True Lies

Arabies Trends, December 2001

THE PLACE IS simply mythical, its iconic power lending it an almost magnetic resonance, like the Taj Mahal or the pyramids. Not a day passes without some nut trying to get past the front gates, driving up to the vehicle barriers with a 12,367-point list of demands from his alien masters or a desperate plea that the CIA stop beaming those obscene broadcasts into his fillings.

Once, I heard, a woman had driven to the gates, got out of her battered camper van and removed a carefully constructed helmet from her head.

The helmet, as she showed the guard, was lined with tin foil and an elaborate nest of tangled copper wires. “I am here to tell you,” she told the guard, “that I am receiving radio transmissions from your organization, and I will not obey your orders any more! I will not obey!” The guard had apparently seen one too many wackos that day, and he eyed her appraisingly. “Ma’am,” he said politely, “let me ask you. Are the transmissions you’ve been receiving in VHF or UHF?”

The woman looked slightly taken aback, but quickly decided: “They’re VHF, young man, they’re VHF!”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but our transmissions are exclusively in UHF. What you’ll be wanting is the Department of Defense, down the road.” The woman thanked him and shuffled off, clutching that lunatic helmet, never to be seen again.

She wasn’t alone in her delusions; indeed, from the souks of the fertile crescent to the bazaars of Marrakesh, where men are prepared to accept any theory so long as it involves a conspiracy, the CIA is held to be an organism of preternatural power. The CIA is whispered to be behind every assassination, every coup, every untimely death. Every boudoir and bathroom of every Middle Eastern potentate is said to be bugged, every bit of information fed into silent, gleaming supercomputers at CIA headquarters. The attack on the World Trade Center? A CIA plot to discredit Islam. World currency markets? The CIA determines their every hiccup. Anthrax? The CIA is behind that too. Or so they say.

But try repeating these whispers to the people who work for the CIA. They shake their heads mournfully. If only, they sigh. There’s no way we could have been behind the attacks on the World Trade Center: It would have taken years just to fill out the paperwork. And anthrax? The order would have gotten lost on someone’s desk.

Set aside the conspiracy theories. The agency is a sclerotic bureaucracy, and like all bureaucracies it behaves in predictable ways. Free from the pressures of a market economy, the place attracts the kind of people bureaucracies everywhere attract: slow-moving time-servers who fill out forms, shuffle papers and count the years until retirement. Like all bureaucracies, it is riven by grudges and rivalries among its various internal organs. But unlike other bureaucracies, it is protected from scrutiny by a cloak of secrecy, justified by the appeal to national security. Nowhere are these liabilities more of a handicap than in the agency’s Middle East operations, and nowhere is the discrepancy between the agency’s real power and its perceived power so great.

Name traces. To illustrate this point, let’s examine what happens when case officers in the field request a name trace — an operation that is to espionage as checking a patient’s pulse is to medicine: something that is both essential and seemingly far too simple to screw up.

The following story was recounted to me by an experienced CIA officer who for obvious reasons, like the other sources for this article, threatened to wring my neck if identified. “Let’s say I’m running an agent in the Middle East,” he said. “And he tells me that he’s heard some guy — let’s call him Feisal X — is planning to assassinate Syria’s president.” Dutifully, he sends word of this rumor back to headquarters. In principle, headquarters then systematically searches all available records for information about Feisal X, and responds to the field with a summary — the “trace.”

“This shouldn’t take more than 24 hours, maximum, and I should get a cable back with everything the agency has ever heard about Feisal X,” said the officer. “But what really happens? It sits on someone’s desk for days, even weeks.”

Insiders note that headquarters officers, responsible for supporting officers in the field, are poorly paid; their job has minimal prestige within the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, or as it is more commonly called, the DO. Usually, they are middle-aged women — a surprising, little-known fact about CIA Headquarters: It’s a matriarchy — with little education and even less experience of living overseas. “The officer probably doesn’t speak Arabic, probably has never been to the Middle East. Probably doesn’t even know any Arabs personally,” said another official. And their chief concerns? “Guarding their little cubicle fiefdoms, and as far as I can tell, spending most of their days in coffee breaks, gossip, pointless meetings. You’ve got to understand that people at headquarters are the kind of folks who would perish in the private sector. There’s no kinder way to put it.”

There are several different database systems in which the name might be found; these systems are poorly designed and even more poorly integrated. Often, they are completely inaccessible. “On any given day, at least one system is generally down for maintenance,” said one employee, shrugging her shoulders. Feisal X may have peddled similar rumors in Iraq, in Jordan, even in the United States. But the Syrian officer only has access to Syrian records: this is the consequence of the principle of compartmentalization, or “need-to-know,” a system designed to minimize the damage caused by moles. Since the Aldrich Ames scandal, the agency has redoubled its commitment to compartmentalization: in order to trace the name in the records of any country other than Syria, the Syria officer must petition the other country’s officer for access to those records. This involves contacting, say, the Jordan officer — if she can find her phone number, and if she has the wherewithal to think “what about Jordan?” in the first place — doubtful, because the original cable probably didn’t mention Jordan. The agency doesn’t publish an internal phone directory: such a document has been deemed too sensitive even to exist. “When you find the Jordan officer’s number, maybe by asking the person who sits three cubicles from you, who keeps it on a little yellow stickum underneath her mouse pad, you’ll discover that the Jordan officer isn’t at  her desk, because she’s on a coffee break, in a diversity training seminar or taking annual leave,” said one employee.

Once found, the Jordan officer will then be asked to perform the trace. She will have no incentive to hurry. It isn’t her responsibility; it’s the responsibility of another department. Often, she will want to get permission from her supervisor — “[they] always want permission from their supervisors,” said an official, “because the motto of the DO is ‘cover your ass.'” The supervisor too is on a coffee break, in a diversity training seminar or taking annual leave.

Compartmentalization was less of an obstruction to espionage during the Cold War, when borders were not so porous and agents tended to stay in one place: since no one was allowed out of the Soviet Union without permission, only rarely did Russian informers pitch up in, for example, Argentina. But in the modern Middle East, with its imperfectly delineated states and highly mobile populations, things are not so tidy. Here, the obstacles to sharing records among the agency’s components entail that critical information often falls through the cracks.

Perhaps Feisal X is well known in the Middle East? Perhaps there are articles about him, books even, freely available in the Arabic press? Published material, or, as they call it, “open source literature,” is not the purview of the Directorate of Operations, but rather the responsibility of the Directorate of Intelligence, or DI, the agency’s analytic arm.

Suspicions. The DO and the DI regard each other with hostility, like lions circling the body of a fresh antelope. Insiders say that the DO spends as much energy keeping information from the DI as it does sharing it. Usually, they say, the members of the DI are better educated, more knowledgeable and more likely to speak Arabic. Despite this — or perhaps because of it — members of the DO view members of the DI with grave suspicion.

In fact, members of the DO who fail their training or are for some other reason considered unfit for their jobs are encouraged to seek work in the DI, which the DO imagines to be a safe warehouse for those who “can’t handle” the DO. The DO has greater prestige within the agency — they are the real spooks, the action men or so they like to imagine it — and the DO is thus able to force this policy through.

In consequence, the DI has remarkably poor quality control; among its learned specialists are a significant minority of DO dropouts who know absolutely nothing about the Middle East — including, for example, one official, whose duties included the Arab-Israeli account, and who did not recognize any of the following terms: Ottoman Empire, Balfour Declaration, Sykes-Picot, Suez War.

According to another officer, now retired, simple inefficiency isn’t the end of the story. Each branch, and each division, has a tendency to hoard information deliberately. He adds the following thought to the story of Feisal X: “Suppose the trace request is sent to CTC.” (CTC, the Counter Terrorism Center, was designed to be a clearinghouse for information about terrorism; in principle, it shares information with all of the geographic divisions; in practice, predictably, it vies for authority and resources with the Near East Division.) “They turn up Feisal X alright, and CTC has a whole file on him. But maybe the file is a little embarrassing, because CTC issued reports about Feisal X before — until they discovered that he was a fabricator [someone who sells false intelligence, capitalizing on the CIA’s notorious largesse toward its agents]. But CTC never recalled those reports, because that would be embarrassing: Who wants to admit they put out bogus intelligence? So CTC just kind of ignored the problem. . . . And now, CTC won’t let the Syria officer see the ops [operations] cable where this little problem is mentioned, because it makes them look bad.”

What about sharing information with other agencies? “Let’s put it this way,” says one official who served at headquarters for two years. “In the entire time I worked there, only once did I see a name trace request sent to the FBI — and it took two months to get a reply. Functionally, there is no sharing of information between the CIA and the FBI. Oh, it may be possible in principle, but it takes so long, and requires so much paperwork, that it may as well be illegal.” The relationship with the National Security Association isn’t much better, nor is the one with the State Department. “We don’t like to tell State anything because they don’t know how to protect classified information,” he adds.

The result? If the field receives any information at all about Feisal X, it will be too late to act upon it. Just imagine trying to start an anthrax epidemic in this atmosphere. Oh, the paperwork!

The next problem, officers say, is that the agency does not attract, and cannot retain, high-quality personnel with specialized expertise about the Middle East, its languages or its cultures. Throughout the agency, at every level, the salary structure is not only not competitive with the private sector, it is so inadequate as to be a frank disincentive to even the most determined candidates. Starting salaries for case officers, for example, range from $30,000-45,000 per annum — about one-third the starting salaries of recent graduates from the top US law or business schools. The most able and intelligent young Americans, the graduates of top universities, those with the most initiative and ability, do not wish to commit personal economic suicide. In this business, as in any other, you get what you pay for.

More to the point, the culture of the DO favors a particular kind of plodding, limited personality. Most case officers resemble nothing so much as a brontosaurus: large bodies, tiny brains. The DO is noted for its pervasive disdain for formal education and scholarship; one DO officer famously observed that case officers are acquainted with books only in so far as they are useful recognition signals.

There is an active hostility toward graduates of elite universities, and an emphasis on tests of rugged physical bravado (jumping out of planes) rather than intellect (acquiring foreign languages). Evidence of intellectual standards that would embarrass an ox pervade the endless mandatory classes and briefings: George Tenet’s recent assurances to agency employees that whereas they missed the warnings about the terrorist attacks of September 11th, they have prevented  many others, and should therefore feel good about themselves, is characteristic of the endless stream of meaningless, self-congratulatory, insipid pablum in which agency employees routinely bathe and are bathed.

But the central reason that the agency cannot get a handle on the Middle East is its myopic internal security screening, a process that winnows out the most talented candidates or humiliates them so profoundly they no longer want anything to do with the intelligence community.

Common sense suggests that the most coveted employees in an intelligence service would be those who speak languages such as Arabic, Farsi, Dari and Urdu; those who have lived for many years in the countries where those languages are spoken; and those who therefore have a rich and profound knowledge of the target countries’ culture. But it is precisely these employees who cannot pass the agency’s security gauntlet.

Foreign affairs. Prospective employees are required to list the names and addresses of every foreign person with whom they have a close or continuing relationship. Someone who speaks Arabic with native fluency almost certainly has friends and relatives in the Middle East. If he has too many of either, it is unlikely that he will receive a security clearance. He’ll be required to return for polygraph after polygraph, during which time he will be abused and insulted. His application will sit for years; he will be given no information about its status, and will be treated dismissively when he calls for information. After the seventh polygraph and the second year of waiting for a clearance, he will give up. The clever candidate with fluent Arabic and a degree from Harvard will probably take a job with Shell, where he’ll be paid six times what he would be paid by the CIA, and treated with at least that much more respect.

In one case, security investigators became exercised because an employee was discovered to have visited the embassies of several Middle Eastern countries years prior to his entry on duty — not surprisingly, since he had worked for six years as an oil industry executive. Rather than joyously celebrating their good fortune in finding this espionage gem, they fired him. As a consequence, the case officer cadre tends to be full of Mormons and big, blond, beefy Pentecostals from the South, men as out of place in the bazaars as Chandler’s tarantula on angel food.

These are the facts, according to the people who work there, and anyone who has dealt with a large bureaucracy knows intuitively that this story is only too plausible. But none of this will convince them in the souks, of course. Like the woman with the wire-lined helmet, they will continue to believe that the CIA has powers beyond the ordinary man’s wildest ken. The CIA controls Israel. Not a drop of oil bleeds from the Gulf without the CIA’s permission. They are listening to this conversation as we speak, and feeding every word into those gleaming supercomputers.

Right. And they’re beaming messages into your fillings, even as you read this.

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