At the end of December 2009, an Al Qaeda double agent killed himself and seven CIA agents and security staff at a US base in Khost, Afghanistan. Former CIA agent and writer, Robert Baer, has an account of the tragedy in a fascinating article in next month’s GQ, here. Baer argues, as he has before, that CIA management have systematically and deliberately destroyed the agency’s capabilities for human espionage – that field operations are devalued, that field operational skills are not taught, not learnt, and not acquired, that junior field staff are not mentored, and that field skills and experience are not rewarded within the agency. Organizational lack of attention to operational skills allowed a junior and field-inexperienced analyst to be appointed head of the Khost base, allowed that analyst to be appointed with neither knowledge of the local language nor prior local experience, allowed her to arrange a meeting with a human informant at the base (instead of off-base), allowed her to arrange a meeting with a human informant that no one locally had previously met, allowed numerous other people to attend this meeting, allowed this meeting to be discussed ahead of time back at Langley and in the White House, and allowed the informant to pass through three security checkpoints without being checked for weapons or bombs. They even baked a birthday cake for their visiting suicide bomber. The numbers killed made this the worst disaster for CIA since the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut.
Retrospect, of course, is always wiser than prospect. But one has to wonder how low the level of espionage tradecraft could be that so many gross errors were made. Baer puts the blame squarely on the deprofessionalization of CIA’s field operations, especially since John Deutch’s time as Director (1995-1996).
At the end of his article, Baer says:
The United States still needs a civilian intelligence agency. (The military cannot be trusted to oversee all intelligence-gathering on its own.)”
In his memoirs, former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said that one lesson he’d learnt from the US military involvement in Vietnam was the need for an independent and objective source of intelligence on progress (eg, numbers and locations of enemy engagements; the outcomes of engagements; assessments of enemy strength and morale; etc). In Vietnam, this information was not provided to the White House by CIA or any other independent agency, but by the US military themselves, and was therefore subject to distortion, to bias, and to outright manipulation. The people firing the arrows were the same people drawing the targets for the arrows and counting how many bullseyes the archers had achieved.
A recent CNN interview with Robert Baer is here (conducted 2010-03-16).
A previous post which mentions Robert Baer is here.
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