Why We Don’t Spy

The Weekly Standard, March 2002

ACCORDING TO CIA case officer Robert Baer, who spent twenty-one years recruiting informants in the Middle East and Central Asia, the luminaries of the CIA hold that the events of September 11 are no grounds for self-reproach. In the preface to his outraged memoir, “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism,” Baer reports that high-ranking CIA officials privately tell reporters that “when the dust finally clears, Americans will see that September 11 was a triumph for the intelligence community, not a failure.”

It is a challenge to imagine what the words “intelligence failure” might mean, if not an unexpected attack on American soil that leaves more than three thousand civilians dead. Perhaps these officials are keeping the term in reserve for an invasion by extraterrestrials. And thus Baer replies: “If that’s going to be the official line of thinking at the agency charged with manning the front lines in the war against the Osama bin Ladens of this world, then I am more than angry: I am scared to death.”

Only months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet is still in place, his power and prestige, if anything, augmented. The CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center staff has doubled in size, its budget enlarged by hundreds of millions of dollars. No one from the center has been asked to resign or retire. Indeed, no one at the CIA has been called to account in any way. “Absolutely not,” says CIA spokesman Bill Harlow. “We’ll give them medals.”

Many observers — including the president of the United States, who within days of the attacks visited headquarters to clap the affable CIA director on his leather-clad back — have made the case that the CIA cannot be held responsible for its failure to predict the outrages. After all, they argue, the world is a very big place. One cannot know everything, all the time. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the CIA’s budgets were cut. The CIA has been fighting with one hand tied behind its back, apologists say, hamstrung by the constraints of the Church and Pike committees, forbidden to assassinate miscreants, enjoined from recruiting the very assets needed in the war against terrorism — human rights violators, to be precise. There is no use pointing fingers, defenders argue; it will only make everyone concerned feel bad about themselves.

Baer is of another mind. The attacks of September 11, he argues, might have been predicted and preempted through an aggressive intelligence program. Through negligence, failure of imagination, bureaucratic infighting, careerism, and political correctness, the CIA consumed itself in pettiness after the Cold War, missing thousands of warnings, failing to capitalize upon opportunity after opportunity to penetrate terrorist organizations, refusing to dirty its hands with the messy and risky business of collecting human intelligence, systematically purging the very assets who might have warned of the impending disaster, and driving from its ranks its most aggressive and talented case officers. Baer writes:

“Americans need to know that what happened to the CIA didn’t happen just by chance. . . . At a time when terrorist threats were compounding globally, the agency that should have been monitoring them was scrubbed clean instead. Americans were making too much money to bother. Life was good. The oceans on either side of us were all the protection we needed. . . . Defanged and dispirited, the CIA went along for the ride. And then on September 11, 2001, the reckoning for such vast carelessness was presented for all the world to see.”

In the early 1990s, Baer, who reads and speaks Arabic, noted an unusual efflorescence of radical Islamic tracts in the bookstores of Central London. These pamphlets, written in Arabic, openly advocated violence against the United States — and were, in fact, so inflammatory as to be banned even in most Middle Eastern countries. “One glance at the bold print,” writes Baer, “and you knew what they were about: a deep, uncompromising hatred of the United States. In the worldview of the people who wrote these tracts, a jihad, or holy war, between Islam and America wasn’t just a possibility; for them the war was a given, and it was already underway.” What was the CIA doing, then, to monitor the authors and publishers of these tracts? According to Baer, it was doing nothing whatsoever. Why not? For one thing, not a single CIA officer in Britain spoke or read Arabic. Moreover, the CIA feared the British would be annoyed were its officers to recruit sources — even Islamic fundamentalists — on British soil.

At the same time, CIA offices in Bonn, Paris, and Rome were shrivelling. In the decade before the attacks, Baer reports, the CIA had no agents in the mosques of Germany who could have informed them of the increasing radicalization of European Moslems or Mohamed Atta’s efforts to recruit young terrorists for his obscene plot. In the Middle East itself, things were not much better; many countries were staffed in their entirety by only one or two CIA officers; more often than not, these officers could speak no Arabic, nor any other language spoken by Islamic extremists.

In the wake of the Aldrich Ames scandal, the agency turned instead upon itself. Offenses as trivial as bouncing a check served to end careers. Many of the agency’s best trained and most experienced officers were impounded at CIA Headquarters for years, their lives under microscopic examination, while terrorists operated throughout Europe and the Middle East free from scrutiny.

In late 1994, Baer was the only CIA officer serving in Tajikistan. There, he recruited a Russian nationalist he calls Grigor, a full colonel in the Russian army and the commander of an elite army regiment. Grigor informed Baer — and thus Washington — of a generals’ plot to stage a coup against Boris Yeltsin. Clearly Grigor was an intelligence source of rare merit. The colonel attempted energetically to warn the CIA of the dangers of emerging Islamic fundamentalism on the outskirts of the Soviet empire, but when Baer left Tajikistan at the end of his tour, the CIA could find not a single qualified officer willing to replace him. One candidate was instead sent to a mid-career management training course; another rejected the assignment on the grounds that Dushanbe “wasn’t a good career move.” Ultimately, the CIA replaced Baer with a paramilitary officer who spoke neither Russian or Tajik, had never recruited nor handled an agent, and could not communicate with Grigor, who spoke no English. “The CIA had no agents in the Russian military and apparently didn’t care . . . despite the fact that it still possessed missiles that could deliver a nuclear warhead to anywhere it wanted in the U.S.,” notes Baer, who finds the agency’s indifference to the Russian missile program unfathomable.

During this time, Baer begged for an interpreter to interview the flood of refugees streaming into Tajikistan over the Afghan border. Baer hoped to debrief these refugees, recruit them, and send them back into Afghanistan to report on the increasingly volatile civil war and the growing influence of foreign Islamic radicals in the Afghan outback. His pleas were unmet. He was told the agency had no speakers of Dari or Pashtun. Headquarters offered to send him a four-person sexual harassment briefing team instead. Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, please pay attention here. The people who made this decision are still in charge of our intelligence efforts. Can any American repose his confidence in the managers who exercised such catastrophically poor judgment?

In 1995, Baer and a group of Iraqi dissidents led by Ahmed Chalabi, chairman of the Iraqi National Congress, worked together to plan an assault on the Iraqi army. Moments before the plan was to be effected, the Clinton administration, seized by an attack of the vapors, changed its mind. The NSC ordered Baer to tell Chalabi that the United States was withdrawing its support. The move split the two Kurdish groups backing Chalabi in two, and led to a massacre of INC soldiers by Iraqi forces the following year. Baer argues that this was the United States’ last chance to rid itself of Hussein without using its own troops. Again, he concludes, we are now paying the price for nerve misplaced and opportunities lost.

A MEMOIR is a memoir, of course, and like all memoirs, this one gives rise to the obvious question: Is it true? Or is this the creative fiction of a disgruntled former employee, a record distorted out of spite? There is no way independently to confirm Baer’s claims. The CIA certainly isn’t talking, although the agency’s Publication Review Board did seize the computer on which the unpublished manuscript resided, and forced Baer to delete a full third of the book — something they would be unlikely to do if the contents were patently false. But it is worth noting that Baer is part of an emerging cohort of disillusioned case officers, among them, for example, the prescient Reuel Gerecht (a frequent Weekly Standard contributor), who wrote in a now-famous Atlantic Monthly article that “America’s counterterrorism program in the Middle East and its environs is a myth.” Gerecht’s perspective corroborates Baer’s in substance and detail: “In my years inside the CIA,” Gerecht writes, “I never once heard case officers overseas or back at headquarters discuss the ABCs of a recruitment operation against any Middle Eastern target that took a case officer far off the diplomatic and business-conference circuits. Long-term seeding operations simply didn’t occur.”

THE ARGUMENTS made by Baer and Gerecht are supported by many other officers who decline to make their views public. They argue that a risk-averse, bureaucratized CIA was unable to predict the events of September 11 because it did not have enough linguistically trained case officers in the field, refused to develop cadres of specialists to focus on particular countries or terrorist groups, and had no interest in any operation that could lead to a flap or embarrassment. Stories like Baer’s are multiplying rapidly, and they are disturbingly alike. If Baer’s book is even partially true, the CIA’s management must be called to account.

But where are the investigations? Where are the congressional hearings, the calls to action, the outraged editorials in the New York Times? After Pearl Harbor, Americans demanded Admiral Kimmel’s head on a platter; indeed, the CIA was created with the express intention that never again should American policymakers be similarly caught unawares. Shortly following the September 11 attacks, there were hints of a reckoning to come: Senator Richard Shelby, for example, the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, publicly questioned the director’s competence, saying the job was “getting away from him.” But oddly, the inquiries stopped there. Since then, no fresh investigation has been proposed: Representative Tim Roemer, who serves on the new House Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, suggested the CIA be subject to an external review, but stressed that the purpose would be “not to blame individuals.” Heaven forbid someone should be blamed. He might feel bad about himself.

How has the CIA escaped scrutiny? Enron and its hapless managers have received far more attention from Congress. Baer blames the crisis on “politics” and takes his analysis no further. But that is not enough. Where Baer leaves off, intelligence historian Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones begins. “Cloak and Dollar” is an account of the history of American intelligence efforts from the 1790s to the present. From its inception, Jeffreys-Jones argues, when George Washington set aside a discretionary fund for covert operations, the U.S. intelligence community has excelled above all at one overarching psychological mission: convincing policymakers in Washington to expand its budgets and purview. “There has been,” writes Jeffreys-Jones, “a long-standing conspiracy of spies, a great confidence trick designed to boost the fortunes of the spy rather than protect the security of the American people.” And while the book is a history, recent events are clearly emblematic.

JEFFREYS-JONES commences with a discussion of George Washington’s restrained, efficient intelligence collection, and compares it to the increasingly commercial, bureaucratic, and populist style of subsequent spymasters. Since the Civil War, and particularly since the 1950s, Jeffreys-Jones argues, American citizens have been importuned by American spies to alarm themselves with various contrived threats — Confederate assassination plots, Western land fraud, Chinese espionage, cocaine scares, digital encryption, and the like. These hysterias, argues Jeffreys-Jones, while little relevant to the protection of American soil, each time enlarged the spymasters’ power and prestige. Jeffreys-Jones discusses the “expansionist nature of espionage” in the context of a growing federal government, with its commensurate opportunities for clandestine employment, and the political tendency to devise and fund programs with popular appeal. Like all bureaucracies — and precisely as Max Weber would have predicted — the espionage machine seeks continually to enlarge itself. Unlike other bureaucracies, it cloaks its activities in a robe of dazzle, mystery, and flimflam: Its masters deflect criticism by sleight of hand, appeals to patriotism, and lavish applications of oily, insiderish charm. When questioned, they reply that the constraints of secrecy prevent them from mounting a vigorous public defense of their budgets and actions. They shrug charmingly.

In 1870 the Department of Justice established an investigative force with the objective of avoiding intelligence duplication and waste. Since then, Jeffreys-Jones notes, this argument for economy has been deployed again and again to justify the increasing complexity of the U.S. intelligence effort: Both the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency were proposed as advancements in economy, but in fact “added layers of bureaucracy costing more money, as well as adding to the undigested information mountain.” Moreover, notes Jeffreys-Jones, “another bizarre and oft-repeated practice has been the reward of failure. A disaster happens; the government sets up a preemptive inquiry to deliberate until the fuss dies down; the confidence men now say the disaster happened because they had too little money to spend on intelligence; the president and Congress authorize more intelligence funds. Thus, for example, Pearl Harbor spawned the OSS and the CIA, and the National Security Agency’s shortcomings in the 1990s inspired not punitive cuts but larger appropriations.”

Does any of this sound familiar?

Jeffreys-Jones’s account is not simply an indictment or a criticism, although it is both. It is a meticulously documented piece of scholarship, based on new archival research. It is unique in the scope of its inquiry. His is the only published account, for example, of the history of U-1, the elite and superefficient World War I era spy agency that demolished the American espionage ring led by German intelligence chief Colonel Walter Nicolai. Jeffreys-Jones compares U-1 favorably with its successor, the CIA, noting that while U-1’s milieu may have been “undemocratic and even incestuous,” its operations were “harmonious and watertight.” The small and streamlined service was “not too large, so it was less likely that vital details would be lost in a morass of bureaucracy.” Moreover, “U-1 did not present the opportunities for buck-passing and evasion of responsibility that tend to exist in a larger organization.”

Disappointingly, Jeffreys-Jones spends only two pages placing the attacks of September 11 in the broader context of the history of American intelligence, no doubt because the manuscript was completed beforehand and rushed thereafter into print. His afterthought, however, is apt: In the wake of the attacks, he observes, “encrusted in tradition were the immediate appeals for a boost to the intelligence community, accompanied by ill-founded complaints that it had been financially squeezed since the end of the Cold War. The situation was custom made for the intelligence confidence man and his political allies. Once again, the cries were heard: Give them more money, unleash the CIA. Once again, it was tempting to resort to expensive, static, and home-based solutions.”

In light of Jeffreys-Jones’s observations, the CIA director’s voodoo grip on the intelligence committees and the White House can be seen in its broader historical context. Perhaps it is not much of a surprise. But apologists, beware: After the next catastrophic attack on the United States — this time, perhaps, with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons — the untouchable director, with his snake charmer’s gaze, may be the only thing that survives.

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