House chairman backs Defense intelligence unit

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., Monday dismissed as "nonsense" the notion that the Pentagon's efforts to enhance its intelligence capabilities with a new, internal intelligence unit are "sinister and illegitimate."

In a statement issued late Monday, Hunter said the war against terror demands that the Pentagon, as well as other agencies with intelligence missions, improve human intelligence assets.

"The war on terrorism has made it clear that we need to urgently improve our nation's human intelligence capabilities, including those of the Department of Defense when conducting military operations," Hunter said. "In a battlefield with no real boundaries or identifiable enemy, timely and accurate intelligence is often the most effective defense for our troops in the field. Simply put, enhancing human intelligence will save American lives."

But other lawmakers called for hearings into the matter, citing a report in the Sunday Washington Post that said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had created the Strategic Support Branch to end "near total dependence" on the CIA for human intelligence.

California Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher Monday called on Hunter to hold hearings on the new intelligence unit, asserting its creation raises a number of questions the committee should examine.

Tauscher said the issue raises the potential for the new unit to duplicate the CIA's human intelligence mission.

Tauscher also questioned how the new unit would fit into the intelligence overhaul enacted last year, as well as funding and congressional oversight of the department's new intelligence activities.

"I believe that a hearing is both appropriate and necessary to answer these questions," Tauscher wrote in the Monday letter to Hunter.

On the Senate side, fellow California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein called on the Senate Intelligence Committee to hold a hearing into the matter.

"I think that it is within the oversight responsibility of the Intelligence Committee to have answers to these questions," she said in a statement released yesterday, adding that she had sent a letter requesting the hearing to Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

In a separate letter to Rumsfeld, Feinstein asked him to confirm or deny the reports.

In a statement issued Sunday, Pentagon chief spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said there is no unit directly reporting to Rumsfeld for clandestine operations as described in the Washington Post article, and the Pentagon is not attempting to "bend" statutes to fit desired activities, as suggested in the article.

However, Di Rita acknowledged "it is accurate and should not be surprising that the Department of Defense is attempting to improve its long-standing human intelligence capability."

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