Pentagon builds military network to rival the CIA

New York

The Pentagon is planning a major expansion of America's international spy network, creating a new generation of undercover agents to get a better handle on critical issues such as China's growing military might and the rising influence of fundamentalist militants in Africa.

The enlarged military spy ring will rival the civilian Central Intelligence Agency in size, marking a major expansion in America's espionage network – something that reflects the Obama administration's preference for undercover operations over conventional force.

The US has conducted more than 300 drone strikes since Barack Obama took office in 2008, killing thousands in missions managed by the CIA and the military.

But with the CIA increasingly stretched, the Pentagon is planning to deploy hundreds of additional spies to work alongside civilian colleagues and elite military commando units, according to the Washington Post.

The expansion will change the complexion of the Defence Intelligence Agency, the military intelligence body which is expected to end up with as many as 1,600 intelligence "collectors" around the world. Unlike the CIA, the DIA does not have the authority to conduct drone strikes.

Although the total includes officials who do not work undercover, the newspaper cited unnamed US officials who said the bulk of the growth would come from a new cohort of spies trained by the CIA but directed in their activities by defence chiefs.

Their focus, given the Pentagon's priorities as US forces wind down in Iraq and Afghanistan, will be on hot-button issues such as fundamentalism in Africa, the growth of China's military, and weapons transfers by the secretive North Korean regime.

The DIA's team of undercover agents has already reportedly expanded to about 500, a figure that is expected to swell to as much as 1,000 before the decade is out. To avoid friction, the new agents will work closely with local CIA station bosses, who will also be able to block missions.

Casting a wider net of spies will not come easy, however. For one, defence intelligence bosses will have to work out how, given the limited number of slots at American embassies around the world, to find overseas jobs for the new covert agents. The old ruse of creating false identities and having agents live beyond embassy walls not only requires more work, but also means the operatives don't have diplomatic immunity.

According to the Post, the expansion will be financed from existing budgets.

A former senior military official involved in the planning told the Post: "The stars have been aligning on this for a while." The paper reported that the project was being overseen by Michael Vickers, the top Pentagon intelligence official.

Approval for greater co-ordination between the Pentagon and the CIA was given by the Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, and General David Petraeus, the former head of the CIA who left abruptly last month following revelations of an extra-marital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.

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