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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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.