Maybe we missed something — astonishingly, it does happen — but we don't understand the uproar over stories out of Washington that the Pentagon plans to form secret battlefield spy teams to support combat operations.
There was controversy over whether Congress had properly been notified, whether the military was intruding into CIA territory and whether the units crossed the legal line between "clandestine" and "covert," the latter requiring a presidential finding and formal congressional notice and being generally reserved for the CIA.
Congressional Republicans seemed baffled by the disclosure and Democrats skeptical that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon might be trying to pull a fast one. A briefing was hastily arranged for the Senate Armed Services Committee by the Pentagon's top intelligence official, and the chairman, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., emerged to say, "In my opinion, these intelligence programs are vital to our national security interests, and I am satisfied that they are being coordinated with the appropriate agencies of the federal government."
The plan is to create 10-member teams of civilian specialists — linguists, case officers, interrogators — drawn from the Defense Intelligence Agency who could provide faster and better battlefield intelligence. The urban fighting in Iraq and the remote tribal areas of Afghanistan suggests that, at least in theory, this is a good idea.
The confusion seems to stem from the fact that Congress doesn't always pay close attention to what the executive branch is telling it; sometimes the information is in impenetrable bureaucratese; and in this case the program underwent a mid-course name change from the dreadful "humint augmentation teams" to the only slightly less tin-eared "strategic support teams."
Such spy teams seem consistent with the kind of aggressive, proactive intelligence gathering Congress and various commissions have been urging. Just do something about the name.