Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The CIA Shakeup

In July, 2004 Marc Ruel Gerecht wrote a critique of the CIA in the Weekly Standard accusing it of failing to develop the operational methods necessary to penetrate its targets. Gerecht was a former CIA officer now with the American Enterprise Institute. He believed the core problem facing the CIA was there was "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." Most of America's agents were foreigners on the periphery of enemy secrets handled by American bureaucrats unable or unwilling to make the make the final run in.

When I entered the CIA in 1985, Aldrich Ames's treason and the Iran-contra scandal were in gestation, yet headquarters in Langley, Virginia, seemed a happy place. ... But in practice the good old days were mostly a myth. For the Directorate of Operations, the 1980s were years of routine operational dishonesty, whose principal source was a defective system for determining who got promoted.

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. ... 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 is also absolutely true that George Tenet's CIA failed to penetrate Saddam Hussein's inner circle. And only penetrations at the highest political and scientific levels could have possibly given us evidence that Saddam Hussein had decided to give up his billion-dollar, decades-long quest to develop weapons of mass destruction. (And note the plural "penetrations": Against such a proficient counterespionage regime, there would have to be more than one penetration, assessed for protracted periods of time, before it would be possible to believe that the information from these assets was not disinformation.) But it is also true that the CIA failed to penetrate Moscow's inner circle in the Cold War and that the great agents we did have (the most valuable were probably scientists) were all volunteers. The CIA was not similarly lucky with Saddam Hussein's regime, whose Orwellian grip on Iraqi society was as savage as Joseph Stalin's on the USSR. It's a very good bet that the CIA has not had a single penetration in the inner circle of any of its totalitarian adversaries. The same is probably true for the French, British, and Israeli foreign intelligence services. In other words, one simply cannot judge the caliber of a Western espionage service by its ability to penetrate the power circles of totalitarian regimes. The difficulties are just overwhelming.

One can, however, grade intelligence services on whether they have established operational methods that would maximize the chances of success against less demanding targets--for example, against Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, which is by definition an ecumenical organization constantly searching for holy-warrior recruits. It is by this standard that George Tenet failed and the CIA will continue to fail, assuming it maintains its current practices. But the odds are poor that the White House, Congress, and the press will condemn the Agency for its failure to develop a workable strategy and tactics against the Islamic terrorist target.

The question is whether Porter Goss, having confirmed Gerecht's critique will prove his prediction of continued executive inaction wrong. Goss explained his estimate of the CIA to Gordon Corera of the BBC.

There is no doubt that Mr Goss is a man of strong views. When I interviewed him earlier this year, before he was nominated to run the CIA, he made clear that he thought the Agency had failed in its "core mission".

"The core business of intelligence is spying", he told me. "That means close in access to the hard targets. That means a lot of risk. ...  In his view, it needed "clandestine officers who know how to run agents into hard target areas, all of the people skills, all of the tradecraft skills that go into this. "Those are things we sort of let go...we suddenly found ourselves disinvesting - not just not investing - but actually disinvesting in our core collection business [in the 1990s]." He warned that, as well as greater investment, a real shake-up was needed in the clandestine service that recruits spies, and throughout the intelligence community. As he put it, "This is not just [about] individuals or moving chairs. Some really serious changes" were needed.

A PBS interview with Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA) and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) seemed to confirm the general thrust of Goss's current shake up of the CIA with varying emphasis.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, what Jane and I both know is that the No. 1 problem at the Central Intelligence Agency today is the fact that we're pretty risk-averse out there. We're not doing a very good job of gathering intelligence through human assets. Porter Goss has committed himself during the hearing process to rebuild our human asset part of the Central Intelligence Agency from an intelligence-gathering standpoint. I don't know how he needs to do that. But I know this: I know what we've got out there in the last several years is not working. We know that we've had massive intelligence failures, and Jane and I both talked about this on TV, and virtually every member of the oversight committees in the House and Senate have talked about. So there are changes that must be made to correct the problems out there.

Who should go and who should stay is up to the management, and I don't think it's up to the oversight committee. So I'm fully supportive of Chairman Goss and his capacity now as director of the CIA to make sure that we rebuild that human -- our human intelligence aspect of the CIA, and to make what changes are necessary to accomplish that.

REP. JANE HARMAN: And it isn't clear to me, by the way, exactly where he's headed with these changes. I just want to say one thing about the human service, the spy service. It is true that we had an inadequate human intelligence capability in the '90s. I'm sure Saxby and I, we always have agreed on this and we still agree. But it is also true that this is being fixed since 9/11, and we're recruiting a lot more good people. I just saw those people in the field in the Middle East, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Israel last week. I saw the new recruits and I saw the chiefs of station in these states, and what I'm saying to you, Margaret, is they're doing a lot better.

But at the moment, what it looks like, sadly, Margaret, is that the directorate of operations, which is a spy service which has begun to heal itself since 9/11, is the target of this purge, and it doesn't make much sense to me, given the fact that these are not the folks who brought us the faulty intelligence reports that led up to 9/11, or led to the mistaken view that they were stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in Iran... in Iraq.

Whether or not the CIA has in fact 'healed itself', both Chambliss and Harman essentially seem to agree that the agency was in deep trouble in the 1990s, specifically in the area of human intelligence gathering, that is, spying. The debate between Chambliss and Harman centered on whether Goss was acting inappropriately -- in a partisan manner for example -- but not over whether he had a real job in front of him.