Thomas Patrick Carroll is a freelance writer and former officer in the Clandestine Service of the Central Intelligence Agency.
It started earlier this year, when pundits and politicians began pointing an accusatory finger at America's intelligence establishment and its performance in the days preceding September 11. The CIA, for its part, was said to have missed warning signals of an impending attack, and to have carelessly allowed two of the Al-Qa'ida hijackers to live and operate freely in the United States for a year and a half prior to 9/11.
Some of this criticism depends for its force on 20/20 hindsight. Meeting a threat as massive as the one that led to September 11 requires a national resolve that did not exist before the Twin Towers were destroyed. Had the White House been given a reasonably actionable forewarning of the September 11 attacks (and there is no evidence it was), it is not likely that it could have taken the necessary steps to prevent the disaster. Few Americans would have tolerated a federal government, in peacetime, instituting routine personal searches in airports, or passing legislation even faintly resembling the Patriot Act. In the 2000 Presidential campaign, any candidate who advocated such measures would have gone down to a defeat of McGovern/Goldwater proportions. Just as Roosevelt was unable to counter the Axis threat prior to Pearl Harbor, it took a national disaster before America could seriously confront the threat posed by radical Islam.1
But the fundamental problem with this criticism is its questionable assumption that a properly functioning intelligence establishment would have likely provided an actionable forewarning of the September 11 attacks.
When people talk about the CIA (or any other component of the Intelligence Community) providing "early warning" of an impending terrorist attack, they have in mind clandestine reporting. They imagine a recruited CIA agent penetrating Al-Qa'ida, learning of plans to attack the Golden Gate Bridge, and sending a secret message to his CIA case officer, whereupon the Agency briefs the White House and appropriate action is taken to foil the plot.
But clandestine reporting, by its very nature, makes for an unreliable barricade. For illustrative purposes, I will focus on agent reporting (a.k.a. HUMINT), but similar problems also apply, in varying degrees, to other types of clandestine reporting. There are at least three features of HUMINT that make it problematic as a defense against terrorist attacks.
First, sophisticated terrorist groups, like Al-Qa'ida or the Irish Republican Army, are compartmented. Operational knowledge is deliberately dispersed, and no individual sees more than a small piece of the puzzle. Unless an agent holds a position at the top of the organization (an unlikely stroke of luck), he will always be aware of no more than a small fraction of the overall picture. This is not a crippling problem when dealing with broad, strategic intelligence, the type of intelligence in which the CIA has traditionally excelled. But terrorist threat reporting is tactical intelligence, which involves looking for very specific information. With tactical intelligence, if you do not have the whole picture, you basically have nothing.
Of course, this does not mean compartmented organizations are invulnerable. The more agents recruited in different organizational cells, the better the coverage and the greater the chance of finding something. Moreover, compartmented terrorist organizations can be disrupted and scattered, which may significantly degrade their capacity to mount operations. By March 2002, for instance, the CIA (with the cooperation of other intelligence services) had effected the arrests of over 1,300 Islamic extremists in more than 70 countries, many with Al-Qa'ida connections. These arrests damaged the terrorist infrastructure, broke-up operations, and probably prevented attacks. Their benefits should not be minimized. However, the fact remains that, when dealing with relatively intact clandestine organizations, compartmentation will defeat penetration most of the time. And September 11 proved beyond a doubt that terrorists do not need a high operational success rate to wreak havoc on a civilized society.
Second, terrorist interdiction depends on agents who can provide information rapidly, accurately, and clearly. Unfortunately, it is a rare agent who can do all three.
The best way to achieve accuracy and clarity is for the case officer to meet the agent face-to-face. But personal meetings are inherently dangerous, especially when you are dealing with penetrations of violent groups like Al-Qa'ida. To lessen the danger, meetings are covert. They are triggered with impersonal signals, e.g., a chalk mark on a lamp post. A clandestine rendezvous then occurs, but only after hours of elaborate surveillance detection has taken place. And if either the agent or the case officer believes he is being followed during the surveillance detection period, the meeting is aborted and an alternate contact plan goes into effect. The alternate might be a week or more away, depending on the local security situation, the agent's own position, and so on. In other words, clandestine agent meetings are not quick. If an agent has information about an impending terrorist attack, he might be able to deliver it through a face-to-face meeting in time to stop the attackers, but he might not.
The alternative to agent meetings is impersonal communication, where the agent delivers his message without having to meet with the case officer. This can be anything from a note in a hollow tree branch to a coded radio burst. In the right circumstances, impersonal communication can be quicker than clandestine meetings, and it is almost always more secure. The problem with impersonal communication is that the accuracy and lucidity of the information are often degraded, since the case officer is not there to ask probing questions to clarify and explain the agent's information. Intelligence analysts cannot do much, after all, with a cryptic warning about an impending attack on an unspecified American landmark.
The third problem with HUMINT is veracity. There are many facets to this problem, but I will focus on the double agent as an example. During the Cold War, a double agent might be detected before he could do too much damage. Intelligence analysts would compare his reporting with other information both openly and covertly obtained, and over the months (even years) they might detect patterns and inconstancies that would mark the agent as a double. But US officials do not have nearly that kind of time in the war on terror, in which even a single piece of disinformation from a double agent (e.g., alerting the case officer to an attack against one target, when the real attack is to be against another) could have disastrous consequences.
One way the CIA is trying to mitigate the veracity problem in general is through a "no threshold" policy on terrorist threat reporting, in which all terrorist threats are disseminated to key policy makers, regardless of evident merit. The problem with this, of course, is that it swamps Washington consumers with reams of marginal or confusing information, making the nuggets of genuine threat reporting all the more difficult to identify. If anything, this policy only exacerbates the disinformation problem. Because of these and other reasons, a recent report of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism recommended that the CIA modify its no-threshold policy.2
When looking at the three problems faced by the use of HUMINT as a defense against terrorist attacks, it is crucial to see than none of them involve a breakdown in the HUMINT process itself. In other words, there is nothing one could "fix" that would make the problems go away. The CIA could put in place all the reforms being recommended these days (additional officers abroad, less restrictive recruitment rules, more Arabic speakers, etc.) and all three problems would remain. Each is simply a feature of espionage and is not going to disappear.
The CIA and Strategic Intelligence
The CIA's clandestine reporting, and particularly its HUMINT, works best when the questions it seeks to answer are strategic. This was true when the Agency was founded in the late 1940s, it was true throughout the Cold War, and it is true today.
When the questions are strategic - when they are big picture and long range - clandestine reporting is far more useful and reliable. Compartmentation in the target organization is not as much of a problem for strategic intelligence, because the Agency is searching for small pieces of information to fit into a larger context. It is not trying to find a single, stand-alone report that will tell the entire story, as is often the case when attempting to uncover specific terrorist attack plans.
In addition, operational difficulties with agent meetings are not such hurdles, because the intelligence being collected for strategic analysis is usually not as time-sensitive as a terrorist threat report. Moreover, disinformation and other veracity problems are easier to handle. Intelligence analysts and counterintelligence specialists can check the information against the far larger volume of open source material (and other clandestine reports) from which finished intelligence is constructed. On the other hand, when an agent claims a terrorist attack will occur at such-and-such a time and place, there is usually little to check it against, especially if the agent is new and has no track record.
Tactical intelligence, on the other hand, attempts to answer questions that are narrow, concrete, and bound by tight and specific constraints. It is concerned with describing (or, more difficultly, predicting) unique events. The more tactical the questions asked, the less chance that clandestine sources will be able to answer them. For instance, on August 19, 2002, Palestinian officials in Ramallah announced that the notorious international terrorist mastermind Abu Nidal was found shot to death in his Baghdad apartment. As of the following day, according to the press, "a US intelligence official said American spy agencies have not been able to confirm reports of Abu Nidal's death."3 This is not surprising. The death of Abu Nidal was a unique event at a particular time in a specific place, and it is little wonder that the Intelligence Community cannot immediately lay its hands on an asset (either human or technical) to provide confirmation. The question "What happened to Abu Nidal the week of August 19 in Baghdad?" is tactical.
As is often the case in the war on terror, America can learn from the Israeli experience. The Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel's external and internal intelligence services, respectively) are good, and they devote considerable resources to uncovering and preventing terrorist attacks. Moreover, they have advantages in this realm that the CIA never will, like target organizations that are only a few kilometers away, an officer corps in which native-level Arabic is almost universal, a border easy to control (at least compared to America's), and direct access to multiple recruitment channels. But even with all this, a compartmented, determined foe like Hamas can get terrorists through almost every week, with horrific consequences.
The Strategic Contribution
So, what contributions to the war on terror can be expected from the CIA in its sphere of maximum competence - strategic intelligence? Plenty. The following are a few categories of strategic intelligence on which the CIA reported to policy makers earlier this year:
In all of the areas listed above, the CIA provided extremely important information to policy makers. As is typical with strategic intelligence, the effects are subtle. Strategic intelligence makes itself felt, for example, in America's choice of its next target in the war against Al-Qa'ida and its militant Islamic allies, not in the issuing of a particular arrest warrant by police in Berlin. Again, it is the strategic level on which the CIA contributes the most, not the tactical.
This does not mean that CIA should never be tasked with tactical requirements - that it should never try to ferret out Al-Qa'ida plots for future terrorist attacks. America is in a war and there will be times when giving the Agency a tactical assignment will make perfect sense. But the United States will get a far greater return on its investment if the Agency is used in the strategic role for which it is most naturally suited.
1 Of course, if the American government had received a highly detailed, explicit, and credible forewarning, it could have acted surgically without implementing the post-9/11 measures we see today. But forewarning is rarely like that. Typically, it is the sort of thing that happened in mid-August, when a foreign government passed sketchy information to the United States about "potential threats against such targets as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and a major landmark in Chicago." No timeframe, no names, no specifics, no details. See Judith Miller, "U.S. Received Tip on Qaeda Threats Against Landmarks," The New York Times, 13 August 2002.
2 "Counterterrorism Intelligence Capabilities and Performance Prior to 9-11," Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security of the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, unclassified Executive Summary, 17 July 2002, page iii.
3 "Abu Nidal Fatally Shot in Baghdad," The Washington Times, 20 August 2002.
4 These examples are drawn from public testimony given by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet to the Senate Armed Services Committee, 19 March 2002.