The US military has been posting special operations personnel at select US embassies for about two years to provide military commanders with "situational awareness," officials said on Wednesday.
The unusual arrangement was first disclosed by the New York Times, which said the so-called Military Liaison Elements are tasked with gathering intelligence on terrorists and preparing for potential missions against them.
They have been active at embassies for the past couple of years, reporting to US commanders responsible for military activities in the region and to the head of the Special Operations Command, said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.
General Bryan Brown, the Special Operations Command chief, said the concept was developed several years ago to provide "situational awareness of key areas around the world."
"We train them, we organize and equip them, and they go out," he said. "They work in the embassy and their job is making sure they have situational awareness of everything that is going on in that country, or that region."
"Every one of them has different responsibilities and requirements," he testified at a congressional hearing.
He said they work very closely with the CIA station chief in the country, and that for the most part the arrangement has been successful.
The Times said they have been sent to more than a dozen embassies in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America where terrorists are thought to be operating, planning attacks, raising money or seeking safe haven.
Their presence in Paraguay came to the attention of senior embassy officials only after Special Operations personnel killed a man who tried to rob them as they stepped out of a taxi 18 months ago, the Times said.
Brown said he did not know for sure but he doubted that their presence in the country had not been reported to the embassy.
"We never, ever deploy any forces into a country without the approval of the embassy," he said. "We never have, and never will," he said at a subcommittee hearing in the House of Representatives.
Whitman said that the Special Operations teams are assigned to embassies in select countries with "the full approval, knowledge and coordination with the ambassador."
He said their presence has to be cleared by the embassy, and they do not hide the fact that they are military personnel.
The Military Liaison Elements can consist of a single individual or a small team, he said.
They are distinct from US military attaches, who traditionally deal with the host country's military and report back to the Defense Intelligence Agency.