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Archive for April, 2004

FBI Ill-Equipped for Counterterrorism

[Originally published in the Valley News.]

It has been thirty months since the 9/11 disasters and virtually nothing of any real substance has changed in the counter-terrorism intelligence structure that failed to save us from that tragedy.  We still have two lead organizations dealing with the problem in the same old way – the FBI primarily with domestic responsibilities and the CIA with foreign responsibilities.  We are still riding the same old horse.

The FBI is a premier police organization.  It has the personnel, budget and technology to deal with just about any criminal matter.  It is staffed with highly qualified officers who are trained to ferret out criminals, arrest them and put them in the courts. It hires employees who want to do that. The entire culture of the FBI is directed toward busting criminals and their operations.  They are extremely competent in that task because it is consistent with their charter. Before 9/11, Counterintelligence and Counterterrorism operations, two disciplines that have major similarities, always were an FBI career graveyard, a backwater at best.  The action, recognition and promotions were better on the “criminal” side.

The problem with the FBI in intelligence operations, most emphatically including Counterterrorist operations, is that you can’t run such operations successfully with a statutory  “arrest ‘em and jail ‘em” mentality.  When the FBI learns that a given resident of the US is or may be a terrorist, they are bound by Federal law to open a case designed to arrest that suspect. The FBI’s charter, its professional management and its law enforcement mentality do not provide the right basis for successful and imaginative counterterrorism operations.

Since the onset of our concern with modern day international terrorism in the 1960s, Federal law enforcement organizations have considered terrorism a criminal matter.  As long as that view is held and represents the basis for our attempts to cope with terrorism, we will be in trouble.  Terrorism is an intelligence issue and approaching it as anything else, particularly as criminal activity, will fail.

Policemen do not make any better intelligence officers than intelligence officers make good policemen.  The mentalities and organizational cultures required for the work are completely different. Cops bust hoods.  A good case officer is a persuasive con man.  Understand that the FBI is a law enforcement organization that is most emphatically not an intelligence organization, and you will begin to see the problem.  It does no good to train people for a task if that task is alien to the culture of the organization projected to carry out the task.

The CIA’s Directorate of Operations (DO) was and probably still is organizationally, statutorily and culturally capable of running successful operations against the terrorist target abroad.  However, because of past budgetary restraints, they appear now poorly equipped to do so.   The post-Cold War realities of no compellingly dangerous enemy and the DO’s inherently messy operations led to the decision in the early 1990’s to cut back severely on the budget and personnel of the DO.  This was the “peace bonus” designed to save us money and embarrassment  (The recruiting and running of spies always has had the potential for messy, embarrassing, noisy mistakes).

During the Cold War, the DO had a cadre of language- and area-qualified, experienced street case officers who could take on a clandestine task with minimal risk and maximum hope of success.  It was recently reported that the CIA station in Baghdad is now the largest in CIA history and that it is essentially unstaffable because of a lack of experienced, language- and area-qualified case officers and managers. In the long run, you can’t recruit and run agents through interpreters.  In addition, many of today’s CIA officers apparently are prone to turn down all but very short (30-60 day) tours in Iraq.  No intelligence organization can operate on such a basis.

Unfortunately, it will take a good 10 years to reestablish a DDO.  Spotting, assessing and hiring case officers is not the problem.  For that matter, training in clandestine operational techniques and foreign languages only adds a couple of years to the process.  What takes real time is getting that neophyte case officer to the point where his/her on-the-street experience turns him/her into a seasoned case officer capable of operating, as all such officers must, on his/her own with only indirect, minimal guidance. And all of this takes place in an intelligence organization that does not have sufficient qualified personnel, but that is charged with conducting major, successful clandestine operations right now against the very difficult terrorist target!

Even if after a decade the DO has reestablished its former competence, it seems unwise and unlikely that anyone would want it to operate domestically against terrorist targets.  That is not now legal and should remain illegal.  The CIA is designed to break other countries’ laws, not ours.  The FBI and the CIA as they are statutorily, culturally and historically constituted, are the wrong organizations to deal with terrorism on US soil and wishing will not change that.  If this Administration really wants to deal effectively with the terrorism at home, a threat it has itself defined, then it needs to break the mold and create an organization truly capable of doing that job.  Unfortunately, that will be no quick fix, but at least it would be moving in the right direction.

In Britain, MI 5, a domestic intelligence organization without police powers, handles their focus on terrorism and does it quite well.  However, MI 5 is a creation of British realities which are not necessarily applicable here in the United States.  We should probably create something more in tune with our own American experience.

The idea that this new counterterrorism organization should be imbedded in the FBI is self-defeating and terrifying.  We do not have the luxury of risking its success by lodging it in such an alien, culturally different, stultifying, and uncomprehending environment.  To succeed, and we desperately need it to succeed, it has to be guaranteed unequivocal autonomy, independence and freedom from any kind of Bureau influence or intrusion.    Without such a guarantee, it will never work.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief and former Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff who worked off and on from 1963 through 1980 in joint intelligence operations with the FBI in the United States against Soviet and Eastern European targets and lectured at FBI training courses at Quantico on Soviet recruitment operations.  He served abroad in Prague, Berlin, Beirut and Tehran and is retired in Williston, Vt.

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[Originally published in the Valley News.]

With the Bush administration’s justifications for the war in Iraq not having stood up to post-invasion examination, the question arises: What was the real reason for removing Saddam Hussein from power?

The policy of invading Iraq clearly belongs to the administration’s neoconservatives who occupy prominent positions in the White House and Pentagon. Many neocons – including Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Pentagon adviser Richard Perle, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, and Director of the Office of Special Plans Adam Shulsky – trace their philosophical roots to Leo Strauss, a professor and philosopher at the University of Chicago. Some observers view Strauss as essentially benign, but others see him as an intellectual elitist who believed that he and his followers had the duty and the right to rule the unwashed masses of the world in a cynical, Machiavellian fashion.

According to Shadia Drury, author of Leo Strauss and the American Right (1999), Straussian elites believe “the masses are too ignorant to comprehend what’s happening, so lie to them. Actually it‚s more than OK to lie to them – and herein lies the true joy of Strauss for the neocons – Strauss said lying to the masses protects them”.

That may prove crucial to understanding how the administration sold the invasion of Iraq to the public. It’s now clear from former administration officials such as Paul O’Neill and Richard Clarke that the White House decided to bring down the Bath regime in Iraq long before discussing it publicly. Their true goal, if not their method, was noble. It seems likely that they truly believed that the only important goal in Iraq was to install a representative democracy there and use that change as a catalyst for  transforming the Middle East.

According to that scenario, the many repressive, undemocratic, Arab regimes would fall in classic domino fashion to the legitimate aspirations of their people. In the long run, Israel would be far less threatened, and the funding of terrorist organizations would become much more complicated and therefore easier for the United States to deal with. Democratic regimes replacing repressive Arab regimes would no longer take a hands-off attitude toward the support and funding of terrorist organizations, as Arab regimes do out of practical necessity today. With restive, angry, anti-Israeli and anti-American populations, today’s regimes would likely be overthrown if they were to crack down on the indigenous support of terrorism.

There is nothing wrong with any of those goals. What is missing, however, is a heavy dose of objective reality and a shot of humility. Many government experts who are steeped in the realities of the Middle East see the Arabs as among the world’s most unlikely candidates for representative democracy. Even if the old, repressive regimes are overthrown, who can guarantee that they will be replaced by regimes favorably disposed toward the United States?

If the neocons’ policy proves wrong, it is most likely because their intellectual arrogance didn’t permit them to sufficiently consider the views of the many experts who disagreed with them. The neocons apparently relegated these analysts to the ranks of the unwashed masses – simply because the message they brought to the table contradicted what the neocons wanted to do in Iraq. In retrospect, though, the experts’ many warnings about the pitfalls of reconstructing post-war Iraq have proved prophetic.

Certainly humility is not a characteristic of the neocons. They are intellectually arrogant (watch them on TV) and, in the case of Iraq, strikingly uninterested in the views of others with a stake in the matter. Given their elitist philosophical roots and their political proclivities, it is a small wonder that they led us into Iraq for all their “noble” reasons.

The negative ramifications of our invasion are real and measurable. The costs in blood and money are frightening. The damage to our existing international alliances has been bad and is getting worse. Our reputation has been severely damaged. We are no longer admired or trusted. In the Arab world, we are even more reviled. Few want to emulate our democratic model.

Worst of all, this adventure has contributed nothing to the war on terrorism. It has distracted us from the real issues – hunting al-Qaida and its allies through the strengthening of international alliances. Finally, it has given a major boost to terrorists’ recruiting efforts.

Only time will show who is right, but the evidence so far has not been favorable to the neocons’ side. Iraq is and will continue to be an incredibly expensive and potentially disastrous experiment. This is one area where the neocons and the Bush administration might well have heeded the word of the experts who had been dealing for decades on a practical level with the Middle East and terrorism.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Beirut and Tehran and was chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston, Vt.

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