Few in the Bush Administration personify the adage that "absolute power corrupts absolutely" more than Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The arrogance the Pentagon chief has exhibited and the disdain he has shown for oversight of his conduct is unmatched among his White House colleagues. That's why the latest power grab by Mr. Rumsfeld to broaden the military's espionage role calls for immediate congressional intervention.
Mr. Rumsfeld has simply overreached on this one, a secret spy branch formed - on his order - to report directly to him at the Pentagon. According to published reports, the new organization, called the Strategic Support Branch, has been operating under public radar for two years. Its existence was news to both leading Republicans and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee.
Which is just the way Mr. Rumsfeld prefers to conduct business - without the prying eyes of the people's representatives.
Because he was dissatisfied with CIA intelligence under then-director George Tenet, the defense secretary decided to quietly create his own intelligence-gathering fiefdom bypassing the spy agency altogether and, in some cases, duplicating its job.
The new Pentagon unit, drawn from the department's Defense Intelligence Agency, has been secretly working on counterterrorism missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, gathering intelligence just like the CIA. The Washington Post reports the Pentagon's clandestine teams have been involved in traditional CIA tasks, from interrogating prisoners, to scouting potential targets, to recruiting foreign spies.
The breadth of the Defense Department's espionage portfolio has significantly shifted to include surreptitious missions in both friendly and unfriendly states.
The budget for the new espionage branch comes from what the Pentagon calls "reprogrammed" funds. Formerly, setting up spy operations involved coordination within the intelligence community. That means the Pentagon was supposed to work in complement with the CIA so each would not stumble over the other.
But it's no secret that Mr. Rumsfeld has been frustrated with what Pentagon officials describe as the slow-moving, understaffed, risk-averse modus operandi of the intelligence agency. It's also no secret that the Pentagon leader vigorously opposed the creation of a national intelligence coordinator to oversee all government intelligence programs, as recommended by the 9/11 Commission. God forbid that the Defense Department should relinquish any of its intelligence powers.
Certainly no one questions the need for more "human intelligence" to aid military operations. In fact, reliance on electronic eavesdropping and satellites rather than actual people has been a problem for the Pentagon for many years. But Mr. Rumsfeld's secret approach is more than troubling. It is the culmination of what one former Defense official termed "a giant turf battle," and nothing less than another maneuver by the least trustworthy member of an administration determined to evade the congressional oversight normally reserved for CIA missions.
After disclosure of Mr. Rumsfeld's spy game, Pentagon officials rushed up Capitol Hill to "remind" key Republican committee chairmen that the operation had indeed been disclosed to certain lawmakers, but their assurances were less than persuasive.
Congress, if no one else, must guard against this type of foreign military operation. History has shown that ventures made without debate and rigorous questioning have a way of backfiring. Just look at what happened in Iraq.