The Magazine

A Covert Story

It takes a certain intelligence to comprehend the CIA.

Nov 4, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 08 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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There is probably no harder beat in Washington than intelligence. 

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Journalists rarely have sources inside the Central Intelligence Agency who are not authorized, and when they do, odds are the source will be on the public, analytical side of the house. Unlike in the 1950s and ’60s, when case officers could easily socialize with journalists (as well as occasionally recruit them), today, an adversarial culture, polygraph machines, and personal politics (case officers are no longer likely to be liberal Democrats) get in the way. And even the most senior CIA analysts, unless they have worked with operatives in the field, usually have a limited grasp of what Langley does abroad. 

The heart and soul of the agency has always been the operations directorate, since the global reach of the case-officer cadre—its capacity to run both foreign-intelligence collection and covert action—is what makes the CIA special. 

If an intelligence-beat reporter loses his official access, where senior officers or spokesmen go on background, he’s crippled. Senators, congressmen, and their staffers with axes to grind can only do so much. Sensational “whistleblower” cases are few and far between and don’t give an accurate picture of the traditional relationship between reporters and the intelligence establishment, which usually resembles that between pilot fish and sharks. And journalists, like historians who have not served in intelligence, have little frame of reference to judge the primary material that they may occasionally get their hands on. Journalists don’t usually spend much time perusing officially released CIA information, mostly comprising ancient covert-action and defector files.  

Journalists are, as a class, particularly subject to parroting the accepted wisdom of retired senior officers—or of the liberal zeitgeist if the intelligence issue has a political edge. And covert action—union organizing; book, magazine, and newspaper publishing; samizdat literature; radio and TV broadcasts; subventions to foreign journalists and politicians; running dual-use trucking, shipping, and air-services companies; aiding foreign paramilitary and guerrilla forces; coup-plotting; and now, perhaps most famously, killer drones—always has a political edge.    

Following in the footsteps of Timothy Weiner, the New York Times reporter who wrote Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (2007), Mark Mazzetti, also a Pulitzer Prize-winning Times correspondent who has covered the Taliban resurgence, al Qaeda, and drones, reinforces the despairing narrative of the baleful effects of covert action upon clandestine human-intelligence collection. Here he tells us that Langley is “no longer a traditional espionage service devoted to stealing the secrets of foreign governments.” Rather, it “has become a killing machine, an organization consumed with man hunting.” 

According to Mazzetti, the post-9/11 focus on killing terrorists, and the White House’s “insatiable appetite for information about any threats,” has transformed the agency. The war against al Qaeda and its allies has had a “distorting effect on the analysis that the CIA was producing—making it narrower, more tactical.” And this telescopic intensity has even been counterproductive for the war on terror.

Hundreds of CIA analysts were now working on terrorism. .  .  . It became immediately obvious to the analysts that the path to career advancement at the CIA was to start working on terrorism, with the goal of producing something that might be read to the president early one morning inside the Oval Office. And what the White House was most interested in were leads about the whereabouts of specific al Qaeda operators, not broader subjects like the level of support al Qaeda had in the Muslim world or the impact that American military and intelligence operations might have on radicalizing a new generation of militants.

This debilitating new disposition touched on liaison work as well, Mazzetti tells us, making the CIA more dependent on foreign intelligence and security services. Since the CIA’s 

new mission put a premium on getting detailed intelligence about specific individuals, and it mattered little how that information was collected .  .  . the CIA immediately became more reliant on the foreign spy services that had spent years building dossiers on terror organizations. Desperate for information to stop the next attack .  .  . the CIA’s relationship with spy services with unsavory histories of brutality—Egypt’s Mukhabarat, Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate, even the intelligence service of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan pariah state—grew much closer.