Playwright Neil Simon once joked that there are only two universal truths – the law of gravity and that everyone loves Italian food. He might have, in a moment of more serious contemplation, added that it is true that every known form of government is inefficient but nevertheless exists primarily to grow and protect itself. We Americans have witnessed in the short space of eleven years a government that has metastasized built around a fiction that the American people are somehow under serious threat from foreign enemies. This has produced two large and a number of smaller wars coupled to a US military and intelligence footprint that now extends to every corner of every continent. The festering sore of Afghanistan is like the story of Uncle Remus’s tar baby – easy to get stuck to but damned hard to get away from. Under Bush and Obama the cost and size of government have doubled, and Washington has added a massive new bureaucracy that has a primary function of monitoring the American people in the Department of Homeland Security. And to our eternal shame as a nation, it has all been done on a credit card with Asian governments picking up the tab and the US treasury printing money that has no actual backing, running up the national debt to hitherto unimaginable levels while doing grievous damage to the economy.
Government never thinks far enough ahead to appreciate that any action on its part will result in unforeseen and sometimes catastrophic consequences, whether in the form of unacceptable collateral damage or blowback. The war on drugs has been disastrous for Mexico while the incursions into Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya are prime examples of a structural inability to look over the horizon. The United States supported both Saddam Hussein and also Osama bin Laden before they became designated enemies. Government never admits failure and its response to shortcomings is to throw more resources at the problem in an attempt to either make it go away or delay the day of reckoning. Witness how the Transportation Security Administration, which has never caught a single terrorist, responds to incidents by engaging in panic buying of screening machines being hawked by former senior bureaucrats only to find that they don’t work well and eventually wind up in a warehouse in Omaha.
In that context, I read with considerable interest the Washington Post’s article about the Central Intelligence Agency’s Global Response Staff (GRS), described as a "secret security force created after 9/11…to serve as armed guards for the Agency’s spies." It seemed to me illustrative of what happens when a government agency defines its own mission based on its own needs because it no longer knows what it is doing and why.
Let us accept for a moment that there are indeed people out there in the world whom we might refer to as terrorists. They do not wish us well and they might in fact number in the low thousands worldwide if one includes every spear carrier, cook, bottle washer, and driver affiliated to them. But the ones who are actually ready, willing, and, most critically, able to inflict damage on the United States and its people are far fewer, perhaps numbering no more than a couple of hundred. Which means that the US is using all its military, intelligence, law enforcement and diplomatic resources to confront an enemy comprising little more than a regular Army brigade – albeit scattered throughout the world – with a core of truly effective cadre amounting to at most little more than an infantry company.
The rational response to a transnational threat of this nature would be to work with local governments overseas to identify and isolate the terrorists, provide technical assistance as appropriate, and employ intelligence and law enforcement resources to do the job. As it happens, this is an approach that CIA is particularly good at, having spent many years in developing solid liaison relationships in the key countries that are also the places where the terrorists have been active in the past fifty years.
But instead of doing that, the Bush administration became blinded by the media spotlight and its own hubris, declaring a "Global War on Terror" and giving it muscle with the admonition that "You are either with us or against us." Having received their marching orders, the friends in the security services in many countries quickly became somewhat distant, aware that they were no longer partners but rather low level participants in the newest venture of Team America.
So the CIA, unwilling to be relegated to a supporting role, steps back and salutes and develops a program to become a more assertive player in the game that the White House has initiated. How to do that? The mandate is to find terrorists and "bring them to justice." As the CIA has no law enforcement function, that means killing them. CIA paramilitaries play a leading role in the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but what to do as a second act? Agency Case Officers are traditionally trained to operate well below the radar, developing sources over extended periods of time, taking steps to test them for their reliability and trustworthiness, and eventually recruiting them as spies to include polygraphing them at regular intervals to confirm that they have not been doubled. All of that training and tradition goes out the window in the wake of 9/11. Turnover and obtaining great masses of information becomes the new normal with the primary objective of identifying and killing suspected terrorists meaning that the Agency rapidly transforms into a paramilitary arm of the White House rather than an intelligence agency. The drone program develops apace to provide the principal tool to be used in the killing.
The new rules of engagement mean that Case Officers will no longer enter into a room to meet someone with a pretty good idea of what is involved and what the risks are. It results in masses of unreliable and untested volunteers providing information in most cases for money who will be knocking at the door and, depending on what they claim to be selling, they will have to be met by Americans who do not speak their language, have no familiarity with their culture and country, and who have no idea what they really represent. That means that CIA officers are no longer in control and require heavily armed and trained protection for their own meetings as they move in a bubble of security, something unheard of pre 9/11.
Enter the 250 man strong Global Response Staff, which is recruited almost exclusively by word of mouth from among former special ops soldiers and police department SWAT teams. The operatives know little or nothing about the environment they are working in in most cases and are essentially hired guns. They are contractors, not CIA career employees, paid good salaries ($140,000), but with little in the way of benefits, doing a dangerous job for reasons best known to themselves. They are the sort of people you would want backing you up in a fight but also precisely the type you would not want to inject unmonitored into a volatile overseas environment.
As the Post article explains it, today’s "…counterterrorism assignments carry a level of risk that rarely accompanied the cloak and dagger encounters of the Cold War… Now clandestine human intelligence involves showing up in a Land Cruiser with some [former] Deltas or Seals, picking up an asset and then dumping him back there when you are through." It is hardly traditional intelligence gathering and some might well point out how reckless and unfocused the process is. Prior to meetings, GRS officers check the security of meeting arrangements and plot out escape routes to use if necessary. They normally frisk the source for weapons and bombs, but the process nevertheless does sometimes go wrong. Raymond Davis was a GRS officer checking out some potential meeting sites in Lahore Pakistan in 2011 when he killed two Pakistanis he claimed were trying to rob him, creating a major diplomatic incident. Two GRS officers died in Khost Afghanistan in December 2009 when they attempted to search an informant but were overruled by an inexperienced Chief of Base who had had no field experience or knowledge of how to meet informants. But she was nevertheless desperate to interview a Jordanian doctor who claimed to have information on Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. He turned out to be a double agent, a suicide bomber, and killed seven CIA officers. Two more GRS officers died in Benghazi in September.
One might well regard the CIA’s GRS team as a microcosm of growth in government. You start out with a threat that is not really a threat that could potentially become a problem bureaucratically if you don’t do anything. Because your basic premise is wrong, you then come to an incorrect conclusion on how to deal with it. You develop a mechanism that does not work and only makes the situation worse, as the CIA drone program has demonstrably done, but you have to build an infrastructure to support the bad idea and keep feeding it even though it is not working because to admit that you made a mistake is just not acceptable. And then you double down on your bet, making the failure even bigger, expanding the drone program to new parts of the world where you can repeat the process. Along the way you lose the ability to do what you used to do well because it is no longer relevant. Oh, but you have hired more people and your budget is bigger, allowing you to get promoted. Bigger government is a win-win all around for those in the bureaucracy but really a bummer for the taxpayer who has to foot the bill. And what is worse, it doesn’t work very well, as Neil Simon might well have pointed out.