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Archive for May, 2004

[Originally published in The Valley News.]

The illegal, abusive handling of Iraqi prisoners clearly is connected to our failure to collect enough valid intelligence on the insurgents through classic clandestine intelligence operations. If we were getting sufficient, valid intelligence through such operations, there would be no need to “soften up” those prisoners through abuse.

It is obvious that the war in Iraq is going very badly. We have not been able to consistently predict or pre-empt insurgent attacks, and the environment there has become increasingly dangerous for our troops and civilian personnel as well as for our allies and Iraqi partners.

Furthermore, as we apply force in these difficult situations, the insurgents have become more numerous and more lethal, threatening what little security is left in Iraq. Simply put, the deteriorating situation requires more and better intelligence. We have to know who these insurgents are and what they are up to. It goes back to the old Cold War requirement of learning the capabilities and intentions of the enemy. Unfortunately, with extremely few exceptions, we cannot get that intelligence with technical collection systems. The only hope we have is in the acquisition of human sources. Yet we clearly are not being successful. If we were, we would see fewer insurgent successes.

Human source collection is the province of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. Unfortunately, the DO was the victim of the “peace bonus” that came with the end of the Cold War. Amid the euphoria about the new peace and in the belief that a clandestine intelligence service was less essential, the administration and Congress simply reduced the DO’s budget to the point where it lost its ability to do the job it is now being asked to do. The critically needed ingredients of a clandestine intelligence service are languages, area knowledge and, most of all, experience. Since 1990, those talents have been in short supply.

Reports indicate that the CIA station in Baghdad now is the largest station in the history of the agency, larger even than the Saigon station during the Vietnam War. It has also been reported that normal two- to four-year tours do not apply. CIA officers are there for 30- to 180-day tours. Very few speak proficient Arabic. Probably only slightly more know anything about the Arab world in general or Iraq in the specific. None will gain sufficient language or area knowledge on such short tours. Street experience is in short supply.

The physical dangers of being in Iraq are clear. Non-Arabs are in jeopardy everywhere. Yet, to be successful, a CIA case officer must be able to roam relatively freely in his environment to spot, assess and recruit agents. You can’t do that out of a Humvee. You need to do it discretely – at night, out of the way, when you can’t be seen. An American seen in contact with an Iraqi has put the kiss of death on him, yet you can’t run operations effectively through interpreters or Iraqi surrogates. Most of all, you can’t do it through emigre organizations. We tried that in the early stages of the Cold War and failed miserably. Emigres have self-serving agendas that usually do not jibe with our needs and goals. Just look at the “intelligence” provided by the Iraqi National Congress in the run-up to the invasion.

So what are those case officers doing there? They clearly are not fulfilling our most basic tactical requirements. If they were, we would see more successful pre-emptive intervention against the insurgents. How can they? They don’t know the people, country or language.

If on-the-street realities and case-officer inadequacies prevent you from operating, there isn’t much left to do. With extraordinary pressure from the Pentagon for more and better intelligence and in the absence of valid tactical intelligence, intelligence personnel have to focus on the only thing over which they have any control – captured Iraqis presumed to have information of value. In the absence of real intelligence on insurgent activity, you have to get everything possible out of those prisoners. There is little wonder that a climate that promotes abuse has been established in those holding facilities.

The problem is that information obtained through coercion can be inadequate, false, misleading or deliberate disinformation. You never know until you act on it and intimidation doesn’t produce good intelligence. Was the “Wedding Party” attack the result of disinformation? True or false, it sure has made us look bad in the eyes of the Arabs, and like it or not, that really does matter.

America is desperate for solid, tactical intelligence in Iraq. If the information coerced out of detainees is all we can hope for, that in itself could be the rationale for our unconscionable abuse of those prisoners. It could also easily explain why we do not seem able to get a handle on the situation there. It seems probable that we are being undone by our inability to collect the intelligence we need to succeed against the Iraqi insurgents

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Lebanon and Iran and as chief of the agency’s counterterrorism staff. He is retired in Williston, Vt.

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