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The Point | Pentagon spy effort serves a purpose

Military spies have different functions from their CIA counterparts. In the war on terrorism, they are needed.

Last year at this time, reporting a story in the Philippines, I flew on a small plane from Zamboanga City to the tiny island of Jolo, a speck of green in a world of pale blue so bright that it hurts your eyes.

The Filipino marines were at war on Jolo with the indigenous Islamist guerrilla organization Abu Sayyaf, and I was there to talk to one of the unit's toughest commanders, Col. (now Gen.) Juancho Sabban.

Sabban was proud of the success he and his men were having on Jolo, and he invited me and my traveling companion, the filmmaker David Keane, to spend the night on the beach at a forward base on the tip of the island.

The road from his headquarters to the beach camp had been much-contested until fairly recently, Sabban said, but it was now "almost completely safe." I was focusing on the word almost when, confirming my doubts, my transport proved to be an armored personnel carrier sandwiched between two truckloads of heavily armed marines. Keane asked if he could stand in the vehicle's gun turret with his camera on the drive, which prompted a spirited discussion, and a refusal. The marines did not want to give up the firing position.

We arrived at the remote base without incident. I wandered around, gazing out at a seemingly endless sea and feeling as far removed from my own world as could be. Then I was surprised to hear the music of Bob Dylan playing in a nearby palm grove. Wandering over, I discovered an encampment of Americans with civilian haircuts and clothing. The men were soldiers, clearly a special forces unit of some kind. While polite, they were not eager to chat with a voice from home - particularly one belonging to the American press.

I thought of that remote encampment last week when it was reported that the new defense secretary, Robert Gates, was considering a plan to dismantle the Pentagon's clandestine military spy network.

Given the great unpopularity of Donald H. Rumsfeld, and the glee in many quarters that greeted his departure in January, Gates has been getting high marks in his first months just for not being his predecessor. He is diplomatic where Rumsfeld was brusque, collegial where Rumsfeld was imperious, and flexible where Rumsfeld was stubborn. Gates moved resolutely to deal with the deplorable scandal over treatment of wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In this climate, any move he makes to change his predecessor's policies is likely to be greeted with further applause. This should not include taking apart Rumsfeld's spy network.

We are engaged in a long-term war with a global terrorist threat. While the ongoing struggle in Iraq has attracted the most attention - some would say has distracted us from the real fight - the true war, the one that will likely last for decades, is a low-key conflict scattered all over the planet.

It is first and foremost an intelligence war, in that our goal is to penetrate terrorist cells and prevent them from carrying out atrocities such as those of Sept. 11. It is a different kind of war, one that relies on relationships with other nations and cultures, where the United States works quietly through a host of far-flung allies.

One of the oldest conflicts in the intelligence world is between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon. Each has its own mandate, but they do overlap. The CIA is charged with gathering strategic intel, while the military needs tactical intel. As one longtime military officer put it to me: "The CIA wants to know if Osama bin Laden is developing a nuclear weapon; the military wants to know where he goes out for a hamburger."

These needs overlap when there is a specific mission. For instance, when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized in 1979, the soldiers planning the rescue mission needed specific information: How many guards were at the gates? What kind of weapons were they carrying? Where in Tehran could they buy trucks and hide a commando unit overnight? When the CIA couldn't deliver - the agency has never been good at such work - the newly formed Delta Force slipped several of its own operators into Tehran to do the job.

That's the equivalent of what went on under Rumsfeld. Impatient with the inability of the civilian spy agency to give him what he needed, the defense secretary decided to do it himself. He began placing small units of special operators all over the world, dubbed "military liaison elements" (MLEs), some in the field, some in U.S. embassies.

This has sometimes meant invading the turf of CIA station chiefs, who traditionally control all U.S. spy activities in their region. The civilian spies tend to regard their military counterparts as unsophisticated klutzes, and some are.

"In any operation of that size you can find certain knuckleheads who screw up, and critics will seize upon these examples to complain that the whole program is a joke," said Michael Sheehan, a former special operations officer who served as special ambassador for counterterrorism in the State Department during the Clinton administration.

Under Rumsfeld, there were fears that the program was created for one reason: to evade congressional oversight. Pentagon officials deny it.

Sheehan sees real value in MLEs: "The military does have certain peculiar requirements, and the existence of this military network, which has been in place now for a few years, is invaluable. Gates would be crazy to eliminate it."

Gates is a lifelong CIA man. Even though he today commands the U.S. military, he has written and spoken of his concern about the military spreading tentacles into the spy realm. But this is about more than turf.

We are no longer in the Cold War, when spying meant monitoring the activities of an empire such as the Soviet Union. Infiltrating and targeting terror cells is work that requires boots on the ground - as with the unit in Jolo - who have relationships with the local military and police, who know the language, the culture, and the politics in obscure theaters of operation, and who are capable not only of gathering intel but acting upon it fast.

Some of the things Rumsfeld did were right.