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.  

Mazzetti is surely correct that 9/11 made Washington more disposed to cooperation with Middle Eastern internal-security and intelligence services. Of course, one might quibble with the degree that he suggests: The Clinton administration, which really developed the practice of rendition, was using well-established liaison relationships to extract information from and imprison (or otherwise dispose of) suspected terrorists. The CIA has been close to Jordan’s General Intelligence Department (GID) for decades; lesser, but meaningful relationships with the Egyptian intelligence service and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) existed long before 9/11. 

Still, it’s an open question whether the agency became more prone to accept intelligence from foreign services after 9/11. Whether information is extracted through a convivial chat or wall-slamming or the torturous methods that most Middle Eastern and Central Asian regimes deploy, the preeminent concern for Langley has usually been verification. If the CIA really trusted foreign services, it would not have felt compelled to use sleep deprivation and waterboarding to extract information from certain holy warriors.  

The CIA is certainly capable of impressive credulity in how it handles intelligence, whether derived from internal or foreign sources. Gross mistakes have happened in the war on terror: The case of the Jordanian doctor Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, a would-be penetration of al Qaeda who was sent to the CIA by GID and who blew himself up, killing also his Jordanian handler and seven CIA employees inside an Afghan base, is the most shocking. But it’s doubtful that any of these mistakes were worse in methodology, lethality, or ramifications for national security than the gross mishaps during the Cold War against the Soviets, East Germans, Cubans, and, later, the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Mazzetti’s themes often get lost in the journalism: The Way of the Knife reads as if it is composed of newspaper stories and unused reporter’s notes glued together. It’s sometimes interesting, but never elegant. Hyperbole isn’t a writer’s friend, and Mazzetti’s narrative, and the book’s title, would have been improved by restraint.     

Historically, the opposite of Mazzetti’s and Weiner’s charge appears true: Covert action is more likely to improve human-intelligence collection. Getting to know the nuts and bolts of any country—and targeting drones is a microscopic affair—can help case officers and analysts grasp larger dynamics. Before 9/11, the CIA was usually pathetic at collecting and analyzing intelligence on Pakistan, in part because the CIA and State Department’s primary concern was maintaining a good working relationship with their Pakistani counterparts.  

But the war in Afghanistan changed that, and drone targeting was part of the evolution. Washington now sees much more clearly Pakistani mendacity and complicity in anti-American terrorism. And as the details became crystal clear, so did the larger picture: Washington may still be uncertain about what to do with Islamabad, but that indecision has relatively little to do with inadequate intelligence. Indeed, Mazzetti’s good discussion of Pakistan actually contradicts his book’s central argument.    

Increasing CIA covert action—especially through the Phoenix program—also probably improved our understanding of Vietnam, and may even have helped the Pentagon to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy, which more or less eliminated the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese threat within South Vietnam by the early 1970s. In Europe, where the most intense and varied CIA covert action took place, human-intelligence collection was probably the most bountiful (although not necessarily the most accurate) when covert action was the most aggressive.   

There are overlapping problems when human intelligence crosses covert action. Can covert-action requirements distort human-intelligence reporting? Mazzetti is right to underscore these concerns. But such tensions don’t necessarily debase foreign-intelligence collection. Other factors that affect good intelligence—competent, honest officers in the field, for example—are much more likely to have a telling effect. As a case officer, I read through a substantial amount of both foreign-intelligence and covert-action reporting on European and Middle Eastern subjects. Not once did I have the impression that covert-action requirements constrained human-intelligence collection. 

Covert action could sometimes be used by case officers to gin up the number of their agent recruitments. (Operatives are constantly hunting to raise their head count for promotion boards.) And these recruitments could sometimes be repackaged as foreign-intelligence recruitments, from whom mediocre intelligence often abundantly flowed.    

Mazzetti writes that “top agency officials ordered all trainees except those fluent in a language not spoken in the Muslim world to be funneled toward assignments in the Middle East or Central Asia.” Based on conversations with active-duty case officers, I think this sucking sound was less acute than Mazzetti suggests, and far less powerful than what happened with Southeast Asia in the 1960s and ’70s. 

Moreover, Mazzetti asserts that the intelligence requirements of the war on terror diminished America’s global intelligence capacity. That’s possible, but unlikely. Stations and bases all over the world have been sending intelligence to Langley since 9/11. If you were to do a head count, the vast majority of all case officers have worked on non-Islamic-terrorist/non-Iraqi/non-Afghan targets since 9/11. And given how short CIA tours have been in Iraq and Afghanistan, serving “at the ends of the Earth” would hardly disqualify an officer from becoming competent in all things Russian, Chinese, or Venezuelan.   

For most case officers—and even for analysts, who often work a subject longer than operatives and are more responsive to Washington’s moods—the war on terror might best be described as an interlude.

Mazzetti and many case officers certainly don’t like the increased prominence of the paramilitary folks within Langley. Operatives and other CIA officials understandably don’t like the critical attention and abuse that’s been directed toward them since 9/11. But the worst grievances hurled at Langley don’t necessarily have any effect on its foreign-intelligence mission. The CIA’s intelligence collection and analysis may be below par, but the causes are complex and deep-rooted. We shouldn’t blame drones—or the mujahedeen, the contras, Cuban exiles, Air America, the Phoenix program, or the intellectuals, journalists, and labor unionists that the CIA once arrayed against communism. 

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.