(Philip M. Giraldi) The National Security Act of 1947 created the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA was supposed to become a central office where all the information being collected by the US government could be pulled together and analyzed. The intention was to avoid another Pearl Harbor which, at that time, was regarded as an intelligence failure in that the information that would have revealed plans for an attack by the Japanese was not properly connected and acted upon. Most Americans would agree that an intelligence function is necessary for any country that has worldwide interests and most would likely also agree that a center for collecting and analyzing information would be a valuable resource for those who run the government.
But the Agency did not operate in a political vacuum and, unfortunately, it soon turned into something quite different. Almost immediately the objective of collecting and analyzing intelligence became secondary to the role as the president’s private army as a series of heads of state quickly appreciated that they had an instrument that could operate in secrecy and outside the normal rules. The CIA overthrew Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran, invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, and carried out various assassinations that would now be referred to as regime changes. Throughout Latin America it supported right wing military regimes against democratic forces and in Europe it plotted to keep left wing parties out of power. This interventionism was referred to by the euphemism “covert action.” During the Vietnam War , the CIA also flexed its paramilitary muscle, running the Phoenix program which assassinated as many as 20,000 Vietnamese.
The reforms initiated by the Church Commission in 1975 followed by legislation defining the Agency’s proper role, checked the worst excesses of CIA and during the cold war, the collectors and analyzers of information again became dominant. In 2001, however, 9/11 again turned the Agency on its head. Agency officers who were adept at operating overseas and painstakingly collecting information that would be forwarded to analysts back in Washington were suddenly no longer in demand. The CIA paramilitary arm, the Special Operations Group, took control. Collecting intelligence took a backseat to killing as many suspected terrorists as possible, turning an organization whose original raison d’etre was information, into group whose mission was largely military in nature. Speaking the local language and understanding its culture were no longer de rigueur. On the contrary, the less one knew about the people on the ground being attacked by hellfire missiles launched from pilotless drones in the middle of the night the better.
As the knowledge of how to spy, acquired painfully and at great cost, became less relevant to the killing fields, the Agency has been transformed into a largely paramilitary organization with something approaching zero in its ability to independently collect and analyze information. Major General Michael Flynn of the Defense Intelligence Agency recently blasted the information collection effort in Afghanistan. In a report made public on January 4th he wrote that intelligence-gathering systems are “ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the power brokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the correlations between various development projects and the levels of co-operation among villagers, and disengaged from the people in the best position to find answers.”
However one feels about the US presence in Afghanistan, could it be any worse given the enormous costs and bloodshed contingent on Washington’s involvement? The across-the-board and systemic intelligence failure is one more good reason for ending the Afghan adventure, confirming that the US does not know what it is doing in Afghanistan and why. And what goes around also comes around in other ways. Inability to understand what you are up against makes one highly vulnerable to the insurgents, who are smart, watching every minute, and quite capable of gaming the system that hapless Americans have set up. The seven men and women killed in a suicide bombing on December 30, were certainly guilty of poor tradecraft in their handling of an agent, breaking several cardinal rules of spying. To protect themselves, CIA Case Officers understand that a spy is a traitor who has already betrayed his own government or colleagues, so he cannot be completely trusted and nothing should be revealed or exposed to him unnecessarily. Every encounter must be carefully controlled by the Agency officer to minimize potential damage if the agent turns bad. At the meeting itself, the agent cannot obtain any access to CIA facilities which is why safehouses are used and why they are called “safe.” Nor should an agent be able to identify any personnel apart from the minimum number required for debriefing. In this case, the Jordanian agent’s ability to play on the gullibility of the Agency staff in its eagerness to find and kill al-Qaeda number two — Ayman al-Zawahiri — proved to be decisive, enabling him to pass through base security unchecked and kill an astonishingly large number of CIA officers who had undoubtedly gathered with bated breath to hear what he had to say.
Beyond the actual tragic incident itself, the entire operation confirms other deficiencies in terms of Agency ability to run clandestine operations against terrorists. Forward Operating Base Chapman, collecting information to enable drone strikes, was a key part of the misguided intelligence effort against suspected terrorists along the AfPak border. From the point of view of Washington it is possibly the most important Agency asset in all of Afghanistan. But its operations might as well have been scripted by Monty Python. None of the US officers present were actually experience in handling spies, the base personnel consisting of paramilitaries and analysts. No one spoke any local language at a competency level enabling him or her to run an indigenous agent. This inability to work in the local environment meant that fully 90% of agent meetings took place inside the CIA base creating a security nightmare. The lack of recruited and fully controlled agents made the Agency officers totally dependent for information on volunteer informants and on technical resources, like spy satellites and communications intercepts. Some local informants, referred to as walk-ins, would be of unknown reliability possessing dubious loyalties, offering information in return for money or favors. Others would be provided by Afghan police, army, and intelligence networks, which would themselves be of uncertain allegiance and questionable credibility. Still others would come from seeding operations, such as the double agent who, in this case, turned himself into a bomb to kill the CIA officers. He was provided by the Jordanian intelligence service together with his handler, a Jordanian officer who also died.
It has been observed that no countries on the earth but the United States and Israel claim extraterritoriality, i.e. the right to seize or attack anyone anywhere and at any time based on evidence that is secret. The foul-up at Base Chapman is reflective of the transformation of CIA into a Washington-sanctioned retribution machine, something not unlike the terrorist groups that it claims to oppose rather than an intelligence agency. It is telling that after the slaughter at Base Chapman senior Agency officers immediately announced that they would get revenge and the pace of drone attacks has dramatically increased, killing few or no actual terrorists but many civilians and further destabilizing an already tottering Pakistan. The broader problems that the Agency is experiencing are revealed in CIA’s eight years of largely unrewarding effort against “international terrorism,” a symptom of a systemic failure to understand much less identify and penetrate groups that are, ironically, constantly looking for volunteers to fill their ranks. CIA’s traditional strength in recruiting agents and collecting intelligence has all but disappeared, subsumed into a paramilitary mission to launch hellfire missile firing drones, which is also almost certainly a reflection of the White House’s perception of what needs to be done. If that is so, the tactic is ultimately self defeating in that it produces more enemies that it is able to eliminate, making failure in Afghanistan an absolute certainty.
Philip M. Giraldi is a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer who served 19 years overseas in Turkey, Italy, Germany, and Spain. He was Chief of Base in Barcelona from 1989 to 1992, was designated as senior Agency officer for support at the Olympic Games, and served as official liaison to the Spanish Security and Intelligence services. He has been designated by the General Accountability Office as an expert on the impact of illegal immigration on terrorism.
Phil Giraldi is now the Francis Walsingham Fellow at The American Conservative Defense Alliance and provides security consulting for a number of Fortune 500 corporate clients. As a counter-terrorism expert, he has assisted multinational corporations in the upgrade of their security at overseas sites to help them comply with the Patriot Act. He was one of the first American civilians to travel to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, was brought in for consultation by the Port Authority of the City of New York in its planning, has assisted the United Nations security organization, and has helped develop a security training program for the United States Merchant Marine. He has written op-ed pieces for the Hearst Newspaper chain, is a columnist for AntiWar.com, and a contributing editor to American Conservative magazine. His media appearances include Good Morning America, MSNBC, NPR, BBC, FOX News, Polish National Television, al-Jazeera, and 60 Minutes. Phil was awarded an MA and PhD from the University of London in European, and speaks Spanish, Italian, German, and Turkish.