Wednesday, July 14, 2004

It's Broke and Ain't Gonna be Fixed

Reuel Marc Gerecht's phenomenal article on the sorry state of US intelligence in the Weekly Standard has one major theme: that the CIA lacks the operational methods to penetrate its targets. He describes the heart of the problem as a reliance on recruited foreign agents of indifferent quality as the metric for promotion within the organization. A kind of bizarre sales target without a point or even a purpose.

Under this system, thousands of agents were recruited abroad neither for their intelligence-reporting potential nor their operational utility. They were put on the books--case officers often referred to the sport as "collecting scalps"--because that is how CIAoperatives earned promotion. With some exceptions--extraordinary handling of foreign agents could win you bonus points--the "head count" was the way to professional success. For most case officers, the Cold War was a backdrop for the constant search for an easy "developmental," somebody who could be quickly turned into a "recruitment" for the annual performance report.

It was busywork, a carnival on the periphery while the inner sanctum of the enemy remained inviolate. Nor is there is any bureaucratic probability that things will change. Those in charge today owe their positions to being agent bean counters par excellence -- salesmen of the month -- and are unlikely to alter the game.

The relatively young men who are poised to become the most senior officers of the clandestine service will likely be overwhelmingly from the Near East Division ... These men gained their professional identities in the 1980s. The odds aren't good that they think it necessary to overturn the structure that promoted them.

Yet Gerecht says the only way in to the enemy cave of secrets is by dedicated Americans willing to do it themselves, the riskiest of propositions and not the normal way of doing business. "And there is simply no way that case officers--who still today are overwhelmingly deployed overseas under official cover or, worse, at home in ever-larger task forces--can possibly meet, recruit, or neutralize the most dangerous targets in a sensible, sustainable way." You can't have Americans doing illegal things: what would the Supreme Court say? What is needed is:

a small group of men who seed themselves into these organizations. Some, probably most, of these men would need to be actual case officers--CIA employees--not foreign agents the CIA has recruited.

America needs spies. American spies. It is, of course the last thing either the CIA will do or Congressional oversight will demand. The Standard article goes on at great length to describe how the metrics of intelligence success have been politicized to the point that the issues being debated bear no resemblance to the requirements of the service. The September 11 Commission, for example, will focus on all the wrong things: on irrelevant trivia or upon grand, symbolic dicta. It is with a tinge of bitterness and not a little irony than Gerecht closes by saying:

Tenet, like Casey, will be damned for the wrong things. And if another 9/11 happens, we will start all over again, with more committees, investigations, recriminations, and blue-ribbon recommendations. Another director will come, and the Agency--in the press at least--will again be reborn. We can all be thankful, of course, that bin Ladenism will in the end be defeated not by the prowess of American intelligence, but by the democratization of the Middle East. Otherwise, we would be effectively defenseless against a small, tightly knit platoon of holy warriors who live to kill and die.

Or at least, that's the hope.