CIA ineptitude is an old story

The cable highlighted the struggle the spy agency is having as it works to recruit spies around the world in difficult operating environments. In recent years, adversarial intelligence services in countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan have been hunting down the C.I.A.’s sources and in some cases turning them into double agents. . . .

While the memo identified specific numbers of informants that were arrested or killed, it said the number turned against the United States was not fully known. Sometimes, informants who are discovered by adversarial intelligence services are not arrested, but instead are turned into double agents who feed disinformation to the C.I.A., which can have devastating effects on intelligence collection and analysis. Pakistanis have been particularly effective in this sphere, former officials said. . . .

In Iran and China, some intelligence officials believe that Americans provided information to the adversarial agencies that could have helped expose informants. Monica Elfriede Witt, a former Air Force sergeant who defected to Iran, was indicted on a charge of providing information to Tehran in 2019. The Iranians leveraged her knowledge only after determining she could be trusted. Later that year, Jerry Chun Shing Lee, a former C.I.A. officer, was sentenced to 19 years in prison for providing secrets to the Chinese government.

The rot afflicting the CIA includes bureaucratic inertia, no accountability and built-in incentives to put notches on a belt without worrying about what happened to those notches.

The bureaucratic problem overlaps with the built-in incentives. If you are a Case Officer you get promoted if you rack up recruitments. That means you have persuaded a foreign official to betray their country. Once the spy is recruited the relationship enters a new phase–keeping the relationship secret. The Case Officer is supposed to set up a secure means for receiving and sending information to and from the source. In theory these methods should not be visible to the opposing intelligence services. You cannot just pick up your I-phone and text your source with a list of questions that need to be answered. The CIA cable described by the NY Times pinpoints this as a major failure in how Case Officers have managed or rather mismanaged their secret sources.

Here’s the rub. These problems are not new. I know a Case Officer, now retired, who fabricated sources in Costa Rica and was promoted because of his “success”. When his successor discovered the fabrications, that Case Officer was told to get new sources. No action was taken to punish the other Case Officer who lied about his recruitments. Instead, he was promoted subsequently and retired after more than 30 years with a healthy pension.

Then there was the case of Robert Ames (now deceased), who was CIA Chief of Middle East Division in the Directorate of Operations. He had recruited Ali Hassan Salameh, aka the “Red Prince”. Salameh was a senior PLO operative and part of Black September who participated in the planning of the 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli athletes and other terror attacks.

Ames turned the Red Prince over to Case Officer Sam Wyman to “manage” the relationship. You can hear and see Sam Wyman tell the story (go to 15:45):

Wyman admits that he met a top secret, highly sensitive source at his own apartment. That is a fundamental violation of CIA tradecraft. And he glosses over this. In fact, he recounts that the doorman of his apartment building approached him and asked Wyman not to keep meeting with Salameh in the apartment. If that is not a compromise of a sensitive source, I don’t know what is.

What Wyman does not recount is that Ames, according to a knowledgeable source, had a Lebanese mistress who was part of Hezbollah. Hezbollah used her to track Ames and gather intel. Mossad also was surveilling Wyman and knew about his “unofficial” liaisons with Lebanese persons.

We are talking more almost forty years ago. CIA tradecraft was sloppy then. Hezbollah used Ames’ mistress to track his movements. That’s how they knew to hit Ames at the Beirut Embassy on in April 1983, which killed 32 Lebanese, 17 Americans, and 14 visitors and passers-by.

Here is the problem. The CIA was knowingly using a man, Salameh, a senior PLO operative with blood on his hands who was continuing to carry out terrorist attacks against Israelis. As long as the PLO did not attack Americans, he was free to operate. His reign of terror came to an abrupt end on 22 January 1979 when the Mossad killed him with a car bomb ambush.

Let me be very clear–we need a clandestine service that collects intelligence from foreign nationals who occupy key positions in their respective governments. That was supposed to be the mission of the CIA, but it is failing and the failures are killing people who thought we would protect them. It is time for the CIA to be dismantled and a new organization that knows how to properly protect foreign spies be created.

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9 Responses to CIA ineptitude is an old story

  1. Babeltuap says:

    It would behoove them to all come back home and point the search lights in. A high rate goods beings compromised in a common box store with good cameras and security means only one thing; It’s your own “valued” employees.

  2. Pat Lang says:

    CIA loves publicity. It lives in its own dream of James Bond style notoriety. They have lost the basic skills involved in recruiting and running agents. These skills are transmitted from one generation to another while in service. If the chain of familial teaching is broken, it is pretty much impossible to recreate. The US needs a small clandestine intelligence service dedicated, not to liaison with foreign services, but to making recruitments of of key foreign personnel who can provide information that is hidden from SIGINT and overhead IMINT, basically intentions at the national leadership level. All of that is needed for strategic analysis. That does NOT mean that the US needs CIA.

  3. Schmuckatelli says:

    Apologies for going slightly off topic. This made my (jar)head hurt, so I would appreciate thoughts from you “worthies.”

  4. J says:

    SLI – Self Licking Ice Cream is what they should have named CIA to begin with.

  5. Info question.
    Was the CIA every really an INTELLIGENCE organisation?
    Or was it always a dirty tricks organisation pretending to be an intelligence organisation?

  6. TTG says:

    Good article, Larry. I agree with everything you said. Here’s a few of my observations.

    The CIA’s problems in clan ops does extend back a long way. Their emphasis on liaison ops over unilateral ops is at least 30 years old. My team in Germany had several German nationals targeting the USSR and then Russia. The only time I was ever in an embassy was when I was summoned to Bonn by the CIA to explain why we were running unilateral ops with German nationals. It was a long and contentious meeting with mostly a pack of assholes, but we were allowed to continue our ops unilaterally. I had the same problem when 3 of my agents were in London at the same time. I didn’t send them or task them, but Bonn was in a tizzy again. I convinced them that my agents were not there operationally and they remained undeclared to MI-6. Two of them ended up providing some excellent reporting when I debriefed them. Untasked, of course.

    After 9/11, the CIA was all about “capture-kill.” Between liaison ops and capture-kill ops, clan intelligence collection took another hit. The GWOT also caused a drop in our ability to conduct clan ops and employ proper tradecraft. We became dependent on shallow official cover and interpreters.

    Conducting clan ops out of an embassy and using official cover offers unprecedented access to high value leads, but I believe it’s also limiting. We, in Army clan intel (except those Colonel Lang and his compadres ran), were never allowed to use official cover. Our ops all began in commercial cover. Our access to quality leads was limited so we had to be doubly imaginative in our ops. The advantage was that we were far more quiet and secure in our ops. We even learned to recruit and run agents while remaining in commercial cover. Of course, we had no diplomatic immunity, either. Our agents’ asses were always on the line, but ours were also on the line to a lesser extent.

    Finally, technology has dealt a heavy blow to clan ops. Gone are the days when we could operate in Europe in cash. Coin pay hones are gone. Cameras are everywhere. Smart phones are everywhere. Fenster Omas and local police were our biggest concern. Using computers and the internet brought huge changes to agent communications. Those changes weren’t all good. Those common systems lead to the roll up of a lot of agents in Iran and China. Non-technical commo is just so tedious to new case officers. We recruited many agents just to support this non-technical commo with our agents in denied areas.

    Technology also offers new opportunities. I was one of the pioneers in conducting online ops. That began back in the days of BBSs and FIDONet. Those were good days. Cover is totally different as is the idea of recruiting and running sources. Targets are also different. But these ops work and work well.

  7. Claudius says:

    In my 71 years in this earth these clowns have brought me at least the Bay of Pigs, the Missile/Bomber Gap, JFK, WMD in Iraq, drug running through Mena,Ar, and I’ve forgotten the rest.
    I recall vividly the slick paper 50+ page backgrounder describing the new Soviet programs, weapons, industrial production etc that required immediate action or the world as we know it would end. This was on my desk as the telescreen in the USN command center 50 feet away showed the Red Hammer and Sickle flag being hauled down from the Kremlin flagstaff. It takes Ivy Leaguers to miss this badly.
    George Smiley, pls call your office!

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