While the CIA and other agencies attempt to revive the pipeline of spies-in-training, many outside the agency are urging that the country tap third parties as a stop gap — foreign businessmen eager to make a little extra money, guerrilla groups like the Northern Alliance, or dissidents inside states accused of sponsoring terrorism. Others, however, say that aligning America with “fair weather friends” is exactly how Afghanistan became the breeding ground and training camp for the terrorists who launched the 9/11 attacks.
Raymond Tanter is a man on a mission. A Middle East expert and Iraq hawk who held high level national security posts going back to the Johnson administration, Tanter says he simply cannot understand why policymakers in the current administration “took off the gloves” to fight the Taliban, al-Qaida and Iraq, but appear to hold their noses when it comes to another Islamic rival, Iran.
Tanter and other well-connected Republicans, citing the inability of the CIA and other agencies to penetrate Iran’s intelligence agencies, have lobbied hard see the State Department drop its ‘terrorist” designation of the MEK — the Mujahedeen-e Khalq.
The MEK is a group of Iranian exiles Saddam helped to shelter and arm during his years in power - providing them with tanks and light artillery — so they could infiltrate across the border and strike at the Islamic regime there, always a close second to the Bush family on Saddam’s enemies list.
“One of the reasons I’m interested in MEK is that they provide the eyes and ears for human intelligence on the ground in Iran,” says Tanter, currently lecturing at Georgetown University. “The U.S. has a very poor record of having people on the ground in Iran or Iraq. Therefore, there has been far too much reliance on technology - signals intelligence and satellite imagery. What you need are people on the ground, whose interests coincide with yours.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican known for her hawkish views on Cuba, agrees. “This group loves the United States. They’re assisting us in the war on terrorism; they’re pro-U.S,” she says.
In spite of such support for the MEK, the Bush Treasury Department last week reaffirmed the group’s place on American terrorist lists, ordering its assets seized and the State Department shut its Washington office down. The move brought a rare statement of praise from Tehran.
And so it might. According to the State Department’s 2002 list of terrorist organizations, Mujahedin-e Khalq has become a major problem for the Iranian regime. While the report describes MEK as a virulently anti-western group that supported the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and has killed hundreds of people, Iranian officials and civilians alike, it also notes that “MEK insurgent activities in Tehran constitute the biggest security concern for the Iranian leadership.”
According to intelligence officials, the MEK also has been behind some of the best and most startling intelligence on Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. “Our best means are technical, frankly,” an administration official says. “The rest comes from Iranians, and the MEK is part of that.”
Tanter, who knows many of the Bush administration’s most influential policymakers well, says “their aims are our aims. The problem is the American agenda is that, with respect to Iran, it is not set because of a split between State and Defense. Regime change is not our policy toward Iran, but it should be.”
Still, neither Washington nor other powers appear interested in hitching their wagon to the MEK. Earlier this summer, France withdrew its long tolerance for the MEK and arrested one of the group’s leader, Miriam Rajavi, along with dozens of supporters who had been sheltered there for years. In response, her adherents lit themselves on fire outside French embassies in several major western capitals.
“I’ve tried to explain to them that this isn’t really helping their case,” says Tanter. “But those were spontaneous acts, and it shows how serious they are.”
Rick Francona, a former military intelligence officer, spent much of the 1990s trying to help establish a reliable anti-Saddam presence in northern Iraq using the U.S.-funded exiles of the Iraqi National Congress.
“From my experience, I would say that we should not rely on groups like the INC - we should make sure we have our own independent intelligence assets — only answering to us,” he says.
Another former intelligence official who asked not to be identified says he strongly opposes an American policy that is beholden to “local hires.” That risks, the official says, a repeat of history, dragging the U.S. government into activities it may not want to be associated with — human rights atrocities, coups gone wrong or revolutions that defy any outside influence.
“Look, I think the [1970s] curbs went too far, but they didn’t just happen out of thin air,” says the former intelligence official. “There were things wrong in the old days, and as usual, government went overboard fixing it. That doesn’t mean the reforms were all wrong, though.”
Long road back
Most intelligence officials date the deterioration of U.S. spy capabilities to the 1970s, when Senate and House investigations revealed details of a series CIA operations in previous decades that shocked many Americans.
Heading these investigations was Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, whose Church committee made headlines throughout the mid-1970s. The revelations included CIA involvement in the 1973 coup that led to the death of Chilean President Salvadore Allende, eight botched attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, murderous campaigns against suspected Viet Cong sympathizers in Vietnam, assassinations and political bombings and attempted coups across Africa, Asia and Latin America.
and a host of other activities which propped up dictators around the world led to a public backlash.
The politically charged atmosphere of the day contributed to the backlash against intelligence, too. The assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam war, revelations about the domestic spying conducted against anti-war and civil rights activists by the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover, then Watergate.
By 1976, the drumbeat of bungled ops and plots gone terribly wrong led President Gerald Ford to issue an Executive Order banning assassination as an instrument of national policy. By the time the Church committee hearings ended, massive dismissals of CIA agents around the world had taken place.
The CIA and DIA became increasingly reliant on technological spying, on foreign allied spy agencies, and on the the white collar spies posing as attaches and cruising the cocktail circuits in embassies around the world.
The FBI, for all intents and purposes, withdrew from the field, concentrating on domestic crime and the hunt for Soviet agents working inside the United States. The discovery of one, Aldrich Ames, working inside its own headquarters hardly encouraged policymakers of that day to urge it to take on domestic surveillance as well.
The curbs on CIA activities received another boost in 1996, too, when congressional hearings revealed that an American citizen had been murdered by a particularly violent CIA asset — in effect, a local paid as an informer — in Guatemala. Then-CIA Director John Deutch ordered that CIA agents refrain from dealings with those with known records of violating human rights.
Today, many of those limitations remain in place, though they are widely ignored, according to those familiar with current operations.
Francona, whose experience in northern Iraq makes him wary of “third party operators,” says that expectations that American spies can infiltrate groups like al-Qaida may be over-optimistic.
“I am sure the agencies are tying to penetrate, but I doubt they are using Americans ... they would be suspect now,” he says. “Second, an agency officer couldn’t do what was expected — killing, terrorism, etcetera.”
But Francona sees a middle ground between reliance on American citizen spies and the risks of allying the country with a foreign political organization.
“Ideally the way this usually works is you find someone already on the inside who is disaffected and vulnerable,” he says. “There are a host of reasons people become vulnerable — you just have to find them and then work on exploiting the vulnerability. That’s what intelligence officers do.”