Alleged Private Spy Ring Prompts DoD Study

WASHINGTON (AFP)- Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered a study of U.S. “information operations” after a Pentagon official allegedly set up a spy network with private contractors, a spokesman said March 23.

A small team of senior military and defense officials will “conduct a quick look assessment” and report their findings within 15 days, press secretary Geoff Morrell said at a news conference.

He said the assessment would look at the role of private contractors in information operations, which covers a range of efforts including psychological warfare and public relations.

The study was “designed to provide the secretary with a factual baseline from which to determine whether or not systematic problems exist and, if so, proper scope and focus of subsequent corrective action,” Morrell said.

He said a separate Pentagon investigation was examining allegations that a Defense Department official had hired private contractors in an unofficial spy ring to help with manhunts of militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The official reportedly set up the network under the guise of an information-gathering program.

“There is an ongoing investigation by investigative bodies in this building, including the [Inspector General], in the particulars of that case,” Morrell said.

The allegations were reported first in The New York Times. Some U.S. officials told the paper they were concerned that the Defense Department employee, Michael Furlong, was running an “off-the-books” spy operation and were not sure who condoned and supervised his work.

It was possible that Furlong’s network might have been improperly financed by diverting money from a program designed to gather information about the region, according to the paper.

Gates on March 22 said the role of private contractors in collecting intelligence in the field was “something I need to know more about.”

Congress approved about $520 million for “information operations” for fiscal 2010 and takes “a great deal of interest” in the subject, Morrell said.

A declassified Pentagon document written in 2003 stressed the importance of information operations, referring to efforts to plant stories in foreign media and plans to destroy enemy computer networks if necessary.

The document, “Information Operations Roadmap,” was signed by former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and released in 2006.