WORLD

ARMCHAIR SPIES

The CIA’s failures are due to one major factor: lousy fieldwork

MICHAEL PETROU February 4 2008
WORLD

ARMCHAIR SPIES

The CIA’s failures are due to one major factor: lousy fieldwork

MICHAEL PETROU February 4 2008

ARMCHAIR SPIES

The CIA’s failures are due to one major factor: lousy fieldwork

WORLD

MICHAEL PETROU

In 1800, Some 3,000 km separated Czarist Russia from Britain’s most lucrative stronghold in India. Over the next hundred years, as Russia’s formal and informal empire grew, this buffer zone would shrink, in places, to little more than the breadth of a mountain range. The British felt a threat to their status as the world’s most potent superpower. To contain and counter Russia’s expansion in the khanates and kingdoms of Central Asia, they dispatched scores of explorer-spies who were willing to abandon their identities, learn local languages and customs, and live in punishing conditions in order to understand and subvert Russia’s ambitions. The contest became known as the Great Game.

Such men included the likes of Arthur Conolly, who once travelled overland from Moscow to India via the Caucasus and Herat. On spying missions in Central Asia, he often disguised himself and took on the identity of “Khan Ali,” a schoolboyish wordplay on his family name. Conolly’s story (which ended badly, with his beheading after incarceration in the “bug pit” of Bukhoro) is worth recalling here to illustrate what a comparatively timid job the United States has done at spying since taking over the reins from Britain as the leading Western power.

The Central Intelligence Agency was created in 1947 to protect America from another Pearl Harbor by understanding threats as they develop and anticipating climactic events before they happen. Since then, despite countless billions of dollars, the CIA has miscalled virtually every significant world-changing development, from the Soviets acquiring an atomic bomb, to the Korean War, the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union collapsing. In the fall of2001,20-year-old American John Walker Lindh was captured in Afghanistan. A Californian barely out of his teens had done what the CIA could not—penetrate the Taliban.

“The crucial problem for the CIA is recruiting and training Americans willing to devote their lives to spying,” writes Tim Weiner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, a brilliant and devastating book published last year. “It is, in a word, talent. It has been for six decades.”

Very few CIA officers speak and read Chinese, Korean, Arabic, Hindi, Urdu or Farsi— languages spoken by half the world’s population. Few have ever haggled in an Arab bazaar or so much as walked through an African village. On the eve of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the CIA employed some 17,000 people. But, Weiner notes, “the great majority of them were desk jockeys... They were unused to drinking dirty water and sleeping on mud floors. They were

unsuited to lives of sacrifice.”

But it wasn’t until the United States’ next major war, in Iraq, that the true extent of its deficiencies in espionage was fully revealed.

The United States had good reason to believe that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. He had done so in the past, and his behaviour suggested he still had much to hide. The problem, as always, was a lack of spies on the ground. All the electronic eavesdropping technology and satellite spy gadgets at America’s disposal could only reveal blurred fragments of what was happening inside Iraq. To get the full story, America needed reliable human intelligence, and it didn’t have any. Scrambling to make up for lost time, the CIA erratically flailed about trying to recruit Iraqi diplomats abroad. Lindsay Moran, a former spy with the CIA, describes one agency case officer who was so eager to turn an Iraqi diplomat that he chased the man down the street with a briefcase full of money, while the Iraqi, in his pyjamas and

presumably terrified of being associated with the American, screamed “This man is a CIA spy!” to anyone within earshot.

American intelligence agencies, however, had other potential recruiting targets. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had fled the tyranny of Saddam’s Iraq and many had no wish to shield the dictator from American’s wrath. If only an Iraqi defector with knowledge of Saddam’s banned weapons arsenal would offer to help.

In 1999, such a man—or at least someone claiming to match this description—turned up at Munich’s Franz Josef Strauss International Airport and asked for political asy-

lum. His name was Rafid Ahmed Alwan, although he was given the code name “Curveball” by either German or American intelligence. His unlikely moniker suited him, because he has since been revealed as a fraud who fabricated an elaborate story about Saddam’s germ warfare program in an effort to speed up his asylum application process and sweeten his new life in Germany. He wanted a Mercedes-Benz and believed his German handlers would get him a high-paying engineering job to pay for one.

There were warning signs that Curveball’s story was suspicious. To make things worse, the Germans forbid America’s spies from interviewing Curveball themselves, instead forwarding reports that had been translated from Arabic, to German, to English. But in the run-up to the war in Iraq, the United States was desperate for proof of Saddam’s guilt. They clung to his story because they wanted it to be true.

The outside world first heard about Curveball’s allegations in President George W.

Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, in which Bush claimed an Iraqi defector had revealed the existence of mobile weapons labs. Curveball later featured in Colin Powell’s address to the United Nations Security Council, when the then secretary of state made America’s case for war. “My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources,” Powell said. “We have first-hand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails... The source was an eyewitness, an Iraqi chemical engineer who supervised one of these facilities... This defector is currently hiding in another country with the certain know-

ledge that Saddam Hussein will kill him if he finds him.”

Powell, arguably the most internationally respected member of the Bush administration, put his reputation on the line with that speech, and America’s intelligence agencies, which helped craft everything he said, left him twisting in the wind. Nearly three months later, and five weeks after the United States invaded Iraq, Powell attended the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, an irreverent affair at which journalists and politicians dine together. Powell sat at a table with John McLaughlin, then the deputy director of the CIA and an amateur magician. McLaughlin amused his fellow guests at the table by pulling coins out of thin air and causing a card to rise from the deck and float above the table. Powell only grimaced. “Let’s see you find the WMD in Iraq,” he said.

Powell had reason to be furious. America’s intelligence agencies did an abysmal job analyzing the information they had. “The defector didn’t con the spies so much as they conned themselves,” writes Bob Drogin, a Los Angeles Times reporter who uncovered much of Aiwan’s story and last year published: Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War.

But the problem was far bigger than Curveball and the analysts who fell for his tale. It was the same one that has bedevilled American intelligence agencies since the end of the Second World War: a lack of reliable, well-placed spies. The U.S. had none in Iraq, so they were forced to look elsewhere, and they paid the price.

Developing spies in enemy territory demands enormous patience and capacity for risk. During the Cold War the Soviets cultivated agents who wouldn’t pay off for decades. Few of America’s spies are willing to make the same kind of sacrifice. But they must. America’s enemies in the 21st century know they can never beat the United States in a conventional war, so they will not engage America on those terms. Perhaps more than any other conflict the United States fought in the past, its struggle against Islamist extremism will be contested in the shadows. The “war in which we are now engaged may last as long as the Cold War,” writes Tim Weiner, the historian of the CIA, “and we will win or lose by virtue of our intelligence.” M

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