Intelligence: The Rules Are Not Your Friend

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November 3, 2010: American Intelligence gathering in Pakistan, just across the Afghan border, has been a huge success in the past few years. These agents provided targeting information for CIA controlled UAVs and the missiles they carried. Hundreds of al Qaeda leaders, including some very senior ones have been killed as a result. Yet the U.S. Department of Defense has been forced, by Congress, to investigate this effort in the belief that laws were broken. Namely, that you cannot use contractors to run intelligence operations. But since the CIA cannot operate on the ground in Pakistan, the only way to create and run an informant operation is to use contractors.

Situations like this are just another aftereffect of the Church Committee. This was an investigative operation sponsored by Congress in the late 1970s, that sought to reform, and punish, the CIA. The reforms were mainly about eliminating CIA spying inside the United States, or doing stuff for the president that Congress did not approve of. There was also a desire to avoid any CIA connection with foreign unpleasantness (like using unsavory people as spies or informants, paying foreign politicians for information or using contractors to run informant networks). This led to a growing list of restrictions on what the CIA could do overseas, and at home. Congress was out to make sure no future president (the CIA works for the president) could use the CIA as had been done during the Vietnam war, and before.

The CIA interpreted all this as "no more James Bond stuff." From now on, just use your spy satellites and write up your reports. The Church Committee insured that the CIA became a much less interesting place to work. A lot of the most capable people got out over the next two decades. Recruiting became difficult. But after September 11, 2001, the CIA was tossed a huge pile of money and told to staff up and get going and save us all from the Islamic terrorists. The Church Committee restrictions were largely, if not completely, ignored. But long lists of things-you-couldn't-do were still on the books. Now, the rules are being enforced regarding the intel gathering in Pakistan.

Those involved in setting up the Pakistan intel operation admit this was not by the book, but it was requested by American commanders in Afghanistan. Everyone looked the other way while the deed was done. And now it will be interesting to see who will admit to knowing what was done, and who will run for cover.

But it's not just paper bullets intelligence operatives have to worry about these days. The post-9/11 world dramatically altered the way that national intelligence services do business. For one, the craft of espionage and military intelligence has become inherently more dangerous for case officers and agents in an age of terrorism and insurgency, than it was during the Cold War. 

This is a complete turnaround from the way business was done during the Cold War in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Many case officers on both sides, whether CIA, SIS, or KGB, served out their entire 20 or 30 year careers as professional spies without ever having touched a firearm after their initial tradecraft courses. After all, getting into bun battles was not their job. Collecting information was. Furthermore, the case officers themselves, often operating under official diplomatic cover, didn't really have anything to fear if they were caught or their covers blown, except a ruined career and expulsion from whatever country they operated in. The ones in real danger were always the informants, or "assets", that the case officers recruited, who were liable to face execution if they were found out. Simply put, spying really wasn't that dangerous for the case officers. 

After the War on Terrorism began, the Cold War rules began to rapidly disappear. For one thing, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, along with most places that CIA officers operate today, are actual war zones with nothing "cold" about them. During peacetime, case officers don't really have to worry about their own safety, just that of their informants. Once an actual shooting war starts, all of that changes and intelligence officers, whether CIA, SIS, or Army Intelligence, become major high-value targets for terrorist and insurgents. Already since 2001, several CIA officers have been killed in the line of duty. In short, the espionage business has gotten far more dangerous in a very short period of time.

This has necessitated a number of dramatic changes in the way the Americans, British, and other professional intelligence services do business where they are needed most (in war zones). For one, the spooks are arming up. Case officers working in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and even Egypt routinely carry handguns everywhere they go to defend themselves should the need arise. During the Cold War, this was unnecessary and generally considered a stupid liability since being caught with a weapon would probably get you booted out of the country you operated in. Not anymore.

Besides carrying guns, agencies and case officers are paying extra attention to things like counter-surveillance, disguises, and evasive driving. Carrying a sidearm is necessary for a case officer working in a city like Karachi or Kabul, the truth remains that getting into a gunfight is still the last resort, and should be avoided at all costs. Case officers know that the most effective way to avoided being a terrorist target is to avoid following the same routines every day, varying routes to and from work/meetings, never sleeping in the same safe house for too long, and generally making one's life as varied and unpredictable as possible. Experienced spies know that if you can't be found, you can't be a target. The best game plan is to be as invisible as possible. Using contractors to run your informant networks is the best cover of all, unless Congress is looking for someone to prosecute.

 


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