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Calling All Orientalists

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.

19 Responses to “Calling All Orientalists”

  1. Heroes Says:

    Fix the security clearances. Save the world.

  2. strategist Says:

    The CIA might’ve done better by setting up as NGO social service providers, immigration consultants, and campus cafetarias – the sort of outfits that Muslim immigrants come into frequent contact with.

    I agree with your concluding paragraphs, but add that intelligence, police and border control agencies agencies would do well to establish positive links with immigrant communities. People in such communities generally want to integrate with their new societies, and have to offer much information, knowledge and expertise. 

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Strat,

    I think you are right on the money with your additions. The positive angle of relationship building is rarely exploited to it’s maximum potential. Maybe add coffee shops and Mideastern grocery stores  to the earlier l list.

  4. Michael Says:

    Just a quickie since I’m juggling too much: The issue is the bureaucracy, not necessarily linguistic skills. Lindh, and the rest of the goofs are proof positive that dim-witted honkeys can and do get inside the snake pit. No shortage of people who would engage, but the system is not designed to hire, train and deploy people who would have to go completely dark for a year or more. WTF is he doing? When will he reach out? How do we do his performance evaluation? How come he hasn’t done his racial sensitivity training? Will try to elaborate on HoTS.

  5. judasnoose Says:

    The United States has many young men who admired R.F. Burton and tried to emulate him in their undergraduate years — studying linguistics, etc. — but Western academia has few places for white men who say honest things about any culture.  Thus these men have drifted on to other pursuits.A few USA men have studied exotic languages, perhaps lived in exotic places, and been denied security clearances because they were (as Burton’s contemporaries would have put it) "white niggers" who had "gone native" and thus could not be trusted.Cultural isolation helps when one is trying to get a USA security clearance.  If that system could be fixed, the USA would have a chance to actually do something effective in world affairs.  I’m not holding my breath.

  6. Seerov Says:

    "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."

    This is a great observation.  I’ll take it one step further and say that in order to understand our extremist enemies, that one needs to be a little "extreme" himself.  One needs to understand the feeling of isolation and great desire to feel powerful in a sea of so much weakness.  I’m not sure this can explained to someone?  At the same time, if we can recognize someone with these "qualities,"  how can we guarantee that they won’t be swept away by it?  Excellent Excellent post here Zen.  This is a matter of trade-offs with no easy answers.  On one hand we want professional’s we can trust, on the other hand we want someone "real."  Even this John Walker Lindh, he felt totally committed to the cause of Jihad.  Is it possible to pretend this?  Can you take Joe America from Harvard with straight A’s in school who gets the giggles when he has a six pack and have him do this?  I’m not sure?  How do we screen for such a soul? 

  7. Haft of the Spear Says:

    TPS Reports and the Long War…

    I promised Zen a more thorough response, so here goes … Our inability to recruit people with the right skills and employ our HUMINT capabilities in a particular manner has been addressed before – with more colorful language – here……

  8. The Lounsbury Says:

    A comment or two as an outsider as it were:

    (i) The CIA might’ve done better by setting up as NGO social service providers, immigration consultants, and campus cafetarias – the sort of outfits that Muslim immigrants come into frequent contact with. Besides confusing domestic security with international, this is a very dumb idea. You put NGO workers in danger for little gain. Immigration consultants? Makes little sense.The business angle was not so stupid, as such, it just apparently needed to be differently structured. Small import-export firm in a target emerging market, e.g. – and bingo.
    Even in the world I travel in, finance, were I so inclined, I can and could find Salafi sorts. Can one ‘fake’ interest. Well, perhaps. Dangerous, to be sure, but perhaps. Many years ago I was fascinated by a business contact – a small IT shop provider – who turned out to be quite into Jihad and the Movement. As I had his confidence, it was easy enough to ‘get in’ in some ways, go to a "daoua" session or two. Of course how far in before it would have been dangerous, Allahu Alim, I was merely a curious young businessman with reasonably good Arabic.

    Of course I was always puzzled when I was back in the Levant why the US never approached me, sitting next door to Iraq with all kinds of funny contacts….. Bureaucracy I suppose.

  9. zen Says:

    Hmm…some unvarnished responses. My thanks!

    Michael – linked in new post !
    Hi Judasnoose – We need the ppl who have "gone native" in all things except their internal compass. They used to be called "Old Hands". That does not mean they were always right – the famous British Arabist St. John Philby had atrocious judgment in non-Arab matters and a twisted character, our "China Hands" in the 1930’s were right about Chiang but horribly and willingly naive about Mao – but even their errors would be better informed than speculative ignorance.
    Hi Col -They should have – which begs the question of what the incentives were at the time for case officers and what behaviors in terms of productivity were being measured. The world of international finance and the IC were originally a revolving door

  10. zen Says:

    A final note, a former student of my aforementioned linguist friend notified him of this post and he subsequently treated me today a review of the state of linguistic programs in academia that was at least as depressing as Tanji’s tales of the IC.

  11. judasnoose Says:

    Zenpundit: When you say the USA has need of adventurers who have gone native but not lost their moral compass, that might be true enough for the country.  But the USA government has parted ways from the moral compass of the country.  If Washington could see the USA spy apparatus, I fear he would say:   Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and show the whole world that a Freeman, contending for liberty on his own ground, is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth. George Washington, General Orders, Headquarters, New York (2 July 1776)     Democratical States must always feel before they can see: it is this that makes their Governments slow, but the people will be right at last. Letter to Marquis de Lafayette (25 July 1785)       All see, and most admire, the glare which hovers round the external trappings of elevated office. To me there is nothing in it, beyond the lustre which may be reflected from its connection with a power of promoting human felicity. Letter to Catherine Macaulay Graham (9 January1790)   http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/George_Washington   I.e., I fear he would denounce them as slavish mercenaries who wear their security clearances as external trappings of elevated office.  

  12. strategist Says:

    Lounsbury – re "Besides confusing domestic security with international, this is a very dumb idea. You put NGO workers in danger for little gain. Immigration consultants? Makes little sense."

    I’m not sure what you mean by confusing domestic with international security – I thought we were talking about the CIA operating in a foreign country.
    Re. the front organizations, you’ve missed the point I was making, namely that if a spy agency is going to set up fronts (I’m not talking about real NGOs here) then it makes sense to choose outfits that Muslim immigrants have day-to-day contact with.
    Why immigration consultants? Migrants to a new country have frequent contact with such people, e.g., to arrange extensions on student and work visas, help bring relatives to the country. Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about consultants who work in high rise offices and wear fancy suits. I’m talking about people who live and work within migrant communities, rent shabby offices, and who are often migrants with permanent residency themselves but strong links to and networks within their countries of origin.

  13. The Lounsbury Says:

    Immigration consultants? NGOs – in another country where you mates don’t know the bloody law? You’re making US domestic driven observations.

    Small informal employment agencies, perhaps. Immigration consultants gets you into contact with – presuming you’re strangely focusing on Europe – national governments (and of course utterly useless for in Middle East, North Africa etc).

  14. Larry Says:

    "Even in the world I travel in, finance, were I so inclined, I can and could find Salafi sorts"
    Do you really expect us to believe that a Jihadist would actually consort with such low-lifes? 🙂 Of course employment agencies would be a step-up. But even then, these employment agencies must have quite a reputation in the MENA and I would think they would be controlled by those of power and wealth. I suppose that is what you mean by small and informal. Kind of those who would work just below legitimate employment agencies. Do these agencies already exist in the MENA?

  15. Nahum Says:

    Friend show, art simply super

  16. romonoeroetoko Says:

    Your news is a cool stuff man, keep it going.

  17. amenodimeno Says:

    That’s good man, keep it going.

  18. Schmedlap Says:

    How does one go about learning more than two or three languages? That seems like it would take every waking moment of every day and then some.

  19. zen Says:

    Hi Schmedlap,
    Ideally, your parents start you learning as early as possible by exposing you to different language groups so your brain does not lose the capacity to hear/process/say sounds from alien languages ( we lose our capacity by degrees as excess neurons are "pruned" away age 0-3).  Formal study can start in preschool  if it is done in an age-appropriate manner but earlier the better. It is also a good idea to start with a language that is easy in terms of its internal rules and connects to a large family of related languages ( Romance, Slavic etc.). Once you get real fluency in one foreign language it is much easier to pick up a second related one ( jumping from French to Chinese or Arabic, not so much)
    I think it is fair to say that talent or "ear" for language varies tremendously. I’m terrible at it, as I started only in college and have poor hearing but even I managed to learn Portuguese well enough to read Brazilian newspapers in about a year. Actual linguists who learn many languages are very talented, very motivated scholars. If we tweaked our educational system though, there’s no reason that average Americans speaking two or three languages wouldn’t be considered "normal" as it is in most advanced countries.

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