News reports that more than an dozen CIA spies in Iran and Lebanon have been arrested and charged with espionage — as well as details reported about a CIA “black site” prison in Romania
— made this former CIA officer sick. But not for the reasons you might suspect.
Spying is a dangerous business where the risk of exposure is inherent in the nature of the beast. “Flaps,” as they call them in the trade, happen all the time. Spies usually get caught for one of three reasons: poor clandestine tradecraft, bad luck or one intelligence service simply outsmarts the other.
I don’t know how these spy networks were wrapped up, but several journalists and intelligence officers have been quick to cite sloppy tradecraft as the cause. That’s an easy judgment to make, particularly when one recalls the egregiously poor tradecraft used by the CIA recently in Khost, Afghanistan, that left seven CIA operatives dead.
So I would tend to agree that the cause of this particular debacle was probably lousy tradecraft. Too many CIA case officers meeting their agents at their favorite Beirut pizza joint is a definite tradecraft no-no.
Details revealed to the press by unnamed former and current intelligence officials include the fact that two of the Hezbollah agents were doubled back against the CIA, and that agent meetings were held at a Beirut Pizza Hut, and the codeword “pizza” was used to describe the meeting location.
It also appears from press reports that the Iranian network may have been related to the Lebanese network. If true, this would mean the basic principle of compartmentalization had been breached. The compromise reportedly occurred when a secret Internet communication method used by CIA agents in both groups was discovered.
When the news of the wrap-ups hit the airwaves on Iranian TV, other “U.S. officials” confirmed to ABC News that the information reported by Iran was essentially true. These same U.S. officials also confirmed to the press that the videos of CIA websites aired on the Iranian program were accurate.
This confirmation of information by so many former and current intelligence officials is what is so troubling to me. Why did they feel it necessary to so quickly confirm to the world that the arrested individuals were indeed CIA spies – by doing so they have all but assured swift executions for the unfortunate suspects.
What these people did was flat wrong.
It is one thing for a country like Iran or a terrorist group like Hezbollah to announce a stunning defeat of our intelligence efforts against them, or for the press to pick up on those reports and speculate about their veracity in the media, but it is entirely another thing for the CIA, or any former and current official in the CIA, to come out and confirm that the information reported is essentially accurate.
This is clearly a violation of the secrecy agreement every CIA officer signs when he or she enters the agency, and it remains in effect long after their retirement. These people should be identified and prosecuted for leaking classified information.
In days far gone the only response one could have hoped to get from the CIA, or any of its former or current officers, would have been “no comment.” Things certainly have changed in these days of openness. And we as a country are less safe because of it.
Fred Rustmann is a 24-year veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service, an author, and chairman of CTC International Group, a provider of worldwide business intelligence based in West Palm Beach, Fla.
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