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Profile: Strategic Support Branch, or Project Icon
Strategic Support Branch, or Project Icon was a participant or observer in the following events:
In October 2001, the Pentagon establishes what is later known as the Strategic Support Branch (SSB), or Project Icon, to provide Rumsfeld with tools for “full spectrum of humint [human intelligence] operations” in “emerging target countries such as Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia, Philippines and Georgia.” It become functional in April 2002. It is said that Rumsfeld hopes the program will end his “near total dependence on CIA.” According to Assistant Secretary of Defense Thomas O’Connell, a possible scenario for which the Strategic Support Branch might be called to action would be if a “hostile country close to our borders suddenly changes leadership… We would want to make sure the successor is not hostile.” When SBB’s existence is revealed in early 2005 (see January 23, 2005), the Pentagon denies that the program was established to sideline the CIA, insisting that its sole purpose is to provide field operational units with intelligence obtained through prisoner interrogations, scouting and foreign spies, and from other units in the field. [CNN, 1/24/2005; Washington Post, 1/25/2005] As an arm of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) Defense Human Intelligence Service, SSB operates under the Defense Secretary’s direct control and consists of small teams of case officers, linguists, interrogators and technical specialists who work alongside special operations forces. [Washington Post, 1/23/2005] However some SBB members are reported to be “out-of-shape men in their fifties and recent college graduates on their first assignments,” according to sources interviewed by the Washington Post. [Washington Post, 1/23/2005] When the SSB’s existence is revealed in 2005, its commander is Army Col. George Waldroup, who reports to Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). SSB’s policies are determined by Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone. [CNN, 1/24/2005] Critics say Waldroup lacks the necessary experience to run SSB and note that he was once investigated by Congress when he was a mid-level manager at the INS. SSB includes two Army squadrons of Delta Force; another Army squadron, code-named Gray Fox; an Air Force human intelligence unit; and the Navy SEAL unit known as Team Six. According to sources interviewed by the Washington Post, the branch is funded using “reprogrammed” funds that do not have explicit congressional authority or appropriation. [Washington Post, 1/23/2005] However, this will be denied by the Pentagon when the unit’s existence is revealed. [CNN, 1/24/2005]
President George Bush issues an executive order transferring control of the covert operations unit “Gray Fox” from the US Army to Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in Tampa at the insistence of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s office. [New Yorker, 1/24/2005 Sources: unnamed former high-level intelligence official interviewed by Seymour Hersh] Gray Fox becomes part of the Strategic Support Branch (SSB), a unit jointly run by the Defense Department and the DIA (see October 2001-April 2002).
The US Senate confirms the nomination of Stephen Cambone as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, a new Pentagon position that was created by the 2002 Defense Authorization Act (see December 2, 2002). [US Department of Defense, 4/15/2004] Cambone now oversees “assets that used to belong elsewhere, most notably a secret intelligence organization [code-named ‘Gray Fox’] that specializes in large-scale ‘deep penetration’ missions in foreign countries, especially tapping communications and laying the groundwork for overt military operations.” Asked by the Washington Post about the transfer of Gray Fox a few months later, Cambone responds, “We won’t talk about those things.” [Washington Post, 4/20/2003] He also sets the priorities for the Strategic Support Branch, a military unit running covert operations established shortly after 9/11 that Gray Fox is a part of (see October 2001-April 2002). [Washington Post, 1/23/2005] Cambone is not well-liked among the military and civilian intelligence bureaucrats in the Pentagon, “essentially because he [has] little experience in running intelligence programs,” New Yorker magazine will later report. [New Yorker, 5/24/2004] In fact, Cambone will become so hated and feared inside the Pentagon as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s loyal “hatchet man” that one anonymous general will later tell the Army Times, “If I had one round left in my revolver, I’d take out Stephen Cambone”. [CounterPunch, 2/7/2006]
A Pentagon memo states that agents recruited as part of the Pentagon’s covert operations program, the Strategic Support Branch (see October 2001-April 2002), “may include ‘notorious figures’ whose links to the US government would be embarrassing if disclosed.” [Washington Post, 1/23/2005]
Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone issues a set of new guidelines reinterpreting the Pentagon’s reporting requirements to Congress on its covert operations. The new guidelines were drafted by the Pentagon’s legal counsel at the insistence of Donald Rumsfeld. The Washington Post reports: “Under Title 10, for example, the Defense Department must report to Congress all ‘deployment orders,’ or formal instructions from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to position US forces for combat. But [the guidelines]… state that special operations forces may ‘conduct clandestine HUMINT operations… before publication’ of a deployment order, rendering notification unnecessary. Pentagon lawyers also define the ‘war on terror’ as ongoing, indefinite and global in scope. That analysis effectively discards the limitation of the defense secretary’s war powers to times and places of imminent combat. Under Title 50, all departments of the executive branch are obliged to keep Congress ‘fully and currently informed of all intelligence activities.’ The law exempts ‘traditional… military activities’ and their ‘routine support.’ [The set of new guidelines]… interprets ‘traditional’ and ‘routine’ more expansively than his predecessors.” Assistant Secretary of Defense Thomas O’Connell, who oversees special operations policy, explains to the Washington Post, “Many of the restrictions imposed on the Defense Department were imposed by tradition, by legislation, and by interpretations of various leaders and legal advisors.” He then asserts that over time these mechanisms unnecessarily watered down the Pentagon’s authority. “The interpretations take on the force of law and may preclude activities that are legal. In my view, many of the authorities inherent to [the Defense Department]… were winnowed away over the years,” he says. In addition to its efforts to evade congressional oversight, the Pentagon also seeks to diminish its dependency on the CIA. According to written guidelines acquired by the Washington Post, the Defense Department will no longer await consent from the agency’s headquarters for the human intelligence missions it “coordinates” with the CIA, instead it will work directly with agency officers in the field. The Pentagon will consider a mission “coordinated” after it has given the agency 72 hours. [Washington Post, 1/23/2005; Washington Post, 1/25/2005]
The Washington Post reports that according to “[f]our people with firsthand knowledge” the Strategic Support Branch (see October 2001-April 2002) has “begun operating under Network Centric Operations Industry Consortium ‘non-official cover’ overseas, using false names and nationalities” in missions that “skirt the line between clandestine and covert operations.” Under US law, “clandestine” operations are conducted in secret, while “covert” operations are more sensitive and are denied by the government if revealed. Covert actions require a written “finding” by the president affirming its necessity with prompt notification of senior congressional leaders of both parties. [Washington Post, 1/23/2005]
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