A dearth of “tradecraft.”

We should have a discussion here of the many principles of clandestine operations (espionage) that were violated or ignored at Khowst.  No fantasy please.  Here are a few.

1- Never trust a recruited foreign asset (spy).  What you are supposed to do is to persuade the asset that you trust him.  You are not supposed to actually trust him.  A certain talent for acting is desirable.  It is being said on television that the CIA at Khost were exposing themselves as they did in the hope of solidifying his belief in them.  This is both childish and naive.  It is not possible to truly know what is in a man's heart, specially on a given occasion.  What he is, must be judged by endless testing of the reliablility of his response to control and vetting of the information product of the operation.

2- Never let the asset direct what is going to happen in the operation.  This man called for a meeting.  The meeting should have happened when and where the case officer wanted and never the other way around.  What one strives for in these relationships is control over the asset.  The asset must never be allowed to think that he is running the show.  The media keep referring to this man as an "informant."  City police departments have "informants."  They give you information.  You give them money, end of story.  They are not under your control.  Agents like this man are supposed to be under the absolute control of the agency involved.  If they are not…

3- Never bring a recruited asset into any permanent operational facility, much less your base.  First of all you should not start trusting him.  Secondly, in running this asset you are striving to create a certain view of the universe in the asset's mind.  Who you are, individually and collectively, how powerful you are (or not), where the facility is located, how it is laid out, what your people look like.  These are all things that should not be available to the asset.  CIA apologists are now saying that they had to meet him at Khowst because there are no other places.  RUBBISH!  You do not allow circumstance to dictate what you will do.  This man could have been flown to another country for de-briefing.  If necessary, the army could have been asked to secure a hilltop for a few hours so that he could have been debriefed in tents.  there are many possibilities.

The facts seem to be that an excess of pro-active enthusiam and a hunger to be "in on the kill" caused this.

Our absence of real skill now seems to made us a menace to ourselves.  pl

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39 Responses to A dearth of “tradecraft.”

  1. Charles I says:

    Menace to ourselves indeed.
    Check out this piece airline of security tradecraft, and be reassured about the domnestic end of things:
    “Explosives planted on man to test airport security
    Irish police have released a man held over an explosives find, after Slovakian authorities admitted planting them in his luggage.
    The explosive was one of eight pieces of contraband placed with unsuspecting passengers at Bratislava Airport last weekend, broadcaster RTE reported.
    The 49-year-old unwittingly brought the material into Dublin when he returned from his Christmas holidays.
    He was arrested on Tuesday morning but has since been released without charge.
    Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern said he was very concerned that Irish police had not been alerted for three days.
    Airport security detected seven of the illicit items, but the eighth – 90g of research development explosive – managed to escape detection.
    Slovakian police alerted their Irish counterparts on Tuesday morning, and the man’s flat near the city centre was cordoned off while boExplosives planted on man to test airport security”
    I dunno which is the worst – that governments do this without telling anybody, and use real explosives to boot, or that it got through in the second place.

  2. Cato the Censor says:

    This really does come down to a failure at the level of the most basic tradecraft, doesn’t it?

  3. b says:

    Please let me add a point that is currently very relevant:
    4. Never, ever let your operations be driven by emotions.
    The MSNBC piece cited in the last post said:
    “Last week’s attack will be avenged. Some very bad people will eventually have a very bad day,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.”
    The job of the CIA is certainly NOT to “avenge” its losses or to give “very bad people” a “very bad day”.
    That is simply a waste of resources that will likely lead to new mistakes and losses. How many “very bad people” are there in this world?
    An “eye for an eye” can not be the slogan of any professional service.
    The anonymous “official” that gave that quote should be fired for incompetence immediately.

  4. turcopolier says:

    Sent wirelessly via BlackBerry from T-Mobile.

  5. curious says:

    I start to think there is a systemic problem in afghan intel gathering. I am still waiting for basic province by province general economic report. But it’s nowhere to be found. I suspect, nobody has it.
    second. the diplomatic corps in a lot of places are not very up to snuff. One can observe it from general news trend and blogs from people on the ground. (reaction, interaction, decision, statements)
    just a reminder: afghanistan is a very crowded place (china, russia, Iran, india, pakistan, etc) It is not a random poor latin american country, but ebb and flow of empires boundaries in asia. Big interest clashes there. (at least it’s not as messy as Lebanon.)
    Part of the problem is cultural: The intelligence community tend to focus on information from classified sources: signals intercepts, information from informants, significant activity reports. But it overlooks the vast store of mostly unclassified data — polling data, patrol debriefs, minutes from local shuras, economic statistics — that helps counterinsurgents connect the dots. “This vast and underappreciated body of information, almost all of which is unclassified, admittedly offers few clues about where to find insurgents, but it does provide elements of even greater strategic importance – a map for leveraging popular support and marginalizing the insurgency itself,” the report states.
    Put succinctly, the coalition has plenty of information about the enemy, but is clueless about the terrain it occupies and the communities it engages. “In a recent project ordered by the White House, analysts could barely scrape together enough information to formulate rudimentary assessments of pivotal Afghan districts,” the report states. “It is little wonder, then, that many decision-makers rely more upon newspapers than military intelligence to obtain ‘ground truth.’”

  6. Charles I says:

    Heres’s BBC analysis of General Michael T. Flynn et al’s recent report succinctly pointing out an”obsession with IEDs (roadside bombs to you and me) is understandable but inexcusable if local commanders can’t outsmart insurgents as a result. . .”
    “A damning view of US intelligence in Afghanistan”
    You may read or download General Flynn’s report iself: ‘Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making
    Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan” here:
    I haven’t digested it all, but note this.
    Press reporting is cited as driving domestic policy making, which makes the obsession with IEDs understandable.
    This morning I listened to an interview on CBC radio with journalist Kathy Gannon. She is a reporter with the Associated Press, the author of I is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror. She has spent 20 years reporting from Afghanistan.
    It can be found here;
    Ms Gannon, who travels by taxi and never relies on arms and bodyguards made a crucial point about reporting and domestic perceptions. We most often hear of embedded reporters reporting from the one perspective of IED victim. She points out we rarely hear the perspective of the collaterally damaged whose family and home are destroyed by ISAF which then offers a few hundred dollars and a sack of flour or some such. A man the Taliban has left basically untouched, now more afraid of ISAF than the Taliban whatever his politics. She points out the local habit of saying anything one imagine’s one’s foreign interlocutor will find pleasing, blithely offering up completely contradictory assertions when indicated whatever the occidentally impenetrable facts of the matter may be.
    We need that human terrain thingy up and running in Afghanistan, or we need to go home.
    We also need to ask why we keep sending out these patrols whose only role seems to be to be blown up, to what particular end?
    How does that bit of bloody road possibly matter to us? Why the hell aren’t there ANA leading every goddamned one of these patrols, blow them up instead?
    Isn’t repeating the same mistake with the same result over and over touted as the definition of insanity?
    To me, these patrols are like that base near the border that was overrun a few months ago after being conveniently placed in an undefendable valley.
    IED losses really are the focal point of news at home, at least here in Canada, and will be a major factor in making any extension of the Canadian mission politically unsustainable.
    If our whole intel effort is devoted to countering IEDs to reduce collateral political damage rather than divining why the Afghans don’t all do as we and Karzai tell them, well, I’ve a solution. Don’t drive around. Let them run it themselves. If that curtails the rescue of Afghan democracy, come home.
    But if all that’s irrelevant, if that’s not the mission, but it kind of geopolitical strategic occupation/snafu wherein the utter political failure to date is irrelevant, well then ALL our intel will likely per force be consumed with countering the simple, flexible, effective antipersonnel tactics of the enemy, to the exclusion of understanding anything deeper about them.
    We’re in for a year of heavy fighting, then looming midterms and popular jonsing for withdrawal in 2011 on the home front. Get this fixed it’ll be a case of barn door, horse gone, this mission lost.
    Then all our Afghan experts will be deployed to Yemen where they will work closely with our trusted Saudi and Israeli allies who will guide them through the local quicksands looking only to their guest’s every interest and comfort. . . .

  7. Nicollo says:

    The discussion might also include how institutional knowledge of those principles is — or should be — preserved and transmitted. Perhaps this episode demonstrates that it’s already been lost.

  8. walrus says:

    With the greatest of respect Col. Lang, those rules were not not applied to my father when he played “The Great Game”, at least as far as I can tell, but that involved the British and, peripherally, America long ago.
    What now concerns me is that if there is an overreaction by the CIA to this incident, the sterility of the unimaginative operational rules imposed from above will ensure loss of access to other foreign intelligence agents.
    While it may be brutal, I think we should also acknowledge, from a purely professional angle, that al Balawi has pulled off simply superb coup. To be a double agent is acknowledged by all intelligence services as being an extremely difficult act to perfect, let alone when you know in advance what the final act will be.
    To do it requires extreme levels of intelligence and emotional stability as well as emotional support from his handler over a long period of time and whoever was his master in the Taliban should therefore be respected as a very formidable opponent.
    I wonder if there are any older and wiser heads that can be pulled out of retirement to stiffen the intellectual foundations of the CIA?

  9. Reks says:

    So this guy utters the words “Zawahiri” and “information” and fools our best and brightest. They probably thought they had hit the jackpot. Too bad.
    One shudders to think how OGA would fare against a more organized and resourceful enemy.

  10. turcopolier says:

    Rules are ignored at one's own peril. Pl
    Sent wirelessly via BlackBerry from T-Mobile.

  11. Cieran says:

    While it’s essential to enumerate the fundamentals of clandestine operations, I would suggest that there’s also a higher-level structural concern in play here, i.e., a larger-scale vulnerability in our intelligence operations that is worth mentioning, since it’s apparently being exploited by our enemies.
    The recurring theme is that our various intelligence operations, at levels ranging from individual case officers all the way up to the occupants of the White House, possess a generic weakness in they are all-too-often happy to be led astray by anyone who tells them exactly what they want to hear.
    Whether it’s Curveball’s fantasies infecting Bush 43’s State of the Union speech at the onset of the Iraq war, or last week’s assassinations in Khost, we seem to exhibit an inability to distinguish good intelligence practices from bad ones whenever we’re being fed that information which we most wish to hear.
    The first principle of accurate inference in any field of human enterprise is to suspend our preconceptions, so that the underlying realities we confront can be perceived clearly without distortion from the various biases we all possess.
    Our various intelligence operations lately seem to violate this basic principle early and often, and it’s obvious that violation provides aid and comfort to our enemies… so it’s high time we remedied this vulnerability.

  12. Patrick Lang says:

    I had only reached #3 in my list. Certainly.
    Your father? The Great Game? What?
    Principles was my word. I stan behind those. Nobody ever blew up my headquarters.
    It is passed from the old to the young. pl

  13. somebody says:

    4. what were they doing all together?
    5. if they are so incompentent whom do you think are they killing over there?

  14. Phil Giraldi says:

    I hate to say this but part of the problem is that too few case officers have been killed or injured since 9/11, not because they have become adept operators but because they are not allowed to go anywhere or do anything without layers of security and escorts. I have been reliably informed that the fleet of armored black BMWs belonging to the Iraq station rarely move from their parking bays.
    If you have to go out on the streets and meet agents and are nose to nose with the danger inherent in the work you develop a security consciousness that is hard to replicate if you are sitting at a desk in a base surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. The officers in Khost should have refused to meet the Jordanian at their own base and should have instead arranged for a meeting at a safehouse with full security precautions. I have run agents who would trigger meetings when they had something hot, but it was up to me to maintain control and determine where we would meet and under what circumstances. To relinquish control to the agent is the worst of all possible tradecraft sins, in this case with fatal consequences. Always remember that an agent is a traitor and once he has betrayed someone it is even easier to do it a second time.

  15. First, disclosure not really trained or knowledgeable about INTEL. Was an S-2 in a battalion in FRG for over 1 year.
    I would argue an additon to PL listing of tradecraft. Never put US INTEL operatives in a foreign country where they don’t know the languages down to the dialect level and don’t have a physiogamy that does not reveal the likelihood of their origins. I would argue knowledge of culture and customs is also necessary to have a chance even with the world’s best tradecraft. I have known at one time or another half a dozen CIA station chiefs, all socially, and they were fine dedicated men. But AF-PAK IMO would have been a completely opaque situation for them. It probably is filled with error but the book and movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” did seem to reveal the complete innocence with which the US and its INTEL officials engage in operations with so little real knowledge of what is transpiring culturally and socially in the milieu in which they engage. Why is there so little discussion of how isolated and ignorant the American polity is on the world? I think I know the real reason! What I refer to as the “nuclear priesthood” and “Sovietologists” in fact while dedicated and often expert had blinders on with respect to the rest of the world. I certainly did and trying in my limited way to make up for it. I view ISLAM and its challenges as past when in fact just looking at Gallopoli Campaign in WWI and even more recent efforts in the sands of Arabia and elsewhere should have focused everyone on the significance o that world and its concerns and interests. Amazingly it appears that the former “Sister Seven” of big oil also acted secretly and obsessively and really had the policy of telling the US just trust us. Don’t ask questions or review our policies or operations. Perhaps other countries political leaderships were not so innocent with the result that almost 90% of proven reserves are the property of the NOCs [National Oil Companies]! Yes it will be a long war America and even longer if we don’t incentivise those who can to learn about other cultures and languages. Let’s leverage the lack of a modern melting pot and figure out how to utilize the skill sets of those resident aliens and first and second generation immigrants that have signed on to life in our country. Where is real leaderhsip and have I yet seen any analysis from Leon Panetta or President Obama or Jim Jones as to what when wrong.{reorm lrestnecomcalpolahc

  16. turcopolier says:

    Nice thought but unworkable. Gringo case officers have to go out and risk their ass as my boys and girls always did. Pl
    Sent wirelessly via BlackBerry from T-Mobile.

  17. N. M. Salamon says:

    I may be mistaken, but I wonder what is the psychological effect on the CIA hunters the notion that a successful information bit can lead to multimillion dollar reward – as there is blood money riding on all major AQ leaders curtesy of Uncle Sam. Is greed clouding the minds? or is it the long term insulation in a forboding place with no clear objective [to the war]beclouding the minds of these patriots?
    If there is any soldier or CIA operative who is not aware that there is no final aim [beside the 8 year long occupation going on for another 10?] for this conflict is not worth sending to war.

  18. The Twisted Genius says:

    IMHO, the Colonel and Phil Giraldi have expertly explained the two principles of clanops from which all other principles and techniques flow – never trust a shnook and never relinquish control of the operation. (Shnook was what my first ops officer always called a recruited asset.)
    I would like to add another principle. In any competitive situation, one always has to remember that there is someone out there smarter than you and luckier than you. This applies to clanops, combat, dating or just life in general. In spite of the gullability implied by the term, shnook, my first ops officer never let me forget this maxim.
    Phil and Pat also alluded to another problem plaguing clanops. The IC is risk averse. This is probably not the case at field operations level, but it is definitely the prevalent attitude back in D.C. This is apparent in the extreme micromanagement of individual clanops. This has not always been the case. The solution is best summed up by Jim Gant in his “One Tribe At A Time” paper, “The risk-averse nature of our current method of operating would have to change. American soldiers would die. Some of them alone, with no support.
    Some may simply disappear. Everyone has to understand that from the outset.” However, this does not mean that we should be stupidly oblivious to real danger as some at Khowst apparently were.

  19. Andy says:

    Col. Lang,
    Do you think the problems exposed by this incident indicate more fundamental deficits in US HUMINT generally and the CIA specifically? If so, what is the cause and prescription?

  20. PirateLaddie says:

    Three years in the region, spread over about a decade, made it very, very difficult for me to take the Agency seriously. Another three years (same decade) with a sister shop in the IC just reinforced the judgment. Even the “analyses” they contract out is amateurish. “Legacy of Ashes,” indeed.

  21. Nicollo says:

    Yes, the institutional knowledge should be passed on as you describe. That frequently if not always has happened in the past, I gather. I’m suggesting the empirical evidence shows that chain is broken. If so then someone needs to identify the fix. Determining how and why the break occurred would be a start.

  22. Jackie says:

    NPR has been reporting this afternoon that the bomber was a triple agent and he lured the CIA into a trap. That wily Jordanian. I don’t know what I think of this, but I think I’m with the “don’t trust em” crowd.
    What was the CIA thinking or not?

  23. Patrick Lang says:

    The media loves this “triple,” “double,” “quintuple” business.
    “Double agent” means someone whom two opposing groups think they control. Usually, only one side actualy controls him. In this case it is clear which side that was. pl

  24. Mad Dogs says:

    Pat wrote:

    …The facts seem to be that an excess of pro-active enthusiam and a hunger to be “in on the kill” caused this…

    Evidently that “hunger” went all the way up to the White House. From this evening’s NYT article:

    …American intelligence officials said Tuesday they had been so hopeful about what the Jordanian might deliver during a meeting with C.I.A. officials last Wednesday at a remote base in Khost that top officials at the agency and the White House had been informed that the gathering would take place…

    “Pleasing the boss” has always been a timeless source of FUBAR.
    When CIA Director Panetta is looking over your shoulder, when DNI Admiral Blair is looking over your shoulder, when NSC Chief of Staff McDonough is looking over your shoulder, when National Security Advisor General Jones is looking over your shoulder, when President Obama is looking over your shoulder…can FUBAR be far way?
    I’m guessing the folks on the ground had “stars in their eyes”.
    Instead, they got “stars on the wall”.

  25. The beaver says:

    Pat Lang, a veteran former head of analysis and clandestine human intelligence for the Defence Intelligence Agency, echoed Johnson’s criticism of the Khost operation. “A number of basic rules were violated. One that comes to mind is you never trust foreign agent assets,” he said.
    “I think it is a very big crisis. It shows that the level of skill in operations has declined so far that they [the CIA] are a menace to themselves,” said Lang.
    According to Lang, one major flaw was the failure of the Bush administration after 9/11 to put one agency in overall charge.

  26. DE Teodoru says:

    Some time back I asked if, on his last visit to Beijing, Obama asked China to go easy on our debt so he could impliment a health plan and China said, fine but put more troops in Afghnaistan. So, I asked, are our mom and dad soldiers now China’s mercenaries?
    Proof, proof, give us proof, someone asked. Then a few days later this appeared:
    Yea, almost anything Giustozzi writes or edits is GRADE A. But he also shares my view of what a worthless venture is the Musical Chairs Petraeus plays with our Kabul Command as kick off to his Republican Presidential Campaign is blood liberally drawn from a dangerously hypovolemic nation. Old Dave is used to a DefDep where money is no object but those days are far behind for our greedy “entrepreneurs” (pejorative term French for taker-in-between) caused us more bleeding than binLaden would have ever dared to dream. So far the American peole have seen so much incompetence in our military, especially our intel
    leaving our mom and dad soldiers intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb, shooting fearfully in the dark– just like in Iraq– and in our massive civil service and entrepreneurial “counterterrorism bureaucracy” has dropped the ball so often in trying to rival the old professional anti-Communists of yore that time has come to pull back our lines of defense, cut back our expenditures and recognize that if we leave Afghanistan the Shanghai Accord will have no choice but deal with the issue. Indeed, expecting our giving up and going home, Karzai has for a while been negotiating with the Russians.
    9/11 was a reaction to our Mideast politics. If we draw in our claws other will do so too. Forward leaning is nice if you don’t do it blind, incompetent and broke. The days of the empire are over. The only question left is whether we get to control our future on leave it to others.

  27. johnf says:

    Balawi seems to have been partly motivated by a desire for revenge for Gaza:

  28. Tyler says:

    I pulled gate guard on Chapman a few times when I was in Afghanistan. Weird to think that they blew up the gym where I used to work out.
    The CIA elements that I ran into when I was there seemed to think the war was a joke. Sunning on the rooftops during the day, and then having sex with each other on their roofs at night. There was some chatter from them about wanting to take our night vision goggles away from us so we couldn’t “spy” on them from our towers on the wire.
    Yes I am serious with that last bit.
    So long story short it seems nothing has changed.

  29. JTCornpone says:

    Colonel Lang
    Very succinct and to the point. LeCarre couldn’t have summarized it better.
    I don’t have any experience in intelligence operations but LeCarre was in British intelligence in WWII. Your principles are implicit throughout his novels. Certain people, maybe many, should be ordered to sit down and read this thread and then read the entire Smiley series from cover to cover.

  30. Nightsticker says:

    Colonel Lang,
    Mathew 26.52 [KJ Version].
    USMC 65-72
    FBI 72-96

  31. charlottemom says:

    Just a minor setback in US mission. US will retaliate and get those “bad guys” yet.
    Yes, I’m being sardonic.
    My question is simply, are we to believe that Obama’s Afghanistan campaign can be in any way successful (whatever that means) when this is happening?

  32. Watcher says:

    While this discussion was meant to focus on tradecraft from a US perspective I think it should also be pointEd out that this could be considered a good Counterintellingence or D&D op by AQ. A succesful penetration of a foreign intelligence agency by a double agent who provided what appeared to be good and verifiable information and remained responsive to his “handlers” with the intent of decieving the intelligence service or causing the decision makers to lose faith in their analysts and advisors. Imagine how much worse this could have been if the goal for the double agent was to not blow himself up but over the long run, was to provide bad, but believable information in order to facilitate another one or two 9-11s. I think we may have gotten off easy in that respect.

  33. The beaver says:

    Some details on the 7 CIA victims:
    The victims there included the unidentified chief of the post at FOB Chapman, a mother of three young children, as well as two contract employees of Xe (formerly known as Blackwater), and four CIA employees whose families have released their names: Harold E. Brown Jr. of Massachusetts, 37; Scott Michael Roberson of Ohio, 39, a former U.S. Navy Seal; and Jeremy Wise of Arkansas, 35. Brown left behind his college-sweetheart wife and three children. Roberson was a security officer new to the agency, whose wife is due to give birth to their first child next month. Wise, who is survived by a wife and young son, was memorialized in a Facebook posting.
    Another slain CIA officer was Elizabeth Hanson, 31, an Illinois native and a 2001 graduate of Colby College. A family friend posted notice of her death to friends on Facebook, describing Hanson as “effervescent” and “vibrant.”


  34. Mad Dogs says:

    Another possibility instead of Pat’s “a dearth of tradecraft” is as I commented here last evening, the fact that as the NYT reported last night, there was involvement in this op all the way up to and including the White House.
    It seems to me there is a distinct possibility that the folks on the ground were given their explicit no-tradecraft marching orders on how to conduct themselves by the high mandarin muckity-muck armchair warriors back in DC.
    Something like:

    “Don’t worry about tradecraft. This is the biggest deal evah! Maybe even OBL! Throw him a party with broads and booze! He’ll love it!”

  35. jedermann says:

    The double agent was a man who had become known for his jihadist essays. He was someone who had to be turned. One may always hope that the subject has indeed been turned, but that person can never really be trusted. On the most elemental level we always instinctively reserve some doubt about someone who was once a sworn enemy and now seems to be a friend or is even just a servant. It is puzzling that more than one person in the lower reaches of the chain of command, each presumably an intelligence professional, must have cast aside this instinctual doubt and all sensible caution to transgress so many basic principles of tradecraft in arranging this meet.

  36. Jan Fladeboe says:

    I wonder how much of these mistakes were caused by the use of Blackwater contractors. According to today’s media, at least three were Blackwater security people…did one or more of them neglect to search the bomber before he was let in? What was their job anyway if they were security?

  37. DGH, Seattle says:

    On the American news scene this story along with the ‘underwear bomber’ supports the narrative of the well-off and educated jihadi. It is not only the oppressed who are a danger to us but also the upper class. The similarity is Islam and that’s how we profile. The Limbaugh, Medved types work this line well. They make it out as an important fact of religion.
    When a large portion of Americans call the USA a Christian Nation this defining of the attacks becomes basis for war.
    In the US news narrative this is not a failure of tradecraft this is a definition of evil and a confirmation of the identity of our enemy.

  38. hope4usa says:

    Oh Gosh I might want to duck when I ask this…
    I noted at least 2 of the dead were Blackwater employees contracted by CIA. To what extent has the outsourcing of intel operations potentially harmed CIA operations? Has it affected training, funding or operational ability or effectiveness?

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