Another Perspective

CIA’s Vulnerability Is Congenital

Conservatives are too prone to think of CIA as our valiant defenders rather than what they are: dangerously incompetent.

By 1.11.10

The destruction of the CIA's Forward Operating Base Chapman on December 30 by an Afghan suicide bomber who had been a trusted informant was surprising only because it had not happened sooner. Bringing bombs to intelligence officers is infinitely easier than getting them to accept misleading information. But hostile intelligence services have foisted such information onto CIA ever since its inception, easily. Just so, it seems that the Chapman bomber, Hammam al Balali, had long been providing CIA with the information it used to direct drone strikes against what CIA was led to believe were America's enemies. That may explain why, after each strike, the U.S. government would claim success against terrorists while Afghans and Pakistanis would claim that innocents had died. In short, before CIA officers got themselves killed by letting Mr. al Balali bring them a bomb, they caused wider harm by letting him and his friends help pick America's targets. CIA will rush to protect itself against physical attack, but will resist protecting the rest of us against its own incompetence.

CIA's model of operations practically invites all forms of betrayal, because its operatives are by no means clandestine, and because they have always been averse to serious counterintelligence. Ever since 1943, when Allen Dulles set up spy shop on Bern's Herrengasse with full coverage by the local press, nearly all of CIA's case officers have been "covered" only by the useless pretense that they work for another part of the U.S. government. But to the people they try to recruit, CIA officers make no pretense at all about who they are. They could not if they tried, because they are linguistically and culturally incapable of passing for anything other than what they are. As a result, CIA officers end up having far more contact with people who want to use them than with those whom they might wish to use. Perpetually starved for high grade information, CIA accepts sources as valid with only the thinnest pretense of quality control. Even before 1975, when CIA made the operators themselves responsible for their own operations' integrity, counterintelligence had been the Agency's stepchild. Thus, not only did the Soviet KGB routinely control CIA's operations through double agents: so did the East Germans, the Cubans, and the Iraqis, who penetrated the CIA's vaunted ROCKSTARS network from the start.

CIA's performance regarding terrorism is worsened by its increasing reliance on foreign intelligence services. The Chapman case, in which an agent provided by Jordanian intelligence proved to be hostile, is all too typical. Our officers simply had neither alternatives to the Jordanian agent, nor means independently to vet him. All they could do was to note that he had provided facts that proved to be true. How many false ones were mixed in, no one seems to have asked. And so the agent was invited to take part in deciding who America's friends and enemies are. Alas, this is a very old story. The only new part is that he decided to end the charade by killing his hosts. Probably, he would have done more harm by keeping it up.

For CIA to exercise judgment independent of foreign liaison services, to penetrate hostiles rather than to be penetrated by them, it would have to consist of people who derive security from blending into foreign environments unrecognizably rather than from guards; who derive effectiveness from their capacity to distinguish between true facts and true lies; who have the integrity to tell themselves and others the difference between what they know and what they want to believe. But CIA has never consisted of such people.

The CIA bureaucrats whose inertial navigation of personnel and procedures placed a thirty-ish suburban mother of three young children in charge of Base Chapman, exposing her to be euchred and then killed by people who proved to be beyond her ken, bear a heavy responsibility.

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About the Author
Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.