Group. The high-level panel said the Defense Intelligence Agency's use of inexperienced analysts was partly to blame for U.S. ignorance about Sunni insurgents and Shi'ite militias.

But experts say the Defense Department has needed larger intelligence operations for more than a decade to support its increased role as a vehicle of U.S. foreign policy.

During the Gulf War, for example, commanders discovered the CIA could not provide the kind of tactical or battlefield support needed by a military using smart bombs, computers and other sophisticated new technologies.

"Since the Reagan administration, we've been at war a lot," said Richard Kerr, a deputy director of central intelligence under Gates. "The nature of the requirements for defense has changed quite a bit. Quite realistically, they want to satisfy their own requirements."

Given that, Gates is unlikely to scale back on defense intelligence, despite the anticipated decline in friction between the Pentagon and military intelligence bureaucracies.

"I don't see him doing anything that could be interpreted as giving up any of that intel function within DOD," said Paul Pillar, a former senior intelligence official who teaches at Georgetown University.