2010: CIA ramps way up
Each winter brings hope that next year's crop of talented rookies, matched with maturing veterans, will turn around a baseball franchise. So it might be said of the CIA’s campaign against Islamic extremists across a wide swath of the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.
In 2010, late into its second decade fighting Islamic extremists, the CIA has far more personnel on the battlefield than at any time since the Vietnam War, when 300 pilots alone were supplying a CIA-led force of 40,000 tribesman in Laos.
“Many times more” CIA personnel have been deployed to Afghanistan than the 200 or so who were on the ground in Laos by the early 1970s, said one close CIA observer, voicing the estimate of others.
The agency has raised its own, 3,000-strong Afghan paramilitary force to conduct raids in Pakistan in search of Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. It is also credited with doubling the number of Predator drone strikes in Pakistan in 2010, to about 115 (although a knowledgeable source says many of the missile attacks have been actually carried out by the U.S. Air Force’s far more powerful Reaper drones).
And of course it has its hands full working with -- as well as against -- Afghanistan’s security agencies and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, parts of which are aiding the Taliban.
The agency is doing all this with a talent bank, some agency veterans say, that has not yet fully recovered from budget cuts in human intelligence programs in the 1990s.
Too many erstwhile desk-bound analysts and staff intelligence officers, some agency veterans say, have been dispatched into the field from Washington with inadequate preparation to manage difficult operations in a very complex part of the world.
A former intelligence officer who went into Afghanistan shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and has returned many times since pointed to the calamity in Khost, a year ago this week, where agency managers failed to stop an inexperienced base chief from inviting a source onto a base. That source turned out to be a double agent wired with a suicide vest. Seven Americans were killed.
Khost is not an anomaly, he said. “She was not the only unqualified person leading [a team] in a difficult, dangerous place.”
“The overall problem is as follows,” says Mark Lowenthal, a senior former CIA intelligence official. “The [intelligence community] lost the equivalent of 23,000 positions in the 1990s due to the ‘peace dividend,’ which hit the IC far harder than Defense. Then we had the post-9/11 ramp up. Put those two demographics together -- veterans departing, no fill-in behind them for years followed by an influx of new people -- and we have, arguably, the least experienced intell community since its formal inception in 1947 in both ops and analysis.”
The CIA takes strenuous issue with such views. “Any assertion that CIA officers working on counterterrorism issues are not qualified or experienced is flat wrong,” said Jennifer Youngblood, an agency spokesperson.
“CIA officers who came on board in the last decade arrived with significant outside experience and education,” she added. “They’ve brought fresh thinking and new expertise to bear in the fight against terrorism and many are already leaders in their own right.”
Even skeptical CIA veterans grant that the agency’s paramilitary division has deeply benefited from the influx of former military special operations troops.
Indeed, in 2010 the agency -- and many outside analysts -- embraced the notion that it had essentially won the war with al-Qaeda, at least as led by Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who are considered boxed up in Pakistan’s tribal region and unable to mount a repeat of the Sept. 11 attacks.
But the Obama administration also seems to be betting that the CIA, even more than American military forces, can salvage the U.S. struggle against the various strains of Muslim insurgents in the AfPak region, not to mention in places like Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
“It is clear statistically that the policymakers are turning more and more to the drone program to carry the war to Taliban and al-Qaeda in the Afghan-Pak border,” says a former senior CIA officer who held top posts in the region. “I actually support this effort as long as we recognize that air attacks will never alone take care of the problem in the region. These attacks can only be truly effectively over the long term when the Pakistanis decide to step up to the plate and take care of the problem.”
Some worry that the drone and paramilitary programs are a drain on the CIA’s central espionage mission, but the former senior officer said such efforts “often provide the agency with its best intelligence and unique, excellent access to the top players in a country, some of whom become key long-term agents. So on the local level, I doubt that [they have] a negative impact on intelligence collection.”
“The bigger issue is whether our protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have depleted collection capabilities and adequate policy attention in other key areas of the world,” this former official continued. “I believe it has and that it possibly is irrevocably altering how the agency does business, not for the better. The full impact of this will not be felt for years.”
Such criticism obscures the agency’s successes, says Ronald Kessler, whose 2004 book, “The CIA at War: Inside the Secret War Against Terror,” and other writings champion the spy agency.
“There’s always been the complaint” that paramilitary operations are a strain on resources, he says, “but they’re still winning war on terrorists.”
Kessler credited “better intelligence overall .better methods for pinpointing the locations of terrorists a better focus, more resources [and] more firepower, including more Predators,” for the CIA’s success.
All of which is being quarterbacked by the unlikeliest of generals, Leon E. Panetta, whose previous intelligence experience was effectively nil when he took the job in 2009.
“I was skeptical, as many were, when he came in,” said Kessler. But by the end of 2010, it was clear that the former congressman “really embraced the mission as his own.” And he not only had the president’s complete backing, Kessler said, he “is smart, he gets it.”
| December 30, 2010; 11:54 AM ET
Categories: Foreign policy, Intelligence, Military
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