Intelligence: Surefire Spy Scandals

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June 1,2008: Sometime in the next few years, enterprising journalists will come across details of how the CIA got back into the spying business. Great scandal will ensure. That's because spying is a dirty business, and three decades ago the U.S. Congress decided that it only wanted to get intelligence from people with clean hands. No buying secrets from traitors, murderers and criminals. No using this riffraff as spies. Thus the shift to spy satellites, electronic eavesdropping and database diving. After September 11, 2001, it was discovered that all that post-industrial electronic espionage was not effective enough against religious terrorists (especially ones who are paranoid about outsiders and their technology).

Getting back into the traditional spying business ("Humint" or "human intelligence") was not easy for the CIA. Back in the late 1970s, and several times since, Congress has added layers of oversight and restrictions on Humint activities. It was increasingly difficult to protect spies and the CIA agents overseas who controlled them. As a practical matter, the CIA got out of any serious Humint work. Getting back in the business after 2001 was messy. There were few U.S. citizens, much less CIA employees, with significant practical experience. A lot of contractors were hired, many of them foreigners. And some of those were of questionable loyalty. No matter, the U.S. was at a war, Congress was willing to back off, for a while at least.

But many in the intelligence agencies realized that, anything done while trying to infiltrate al Qaeda would eventually be gist for mass media reporting and Congressional investigations. No good deed will go unpunished either. Blaming contractors, especially foreign ones, would not provide perfect protection. Stateside careers would still be at risk. Sacrifices would have to be made, some of those paper bullets would find their mark. It might even lead to indictments and jail time. At the very least, there would be huge legal fees and lots of bad publicity.

Al Qaeda was infiltrated, often using several layers of contractors and lots of unaccounted for cash. There were dead bodies, betrayals and lots of favors to be repaid down the road. Because of security concerns (and not getting helpful people killed), the whole story won't see the light of day for decades. The headline grabbing, mass media version will be out first, and it will largely be wrong. But it will be exciting, and that's all that counts in the news business.

 


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