The Defense Department is seeking new authority from Congress that would let DOD personnel work undercover in industry to conduct clandestine military operations abroad against terrorists and their sponsors.
The Pentagon's request, submitted to lawmakers last week in a package of legislative proposals, is designed to significantly broaden DOD's existing authority -- first enacted in 1992 -- to use commercial cover in support of intelligence-collection activities.
In recent years, the conflict with al Qaeda and its affiliates, as well as "other developments, have required the regular conduct of small-scale clandestine military operations to prepare the battlefield for military operations against terrorists and their sponsors," DOD writes in the proposal. U.S. clandestine operations differ from covert operations by focusing on concealment of the mission rather than on concealment of American sponsorship. Special operations activities may be both clandestine and covert.
Broadening the department's authority to use commercial cover could help save the lives of troops, the department argues. "Expansion of this authority is necessary to permit DOD to conduct revenue-generating commercial activities to protect such operations and would provide an important safeguard for U.S. military forces conducting hazardous operations abroad," the proposal states.
A congressional source said the Pentagon had not yet briefed Congress on the justification for the proposal. As that dialogue gets under way, Capitol Hill will likely seek to understand the operational authorities DOD has in mind, as well as whether these are all-together new kinds of authorities.
The proposal would also delete from existing law the requirement that the Defense Intelligence Agency oversee DOD's use of commercial cover. The current statute was enacted before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks led Congress to establish the under secretary of defense for intelligence -- dubbed USD(I), for short -- to direct and oversee all intelligence, intelligence-related, and security programs of the department, DOD writes. Michael Vickers, the third person to hold the post since it was created in 2003, has served in that capacity for more than a year.
"The Secretary has directed that the USD(I) oversee these commercial activities," the proposal adds. "These developments have made the current statutory mandate for an oversight office in DIA an unwarranted limitation on the discretion of the Secretary and the Under Secretary in managing and overseeing the commercial activities program."
DOD's proposal would also add language to current law clarifying that the House and Senate intelligence committees are the panels that DOD is mandated to keep in the loop regarding such activities.
But the Pentagon is also pledging to provide classified details to the House and Senate armed services panels, which have the responsibility of considering whether to include the legislative proposal in the fiscal year 2013 defense authorization bill.
"Additional classified background information regarding the department's conduct of its commercial cover program will be made available to the armed services committees," the legislative proposal states. -- Christopher J. Castelli