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Wanted: Spies who speak Arabic

The need to move back in a big way into the business of training spies and infiltrating enemy organizations is one of the mantras of the post-9/11 intelligence debate. How is it going? Part II of a series. By Michael Moran.
/ Source: An Special Report

As a senior at Berkeley, 21-year-old Carly decided to enter the family business: intelligence. “I didn’t want to be an analyst, either,” says Carly (not her real name). “I wanted to do field work — to be a spy.” Before she heard back from CIA, however, one of her father’s colleagues, himself a senior intelligence official, sought her out, warning her that her youthful good looks, rather than her mastery of foreign languages or her excellent grades, would be viewed as her main asset. “He basically said it’s likely they would want me to ‘make friends’ with terrorists — to sleep with them,” she says. “I’m patriotic, but I would have been more comfortable assassinating someone than sleeping with them.” Thus ended Carly’s romantic notions of espionage.

The need to reinvigorate “human intelligence,” as Washington euphemistically refers to the men and women who go undercover as espionage agents, is one of the mantras of the post-9/11 intelligence debate. But Carly’s experience illustrates one of the many dilemmas facing the nation as it tries to rebuild the kind of large network of American agents that roamed the planet in the early years of the Cold War: getting qualified people to risk their lives as spies is not easy.

“It can be frustrating, grueling, painstaking work,” says Ralph Peters, a former military intelligence officer whose writings have a huge following in espionage circles.

“You can’t just post a help-wanted ad and recruit ready-to-deploy agents,” he says.

America’s cadre of spies, at least in the old fashioned, cloak-and-dagger notion of the term, withered and just about died in the decades since the 1970s, when a wave of scandals rocked the CIA and its sister agencies. As a result, the CIA and other agencies increasingly came to rely on high technology — satellites, eavesdropping stations and other wizardry — plus reports from allied intelligence services. Limitations designed to prevent agents from getting killed, or from getting involved in assassinations or dealing with contacts with suspect human rights records, further discouraged human spying.

Lt. Gen. Patrick Hughes, who ran the Defense Intelligence Agency from during the late 1990s, says the U.S. intelligence community is moving to rebuild its cadre of spies.

“However, the best spymasters and spies in the world are only as good as the policies they work under,” he says, “and we have a history of being very conservative — risk averse — with regard to their operational activities.”

The need for speed
The 9/11 attacks, most national security officials agree, showed the folly of that policy. But reentering the espionage game is not just a matter of will.

“It takes time to develop agents, to train, season, employ and develop them in context,” says Peters. “Lead times, in some cases, might be twenty years — although a few years might do in other cases.”

And, he adds, “often the people that want to be ‘secret agents’ are the last people you’d want for the job.”

By now, it is a well established fact that various U.S. agencies had information in hand before 9/11 that might have caused the terrorist plot to unravel if it had been shared with other agencies and acted on promptly. Yet the same probes that revealed this tragic fact also note that none of those bits of information alone would have tipped off the American government.

In fact, the hints were like messages in bottles cast into a sea of unrelated, often conflicting data. “Connecting the dots,” as the phrase goes, was not the main problem - it was recognizing the dots in the first place.

“There certainly was a lack of dot connecting before September 11th, but more important was the fact that the blizzard of information available for analysis was of such poor quality,” wrote six former senior U.S. intelligence and security officials in an open letter on intelligence problems published by The Economist in July. “There were too few useful dots... The only way to uncover and destroy terrorist activity is to penetrate the organizations engaged in it.”

More spies like us
Particularly damning for intelligence agencies after 9/11 were reports that only a handful of agents throughout CIA spoke fluent Arabic. Though never confirmed officially, sources familiar with the situation in 2001 say that outside the eavesdropping analysts at the National Security Agency, less than a dozen CIA field agents could speak the language spoken by the groups that were the consensus favorites to mount attacks on America.

At FBI, the situation was even worse, the source says: through most of the 1990s, only two translators at FBI headquarters spoke the language. As recently at last year, the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, found that the FBI, State Department and the Army all continued to have trouble finding language specialists. The report did not look at intelligence agencies.

Since the attacks, the solution prescribed by just about everyone who has looked at the issue is a huge increase in “HUMINT” — human intelligence, and the hiring of cadres of new agents fluent in Arabic.

“To really understand what is happening inside these organizations, you need a spy, an agent, someone willing to tell you what is going on,” says Rick Francona, a former military intelligence operative in several Middle Eastern countries, including the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, home to one of the few genuine “HUMINT” operations of the 1990s.

“You don’t turn on a switch and get human intelligence,” he says. “It takes years to develop effective networks before you get reliable, timely reporting. Not only that, it takes years to grow good intelligence officers, with the right cultural skills and language capability.”

The human touch
Traditionally, only three of the 15 major American intelligence agencies — the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the FBI — recruit, train and “handle” spies, or undercover agents, as the FBI refers to them. The government does not reveal the number of these agents currently operating on its behalf, but CIA deputy director of operations, Jim Pavitt, puts the number controlled by his agency alone at “hundreds.”

Speaking to students at Duke University Law School last year, Pavitt noted that the first U.S. casualty of the Afghan campaign in 2002 was a CIA agent, Micheal Spann.

“Were Mike with us tonight he would be the first to tell you that there are hundreds more just like him,” Pavitt said. “And that is good news for us all. Whether it’s in the back alleys of some hell hole in this world, and there are a lot of those, and I have a lot of my officers operating them, to the dusty fields of Mazar-e-Sharif where Mike died, we go where we have to go, where someone has to go.”

Yet this year, the Republican-led House Select Committee on Intelligence concluded U.S. human intelligence was in “an entirely unacceptable state of affairs.” The report reflects the results of closed hearings where details that remain classified are revealed to the oversight committee.

Nonetheless, the House felt compelled to note that there are not enough spies in critical areas, including the Middle East, a situation that forces the CIA and other agencies to react to crises by pulling them out and reassigning them to trouble spots. The result: “existing relationships often wither, and new relationships they are expected to build... never come into being.” New spies who arrive afterward, it said, have to start from scratch. The full House, generally loathe to criticize the administration, endorsed the report in late June by a vote of 410-9.

Penetration problems
Intelligence officials insist these problems do not reflect a lack of will. One official noted that, in mid-August, the FBI, together with British and Russian intelligence agents, successfully prevented an alleged arms dealer from marketing shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles in the U.S. The sting operation involved an FBI agent posing as a terrorist interested in purchasing the missile to bring down U.S. commercial aircraft. “I don’t know how much more powerful a statement you want than that,” a law enforcement official says.

Others note that the sting operation involved no terrorists, however. “It’s one thing to convince an arms dealer whose hungry for cash that you’re a terrorist,” a U.S. diplomat says. “It’s a very different thing to convince a terrorist you’re a terrorist.”

Another problem — one Francona discovered the hard way in Kurdistan — is that the three agencies running spies don’t always talk to one another.

“There are too many competing organizations,” he says. “Both CIA and DOD collect human intelligence. They should be brought under one umbrella, and respond directly to users - especially the Pentagon. CIA teams have no business running around conducting operations in combat areas without direct Pentagon command and control. The current system of DOD involvement is a joke. CIA does what it wants and conceals things from DOD all the time.”

Even the harshest critics of U.S. espionage efforts — among them, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, concede that they are now trying to address these shortcomings.

After 9/11, Shelby says, the intelligence community finally recognized it had been too cautious and blood-averse, and overly dependent on high tech surveillance and analysis.

No more excuses
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a Republican from New York who chairs several subcommittees of the House intelligence panel, says agencies simply are not applying the lessons of 9/11 to what they do.

“I am disturbed that more of this information wasn’t more widely disseminated and analyzed and acted upon within the intelligence community,” he told reporters last month.

Shelby, who pledges to use his new job as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee to press the administration on the question of terrorist financing, says the changed atmosphere and the lifting of legal constraints since 9/11 mean the spy agencies will no longer have “red tape” as an excuse if there is another failure.

“I think they’re trying,” says Shelby. “The debate going on right now here is the result of what I term the “massive intelligence failures” after the warnings of 1993,” when the first al-Qaida attempt to attack the World Trade Center was bungled, Shelby says. “Failure is a powerful term and myself and other senators are obliged to see to it that it doesn’t happen again.”