The Human Factor
By: David Forsmark
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, December 12, 2008
The Human Factor
Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture
By Ishmael Jones
Encounter, $24.95, 383 pp.
It's time for Americans who care about protecting their country to consider a notion that was once consigned to the fevered fantasies in the depths of the left-wing swamp: Should the CIA be disbanded?
Of course, radical leftists want to shut down the Central Intelligence Agency because they think it spends too much time undermining hostile governments, assassinating terrorists, arming pro-U.S. resistance groups, and invading the privacy and just being mean to nasty people who would like to slaughter American citizens.
Conservatives, however, have grown to dislike and distrust the Agency for its real problem -- It actually spends very little time doing those things.
Even worse, CIA case officers who are itching to run operations to get the bad guys, identify threats or cultivate sources in foreign countries are constantly battling roadblocks; even their low-risk proposals are scuttled. And trapped in a classic bureaucracy, they are working against a reverse incentive. Spending time abroad protecting the country is the surest way to slow-track their career path.
If you want to get ahead in the CIA, don't spend your time in Baghdad, Moscow or Beijing. Hang around Langley, VA.
"Ishmael Jones" -- the pseudonym of a retired CIA case officer -- blows the lid off the culture of the CIA in a mind-boggling new book, The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture. In fact, "dysfunctional" doesn't even begin to cover what could be called a systematic scam of taxpayers that leaves the United States vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
The idea that the CIA is deficient in human intelligence (HUMINT) overseas has become common knowledge, as is the idea that CIA brass have been timid to authorize risky operations. (In his great book, Jawbreaker, which told about the CIA paramilitary-types who toppled the Taliban, Gary Bernsten called CIA chief George Tenet "allergic" to special operations.)
CIA leaks of intelligence operations hardly ever lead to investigations — especially the leaks that damage the Bush administration. CIA officers can write books critical of President Bush that contain operational details with impunity.
When Tenet -- on whom Bush had bestowed the Medal of Freedom instead of firing for his abject intel failures before the 9/11 terror attacks -- retired from the Agency, he signed a big book deal for a don't-blame-me, blame-Bush memoir, complete with some juicy tidbits that should never have made it past the censor.
On "celebrity spy" Valerie Plame's would-be bestseller, which came nowhere near making back its huge advance, Jones comments, "CIA censors seem to have approved those portions of her book that were critical of the President; but to have blocked those portions that would have revealed she was not an active intelligence officer."
But when Jones brought his book to the CIA censors, as required when a current or former CIA employees write anything, he delivered a book with no operational details and no classified information — but entirely too much truth.
The top secret the CIA guards above all others is how few secrets it is able to gather-- and why.
Jones was told none of his book was approved for publication. Most likely because of such information as the following, which reveals decidedly non-operational details about the CIA after 9/11:
"As the years passed ... the numbers of trained case officers built up on the shores of the United States, HQs . . . couldn't keep these people in training any longer, but didn't want to send them overseas. The problem was 'solved' by the creation of more offices within the US, always using funds meant for (secret) programs overseas. ...
"Potemkin offices spread throughout the United States, used as holding tanks for newly trained officers. A common feature of such an office was an expensive big-screen television set. Tuned to various news channels, it gave an office the active feel of a newsroom."
Somehow, I don't think that what Bush and Congress intended after 9/11 when they demanded more agents in the field because the CIA was too reliant on intelligence satellites-- substituting NSA satellites for CNN's.
But why would the CIA do such a thing? The answer wasn't merely risk aversion or cowardice; rather, there's a big upside to running a stateside office,
Until Jones' account, no one has brought up the real incentive for ambitious CIA personnel to stay stateside: money. Not just for promotion — though Agency directors invariably are chosen from those who have never run an operation on foreign soil — but because it is also possible to become rich running domestic CIA offices and contracting companies.
"Some of the contracting companies were 'body shops' that supplied retirees to the Agency. The company would get a contract from the Agency to supply a number of retirees, at $250,000 per retiree, for example, and the contracting company would take $50,000 and disperse $200,000 to the retiree. A former Agency mandarin's contracting company supplying 200 people to the Agency could claim a revenue of $50,000,000 per year with a gross margin of $10,000,000 per year."
While The Human Factor is not primarily written in the style of an expose — though that's its purpose -- it isn't a dry policy paper, either. It is an extremely engaging and readable memoir of one man's quest to protect his nation from attack and his frustration at not being allowed to, while money allocated for the purpose is being wasted.
In fact, if the subject were not so deadly serious, The Human Factor would be one of the funniest books of the year.
The bureaucratic bungling, the craven excuses for inaction and the ridiculous briefings and orders from what Jones calls "the HQs" sometimes call to mind classic Ross Thomas espionage satires, if not the Cohen brothers' recent farcical film Burn after Reading.
One example is illustrative of what Jones went through. Having had too many opportunities slip away because the HQs gave him permission too late to approach key foreign nationals with information about rogue nuclear programs, Jones began contacting them himself -- but reporting that the contact had been made to him instead of by him.
For a long time, I believed the Plame kerfluffle had to be a deliberate setup by agents whom Ken Timmerman calls "the shadow warriors" at the CIA. But while there is no doubt that elements of the CIA used the story against Bush — like so many other selective leaks — the most dismaying angle is that the way Plame recommended that her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, be dispatched to Nigeria, write a half-baked report and then leak it to the press really is typical of CIA methods of operation.
"That's how HQs did things," Jones writes, "The Wilson mission provided the Agency with a risk free and harmless way to look like it was doing something about the lack of intelligence on Iraqi WMD activities in Niger."
He also points to Plame as having a "typical CIA career" -- lots of expensive training only to spend a few months in a country with a friendly government, then a decade at HQ, pointing out the ridiculousness of the notion that she was an active intelligence agent or that talking about her job would be a crime.
Jones also gives a good perspective of the short tenure of former U.S. Rep. Porter Goss, an ex-CIA case officer whom Bush tasked with reforming the Agency. Goss started by firing an HQ warrior Jones calls "Suspenders," a prime example of someone who rose to the top at Langley by hardly ever leaving the building and by quashing any operation with an element of risk.
Probably the only thing one needs to know about current CIA chief Michael Hayden is his first act as director was to hire back "Suspenders."
But not all of The Human Factor is dark comic farce. Unlike the career-minded bureaucrats, Jones fought to get an assignment to Iraq and was able to do real intelligence work, largely unhampered for the first time in his career. The chapter shows the bravery of many in the CIA and what they could accomplish if allowed to — though even in wartime, HQs were a constant distraction.
Jones also pays tribute to the special operations and paramilitary CIA operatives he admiringly calls "cowboys" who toppled the Taliban and chased terror mastermind Osama bin Laden into the mountains. Even Afghanistan, though, was illustrative of the way the HQs could not stay out of victory's way:
"The Agency officers were successful because they had a clear mission and a clear chain of command. They were unburdened by bureaucracy. There was no CIA station in Afghanistan. ...
"Just at the team closed in on bin Laden, new managers arrived from HQs to replace the cowboys. ... The new managers did what they knew how to do: They set to work creating a station, with its office spaces, turf and layers of management, eager to claim credit for the capture of bin Laden.
And, of course, it was George W. Bush's fault when bin Laden escaped.
Jones offers two solutions: First, a long list of reforms for the CIA Clandestine Service to become an effective intelligence gathering organization, rather than merely a self-sustaining and self-protecting bureaucracy. However, given what happened when Goss launched his reforms, the prognosis of this happening seems doubtful at best.
Second, Jones proposes breaking up the CIA and re-assigning its various parts. This idea, which reflects on his experiences working with the military in Iraq, sounds drastic but workable and probably necessary:
"The military can place 30 trained case officers in non-State Department positions anywhere in the world within a matter of days. The Agency, with billions of dollars at its disposal couldn't do this in a decade."
If true, the CIA is more than a waste of money, it's a deadly distraction in a dangerous world; and Jones's more radical proposal seems the only solution.
Transfer CIA offices and personnel operating in the United States to the FBI.
Transfer all CIA embassy activities overseas to the State Department.
Most importantly, transfer all U.S. overseas intelligence collection efforts to the military, whose clear mission to win wars and defend against attacks. The flatter command structure would keep the focus on results and not the avoidance of risk.
The Human Factor is an enormously important book and a surprisingly accessible read. Hopefully, it will propel the reform debate beyond the usual tinkering, but recent events don't give one much hope. It doesn't help that it's far too easy to dismiss an author using a pseudonym, no matter what the reason or how good his intentions.
Call him Ishamael, or not, but I call him a patriot.
At the very least, this book points out the best path for someone, who like "Ishmael Jones," wants to protect his or her country as an intelligence agent-- Join the military.
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