Time, different type of enemy work against U.S. intelligence services
March 2, 2003
When Congress investigated what went wrong with U.S. intelligence prior to Sept. 11, a troubling anecdote surfaced: that of Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet raging around the Beltway the preceding summer, “literally pounding on desks,” prophesying that the sky was about to fall.
History records that it literally did.
The problem, experts have said over and over, isn’t that the intelligence services had no clue that al-Qaida had declared war on the United States. The problem is that they didn’t have the assets or the “human intelligence” — good old-fashioned spies — inside terror organizations to determine exactly what they were up to. Critics complained that spy agencies had become too dependent upon computers, too corporate and too competitive with one another.
American spying was less hard Sean Connery and more dapper Roger Moore, gadget-dependent and genteel. But gadgets couldn’t hack the mind of al-Qaida. And unlike either of the fluent Bonds, many in U.S. intelligence lacked the ability to understand a syllable uttered by these new enemies.
The government has acknowledged that spy agencies suffered from flaws, and now fights to fix them. What hasn’t been trumpeted, however, is just how long it will take before the United States has the sort of hooks into al-Qaida that it had into the Soviet bloc. Former spies and intelligence experts say that it could take a decade for America to have an edge on its radical opponents, and a generation could pass before enough speakers of Middle Eastern languages are hired to translate intelligence from groups like al-Qaida.
“You’re looking at literally years to penetrate this organization,” said Rusty Capps, a retired FBI supervisory special agent, Army major and current president of the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies. “And we don’t have years.”
Capps and others believe that America’s dependence on electronic eavesdropping — the result of technical leaps and a reluctance to see spies die in arid lands — has handicapped its ability to track primitive foes. To compensate, services are revamping how they recruit informants, work on the ground and work together.
The CIA doesn’t discuss how long its efforts will take, according to spokesman Paul Nowack. But experts predict a protracted fight.
“I’m talking three to nine years to develop an agent network around the world that will give us some idea of what’s going on,” Capps said.
During the Soviet era, the capitals became sizzling synapses of intrigue, with both sides trying to recruit sources within the other’s ranks. The Soviets certainly became wise to this. So the United States turned to technology and platforms like the U2 spy plane, and eventually satellites.
Surveillance technology, for the most part, “doesn’t break,” Capps said. “You don’t get hammered. When it does break, it doesn’t risk human lives.”
People are quite different. “Human sources can go bad. They can get picked up. They can get bribed. They can make mistakes.”
But technology is better at snooping out missile sites than it is at exposing compartmentalized plots like the one that leveled the World Trade Center.
“That’s why this problem is tougher [than the Cold War]. You have to track little groups of people who are trying to collect in a room or a cave,” said Peter Earnest, a retired senior CIA officer, former Marine and current executive director of the International Spy Museum in Washington. Earnest said intelligence services were wired for a different fight.
“We have been structured to track movement of large military forces,” Earnest said. “People in tanks. Mass might. Now we’re talking about individuals running around with less than suits on, with the most primitive of weapons.”
A U.S. government official denied the intelligence challenges of Islamist terror are greater than those posed by communism. “That would be overly simplified,” the official confided. “Each has its upside and downside. But they’re both difficult.”
Robert Baer, a retired CIA field officer, is a critic. He acknowledges the agency became a formidable foe for the Soviets. But he said his efforts spying in the Middle East were often in vain because bosses showed little interest: Desert endeavors were passé; desk jobs inside the Beltway were in. Officers with too much field experience were considered “warped,” Baer said, and barred from senior positions. Such a policy would be analogous to an Army where officers from combat units were barred from becoming generals.
“They were more concerned about politics than collecting intelligence,” Baer said. “It’s a rot that sets in in Washington.”
Old-fashioned spooking is inherently a political risk. Experts say the CIA became gun-shy as a result of very public uproars over its very secret roles in Chile, Laos and the Iran-Contra affair.
While many would argue that’s a good thing, Baer believes this political sensitivity backfired during the ’90s. The Soviets had evaporated, stocks were up and no one was sufficiently worried about a man named Osama.
Baer said that if a CIA operation peeved the king of Saudi Arabia, the station chief would soon learn the length of his leash. That’s when the U.S. ambassador would offer the advice: “I don’t want the king ever to call me again, or I’m gonna kick your ass.”
Expect sore backsides in the future.
Analysts say the government needs more than ranks of patriotic FBI gumshoes or CIA spymasters reaped from the fertile Midwest. Rather, what the United States now seeks are contacts inside the Middle East — true locals who already know the cultures, can move nonchalantly through them and can join radical groups without great suspicion. American operatives may go abroad to set up dummy companies to recruit these native agents, but most Yanks wouldn’t be too convincing in a burqa.
The Defense Intelligence Agency has announced it wants to hire ethnically diverse staff to “provide deeper insight into the rest of the world.” The FBI has attempted to recruit Arab Americans at cultural events, often being greeted with suspicion.
“You still require people who can recruit other people,” said Earnest, who spent 20 of his 36 years with the CIA in clandestine operations. But recruited foreigners would be the real inside sources.
Keeping these agents convincing is a seedy business. “For instance, in the Mafia, you don’t become a made man until you kill somebody,” Capps said. Gaining the trust of hunted thugs can require black deeds and “takes a lot of time and money, and the willingness to lose some of your assets along the way.”
The reasons why this takes time are legion. Intelligence services, though veiled in a sexy secrecy, are still bureaucracies prone to institutional inertia. While Tenet and others called al-Qaida a threat, the CIA had only five people working full-time analyzing Osama bin Laden intelligence, while the FBI had just one, according to transcripts of a joint congressional intelligence hearing last year.
Spies are certainly focused on terror now, but it takes time to recover from the budget cuts of the early ’90s and a shift away from spying on traditional nation-states. Training new operatives takes even longer.
“It’s not a quick process,” said Andrew Koch, Washington bureau chief of Jane’s Defence Weekly. “Most intelligence people say, ‘You bring me a new recruit, and we can see the benefit in five years.’”
For example, Koch said it takes a full decade on the job before the government trusts an image analyst to go it alone interpreting satellite intelligence.
And history — from Sun Tzu to World War II — shows that the most devastating spy operations are groomed over time. The KGB recruited the members of the Cambridge spy ring in the 1930s while all were fresh-faced graduates, full of socialist idealism. They went on to hold senior positions in British government, and the ring wasn’t broken until the 1950s.
The barriers between America spying on al-Qaida are not insurmountable, experts maintain. “It just requires you to commit yourself to something other than instant gratification,” Capps said.
According to congressional testimony by Tenet, that’s exactly what al-Qaida did prior to Sept. 11: The kamikaze pilots had lived in the West for some time, dressed in Western clothes, shaved their beards and largely avoided mosques. Most of those involved in the plot had no record of extremist connections. Save for the occasional traffic ticket, they steered clear of the law.
“It’s that kind of willingness to play to the long game,” Capps said. “It’s something Western cultures don’t understand as well as Eastern cultures.”
Tongue-tied War on Terror
While recruiting local spies in Middle Eastern countries could take a decade, recruiting enough Americans to speak with them could take several.
“It’ll take a generation to turn it around,” said Kevin Hendzel of the American Translators Association, which is helping the U.S. government in its search.
“It will always be triage in the short run, just like it was after Sputnik.”
When the Russians launched that first satellite on Oct. 4, 1957, it shocked America. The space race was suddenly on, but U.S. intelligence didn’t know anyone was waving around a starting pistol.
Hendzel, who once manned the Teletype between the White House and the Kremlin, believes it didn’t need to be that way.
“We realized we didn’t have anyone who spoke Russian and could keep track of their scientific advancements,” Hendzel said. “What happens, typically, is that we aren’t paying attention to a language until a crisis happens.”
America went into warp speed promoting the study of Russian. Over time, spy agencies grew wise to things Slavic and Cyrillic.
Then the Berlin Wall fell. Hopes rose that war would forever remain a distant smoke. It wasn’t so.
“Instead of a new world order, we had new world disorder,” former CIA officer Earnest said.
Bosnia and Kosovo ignited with aged hatred. The new Black Tuesday brought the reality of instability home to America. And its spies, after decades of palpitations over the rise and demise of the Warsaw Pact, were left running for the dictionary to deal with the threat of radical Islam.
The government admits it lacks enough speakers of Arabic, Farsi and other Middle Eastern languages, despite a short-lived attempt to fix that due to the Gulf War.
America’s universities aren’t adding many to the pool of applicants, with Arabic being only about the 12th most studied language, according to the ATA, and with only some 600 college students studying the tongues of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Iran. Forty million people speak those languages across the globe.
In his book “See No Evil,” Baer told of masses of refugees fleeing into Tajikistan from Afghanistan’s civil war in the early ’90s. Baer spoke Arabic, but the refugees didn’t — they spoke languages like Pashto, Dari and Uzbek.
He called headquarters for help in debriefing them. The refugees could have provided valuable intelligence on what was happening inside Afghanistan.
According to Baer, no one from the CIA came. The agency employed no one who could speak to the refugees.
“The whole Afghan thing was on the back burner,” Baer said. “No one looked at it like a threat.”
A March review by the General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm, disclosed that the FBI was sitting on thousands of hours of taped conversations and text from wiretaps and other operations it couldn’t translate.
The War on Terror was tongue-tied.
“These types of shortfalls have hindered the prosecution of criminal cases” and “weakened the fight against international terrorism,” concluded Susan Westin, GAO’s managing director of international affairs and trade, in her report to the Senate.
While the CIA doesn’t discuss its internal workings, late last year the FBI announced it had hired about 300 linguists since Sept. 11, one-third of them Arabic speakers. The bureau is also accelerating hiring, or using contractors to work with unclassified materials.
“But they’re still short-staffed,” Hendzel said. “For every 10 applicants they have who show up on the doorstep with a résumé, they only get one of them.”
Background checks, plus polygraph and proficiency tests, narrow the field. Such safeguards take time. The National Security Agency, which conducts America’s super-secret foreign eavesdropping, takes from six to 18 months to approve a candidate.
“The NSA has already gone on the record saying there is a shortage,” Hendzel said, “and they’ve not had the funding and the focus to have people in all these languages.”
The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., began diversifying its courses following the fall of communism, but finding instructors for some tongues has proven difficult. As a result of America’s campaign in Afghanistan, the institute’s recent offerings include Pashto, Dari and Uzbek.
In April and May, the institute will host a Worldwide Language Competition at the Presidio — where its students will battle at games like “Jeopardy!” in languages including, tellingly, Farsi, Arabic and Korean.
Hendzel said the institute does a good job, but has an enormous challenge: It provides some 85 percent of the nation’s language training, primarily for the Defense Department. Military life makes it tough for language skills to stay sharp.
“It’s harder for them … they tend to get rotated through assignments regularly.”
Commandos and consulates
During the Cold War, operatives could score real information using “official cover” — that is, spying under the ruse of working as diplomats. From being at the right parties for careless cocktail chatter to being on hand when a contact stumbled nervously into a consulate, such covers were relatively safe.
“I didn’t set out to kill — and I’ll use that word — my opposite,” Earnest said of those days facing the KGB. And the reverse was true. The idea was to outsource the enemy and root out their sources. “Give them a black eye,” as Earnest put it.
But things have changed. Al-Qaida not only wants to kill G-men; it wants to kill any Americans it can. In response, the CIA has dispensed with the cuff links in its handling of Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners, opting instead for what The Washington Post called “brass-knuckle” treatment. Prisoners who won’t talk can be shipped to other countries’ interrogators, whose use of torture is ignored and even assumed.
Things could get rougher still.
Some officials want to create raw, more aggressive spy outfits. After the congressional review of failures prior to Sept. 11, Senate Intelligence Committee member Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican, wrote a paper claiming official cover operatives are often known to foreign governments. And he said sources inside Islamist terror cells are unlikely to walk into any embassy.
The CIA has nonetheless grown comfortable with its official cover system. It allows headquarters to easily manage an operative. Such covers are easier on family life. And if an operative under official cover is unmasked, diplomatic immunity blocks espionage charges.
“It is one thing to have an official cover employee declared persona non grata and expelled from the country; it’s quite another to have him arrested and shot,” De-Wine’s comments read.
And he found only 35 percent of staff in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations had spent more than three of the past 10 years abroad. “This low ratio indicates that the wrong mind-set now dominates what is supposed to be an overseas clandestine service,” the senator’s report concluded.
What DeWine proposed is a new intelligence agency designed to skulk about in anything but a corporate environment. It would avoid using businesses as fronts. It would specifically target terrorists and rogue states and would be aggressive. It would also be very dangerous work.
“Nonofficial cover will work and does work better,” he told Stars and Stripes.
Troops wouldn’t notice those working for this agency, either — except that in theory they’d be better able to plan attacks or defend a terror target.
“The military really is a customer,” DeWine said. “… You would not see direct interaction between the nonofficial cover person and a theater operation. But the military would benefit.”
For his part, Earnest believes official cover might still have its merits.
“There were numbers of people from the Soviet bloc and its surrogates who came over to our side who were walk-ins, who were volunteers,” Earnest said. “Will that happen in the standoff now? I think it’s quite possible.”
Another historic problem is rivalry among spies. After its investigation, Congress claimed cooperation between agencies might have saved the Twin Towers.
Though their foot soldiers might have cooperated in the past, intelligence chiefs have a history of friction. Rivalry was once so bad that the CIA’s Richard Helms and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover refused to speak to each other.
Arrests of spies within their own halls — Aldrich Ames in the CIA and Robert Hanssen in the FBI — led to finger-pointing and suspicion.
Earnest, who said he has worked with and respects the FBI, believes the conflict simply stems from differing missions.
The FBI “is an institution set up to do one thing, and that’s to do law enforcement,” Earnest said. The FBI wants to bust spies and terrorists. The CIA wants to follow them around, infiltrate their ranks and even feed them bad information. “Our aim is to keep things going,” Earnest said.
Some in Congress continue to charge that the CIA and FBI remain competitors, not colleagues. Both have acknowledged a need to share information rather than vie for it, and insist that the problem is being fixed.
Now the president is forcing them to do so. In his State of the Union address, Bush pledged to construct a Terrorist Threat Integration Center with staff from the CIA, FBI and other agencies.
The government also points out the intelligence successes it has had, like thwarting USS Cole-style attacks last summer with the arrests of three Saudis in Morocco. They had allegedly planned to assault U.S. Navy ships passing through the Strait of Gibraltar using explosive-packed dinghies. FBI Director Robert Mueller has said that nearly 100 terrorist attacks have been thwarted since Sept. 11, both in and outside the United States, but has also warned that hundreds of terrorists could still be at large in the country.
Civilian spies will also need to learn to play nice with the Pentagon. News reports suggest rivalry still exists between the CIA and the military leadership.
Though it didn’t nail bin Laden, the agency is particularly proud of its work in Afghanistan, where its rejuvenated Special Operations Group fanned across the country making contacts and surveying the battlescape before the military ever attacked. They later interrogated captured fighters, as CIA officer Mike Spann was doing just before his death.
“We have an office of military support here, and we do coordinate our activities,” CIA spokesman Nowack said. “… We’re going to continue to coordinate with DOD as we have been. And our cooperation in the past has been successful, as in Afghanistan.”
The troubling buzz comes from leaks to Time magazine over competition between Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Tenet. Rumsfeld has reportedly criticized the CIA’s use of those paramilitary units in Afghanistan, believing that is the Pentagon’s turf. Now Rumsfeld is beefing up his own cadre of clandestine warriors.
Though this scuffle has been pitched in the press as novel, the CIA’s roughriders never completely disbanded.
“It’s not a return to paramilitary forces,” said Koch, the Jane’s expert, regarding the CIA’s emboldened commandos. “They were pared back severely, but they never went away.”
Koch said these forces are valuable because they lack some restraints placed on troops.
“You’re not going to see military intelligence on the ground handing out cash to warlords,” he said.
There are also complaints on the other side of the fence. Intelligence services have groused over Rumsfeld’s push for an undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
The military wanted the position so that one person would coordinate all of the spying that goes on in the department.
“It makes sense for the secretary of defense to be able to look to one person,” Sen. DeWine said, adding that he also supports a stronger role for Tenet. Congress has suggested creating a Cabinet-level version of Tenet’s post, with full budget authority, but that idea appears to be on hold.
The Pentagon controls about 85 percent of the intelligence budget — classified but believed to be between $30 billion and $40 billion — even though responsibility for all spying falls under Tenet.
“At the end of the day, budgetary authority is one of the most important tools a leader needs,” Koch said. In other words, the Pentagon has considerable pocketbook sway over Tenet’s aspirations, with or without the new undersecretary.
Though Marine Lt. Col. Mike Humm, a Pentagon spokesman, said he wasn’t aware of a time frame to activate the post, it looks imminent. President Bush approved the creation of the position in December as part of the Defense Authorization Act. In February, the White House announced that Bush wants Stephen Cambone, a top Rumsfeld adviser, for the job.
Besides overcoming competition with other outfits, the military has had to overhaul the way it cooperates with itself.
“Really, what started changing things, since the Cole attack, is the creation of a Joint Intelligence Task Force for Counterterrorism,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jim Brooks, DIA spokesman. “What 9/11 did was really accelerate that.”
Different services and theaters now share information allowing them to track terrorists moving from the Middle East and into Europe or elsewhere. Before, one service or geographic command may have eyed a threat moving through its territory, then have it drop off the radar as it moved on.
“Terrorism was kind of spread across the board,” Brooks said. “Everybody had a little piece. It was spread out. [Now], there’s actually been a synergy to look at terrorism as a specific threat.”
An example is the 6th Fleet’s interception of the Rasha J, a Tongan-flagged merchant ship passing south of Sicily early last year. The vessel contained construction materials and no weapons. But the Navy and U.S. European Command in Germany heralded the operation a victory because the military had followed Rasha J since it left the Middle East.
Such operations can include military commands, diplomats and foreign authorities all working in sync.
“It’s where the military and State Department marries up,” said Cmdr. Bob Ross, 6th Fleet spokesman.
To some former spies, such moves can seem obvious. To one, they are not enough.
“The White House doesn’t care where bin Laden is anymore,” Baer said, “and is focused on Saddam.”
And the philosophy American spies move to embrace is hardly revolutionary.
“The people that are there in their bureaucracies have invested their lives and reputations to pursue some kind of direction,” Capps said. “To get them to admit what they’ve committed to is ‘old think’ — and commit to ‘new think,’ which has actually been around for 2,500 years — is very difficult.”
Capps was referring to Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” which reads in part:For local spies, we use the enemy’s people.For internal spies we use the enemy’s officials.For double spies we use the enemy’s spies.For dead spies we use agents to spread misinformation to the enemy.For living spies, we use agents to return with reports.
It could take America a perilously long time to successfully implement this ancient advice. Americans will pray al-Qaida slips up sooner.
Spies like U.S.
What the government calls its "intelligence community" is a federation of 14 executive branch agencies and organizations. Most are within the Defense Department, which receives 85 percent of America’s intelligence budget. That budget is classified, but is believed to be between $30 billion and $40 billion. The information all these spies glean is sent to leaders they refer to as "customers": the president, the National Security Council, the secretaries of state and defense and others in the executive branch.
Some in this alphabet soup of acronyms, like the CIA, are fully immersed in spying. Most of these organizations, however, have broader functions. When operating in spook mode, they are all supposed to answer to the director of central intelligence, a post currently held by George Tenet.
The Defense Department’s intelligence players are:
¶ Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) — Produces most of America’s general foreign military intelligence, and serves as a chief source for the secretary of defense. The agency’s director is also the intelligence staff officer on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
¶ National Security Agency (NSA) — Collects and processes foreign signals intelligence — basically, eavesdrops on communications abroad — for political leaders and the military, and protects critical U.S. information security systems from compromise. This high-tech operation is also a major foreign language analysis and research center.
¶ National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) — Coordinates collection and analysis of information from airplane and satellite reconnaissance by the military services and the CIA.
¶ National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) — Provides geospatial intelligence — maps, charts and satellite imaging — in support of national security.
¶ Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps intelligence agencies — Each collects and processes intelligence relevant to its mission.
Intelligence players outside the Defense Department are:
¶ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) — Specializes in foreign intelligence affecting U.S. national security. It was proposed shortly after World War II by Maj. Gen. William J. Donovan to "procure intelligence both by overt and covert methods." While it could, in Donovan’s words, conduct "subversive operations abroad" it was to refrain from "police or law enforcement functions, either at home or abroad."
¶ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) — Deals with counterespionage and international criminal cases. The FBI investigates federal crimes, but it is also responsible for protecting the United States from foreign spies and terrorists.
¶ State Department — Handles sensitive information affecting U.S. foreign policy.
¶ Energy Department — Performs analyses of foreign nuclear weapons, nuclear non-proliferation and energy security-related intelligence issues.
¶ Treasury Department — Collects and processes information that may affect U.S. fiscal and monetary policy.
¶ United States Coast Guard — Deals with information related to U.S. maritime borders and homeland security.
Sources: U.S. government, the Federation of American Scientists
A lipstick pistol, on display at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.Museums
Some museums where visitors can learn more about the art of espionage:
International Spy Museum,Washington, D.C.
Checkpoint Charlie museum,Berlin, Germany
National Cryptologic Museum,Fort Meade, Md.
Cold War Museum(traveling exhibit)
U-234, Russian spy sub,Hamburg, Germany
Lubyanka KGB Headquarters, Moscow
Sean Connery as James Bond
In the 1960s, espionage became a very popular subject for movies and TV shows, which became a major — if not always accurate — factor in setting people's perception of what the spy game was all about. Among the most successful were the James Bond films. Click here for a Stars and Stripes story, and several photos, on the filming of "Goldfinger" in 1964.