Americans influenced by the cynicism about the behavior of the U.S. national security state that pervades popular culture will perhaps be surprised to discover that U.S. ambassadors possess a power known as chief of mission authority and as representatives of the president must give clearance to U.S. government personnel working in foreign countries. -- This bulwark against rogue operations by U.S. agencies in foreign countries is now under pressure from Donald Rumsfelds increasingly aggressive Pentagon, which would like to be able to deploy special forces teams quickly to foreign countries without consulting ambassadors, the Washington Post reported Thursday in a front-page story. -- In addition to its inherent importance, the case is being watched closely as an indicator of how the new U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, will defend the turf of the State Dept. in battles with the DoD, write Ann Scott Tyson and Dana Priest of the Post....
PENTAGON SEEKING LEEWAY OVERSEAS
By Ann Scott Tyson and Dana Priest
** Operations Could Bypass Envoys **
February 24, 2005
The Pentagon is promoting a global counterterrorism plan that would allow Special Operations forces to enter a foreign country to conduct military operations without explicit concurrence from the U.S. ambassador there, administration officials familiar with the plan said.
The plan would weaken the long-standing "chief of mission" authority under which the U.S. ambassador, as the president's top representative in a foreign country, decides whether to grant entry to U.S. government personnel based on political and diplomatic considerations.
The Special Operations missions envisioned in the plan would largely be secret, known to only a handful of officials from the foreign country, if any.
The change is included in a highly classified "execute order" -- part of a broad strategy developed since Sept. 11, 2001, to give the U.S. Special Operations Command new flexibility to track down and destroy terrorist networks worldwide, the officials said.
"This is a military order on a global scale, something that hasn't existed since World War II," said a counterterrorism official with lengthy experience in special operations. He and other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the proposal is classified.
The Pentagon sees the greater leeway as vital to enabling commando forces to launch operations quickly and stealthily against terrorist groups without often time-consuming interagency debate, said administration officials familiar with the plan. In the Pentagon view, the campaign against terrorism is a war and requires similar freedom to prosecute as in Iraq, where the military chain of command coordinates closely with the U.S. Embassy but is not subject to traditional chief-of-mission authority.
The State Department and the CIA have fought the proposal, saying it would be dangerous to dilute the authority of the U.S. ambassador and CIA station chief to oversee U.S. military and intelligence activities in other countries.
Over the past two years, the State Department has repeatedly blocked Pentagon efforts to send Special Operations forces into countries surreptitiously and without ambassadors' formal approval, current and former administration officials said.
The State Department assigned counterterrorism coordinator J. Cofer Black, who also led the CIA's counterterrorism operations after Sept. 11, as its point person to try to thwart the Pentagon's initiative.
"I gave Cofer specific instructions to dismount, kill the horses and fight on foot -- this is not going to happen," said Richard L. Armitage, describing how as deputy secretary of state -- a job he held until earlier this month -- he and others stopped six or seven Pentagon attempts to weaken chief-of-mission authority.
In one instance, U.S. commanders tried to dispatch Special Forces soldiers into Pakistan without gaining ambassadorial approval but were rebuffed by the State Department, said two sources familiar with the event. The soldiers eventually entered Pakistan with proper clearance but were ordered out again by the ambassador for what was described as reckless behavior. "We had SF [Special Forces] guys in civilian clothes running around a hotel with grenades in their pockets," said one source involved in the incident, who opposes the Pentagon plan.
Other officials cited another case to illustrate their concern. In the past year, they said, a group of Delta Force soldiers left a bar at night in a Latin American country and shot an alleged assailant but did not inform the U.S. Embassy for several days.
In Pentagon policy circles, questions about chief-of-mission authority are viewed as part of a broad reassessment of how to organize the U.S. government optimally to fight terrorism. In this view, alternative models of U.S. military, diplomatic and intelligence authority -- possibly tailored to specific countries and situations -- should be considered.
Pentagon officials familiar with the issue declined to speak on the record out of concern that issues of bureaucratic warfare would overshadow a serious policy question.
Debate over the issue reignited last month, as Armitage and then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell departed and Condoleezza Rice prepared to replace him, said an administration official familiar with the matter. When the Pentagon refused to change language in the execute order, that put the issue before Rice.
In the past week, however, she has made it clear that she intends to protect the existing chief-of-mission authority. "Rice is resolute in holding to chief-of-mission authority over operations the way it exists now, for a very rational reason -- you need someone who can coordinate," said a senior State Department official.
Some officials have viewed the debate as an early test of how Rice will defend State Department views on a range of matters in bureaucratic infighting with the Pentagon.
The State Department's concerns are twofold, officials said: Conducting military operations would be perilous without the broad purview and oversight of the U.S. ambassador, and it would set a precedent that other U.S. agencies could follow.
"The chief-of-mission authority is a pillar of presidential authority overseas," said the administration official familiar with the issue. "When you start eroding that, it can have repercussions that are . . . risky. Particularly, military action is one of the most important decisions a president makes . . . and that is the sort of action that should be taken with deliberation."
U.S. ambassadors have full responsibility for supervising all U.S. government employees in that country, and when granting country clearances they are supposed to consider various factors, including ramifications for overall bilateral relations. For example, one reason the U.S. military never conducted aggressive operations against al Qaeda in Pakistan was a fear that such actions would incite the local population to overthrow the fragile, nuclear-capable government of President Pervez Musharraf.
The rift between the Pentagon and State Department over chief-of-mission authority parallels broader concerns about the push to empower the Special Operations Command in the war on terrorism. The CIA, for example, has concerns that new intelligence-gathering initiatives by the military could weaken CIA station chiefs and complicate U.S. espionage abroad.
Without close coordination with the CIA, former senior intelligence officials said, the military could target someone whom the CIA is secretly surveilling and disrupt a flow of valuable intelligence.