Last month, the House Intelligence Committee complained that the Department of Defense has blurred the distinction between traditional intelligence collection, which is subject to intelligence committee oversight, and clandestine military operations, which are not. Because they are labeled in a misleading manner, some DoD clandestine operations that are substantively the same as intelligence activities are evading the congressional oversight they are supposed to receive.
“In categorizing its clandestine activities,” the Committee said in its report on the 2010 intelligence bill, “DoD frequently labels them as ‘Operational Preparation of the Environment’ (OPE) to distinguish particular operations as traditional military activities and not as intelligence functions. The Committee observes, though, that overuse of the term has made the distinction all but meaningless.”
Operational Preparation of the Environment (OPE) is an elusive, somewhat mysterious concept, variously described as a form of foreign intelligence collection, covert action, unconventional warfare, or a prelude to any of these. The phrase does not appear in the otherwise comprehensive DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (pdf). It was mentioned in passing in the 2006 Posture Statement (pdf) of the U.S. Special Operations Command, but not in subsequent posture statements.
Some say OPE closely resembles human intelligence collection. OPE refers to “the ability of Defense to get into an area and know it prior to the conduct of military operations,” said Gen. Michael Hayden at his 2006 confirmation hearing to be Director of CIA. “An awful lot of those [OPE] activities… are not, in terms of tradecraft or other aspects, recognizably different than collecting human intelligence for a foreign intelligence purpose,” he said. “They look very much the same. Different authorities; somewhat different purposes; mostly indistinguishable activities.”
From another point of view, OPE is more akin to covert action. “There is often not a bright line between [covert action and] military activities to prepare the battlefield or the environment,” said DNI Dennis C. Blair in a written response to questions (pdf) about OPE in advance of his confirmation earlier this year (pp. 15-16).
Though it was neither intelligence collection nor covert action, “U.S. support to and in some cases leadership of irregular resistance to Japanese forces in the Philippine archipelago [in 1942-1945]… stands as a premier example of what military planners today call operational preparation of the environment,” according to a historical survey of unconventional warfare in the September 2007 Irregular Warfare Joint Operating Concept (pdf).
Perhaps the most extensive unclassified treatment of OPE (then still known as “operational preparation of the battlespace” or OPB) appears in a 2003 U.S. Army War College research paper, which noted that the term is “seldom used outside of Special Operations Forces channels.” OPE “consists of both pre-crisis activities (PCA) and, when authorized, advance force operations (AFO),” both of which are described by the author at some length. See “Combating Terrorism with Preparation of the Battlespace” (pdf) by Michael S. Repass, U.S. Army War College, April 2003. Further discussion appeared in “Leveraging Operational Preparation of the Environment in the GWOT” (pdf) by Maj. Michael T. Kenny, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2006. OPE should be reconceived as a stand-alone mission with its own doctrine, argued another research paper. See “Ending the Debate: Unconventional Warfare, Foreign Internal Defense, and Why Words Matter” (pdf) by D. Jones, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2006.
In any event, “DoD has shown a propensity to apply the OPE label where the slightest nexus of a theoretical, distant military operation might one day exist,” according to the House Intelligence Committee report last month. “Consequently, these activities often escape the scrutiny of the intelligence committees…. In the future, if DoD does not meet its obligations to inform the Committee of intelligence activities,” the House report concluded weakly, “the Committee will consider legislative action clarifying the Department’s obligation to do so.”