Spy scandals are a major reason why CIA has been overly reliant on technical methods of gathering intelligence. Some of these scandals are legitimate, but most are often created due to a mixture of the media, politicians, and certain interest groups.
Human intelligence is a very touchy field. Humans, by their very nature, are unpredictable. To find out what is going on in the dark and shady world of terrorism, one often has to talk with folks who delve into that world. The best example of this is how the FBI has sometimes dealt with the Mafia. It took a plea bargain with Sammy Gravano, who had committed 19 murders, to put Mafia boss John Gotti away for the rest of his natural life.
These types of deals are often made with similar characters in other countries by the CIA as opposed to the FBI. It makes sense. After all, Mother Theresa will not know where the terrorists hang out, or what they are up to. No, the person who does provides a CIA officer that information will probably do so for one of five reasons often described in the initials MICCE (Money, Ideology, Conscience, Compromise, and Ego sometimes it is just one, or it can be a combination).
There is a problem, though. The folks CIA officers deal with are not nice people. If anything, someone is being betrayed, and the CIA officer has to encourage the person they are getting the information from to continue the betrayal. And this is where things get ugly.
Often times, the CIA gets the information, and it is sometimes passed on to a friendly government. The friendly government often will take decisive action or they will pass the information on elsewhere. The latter decision is what happened in 1993 in Colombia. The Colombian National Police got intelligence on the Medellin drug cartel headed by Pablo Escobar. That intelligence found its way to a group of vigilantes called The People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar, or Los Pepes. A key player in that group was AUC leader and founder Carlos Castano. AUC is a militia formed by ranchers to protect themselves from kidnapping and robberies at the hands of leftist revolutionaries. Los Pepes proceeded to take out as many as six people inside the cartels infrastructure in a day, and is credited with playing a major role in the success of the hunt for the cartels leader, Pablo Escobar. Escobar was eventually taken down by the Colombian National Polices Search Bloc in a December, 1993 shootout.
Normally, CIA would be receiving a lot of praise for its efforts. However, this is where a chain of events occurs. In 1998, human rights groups made a Freedom of Information Act request to the CIA to get every document that referred to Los Pepes. CIA did not respond, and in 2001, Amnesty International filed suit in federal court to gain access to CIAs documents mentioning Los Pepes. Amnesty International usually issues reports on human rights violations and often criticizes American involvement with shady characters. Based on the press releases involving Colombia, it is safe to say that Amnesty Internationals report will not be praising CIA for its part in taking down the Medellin drug cartel. It will more likely focus on the rap sheet of Castano and how CIA should not associate with such folks.
The reports are usually picked up by the media, which usually accept these reports without much critical thought. The details of the reports often will indirectly compromise intelligence sources by revealing what the United States learned and when it was learned. The compromised sources are then usually no longer viable.
The reports often attract the attention of politicians, who usually respond with oversight hearings. These can be a bother. Particularly since leaks tend to happen. In the past twenty years, there have been at least two high-profile incidents involving leaks. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont was forced to resign from the Senate Intelligence Committee after being tied to a series of leaks in the 1980s. Congressman (later Senator) Robert Torricelli revealed secret information acquired by virtue of his position on the House Intelligence Committee. The information involved a source in Guatemala who had been allegedly been involved in a murder at the behest of then-girlfriend Bianca Jagger. The resulting scandal caused a Clinton Administration human rights scrub of human intelligence assets who had been alleged to have connections with criminals or terrorists. Of course, the human rights scrub placed the very people who would know about the activities of terrorists and other bad guys off limits to the CIA.
There was a secondary effect. The public outcry caused sources that had previously cooperated to stop doing so. Understandable, since those human sources are often committing treason by giving information to the CIA. In addition to the usual risks, it does not help to know that one might get killed because a politician leaked something. The result was that CIA was blinded for almost a year.
These scandals are one reason why CIA has not used spies as much. Not only is it difficult to recruit agents who are worried about being compromised, but the agents that are recruited can sometimes be embarrassing. Satellites and other technical methods dont cause those sorts of scandals.
The CIA has been rebuilding the human intelligence side, but Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet says it will take another five years for the capability to be brought back in light of seven years of efforts to rebuild the Clandestine Service. This will probably be a window of vulnerability until the human intelligence capabilities are fully rebuilt. The big question will be whether or not the lessons will be learned, or if a new round of manufactured scandals will again send the CIA scurrying to technical intelligence. Harold C. Hutchison (firstname.lastname@example.org)