The CIA under assault

Print edition : July 02, 2004

On the unresolved issues of collecting and analysing intelligence.

IT is not unusual for intelligence agencies the world over to get embroiled from time to time in controversies. An aggressive modern media contributes greatly to this delicate situation wherein failures of intelligence draw screaming headlines and successes receive only a grudging acknowledgement. We now live in tumultuous times, and organisations like America's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the United Kingdom's MI 5 and MI 6 and India's Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the external arm of India's intelligence, have a difficult charter that makes them extremely vulnerable to the sometimes unfair scrutiny at the hands of both the partisan small-time politician and the eagle-eyed journalist who is ever hungry for an absorbing story. Such scrutiny is often based on impressions rather than facts. This is in the nature of things because intelligence outfits are hardly designed or encouraged by those who control them to purvey information to anyone outside government, and such an inevitable cloak-and-dagger role wins them adversaries rather than friends.

CIA Director George Tenet's recent decision to hang up his boots should not surprise those familiar with the nuances of American politics. Actually, that this did not come immediately after the devastation of 9/11 baffled many like me who knew how cruel the system was and how the hunt for scapegoats invariably followed such catastrophes. The fact that Tenet stayed on for two years longer was possibly because he had such a good track record that any precipitate action would have been unjust to him and would have smacked of an effort to cover up the failures of many others, including the President.

The timing of Tenet's decision to step down on "personal grounds" has, however, set tongues wagging. Many observers connect it to a likely White House assessment that, in an election year, he could prove a liability. This is not an unreasonable premise because of the nearly symbiotic relationship that exists between intelligence and investigative agencies on the one hand and the executive, on the other. Another conjecture is that the report of the 9/11 Commission, created by Congressional legislation, due in late July, is likely to indict the CIA in the severest of terms, and Tenet found it expedient to leave the scene before the report became public. One will never know the truth.

Two issues are held out against Tenet who served for seven long years, an impressive tenure if you take into account that between 1973 and 1997 (the year Tenet assumed office), there were as many as ten Directors. (This is somewhat analogous to what was happening to India's Central Bureau of Investigation until recently. Until the Supreme Court came out with its hawala judgment of 1997, prescribing a mandatory tenure of two years for the CBI Director, the incumbent was being changed as often as many of us change our shirts.)

The first charge against Tenet was his agency's failure to predict the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. It should be said here in fairness to the CIA that it was not found wanting in eloquence ever since the early 1990s over the growing threat from the Islamic groups that had emerged out of the jehad against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. Bin Laden was a rising star among the Arab underprivileged class and, from all accounts, had received abundant CIA attention for his growing popularity among those who perceived that Islam was a threatened religion and that U.S. `imperialism' was hugely responsible for this. The explosion at the basement of the World Trade Centre in New York in 1993 had served notice on the country, and the CIA had rightly highlighted for the benefit of Congress and the White House the gravity of the danger from Islamic militants.

Paul Pillar, former Deputy Chief of the counter-terrorism group in the CIA and author of Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy, writing recently in The New York Times, refers to a 1995 national intelligence estimate jointly prepared by all intelligence agencies in the U.S., which clearly spoke of an increasing possibility of a biological and chemical offensive from terrorist groups. Incidents like the simultaneous attack of American embassies in Dar-es-Salaam and Nairobi in August 1998 also strengthened the worst fears of the CIA. While this was good as far as it went, the CIA was hauled over the coals after 9/11 for its failure to pick up specific advanced ground intelligence that would have helped avert the disaster. The criticism actually went beyond this to accuse the agency for failure to predict that such a novel modus operandus as the one used on September 11, 2001, could ever be employed by an enemy organisation and that the nation had to be protected against such an adventure. On hindsight, this was no doubt a colossal failure.

In practical terms, however, the question that should have been asked is: Was it possible to visualise that passenger aircraft - mind you, not fighter jets - could be used to destroy the mighty symbols of American business and authority that the WTC and Pentagon were? But then, when disasters of such a magnitude happen in the life of a nation, reason and fair play necessarily yield place to the simplest impulse of finding a scapegoat. The CIA was an attractive target, and the first casualty had to be Tenet, even as we await the 9/11 Commission's indictment of the organisation he otherwise led so capably.

What could be said less in Tenet's defence was his reported willingness to go the extra mile in support of Bush's decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein. "Slam dunk" was the expression that Tenet used when asked by the President whether Saddam was in real possession of weapons of mass destruction. (I had not heard of this phrase before. On a recent domestic flight in the U.S., I chanced upon this while reading a newspaper account of events leading to Tenet's exit. I was so puzzled by this unfamiliar expression that I chose to ignore propriety and quizzed a total stranger sitting next to me. He was pleasantly forthcoming and was quick to confirm that this was synonymous with an assurance of accuracy or perfection.) This self-confidence that bordered on cockiness possibly cooked the goose for Tenet, who has been hard pressed to offer proof of the information fed by his agency to the White House. A recent book A Pretext for War by James Bamford (reviewed both by Time and The Washington Post a few weeks ago) suggests that Tenet had unwittingly played into the hands of the hawks in the government, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney, much to the chagrin of sceptics like Secretary of State Colin Powell. Bamford goes to the extent of alleging that a small group within the CIA that was not exactly convinced of the correctness of the information - suspected to have emanated from the Israelis - was silenced. Nothing can be more damning for an outfit that needed to be transparent and objective.

Tenet departs unfortunately under a cloud despite his many impressive achievements. In the first place, he performed with great aplomb to earn the trust of two successive Presidents. This was no mean achievement if you reckon the pressures of the office and the physical toll it could take of a lesser individual. I am further told that he successfully got rid of the many severe budgetary constraints that had earlier hampered the CIA and he managed to get enough funding for hiring a sizeable number of under-cover operatives.

A dynamic intelligence chief needs money for all his sensitive operations. If he has to fight for every cent that he wants to spend, he would hardly be able to perform. Only an understanding political executive could be sensitive to the needs of intelligence, and this incidentally called for sagacity on the part of a CIA Director in order to forge a healthy relationship with the President and his aides. It is this kind of a scenario that many a time leads on to unethical expectations of a quid pro quo on the part of the one who has control over the purse strings. While there is no evidence that Tenet's inputs on Iraq were directly influenced by this sort of a nexus, one must remember that it is difficult to say `no' to a Chief Executive who desires intelligence that could cater to a political decision that has already been taken. Massaging information is not unknown to intelligence agencies across the globe, although it will be unfair to suspect that the CIA was guilty of this in the present instance.

`REVAMPING' is a favourite expression used by those in authority to tinker with an existing system that had failed them politically. This figures prominently in current Washington debates. There is a move to create a Director of National Intelligence (effectively an Intelligence Tsar) who will oversee all intelligence agencies in the U.S. This has been opposed by many, including former CIA Director Robert Gates ("Racing to ruin the CIA", The New York Times, June 8, 2004), who believe that this would be retrograde and hardly facilitate quality improvement that one is looking for in intelligence reports. It could at best produce castration of the CIA Director who could, in such a setting, receive political directions not conducive to professionalism. I personally believe the focus of a superpower like the U.S. should rather be on how to finetune its intelligence operations in a difficult area such as West Asia, which is turbulent and has truculent governments (including Israel) for whom the end justifies any means.

The problem reduces itself to one of picking up sources who will first be truthful and are not motivated merely by money. Secondly, they should have genuine and undeniable access to information. (Information on this aspect of access is crucial to an analyst at intelligence headquarters if he has to come out with a logical assessment of a report from a source.) The combination of these two factors is seldom achieved in the real world. Those who lambast intelligence outfits do not either understand or refuse to understand the intricacies of intelligence collection. The U.S.' recent unhappy experience with Ahmed Chalabi of the dubious Iraqi National Congress, a flamboyant Iraqi busybody, who is said to have taken Washington up the garden path on the WMD issue, is proof enough that sources offering information are often bogus. In this instance, Chalabi, after gaining the trust of the White House, even against CIA cynicism, is feared to have actually leaked to the Iranians sensitive information that he had acquired from U.S. official contacts.

This is the hazard of the game. You will have to be on guard all the time while handling a source, and subject what he tells you to clinical scrutiny. This is not possible all the time, as you cannot afford to wait too long to be certain that what you have on hand is accurate, though it may be credible. One slip-up during this difficult process can cost you dearly. This is what has possibly happened with regard to Iraq. The average politician will, however, tell you that jobs like the directorship of leading agencies come in such a mixed package, of privileges and responsibilities that are both attractive and hazardous.

This brings us to the question of oversight of intelligence organisations by the legislative arm of the government. This is a double-edged weapon. It no doubt reins in an overzealous outfit that runs on public money and which could be used to promote the partisan interests of an unscrupulous Executive. But, is this reason enough to cramp the style of an organisation that has to be innovative, daring and aggressive if it has to produce results? This is especially so when you have to cope with deadly terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, which do not play by the book and violate every canon of civilised behaviour. The U.S. experience of Congressional committees on intelligence has been mixed. There is always the danger of such committees overstepping their charter and demanding information that they are not entitled to and cannot also handle with responsibility.

The I.B. and RAW have avoided the public glare. They have kept a commendably low profile despite speculative press reports on their commissions and omissions, which in any other country would have provoked rejoinders. Generally speaking, these two agencies have been kept out of political controversies by successive governments. How long will these halcyon days last is a matter wholly of speculation. The Congress' pre-election document `Issues before the Nation: Security, Defence and Foreign Policy' had referred to inadequacies in the national security management infrastructure, although it did not spell out precisely how it would fill the gaps. It will be interesting to watch how far the new government will go to alter the existing structure of the I.B. and RAW. We now have a full-time National Security Adviser and a Special Adviser to the Prime Minister. Both J.N. Dixit and M.K. Narayanan, who occupy the two positions, are veterans known for their competence and sobriety. The expectation is that they will not opt for changes just for the sake of change. They would, in all probability, settle for continuity laced with change in foci to adapt the country to the dynamics of the domestic and external environments.

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