The Sources and Methods Are the Problem

John Kiriakou / Reader Supported News
The Sources and Methods Are the Problem The attacks of September 11th changed the focus of the CIA, according to CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou. (photo: David Burnett/Getty)

The New York Times reported earlier this week that the CIA has issued a cable to all CIA personnel around the world telling them that an inordinate number of recruited CIA sources are disappearing. The short cable, reportedly sent by the Agency’s Deputy Director for Counterintelligence, said that dozens of CIA informants, known as “agents,” had disappeared over the past several years, likely compromised, arrested, or killed. The reasons for the disappearances are not clear—at least they aren’t specifically stated—but the cable apparently highlights the struggle the CIA is having in recruiting agents to work in difficult, or “denied,” areas, such as Russia, China, and Iran.

According to the Times, the cable acknowledges that recruiting spies to steal secrets is a risky business. And the same problems have plagued the Agency’s recruitment efforts for years: Poor tradecraft, being too trusting of sources, underestimating the capabilities of foreign intelligence services, and moving too quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks. This last fault leads to CIA officers recruiting fabricators, intelligence peddlers (who try to sell information to multiple intelligence agencies), and worst of all, double agents.

With all due respect to the CIA’s Deputy Director for Counterintelligence, I think she’s missing the forest for the trees. The mistakes that she cites in the cable, like rushing to recruit unvetted agents or underestimating the capabilities of foreign intelligence service are as old as the CIA itself. What she’s ignoring is what’s obvious to many of us who were at the CIA’s working level before, during, and after the 9/11 attacks. We watched Congress appropriate more money than the Agency could legitimately spend. We watched promotions pegged to the number of agents an operations officer could recruit, not to the quality of intelligence those agents provided. And most importantly of all, we watched the CIA turn overnight into a paramilitary organization whose primary task was to hunt down terrorists, rather than to recruit spies to steal secrets.

Human intelligence plays a critical role in CIA analysis. There are some things that a satellite simply can’t collect. Young CIA officers used to be trained in how to collect information that Washington policymakers at the White House and the Departments of State and Defense needed to formulate and implement US policy. They were taught the “asset acquisition cycle,” that is, how to spot, assess, develop, and finally recruit an agent. In many cases, those targets were encountered initially at diplomatic cocktail parties or official events. A CIA officer got more use out of his tuxedo than out of a gun.

The September 11 terrorist attacks changed all of that. Literally overnight the Agency’s focus turned to counterterrorism operations. New partnerships were established between the CIA and the uniformed services, between the CIA and foreign intelligence services. The rest of the country began seeing newspaper articles about a string of “Number 3s” in al-Qaeda being captured or killed.

Certainly the alpha males in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations knew that a promotion and medal were in their futures if they could recruit a bona fide terrorist. It was that attitude that led to the worst attack against CIA personnel in the organization’s history. A purportedly recruited source, Humam al-Balawi, a Jordanian national who professed to be Osama bin Laden’s personal physician, detonated a suicide vest while in a meeting with CIA officers in Khost, Afghanistan. Balawi had not been appropriately vetted and was a double agent working for al-Qaeda. His suicide attack killed seven CIA officers and contractors, a Jordanian intelligence officer, and an Afghan national working for the CIA. Balawi was not made to undergo security checks before the meeting, and apparently nobody thought it odd that he was quietly praying while approaching the meeting site. So many CIA officers were killed in the attack because they were all gathered together in a tent, with a cake, to wish Balawi a happy birthday.

I’m on record as saying that I don’t believe we need a CIA. The Defense Department’s Defense HUMINT Services can recruit agents. The National Security Agency can handle electronic intelligence (if they would just focus on the actual bad guys, rather than on Americans,) and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research can handle analysis. Besides, the CIA has proven itself repeatedly to be an organized criminal organization over the years: Just look at the torture program, the rendition program, and the secret prisons. But if there is going to be a CIA, it should at least do the job that the American people are paying it to do. No more shortcuts.



John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act - a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration's torture program.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.

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