WASHINGTON — Three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA is still five years away from fielding the network of spies and spymasters it will need to defeat global terrorists.
That’s not the charge of one of the CIA’s growing legion of critics; that’s the agency’s own grim estimate. The assessment, given to the 9/11 Commission in testimony last spring by then-CIA director George Tenet, was “one of the most appalling comments we heard” in the entire investigation of the attacks, commission Chairman Thomas Kean said later. “We don’t have that much time.”
Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., President Bush’s choice to succeed Tenet, was even more pessimistic in the opening session of his confirmation hearing last week: “In terms of years, I don’t think five is enough,” Goss said. “On a scale of 10, we’re about three.”
When it comes to what the CIA calls HUMINT — human intelligence — an agency designed to penetrate rival superpowers has had to build the skills for the war on terrorism almost from scratch. Even today, with intelligence picking up warnings of new terror attacks, the CIA has about as many field officers countering that threat around the world — about 1,000 — as the FBI has field agents in New York City alone.
Intelligence collection is broken down into several disciplines called “ints,” including:
HUMINT: Human intelligence. The collection of intelligence from human sources, including defectors, voluntary sources, spies recruited to betray their country or organization, prisoners, diplomats, information from allied or liaison intelligence services.
IMINT: Imagery Intelligence. Information gleaned from aerial or satellite photographs of a foreign target, usually a base, factory or other stationary installation, but sometimes troop formations or mass graves.
SIGINT: Signals Intelligence. Interception of communications, sometimes requiring decryption. Can involve satellite or aircraft antennae, the physical tapping of a communications line, bugging of a room or hacking of a computer system. Probably the most important type of intelligence in terms of quantity and quality.
MASINT: Measures and Signatures Intelligence. If IMINT is the eyes and SIGINT the ears, then MASINT is the nose of intelligence. Space-based or airborne sensing devices are used to detect particles in the air, soil composition, water impurities, etc. Can be useful in detecting nuclear tests or determining what is being done inside a factory. Equipment can include laser sensors, optics, infrared devices, radars and radiation detectors.
Some at the CIA look back with nostalgia on the Cold War years, when veteran spies such as Allen Dulles and Richard Helms ran the agency. Yet most intelligence experts and historians agree that human intelligence wasn’t strong then and really never has been. Even at the height of the Reagan-era military and intelligence buildup, the CIA had perhaps a dozen highly placed human sources inside the Soviet Union and 30 or so lesser sources. And even that network was eliminated by the KGB virtually overnight thanks to the treachery of CIA mole Aldrich Ames in 1985.
Intelligence needs have changed
U.S. intelligence leads the world in technical capability — the spy satellites, eavesdropping devices, reconnaissance drones and supercomputers that can pinpoint missile bases, track troop movements and break enemy codes. But today’s enemies wield box-cutters, not ICBMs, and they travel in ones and twos, not armored divisions.
During the Cold War, CIA field officers went to embassy cocktail parties, trade shows and cultural exchanges looking for susceptible Soviets who might be persuaded to provide information to Washington. The terrorists waging today’s hot war don’t represent countries. If they show up at an embassy cocktail party, they’re most likely to do so in a bomb-laden truck.
Never have the CIA’s human intelligence failings been open to more public scrutiny. Top CIA officials have acknowledged publicly that they failed to recruit a single spy in Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s inner circle. And though the CIA set up a spy network in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, it did not yield the most tightly held secrets of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, before or after 9/11.
“How many times do you want to get briefed on al-Qaeda and be reminded we don’t have any human sources?” lamented Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz last month in a House Armed Services Committee hearing on combating terrorism. “We get mesmerized by the fact that we can read license plate numbers from space, and it’s pretty impressive. But the amount that we don’t know is enormous.”
As the Bush administration learned painfully in its struggles with Iraq and al-Qaeda, human intelligence is prone to human error, to charlatans who peddle false stories or pretend to know more than they actually do, to spy handlers who too readily believe them, and to bureaucratic slip-ups that let terrorist trails go cold.
A narrow line of defense
If human intelligence is the first line of defense in the war on terrorism, it is a surprisingly thin line.
According to unofficial estimates, less than 1% of the nation’s annual intelligence budget of more than $40 billion goes to human intelligence. Most is spent on spy satellites, the rockets needed to put them into space and the labor-intensive work of intercepting enemy communications and breaking enemy codes.
The CIA’s fabled “D.O.” — the Directorate of Operations, which conducts clandestine human intelligence operations — has about 1,000 case officers assigned against terrorist organizations around the world, then-CIA operations chief James Pavitt testified in April. That’s the same number of field agents the FBI has working in New York City. As small as the numbers seem, the D.O.’s total force of about 4,000 officers is the largest in its history.
Being a CIA case officer typically means working at a U.S. embassy under diplomatic cover. It is painstaking work. It might involve meeting officials of a friendly foreign intelligence service who have information to offer, trying to recruit a source in an allied or adversary government, or interrogating a recently captured terror suspect. Some CIA officers are called “NOCs,” meaning they work under “non-official cover,” usually for shell companies. They might pose as arms dealers or middlemen in hopes of drawing out terrorists and their support networks.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, CIA officers more closely resemble commandos, working and sometimes dying in the line of fire alongside military commandos on missions to kill or capture terror suspects.
The CIA estimates that before a newly hired case officer can be fully productive, it takes seven years to train him or her in spycraft, exotic foreign languages and commando techniques, including two years of first-time field experience. The agency has scrambled to reactivate retired intelligence field operatives, but specialists with expertise in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have been much easier to find than those with knowledge of Iraq or Afghanistan.
CIA ‘in Chapter 11’
Recruitment of new case officers hit record lows in 1995 and 1996, when only 25 a year graduated from the CIA’s training center near Williamsburg, Va., known in the spy trade as “The Farm,” according to the 9/11 Commission and public testimony by CIA officials. By contrast, al-Qaeda during that period was pushing upward of 2,000 trainees per year through bin Laden’s camps in Afghanistan, the commission estimated. Tenet began a rebuilding effort in 1998, his second year heading the CIA. By that time, al-Qaeda had been in business for nine years.
In those lean, post-Cold War years, “I would say we were in Chapter 11,” acting CIA Director John McLaughlin told a Senate committee. With graduating classes now up to about 200 new case officers per year, even if the agency meets Tenet’s goal and gets human intelligence operations in good shape by 2009, eight years will have passed since 9/11.
Goss talks of a return to the CIA’s glory years — his time in the CIA, when the agency did battle with the Soviet KGB and when Goss was a field officer in Latin America. A House Intelligence Committee report put out under Goss’ direction spoke of the need to “resurrect” the clandestine service to the “nimble, flexible, core-mission oriented enterprise it once was.”
But not everyone agrees that there ever were glory days for the Directorate of Operations.
“In practice, the good old days were mostly a myth,” says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA operative now with the American Enterprise Institute.
David Wise, author of Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million, says the spies Ames betrayed to the KGB amounted to virtually all the human sources the agency had inside the Soviet Union and highlighted how little headway the Directorate of Operations had made through 40 years of Cold War.
At least there were some sources in Moscow. In North Korea, North Vietnam, China in the 1950s, and Baghdad before Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the CIA had no agents close to those countries’ leaders, contends Richard Russell, an intelligence expert at the National Defense University. “There is a systemic failure of the D.O. to produce exactly what it’s supposed to do best,” Russell says.
The human intelligence the CIA collected on al-Qaeda was often vague. What it collected on Iraq, usually through allied intelligence services, was often unreliable.
A British government report on Iraq intelligence in July said that of Britain’s five main human sources, “doubts, and in some cases serious doubts, have emerged” about three.
German intelligence passed on information to the CIA from a source code-named “Curveball,” who claimed to have direct knowledge of Iraq’s mobile biological weapons labs. But a Pentagon intelligence officer believed Curveball had a drinking problem and alerted the CIA the day before Secretary of State Colin Powell made his Feb. 5, 2003, presentation to the U.N. Security Council on Iraq’s alleged arsenal. The material from Curveball remained in the presentation. Similarly, the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency warned that information from a source managed by the Iraqi National Congress, an Iraqi exile group that strongly supported a U.S.-led invasion, was “assessed as unreliable and, in some instances, pure fabrication.” But CIA analysts overlooked the notice.
Even good human intelligence is rarely complete.
CIA operatives scored a coup in 2001 when they seized at a Jordanian port a shipment of aluminum tubes bound for Iraq. It was the holy grail of intelligence: not just a report or blueprint, but actual hardware. Yet U.S. intelligence has still not reached a consensus on whether the tubes were designed for nuclear weapons manufacture or for conventional, small-caliber rocket bodies.
Lost after Malaysia
Agency operatives skillfully followed two future 9/11 hijackers to a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000. They acted on a telephone intercept by the National Security Agency made possible by another HUMINT coup: FBI agents investigating the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 had obtained a Yemeni phone number from among the effects of one of the suspects. The ensuing tap yielded a mother lode of information, a number frequently called by top al-Qaeda officials, including bin Laden. Intelligence insiders called it “the Yemeni switchboard.”
But after Malaysia, the inter-agency cooperation broke down as the CIA lost the trail of the suspected terrorists and later delayed for months in alerting the FBI that they had traveled to the USA.
According to Tenet, the CIA had sources providing up-to-date information on Saddam’s whereabouts in early 2003. And at least twice in the late 1990s, the agency had information on bin Laden’s exact whereabouts. But an airstrike launched by President Clinton against bin Laden and two by Bush against Saddam did not kill either target.
Since Sept. 11, the agency has used human sources to capture Saddam in Iraq and several senior al-Qaeda officials in Pakistan, including Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Human sources helped the CIA expose Libya’s weapons programs and uncover Pakistani physicist A.Q. Khan’s nuclear smuggling network.
Fixing the problem
Because the CIA’s budget is debated in secret, it is difficult to assess blame for the cuts of the 1990s that nearly halted recruitment of new case officers. According to the 9/11 Commission, the CIA underwent four consecutive years of inflation-adjusted budgets cuts under the first President Bush and three more under Clinton before spending leveled off and began to rise in the mid- to late 1990s.
Besides providing more money, reform ideas circulating in Congress include an intensified CIA campaign to develop more direct sources rather than relying on information provided by foreign intelligence agencies; increasing foreign language training; hiring more indigenous Arabic speakers; and tying CIA spies more closely with military special operations forces.
It would be ideal to have CIA officers inside al-Qaeda. But there are limits to what a CIA officer can do. Penetrating a terror group would almost certainly require an officer to participate in a terrorist act in order to establish credibility within the organization. Not only would that violate the law, agency insiders say they know of no officer who would be willing to do it.