CIA Follies Put Agents at Risk

The transformation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) into a “terrorist-killing machine” using pilotless drones has diminished its ability to perform the function for which it was created in 1947 — to collect and analyze information. Right from the beginning, there was concern that the CIA would become some kind of secretive international police force that answered only to the president, a fear that seemed all too real as the United States used “covert actions” to bring about regime change in Latin America, Africa, and, most notably, Iran, where Mohammad Mossadegh was removed from power in 1953. In the CIA’s early days it was mostly Ivy League at its senior levels, and the tales of imaginative derring-do in the 1950s were indeed redolent of the pranks and shenanigans portrayed in the “Lawrenceville Stories” and Stover at Yale.

But that phase of exuberant adolescence ended when Washington again went to war and killing the enemy trumped intelligence-gathering. The Vietnam War produced the Agency’s highly controversial Phoenix Program, which assassinated at least 26,000 Vietnamese. Congress then also found the Agency just a tad too imaginative in some of its other endeavors, particularly its plots to poison Fidel Castro and kill other international figures. The Church Commission of 1973 established what appeared to be a framework permitting a national intelligence service to operate within some reasonable limits. Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever, and there followed a resurgence of covert actions under Ronald Reagan that essentially spawned the symbiotic relationships with dictators and military governments willing to support American strategic objectives that are only now starting to unravel.

The so-called war on terror has completed the reversion to darker times, with its waterboarding, secret prisons, and renditions. Fully one-third of the current CIA budget is related to drones and assassinations, meaning that the people who are watching developments in other parts of the world are pretty much starved of resources. Even analysts are not immune from the slaughter; a new career track has been created for those willing to comb the media and blogosphere to identify and locate targets for the drones to kill.

A recent news item made me think about the changing face of the Agency and long for the days when there was at least some minimal clarity on who or what constituted an enemy and what the proper role and deportment of an intelligence officer operating overseas might be. It seems that the Agency’s spy networks in Lebanon, directed against Hezbollah, and in Iran have been identified and penetrated. The CIA’s local agents have been detained and almost certainly have already been executed or are about to be. The exposure of the agents last summer was apparently due to extremely poor tradecraft on the part of the CIA case officers who were running the operations out of Lebanon, while the Iranian roll-up was due to badly conceived and insecure Internet communications that were identified by the Iranian security services. That the communications were dangerous to the user was probably also the result of laziness or even incompetence, most likely involving shortcuts that compromised security arrangements.

In Lebanon, the Americans’ case officers met with their agents openly at places like the Beirut Pizza Hut and also used it and other similar venues for all their meetings despite the fact that Beirut is hardly a friendly environment and CIA training emphasizes that using the same site for a number of meetings is an extremely easy way to come to someone’s attention and get caught. In fact, the code name for the overall operation was “pizza,” apparently a crude way of identifying the agents through the place where the meetings normally took place and a reflection of just how lazy and sloppy the whole operation was. Hezbollah reportedly was able to insert a couple of plausible double agents into the process and quickly identified all of the American CIA case officers as well as their local contacts. At least one dozen Lebanese were subsequently detained by Hezbollah security, rolling up the entire operation. The Iranian agents, who were identified separately through their communications system, probably numbered several dozen. The Iranian media has reported that there were 30 arrests.

The CIA and the always acquiescent Washington Post are already spinning an alternative narrative, claiming that Hezbollah was able to pick up on cellphone communications to nail the traitors, but it is also conceding that there were tradecraft failures. The excuses being made should be considered little more than disinformation.

To be sure, Agency ineptitude is not exactly unusual, as CIA officers are promoted for aggressively acquiring agents to provide information. Aggression frequently means becoming careless, even reckless. A desire to get hot intelligence at any cost almost certainly led to the killing of seven CIA officers at Khost in Afghanistan in December 2009 when a Jordanian double agent was introduced into an Agency secure site. One also recalls the 23 CIA officers who snatched Abu Omar off the streets of Milan in 2003. They were undercover in false names, but the Italian investigators were able to identify all of them because they used their true names to claim frequent flyer and hotel miles and to call home to their families.

One might also remember a major Iranian success against the CIA back in the early 1990s, when the entire agent network in the country was rolled up and eventually executed. Nineteen Iranians spying for the United States were tortured and killed because a CIA secretary at the Iran ops center in Frankfurt got lazy and mailed instructions simultaneously to everyone on her list of Iranian agents. She addressed all the envelopes on the same day and sent the letters by dropping them into a German mailbox. When the Iranians noted 19 letters all with the same postmark and all in the same handwriting, they figured out what was going on, made the arrests, and eventually executed the spies. No one in the CIA was punished, and the senior officer in charge, in fact, went on to much bigger and better things, which leads me to my point about the current story.

“Espionage is a risky business. Many risks lead to wins, but some result in occasional setbacks,” said one U.S. official to ABC News in discussing the loss of the two major clandestine networks. A second official added that “Collecting sensitive information on adversaries who are aggressively trying to uncover spies in their midst will always be fraught with risk.”

Excuse me, but whose risk are we talking about here? Some fat-bottomed bureaucrat from Washington who parses risks on an actuarial scale and refers to spying as a business, or a poor sod in Beirut who is putting his life on the line and hoping that the American guy munching on pizza across the table knows what he is doing and will ensure his safety? It took a former intelligence officer, also interviewed for the article, to get a bit closer to the truth: “We’ve lost the tradition of espionage. Officers take shortcuts, and no one is held accountable.”

But it doesn’t end there. An intelligence operation should be initiated if it is the only way to get information that is vital to national security. A foreign agent is not a piece of dirt, and working for the CIA doesn’t necessarily mean that you check your ethics at the door. When a case officer recruits a foreigner to undertake a dangerous mission for the U.S. government, it is in the nature of a sacred commitment to fulfill all obligations and do everything possible to keep that person safe. In fact, CIA training, recognizing the close and protective relationship between case officer and agent, traditionally warned against “falling in love with your agent.” Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Unfortunately, today the same cavalier “us and them” attitude that has produced a mindset in which torture is okay and drone strikes that blow up wedding parties and school outings are regarded as an exemplary “tool” to use against terrorists apparently has also led intelligence officers to see the local people who help them as disposable items. So upward of 40 Lebanese and Iranians who thought they were helping the U.S. are either already or soon to be dead, which I guess by the Washington accounting of such things is no big deal. And some in Congress might even see it as a plus, arguing that since we no longer have any intelligence agents in Iran the mullahs could be up to no good and we would never know, so we’d best bomb them now. I wonder if official Washington cares enough to try to act decently. Will anyone be punished for the unnecessary deaths of the Lebanese and Iranians? I think I already know the answer to that one.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.