Abu Muqawama pointed to a LA Times article on the difficulties the CIA is having in getting clandestine officers near actual, real, live Islamists. Not Islamists in Waziristan, Mogadishu or Gaza but near Islamists whose mosque might be down the street from a Starbucks in Rotterdam.
But after spending hundreds of millions of dollars setting up as many as 12 of the companies, the agency shut down all but two after concluding they were ill-conceived and poorly positioned for gathering intelligence on the CIA’s principal targets: terrorist groups and unconventional weapons proliferation networks. The closures were a blow to two of the CIA’s most pressing priorities after the 2001 terrorist attacks: expanding its overseas presence and changing the way it deploys spies.The companies were the centerpiece of an ambitious plan to increase the number of case officers sent overseas under what is known as “nonofficial cover,” meaning they would pose as employees of investment banks, consulting firms or other fictitious enterprises with no apparent ties to the U.S. government.
But the plan became the source of significant dispute within the agency and was plagued with problems, officials said. The bogus companies were located far from Muslim enclaves in Europe and other targets. Their size raised concerns that one mistake would blow the cover of many agents. And because business travelers don’t ordinarily come into contact with Al Qaeda or other high-priority adversaries, officials said, the cover didn’t work.
Summing up what many considered the fatal flaw of the program, one former high-ranking CIA official said, “They were built on the theory of the ‘Field of Dreams’: Build them and the targets will come.”
Heh. In fairness, the Allen Dulles model of spymastery has its uses. You set up shop somewhere, loudly hint you might have important connections with American intelligence and wait for a variety of shady and desperate characters to walk in your door. This is what Dulles did in Switzerland during WWII and he reaped many a major intelligence coup by getting on to the radar screen of the Abwehr ‘s high-placed cabal of anti-Nazi dissidents. It’s what good CIA station chiefs or their senior staff did regularly and the KGB and GRU did it too. While the embassy staff had to sift through a sea of crackpots, walk-ins nevertheless provided the biggest HUMINT gains for either side during the Cold War
Unfortunately, that tactic only works at a certain level of play. When Ike wanted to work with the French Resistance, Dulles was of little help. The OSS had to get it’s hands dirty and infiltrate agents behind German lines in high risk operations run by William Casey, another future DCI, using personnel who could blend in with the target population, speak the languages, generally operate without a net. And in so doing, FDR, Stimson, Marshall and Eisenhower accepted that, every so often, some OSS operations were just going to blow up in our faces (trying to beat Hitler provided a lot of political wiggle room and the media and this nation’s Boomer elite today have attitudes toward covert ops that are 180 degrees different from the GI Generation). Today we are not recruiting, retaining or training enough people with the characteristics that General William Donovan and the OSS once eagerly sought out.
Abu Muqawama used the all-American Matt Damon’s face as a metaphor for the problem. It’s very true, we need to revise our legacy policies on recruiting children of native speakers and those with extensive overseas experience ( the kind that yields authentic local knowledge, dialectical inflection and street credibility). But take a look at the pasty complexion of John Walker Lindh, who wandered around Yemen and militant areas of Pakistan prior to joining the Taliban as a mujahid. An American goof with no particular skills except an ingratiating sincerity and mediocre Arabic ended up in the proximity of the world’s most sought after terrorist leader.
Then there is the even more improbable case of Adam Yahiye Gadahn or “Azzam the American”, as he likes to style himself. A partly Jewish son of California Hippie parentage, who once cranked an air guitar to heavy metal tunes, is now al Qaida’s youtube equivalent of Lord HawHaw. At some point, we might want to consider that the Islamist movement and even al Qaida itself are not really “hard targets” in quite the same sense as is North Korea. I have trouble seeing a clueless California teen-ager in 1949 getting to break bread with Josef Stalin at his dacha on the basis of being a Communist and speaking some broken Russian. We are limited here by our own systemic cultural-linguistic ignorance of the rest of the world and our cherished bureaucratic paradigms.
We need to face facts that the USG and it’s IC needs people who speak three or four languages well and can pick up new ones on the fly, if need be. Who are intuitive anthropologists. Who empathize -but do not self-identify with – the cultures in which they immerse themselves. Who have cognitive maps that can integrate different or alien worldviews and profit from them analytically without being transformed by them. We need 21st century “Orientalists” in the mode of Sir Richard Francis Burton, who spoke perhaps thirty languages and knew the cultures from the Nile to the Indus. Impossible ? A friend of mine, trained as a linguist, speaks seven languages, which is very impressive until he relates that his late mentor spoke forty(!), including several dead ones.
The human mind has not changed much since Burton’s day, just our culture and the incentives offered.