Monday, December 18, 2006

US Special Forces in NATO Capitals

US Special Forces have been operating in NATO-countries without the knowledge of host countries. Already, the level of domestic dismay over CIA-led US counter-terrorism operations on European countries' soil -- at least sometimes without active government acceptance -- is pretty high.

These missions, whether apprehension as in Italy and elsewhere or rendition flights as in most of Europe, appear to have been carried out mostly by CIA teams. News reports of how clumsily operations were carried out in Italy and Norway raised serious concerns about the level of CIA operatives cultural proligacy and sometimes basic operational common sense.

Yet CIA operatives should in principle be far more politically astute than US Special Forces teams. Given the level of public dissatisfaction with CIA teams operating here it seems astonishing that the Pentagon according to an article in LA Times has allowed US Special Forces teams to operate in NATO-countries. Presumably, these well-trained fighters do not exactly fit the light-footed profile needed for that kind of thing.
U.S. Special Forces teams sent overseas on secret spying missions have clashed with the CIA and carried out operations in countries that are staunch U.S. allies, prompting a new effort by the agency and the Pentagon to tighten the rules for military units engaged in espionage, according to senior U.S. intelligence and military officials. The spy missions are part of a highly classified program that officials say has better positioned the United States to track terrorist networks and capture or kill enemy operatives in regions such as the Horn of Africa, where weak governments are unable to respond to emerging threats. (...)

Some intelligence officials have complained that Special Forces teams have sometimes launched missions without informing the CIA, duplicating or even jeopardizing existing operations. And they questioned deploying military teams in friendly nations — including in Europe — at a time when combat units are in short supply in war zones. (...) Senior officials at the CIA and the Pentagon defended the program and said they would urge [new Defense Secretary] Gates to support it. But they acknowledged risks for the United States in its growing reliance on Special Forces troops and other military units for espionage. (...)

After Sept. 11, the Bush administration gave expanded authority to the Special Operations Command, which oversees the Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other elite units, in the fight against terrorism. At the same time, Rumsfeld, who lacked confidence in the CIA, directed a major expansion of the military's involvement in intelligence gathering to make the Pentagon less dependent on the agency. Officials said this led to the secret deployment of small teams of Special Forces troops, known as military liaison elements, or MLEs, to American embassies to serve as intelligence operatives. Members of the teams undergo special training in espionage at Ft. Bragg and other facilities, according to officials familiar with the program. The troops typically work in civilian clothes and function much like CIA case officers, cultivating sources in other governments or Islamic organizations. One objective, officials said, is to generate information that could be used to plan clandestine operations such as capturing or killing terrorism suspects. Ennis said MLE missions were "low level" compared with those of the CIA. "The MLEs may come and go," he said, "but the CIA presence is there for the long term." (...)

There have also been questions about where teams have been sent. Although conceived to bolster the U.S. presence in global trouble spots, the units have carried out operations in friendly nations in Europe and Southeast Asia where it is more difficult to justify, officials said. On at least one occasion, a team tracked an Islamic militant in Europe. "They were trying to acquire certain information about a certain individual," said a former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official declined to name the country, but said it was a NATO ally and that the host government was unaware of the mission. Critics said such operations risked angering U.S. allies with a dubious prospect for payoff. In some countries where MLE teams are located, "There's not a chance … we're going to send somebody in there to snatch somebody unilaterally," said a government official who is familiar with the program. [emphasis added.]

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