If not for the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, most Americans probably never would have heard of Stephen Cambone. For more than a year, Cambone has served as the first-ever undersecretary of defense for intelligence, but he has lived a cloistered existence at the Pentagon. During most of his infrequent public appearances on Capitol Hill, Cambone has been a silent presence hovering over the shoulder of his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But then came Abu Ghraib. Last month, the Senate Armed Services Committee called Cambone to testify about the role military intelligence officers played in the treatment -- and mistreatment -- of inmates at the Iraqi prison.
His testimony was less than illuminating. Cambone, the Pentagon's newly minted intelligence chief, repeatedly maintained that he was unaware of the "scope and scale" of the torture at the prison, site of perhaps the largest military intelligence operation in Iraq, until he read Major General Antonio Taguba's report in early May. This, even though investigations into the abuse had been underway for months. He insisted that detention policy was the province of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, even though he told Congress that Major General George Miller, the head of the Guantanamo Bay prison complex, visited Iraq in August 2003 "with my encouragement, to determine if the flow of information to [General Ricardo Sanchez's command] and back to the subordinate commands could be improved." Furthermore, the Abu Ghraib intelligence chief Colonel Thomas Pappas reportedly followed up on Miller's recommendations with a briefing memo titled "Draft Update for the Secretary of Defense."
If Cambone's testimony sounds murky, it's indicative of the lack of clarity that has surrounded his entire office, the Pentagon's newest senior post. Cambone's position is merely supposed to consolidate oversight of the Pentagon's intelligence assets like the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the intelligence branches of the uniformed services. "That's not intrinsically objectionable," says Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists, "except for the fact that the arrangement is so lacking in transparency." Asked if he understands what exactly Cambone's office does, a senior aide to the Senate Armed Services Committee -- which helped establish the position -- confesses, "That's hard to say."
In fact, since Cambone's March 2003 confirmation by the Senate, he and Rumsfeld have spent far more energy explaining what the job isn't -- that is, a rival to the director of central intelligence (DCI). The DCI is the titular head of the intelligence community, but he has budgetary and executive control over only the CIA, which he runs directly. The problem is that the CIA controls only about 12 percent of the estimated $40 billion intelligence budget, while Pentagon-based intelligence services represent about 85 percent. (The difference is made up by the smaller agencies.) Previously, the various Pentagon intelligence services didn't have a single official overseeing them. Now they do -- Cambone. That change has prompted some to suggest the new undersecretary represents an alternative power center in the intelligence community. "What the creation of [Cambone's] office has done is to shift the intelligence community's center of gravity further into the Pentagon," says Aftergood.
Indeed, despite Cambone's and Rumsfeld's denials, Cambone probably wouldn't have been tapped for the position if Rumsfeld wasn't interested in wielding more control over the nation's intelligence policy. As one of Rumsfeld's closest aides and earliest hires, Cambone's various tasks have all had a single overarching goal, according to his current and former Pentagon colleagues: to ensure that Rumsfeld's will is properly carried out within the Pentagon bureaucracy.
The Pentagon's increasing assertiveness on intelligence matters is already cause for concern, as Abu Ghraib shows. But there's a broader issue beyond the scandal. The rise of a new intelligence czar at the Pentagon sets the stage for another round of bruising bureaucratic turf wars between the Department of Defense and the CIA -- one with large implications for the war on terrorism -- at a time when Langley, weakened by George Tenet's abrupt departure last week, is ill-prepared to do battle with Rumsfeld and his deputies.
In a rare interview, Cambone -- a longtime defense wonk and veteran of George H.W. Bush's Pentagon -- is emphatic that he's not a rival to the DCI. "I can't imagine that's true," he says. He describes his 120-member office as focused on "workaday and relatively unglamorous kinds of things." Its foremost responsibility, according to Cambone, is to ensure that military commanders have the intelligence they need, which in turn guarantees that "the other [intelligence] agencies are concentrating on the right things." (He declined to discuss Abu Ghraib.) Beyond focusing on immediate battlefield needs, Cambone makes sure the Pentagon civilian leadership also has the intelligence it requires. He emphasizes that his office does not itself perform either intelligence collection or analysis. But, in the event of disagreement between the intelligence agencies, Cambone will explore the roots of the dispute and "encourage the community to engage in those comparative analyses."
There has never been a senior Pentagon official with this much direct involvement in intelligence matters. Previously, the Pentagon's role in compiling the intelligence budget was spread out among officials from a variety of military intelligence services, all of which contributed to the budget request that the DCI's staff would compile. Now, Cambone's office provides a solitary mechanism to ensure that the defense secretary's interests are reflected in the intelligence budget. He and the CIA's deputy director for community management sit down to hammer out budget priorities, a process Cambone describes as "highly collegial."
But others aren't so sure relations between the Pentagon and the CIA will remain so cordial. "By definition," says Aftergood, the creation of Cambone's position "means that there's going to be a lot more high-level intelligence policy-making going on at the Pentagon. That, in turn, means that U.S. intelligence will take on an increasingly military-oriented focus." Currently, military and civilian intelligence largely serve different roles: Most of the Pentagon's intelligence assets are tactical -- geared toward specific, short-term military operations rather than, say, running an agent over decades. But that may change. For one thing, Cambone isn't the tactical sort. "He's very strategically focused," says Torie Clarke, a former Pentagon spokeswoman and another member of Rumsfeld's brain trust. For another, the office itself is designed to look at the big picture. According to Cambone, the undersecretary is responsible for identifying what intelligence capabilities the Pentagon will need ten years out and ensuring that the department will have them. And that focus is broad. "It could be anything from technical capability to the kinds of human intelligence we might need to the type of analytic base we're going to need," Cambone says.
While Cambone envisions this long-term planning as "a shared exchange of information" with the CIA, it's not hard to see how the Pentagon's needs could diverge from Langley's, setting the stage for confrontations over resources and control of intelligence assets. Take human intelligence, key to the war on terrorism. "DOD, from an intel standpoint, they still don't really have a good undercover humint [human intelligence] capability," says a retired CIA veteran. But the Pentagon might decide that its own human intelligence capabilities need bolstering in the coming years -- something Cambone hints he's looking into -- and, at a time when massive budget deficits threaten to restrict the supply of new funding, the CIA might not take increased Pentagon encroachment on its premier function lying down.
There are already some signs that the Pentagon is moving aggressively into what have been traditional CIA functions. It has reportedly opened a new intelligence training center near the Tacoma, Washington, home of the 1st Special Forces Group. Some officials have argued for greater Special Forces control over battle-space preparation activities -- that is, the insertion of teams into enemy territory to establish safe areas and local intelligence assets in anticipation of larger military activity -- which the CIA typically performs. "For too long, the shooters have left intel for the spooks to do," one such official told "The Washington Times" earlier this year. "Our philosophy is: Everybody's an intelligence agent." And, while the pairing of military teams and CIA agents has produced notable successes -- such as the December capture of Saddam Hussein -- some see friction in the relationship. According to a knowledgeable military consultant in Afghanistan, CIA and Special Forces operatives have been unable to come to terms over who exactly is in control. "It's part of the reason why you don't have [Osama] bin Laden in hand," says the consultant. "No one's in charge." Neither Cambone nor the Pentagon's directorate of Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict would comment on the relationship between Special Forces and intelligence work.
Rumsfeld has repeatedly dismissed concerns that Cambone's office competes with the DCI. Such criticism, he said last week, "is made only by people who don't know what they are talking about." But exerting greater influence over intelligence policy has long been a Rumsfeld priority. At his January 2001 confirmation hearing, Rumsfeld emphasized the "importance of considerably improving our intelligence capabilities," and he hinted he didn't just mean military intelligence. In June 2002, the Pentagon's general counsel sent the Senate Armed Services Committee a letter requesting the establishment of a new intelligence office in the Pentagon, because, in the words of a Committee aide, "intelligence needs to be elevated to a higher importance than in the past, and [Rumsfeld] wants a single office to assist him in fulfilling the Defense intelligence responsibilities." The Pentagon assured the Committee, according to the aide, that "there would be no substantive change" in the Pentagon's relationship with the CIA.
The proposal got a critical push from Tenet. Tenet sent the committee a letter around the same time endorsing the new Pentagon office -- thereby undercutting concerns that Rumsfeld was out to establish an alternative DCI. According to a former intelligence official, however, Tenet just didn't much care. "George's attitude all along has been that he wants to run the CIA and doesn't care about the rest [of the intelligence community]," the official says.
The very fact that Rumsfeld selected Cambone for this new position indicates how important the office is to the secretary of defense. On the merits, Cambone's selection was "unconventional," as former Army Secretary Tom White puts it, "seeing as [Cambone] had no previous experience in the intelligence community." Inside the Pentagon, however, Cambone has the most important credential of all: He's one of Rumsfeld's closest confidantes. After a stint as an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Cambone served in the late '90s as staff director on two foreign policy commissions Rumsfeld chaired. Cambone's peers view him as a stand-in for his boss -- Rumsfeld's enforcer, without an agenda of his own. "On a number of things, Steve is the sounding board," according to a senior Defense official. "He gets a sense of how the secretary may approach things, and he'll look at something, not to say, 'This is right and this is wrong,' but to say, 'The secretary may want this and this question answered that you maybe haven't thought about.'"
That closeness has led Rumsfeld to entrust Cambone with numerous tasks at the Pentagon. He spearheaded the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review on overhauling America's defense posture. He toiled on the early 2002 Nuclear Posture Review that flirted with the idea of nuking hidden WMD facilities. And he helmed the Program Analysis and Evaluation office, where he reviewed defense programs for their utility to Rumsfeld's vision of networked, high-tech warfare. "Follow Cambone's bouncing ball -- where he went and what job he had -- and you see very clearly what the secretary's agenda was," says a former Defense official who worked closely with Cambone.
Cambone's latest bounce may end up being his last. He was once discussed as a potential successor to Tenet, but Abu Ghraib surely makes that impossible. A report expected next month from a top Army intelligence officer, Major General George Fay, will examine the conduct of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib in greater detail, and, while Fay lacks the authority to investigate his civilian or military superiors, congressional officials say they will be reviewing Fay's findings for indications of high-level approval of the abuse, tacit or otherwise. "I wouldn't be surprised if we have [Cambone] back up" to testify, says the senior Senate Armed Services Committee staffer.
But it's not Cambone -- nor even Rumsfeld -- who makes the office of undersecretary of defense for intelligence problematic. The problem is the office itself. The position allows the Pentagon to assert ever more influence over the nation's intelligence priorities at a time when the CIA is ill-positioned to serve as a counterweight. Tenet -- the second-longest serving DCI in history -- is gone, taking with him the CIA's chief of covert operations, Jim Pavitt. The new interim DCI, John McLaughlin, is a soft-spoken guy without much of a reputation for interagency combat. This summer, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the 9/11 Commission are expected to level new attacks on the CIA's recent performance. And, already, "The Washington Post" has wondered on its front page whether McLaughlin can "preserve[e] the CIA's status at the White House and among world leaders." If Tenet's departure leaves a "power vacuum" in the intelligence community, as "The New York Times" put it, Cambone and Rumsfeld are well positioned to fill it.
The ascendancy of Cambone's intelligence office may also foreclose on the option -- endorsed by the bipartisan Joint Congressional Inquiry into the September 11 attacks -- of putting a single, independent figure atop the entire intelligence community with the ability to move resources and issue directives that bind all the nation's intelligence services. As former DCI Robert Gates wrote in the "Times" in early June, "In the real world of Washington bureaucratic ... politics, there is no way the secretary of defense ... [is] going to hand those agencies over to an intelligence czar." A national intelligence czar might stand a chance of policing the turf battles that have led the intelligence agencies to fight each other almost as much as they have al Qaeda. But it looks like the secretary of defense has decided that, if there's going to be an intelligence czar, he'll pick up his mail at the Pentagon.
Spencer Ackerman is an assistant editor at The New Republic.
By Spencer Ackerman