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The CIA also has far more contacts than the Pentagon among foreign intelligence services that can help with clandestine operations overseas, plus a global network of paid snitches on the ground. The agency "deals with everything from bottom feeders around the world to their governments on a routine basis," says a senior U.S. intelligence official. "Name a country anywhere, and [the CIA] can identify with a couple of telephone calls four or five people who will have a variety of skills to go into that country if it becomes a difficult place." Green Berets can operate covertly in a combat zone, but they would stick out like sore thumbs if they tried to infiltrate a foreign city, because they don't have the intelligence network in place to conceal themselves. "We have the ability to hide in plain sight, get in and get out before anybody figures out who we are," asserts a CIA source.
CIA officials, leery of being sucked into new scandals, insist that their covert operations are now subject to layers of oversight. Before an agency paramilitary team can be launched, the President must sign an intelligence "finding" that broadly outlines the operation to be performed. That finding, along with a more detailed description of the mission, is sent to the congressional intelligence committees. If they object to an operation, they can cut off its funds the next time the agency's budget comes up.
After approving a covert operation, Bush leaves the details of when and how to Tenet and his senior aides. For example, Administration officials say Bush did not specifically order the Predator attack in Yemen. But after Sept. 11 he gave the CIA the green light to use lethal force against al-Qaeda.
Rumsfeld, nevertheless, is intent on building his own covert force. He recently ordered the Special Operations Command to draw up secret plans to launch attacks against al-Qaeda around the world, and he intends to put an extra $1 billion in its budget next year for the job. Elsewhere in the Defense Department, small, clandestine units, coordinating little with the CIA, are busy organizing their own future battles. Several hundred Army agents, with what was originally known as the intelligence support activity, train to infiltrate foreign countries to scout targets. With headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Va., the unit is so secretive, it changes its cover name every six months. Delta Force has a platoon of about 100 intelligence operatives trained to sneak into a foreign country and radio back last-minute intelligence before the force's commandos swoop in for an attack.
The CIA isn't amused. "Don't replicate what you don't need to replicate," argues a senior U.S. intelligence officer. So who referees this dispute? In addition to running the CIA, Tenet, as director of Central Intelligence, is supposed to oversee all intelligence programs in the U.S. government. But the Pentagon, which controls more than 80% of the estimated $35 billion intelligence budget, doesn't want him meddling in its spying.
Ultimately, the man who chooses between them is the President. Both Tenet and Rumsfeld report directly to him. And thus far, Bush has been eager to give Tenet leeway to build up his commando force. With a major conflict looming in Iraq, units from all branches of the military are mobilizing to get a piece of the action. The CIA, at least, will have its own.