Over the past 15 or 20 years, I’d guess that about half the interns and research assistants I’ve employed have had a hankering to be James Bond, and they asked me what I thought about it. And could I help?
I couldn’t help, since most of that frolicsome crowd over at Langley think I’m not the sort of person they like (a bad relationship that dates back to my years in Italy as Rome correspondent for The New Republic, when I wrote many stories challenging the Agency’s views on Soviet and Italian Communism and European terrorism, and the relationships between them). But anyway, I’ve told the young people, life at CIA is unpleasant, very bureaucratic, and not at all the glamorous adventure you imagine it to be.
If only Ishmael Jones’s excellent book The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture had been available, I could have simply told them to read it. Jones (the cover name the Agency gave him during his first training course), a Marine who joined the Agency’s clandestine service and became a case officer in the late ’80s, paints a devastating and alarming picture of a vast bureaucracy he calls “a corrupt, Soviet-style organization.” He warns that the CIA must “either be restructured as an American organization — which encourages achievement, creativity, and accountability — or it must be dismantled.”
I don’t know any other author who has told this devastating story so calmly and so convincingly. He thinks the Agency should be broken up into its component parts and integrated into other Agencies, from State to Defense.
Jones shows that the CIA is not doing its basic job, penetrating our enemies’ organizations and getting their people to work with us. One of The Human Factor’s most surprising revelations is that, despite all the hue and cry about the need for more and better human intelligence, despite the billions of dollars that have been poured into this project, we don’t have any more case officers today than we did back when. So where did all the money go? It went to create a domestic empire right here in the United States. Here are the key quotes:
As the years passed . . . and the numbers of trained case officers built up on the shores of the United States, HQs . . . couldn’t keep these people in training any longer, but didn’t want to send them overseas. The problem was “solved” by the creation of more offices within the US, always using funds meant for (secret) programs overseas . . .
Potemkin offices spread throughout the United States, used as holding tanks for newly trained officers. A common feature of such an office was an expensive big-screen television set. Tuned to various news channels, it gave an office the active feel of a newsroom.
And why didn’t the “mandarins” atop the pyramid at Langley want to send case officers overseas? Because, as generations of disillusioned spooks, from Bob Bair to Reuel Gerecht, have told us previously, that is something the Agency does very badly. Scores of our recruits have been rounded up and executed, and case officers have been captured, incarcerated for years or decades, and sometimes tortured to death. Concerns about “force protection” are not limited to the military services; the CIA hates exposing their people to risk, and the mandarins strive mightily to keep their employees out of harm’s way, even when national survival is at stake, as in the war in the Middle East. The whole feckless mindset is reinforced by personnel policy: “The majority of top Agency managers avoided service in war zones, which meant that they became the people at HQs responsible for awarding promotions.” They promoted people like themselves, not the sort of entrepreneurial risk-takers we so desperately need.
As Jones sadly demonstrates over and over again, this means the Agency walks away from countless opportunities to work with potentially invaluable sources. Indeed, Jones’s experience was that his superiors almost never approved his requests for new contacts fast enough for them to take place. He therefore went ahead and made the contacts himself, and then told his bosses that they had been initiated by the other side. Every now and then he was permitted to develop a working relationship with a useful source.
That’s bad enough, but it gets worse. Because all those well-trained case officers are sitting around, looking for things to do, and you can be sure that some of them, out of the best motives imaginable, are doing things they are not, strictly speaking, supposed to be doing. While they can, and should, be contacting foreign nationals to see if the foreigners can be recruited, often those folks will have American friends, and it’s very hard to ensure the friends’ privacy. Domestic spying is supposed to be handled by the FBI, but relations between the Bureau and the Agency are notoriously prickly, and problems increase rapidly with the expansion of the CIA’s domestic staff.
To some extent, the dangers are mitigated by the rewards for doing nothing. After 9/11, as billions of new dollars poured out of Capitol Hill into Agency accounts, plenty of ambitious CIA bureaucrats figured out how to work the system to maximum financial advantage. They “retired,” and then returned to the trough as contractors. This enabled them to earn $150,000 to $200,000 per year, in addition to their pensions of about $75,000. But that’s only the start of the bonanza, because former top managers set up contracting companies that produced even more money.
Some of the contracting companies were “body shops” that supplied retirees to the Agency. The company would get a contract from the Agency to supply a number of retirees, at $250,000 per retiree, for example, and the contracting company would take $50,000 and disperse $200,000 to the retiree. A former Agency mandarin’s contracting company supplying 200 people to the Agency could claim a revenue of $50,000,000 per year with a gross margin of $10,000,000 per year. Conventional wisdom . . . was that the payoff to the former mandarins running these companies would come . . . from the sale of the company to a larger beltway contractor.
Meanwhile, the basic mission is ignored. We didn’t need Jones to tell us that our human intelligence stinks; we’ve got decades of sad stories to prove that.
The saddest of the sad stories is the one about 9/11. Jones tells us that the mandarins, reasonably enough, expected to be purged. Deep down, they knew they had earned the bureaucratic equivalent of a firing squad. But it didn’t happen. Some day we’ll perhaps be able to explain this colossal failure by George W. Bush, but the facts are hardly in dispute. Jones coldly writes the bottom line: “By March of 2002, the bureaucracy was certain that no heads would roll. It figured that its methods — avoidance of risk, creation of management layers — had been vindicated.” And it was right. Bush gave some glorious medal to George Tenet, who more properly should have been ridden out of town on a rail.
If it is true, as folk wisdom has it, that the rot spreads from the head on down, there should be no surprise to find some of the Agency’s “experts” gravely writing total nonsense, as that coming from Glenn Carle, in a recent sortie on the opinion page of the Washington Post. Speaking of al-Qaeda, whose ability to wreak great damage on us he downplays, Carle says “no other Islamic-based terrorist organization, from Mindanao to the Bekaa Valley to the Sahel, targets the U.S. homeland, is part of a ‘global jihadist movement’ or has more than passing contact with al-Qaeda.”
One would have thought Carle might have come across Hezbollah in his 20-odd years of derring-do in the Agency’s clandestine service. Certainly it is an integral part of the “global jihadist movement,” having killed in Middle East and South America, at a minimum, and has worked with al-Qaeda in Iraq and probably in Afghanistan.
And then there is the little-remarked-upon article in the New York Times about the “Tinner Case,” in which CIA recruited Swiss businessmen involved in illicit trade with A. Q. Khan, Iran, and Libya in technology for nuclear-weapons projects. This operation ran for several years, during which time the Agency provided the Tinners with bogus parts, thereby throwing a monkey wrench into the two countries’ atomic programs, and the Tinners provided CIA with a valuable window into Iran’s nuclear needs.
This program, for which we can all be grateful, ran for four years, starting in 2000. And so the question naturally arises, if CIA itself was involved in shipping technology to the Iranians, how then could it say — as it did in the infamous NIE on Iran’s nuclear program — that the program was suspended a year earlier? Inquiring minds would like to know, and it’s a pity the New York Times’ reporters didn’t insist on an answer, or even raise the question in their article. There is one plaintive quotation from a CIA official that tells us volumes about the quality of our knowledge of the Iranians’ race to acquire a bomb:
Efforts to cripple equipment headed to rogue nuclear states “buy us some time and space.” With Iran presumably racing for the capability to build a bomb, he added, “that may be the best we can hope for.”
No wonder Ishmael Jones recommends that CIA be “broken up into its constituent parts, and those parts assigned to organizations that already have clear missions and defined chains of command.” Transfer all those domestic spooks to the Bureau; put all those spooks now pretending to be Foreign Service officers to work for the Foreign Service; and put the overseas case officers to work for the military.
It’s a start.
— Michael Ledeen is Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.