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Author: Don't Change the CIA's Clandestine Service

Tuesday, 26 October 2004 12:00 AM

Changes are indeed necessary. Since the end of the Cold War, budget cuts, mismanagement, and above all personnel cuts have decimated the vanguard CIA and weakened the entire intelligence community. Radical structural reforms that are now being acted upon in both houses of Congress, including the naming of a National Intelligence Director with budgetary control over the entire intelligence community, sweeping changes within the CIA including the formation of a separate Counter-Terrorism Center, and an overhaul of the FBI’s counterintelligence functions appear likely to be adopted.

What is less clear is how all of this rearranging of the furniture will affect the efforts of the CIA’s clandestine service to recruit spies within Middle Eastern terrorist organizations; spies with access to the terrorists’ plans and intentions; spies who can warn us in advance of impending terrorist attacks.

The spy profession is as old as prostitution. There are certain techniques involved in spying (called tradecraft) that have remained basically unchanged since time immemorial. And those clandestine case officers who are charged with recruiting and handling those penetration agents haven’t changed much over the years either; nor should they.

Certain things should remain basically unchanged and shouldn’t be fiddled with by people who have little concept of what the arcane profession of spying really is all about. They should leave the core functions of the CIA’s clandestine service basically alone.

Several years ago I was among a group of senior case officers attending a reception on the seventh floor of the CIA headquarters building in Langley. The speaker was the DCI at the time, Robert Gates. Director Gates was speaking on the need to improve the Agency’s collection activities abroad when he wagged his finger at the group and exclaimed: “Look at you. You all look alike. That’s the problem.” He went on the say that we needed to recruit more case officers who could blend into foreign environments like natives.

Bob Gates and I entered on duty with the Agency on the same day and went through several months of training together before branching out into our respective careers. I went into the clandestine operations field and he entered the directorate of intelligence where he spent his entire career as an analyst. He rose through the ranks to the top job; but, incredibly, even he didn’t fully understand the role of the case officer. Or perhaps he just forgot the fundamental difference between a CIA case officer and that of an indigenous agent.

Much recent criticism has been directed at the Agency by people who claim that the Agency’s effectiveness, particularly regarding Middle Eastern terrorist targets, is hamstrung by the paucity of case officers with the requisite foreign language fluency, cultural knowledge and physical characteristics to blend into a foreign operational environment with the ease of a native of that country. They call for a recruitment drive to attract such souls, and that call has been fueled by the press and others ever since.

The CIA has taken a lot of heat over the past decade; some of it deserved, and some of it not. During the 90’s, budget cuts, reductions in force, revolving-door directors and the discovery of turncoats pushed morale to all-time lows, and effectiveness and productivity suffered. Things had been improving in recent years, until the intelligence failures leading to the terrorist attacks of September 11th brought renewed criticism on the Agency.

Again, some of this was deserved, but a lot of it was not. And some of what was not deserved came as a result of a complete misunderstanding of how the intelligence collection process works – a misunderstanding shared by a number of journalists and legislators who are calling for fundamental changes in the CIA’s operations directorate. In the extreme, these people are calling for the recruitment of case officers with the ability to infiltrate Muslim terrorist cells. Well, let me dispel that myth once and for all. It’s never going to happen. Never. And furthermore, it never should happen.

No matter how much money and personnel are thrown at the CIA to help it defeat the terrorists and assure that another 9/11 never happens again, the CIA would never risk one of its case officers (even if they had one with the qualifications to do the deed – which they don’t) to personally infiltrate al Qaeda or any other Muslim terrorist organization. This is not a question of personal courage or institutional commitment – it’s a matter of common sense. This is not how the real world of intelligence works – it’s the stuff of Hollywood fiction.

It is true that there are very few CIA case officers who are able to pass themselves off as natives of any non-English speaking country. In this the CIA detractors and Bob Gates are correct. My point is simply that the CIA’s case officer corps does not need to have that degree of language and cultural and ethnic authenticity to be effective, and moving too far in that direction would also endanger the integrity and cohesiveness of the clandestine service.

If you were to poll those case officers with native fluency in a foreign language you would find that all of them were born into families with deep linguistic and cultural ties to their country of origin. Most were born abroad and grew up in that foreign environment before immigrating to the U.S. Indeed, there are very few of these kinds of “special” case officers in the CIA.

Why is that? Why aren’t there more case officers with native fluency and ethnic authenticity to pass as natives of a particular country? Why doesn’t the CIA recruit more ethnic Chinese, Afghans, Pakistanis, Arabs, Nigerians, French, Russians, Vietnamese, Turks, Greeks, etc. into it’s case officer ranks? In order to answer that question you must first have to understand exactly what a CIA case officer is, and what he or she is not.

The CIA case officer typically is at least a college graduate, fluent (but not necessarily native fluency) in one or more foreign languages, and always a fully trusted loyal American citizen (usually native born) with a Top Secret security clearance; he or she is an individual of exceptional intelligence, integrity, and initiative. Case officers are the Agency’s elite corps, and as such they are entrusted with the most sensitive national secrets the U.S. possesses, and indeed the very lives of the indigenous agents they recruit and handle.

Because of this trust, they must pass the most rigorous background investigations imaginable, including periodic polygraph examinations. Once hired, the case officer’s job is to handle operational cases and assets; this is to say the case officer recruits and directs foreign indigenous spies who are know as “agents.”

The security issue is what keeps most foreign born applicants out of the CIA’s operations directorate. Very few foreign born and raised individuals are able to pass the stringent clearance process. The main reason they can’t pass is due precisely to their strong ties to their former countries. It’s a double-edged sword.

But the crux of this whole conundrum is that most people simply don’t understand the intelligence business; in particular the difference between case officers and agents. They don’t know that the CIA employs thousands of people in virtually every country on earth who are indeed natives and who can blend into the societal woodwork because they actually are a part of it.

They are called agents. And if the agent is savvy enough, he or she can be trained in the arcane art of clandestine tradecraft, put through a rigorous vetting process including a polygraph, to become what is known in the trade as a “principal agent.”

These principal agents are recruited and handled by case officers who, for the most part, work out of U.S. official installations abroad, and who blend perfectly into that diplomatic culture. They’re supposed to; that’s their cover. Case officers must look and sound just like other American diplomats in the mission, and indeed would be terribly out of place if they tried to join a bunch of turbaned natives squatting on the sidewalk in their dishdashah robes chewing khat or puffing on a water pipe. That’s not their job.

So the case officer must first blend into what is called “cover for status.” This is the cover that permits him or her to live and work in a particular country. If the case officer is under official cover, this means he must blend into the environment of an embassy or other official U.S. installation abroad.

When the case officer leaves the U.S. government installation for a clandestine meeting with an agent, he or she must revert to what is known as “cover for action.” This cover, combined with the use of appropriate clandestine tradecraft techniques (e.g. alias, disguise, darkness, surveillance detection routes to and from meetings, etc.) is what provides cover and security for the clandestine meetings.

When the operational environment is so hostile as to preclude personal meetings between case officers and agents within a country, other forms of clandestine communications are used (e.g. electronic, satellite, secret writing, dead-drops, etc.), and any personal meetings are held outside the host country.

So on the one hand we have the case officer who must fit into the U.S. diplomatic environment at home and abroad, and who has total loyalty to the U.S., and on the other hand we have the principal agent who is a trusted native of a particular foreign country who can be trained and vetted to the extent that he can be given the responsibility to perform specific compartmented tasks within an operational and cultural environment totally familiar to him. Apples and oranges. Each has separate, and very different, functions. But together they are the best of both possible worlds.

The call for turning our CIA case officers into principal agents has been accepted as gospel by many senior government officials and members of intelligence committees. They have been led to believe these cries for change are justified, and they are now trying to move the CIA’s operations directorate in a dangerous and ill-advised direction.


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Changes are indeed necessary. Since the end of the Cold War, budget cuts, mismanagement, and above all personnel cuts have decimated the vanguardCIA and weakened the entire intelligence community.Radical structural reforms that are now being acted upon in both houses of...
Tuesday, 26 October 2004 12:00 AM
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