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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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.