Monday, February 18, 2008

Send in the clowns

After September 11th, 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency went into overdrive. It was analogous to putting in a traffic light after a school bus has been creamed at a dangerous intersection. Except, in this case, the CIA put the light at the wrong intersection.
The CIA set up a network of front companies in Europe and elsewhere after the Sept. 11 attacks as part of a constellation of "black stations" for a new generation of spies, according to current and former agency officials. 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 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." Officials said the experience reflected an ongoing struggle at the CIA to adapt to a new environment in espionage. The agency has sought to regroup by designing covers that would provide pretexts for spies to get close to radical Muslim groups, nuclear equipment manufacturers and other high-priority targets. But current and former officials say progress has been painfully slow, and that the agency's efforts to alter its use of personal and corporate disguises have yet to produce a significant penetration of a terrorist or weapons proliferation network.
Intelligence collection in the manner needed to penetrate such groups is undoubtedly a highly complex and dangerous endeavour. So you might think that something much more innovative than setting up a storefront and waiting for customers would have been executed.
The front companies were created between 2002 and 2004, officials said, and most were set up to look like consulting firms or other businesses designed to be deliberately bland enough to escape attention. About half were set up in Europe, officials said -- in part to put the agency in better position to track radical Muslim groups there, but also because of the ease of travel and comfortable living conditions. That consideration vexed some CIA veterans. "How do you let someone have a white-collar lifestyle and be part of the blue-collar terrorist infrastructure?" said one high-ranking official who was critical of the program. But the plan was to use the companies solely as bases. Case officers were forbidden from conducting operations in the country where their company was located. Instead, they were expected to adopt second and sometimes third aliases before traveling to their targets. The companies, known as platforms, would then remain intact to serve as vessels for the next crop of case officers who would have different targets.
Sure. Why wouldn't that work?
"When you link the cover to the operation, the minute the operation starts getting dicey, you run across the screen of the local police, the local [intelligence service] or even the senior people in the mosque," the official said. "I saw this kill these platforms repeatedly. The CIA invests millions of dollars and then something goes wrong and it's gone." But critics called the arrangement convoluted, and argued that whatever energy the agency was devoting to the creation of covers should be focused on platforms that could get U.S. spies close to their most important targets. "How does a businessman contact a terrorist?" said a former CIA official involved in the decision to shut down the companies. "If you're out there selling widgets, why are you walking around a mosque in Hamburg?" Rather than random businesses, these officials said, the agency should be creating student aid organizations that work with Muslim students, or financial firms that associate with Arab investors.
Maybe it's just me, but wouldn't it make sense to first determine what sells to a target market before you set up the enterprize? Intelligence gathering has never been a "clean" game. It's scummy, sleazy and involves dealing with some of the worst people in the world. Surely the CIA recognized that they have an army of corrupt and morally bankrupt business operators who could provide excellent advice on how to penetrate a seemingly impenetrable market.
But the agency is still struggling to overcome obstacles, including resistance from many of the agency's station chiefs overseas, most of whom rose through the ranks under traditional cover assignments and regard the NOC program with suspicion and distrust. In one recent case, officials said, the CIA's station chief in Saudi Arabia vetoed a plan to send a NOC officer who had spent years developing credentials in the nuclear field to an energy conference in Riyadh. The NOC "had been invited to the conference, had seen a list of invitees and saw a target he had been trying to get to," said a former CIA official familiar with the matter. "The boss said, 'No, that's why we have case officers here.' "
OK. Apparently not.

And it doesn't help when your very own government, assisted by your very own media noise machine decides that any intelligence collection operation you employ has less value than the lies they produced to start their very own war.
One of the CIA's commercial cover platforms was exposed in 2003 when undercover officer Valerie Plame was exposed in a newspaper by columnist Robert Novak. Public records quickly led to the unraveling of the company that served as her cover during overseas trips, a fictitious CIA firm called Brewster Jennings & Associates.
As Jill asks, "Do you feel safe yet?"

No comments: