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Posted at 11:54 AM ET, 12/30/2010

2010: CIA ramps way up

By Jeff Stein

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.”

By Jeff Stein  | December 30, 2010; 11:54 AM ET
Categories:  Foreign policy, Intelligence, Military  
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Excellent article Mr. Stein,

It's clear to me that the drone strikes have been extremely effective at taking out the extremists in Pakistan over the last year. The ability to send in Afghan operatives, backed up by drone strikes, finally looks like a force that is getting the Haqqani network, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and their more infamous friends, very upset indeed.
If the US could only expand the strikes to take on the Quetta shura?
The CIA needs more drones.
No doubt about it.

Ronald Kessler comes across as a political operative (maybe more of a political hillbilly), then an actual agent of the CIA, when he underestimated Leon Panetta's leadership abilities.

The last month has been devastating to the enemies of the United States in the tribal regions and the ungoverned areas of Af/Pak. This no time to ease off the speed, this is the time to step on the gas and put real hurting on the bad guys.

Good Luck fellas

Posted by: steve_real | December 30, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

A good and balanced review. But a lot depends on values and vocabulary. If you think that paramilitary ops and drone strikes are what the Clandestine Services should be doing, then the Agency does a fine job. But if you think that humint collection is what the spy game is all about, then we still have a dismal failure, especially against the CT target. I have absolutely no inside knowledge, but I would be willing to bet that the CIA has not one single humint agent in FATA, where it sends its drones to strike. It gets its targeting data from thye ISI. And I am also willing to believe that the CIA knows precisely the location and room in which Sirajuddin Haqqani sleeps, but does not attack this target because it would annoy the ISI, who runs the Haqqanis against the ISAF in Afghanistan. So "liaison equities" stand in the way of killing the person responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of ISAF deaths. The CIA has simply outsourced its CT humint collection to foreign liaison services; until it shifts its risk adversity policies, no year can be considered a success.
I fully agree that the grunts on the ground are capable -- as Ismael Jones points out, the problem comes with the last of the baby-boomer management which is more concerned with their own career advancement than they are in getting the real job done -- for them, it is all about ego trips and pensions rather than working to save the nation. And becausae it is with these frauds that Panetta speaks, no wonder they tell him their work has been a great success.
Bottom line: technical toys and knuckle draggers can be useful additions to humint collection, but the job of CIA is not to duplicate the other technical collectors, but to provide humint, for which it has a unique authority -- and responsibility

Posted by: DCNative41 | December 30, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Within 6-months of the USA's departure from Afghanistan, the Taliban will be rolling itno Kabul. That is the bottom line and all we are doing is pissing away trillions....

Posted by: john_bruckner | December 30, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

This is just so much "smoke and mirrors." The concept of "winning" the so-called "war on terror" is the most inane, air-headed, and just plain stupid soundbite perpetrated on the American people in a long time. There have been fanatics/radicals using acts of terror for 2,000 years at least...and will be for another 2,000 years.

Americans are just so incredibly naive in believing their so-called "leaders" and not realizing that the drone strikes are almost certainly creating at least as many "terrorists" (among relatives and supporters of the victims) as they are reportedly killing.

It would be nice if someone/anyone could put even two sentences of the truth together when talking about "terrorism" or other defense/security issues.

Posted by: Rigged | December 30, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

They are running a neo-Phoenix operation. The downside is that eliminating those with leadership ability in the enemy ranks also eliminates those who can lead in peace.

Their logic on the future is very telling also. For those who believe 9/11 was caused by an unwillingness to connect dots that were clear to everyone else (see Judith Miller's NYT articles in January 2001), the pattern is familiar. Attention to one area will cause weaknesses in other areas which lead to intelligence failures, and then more terrorism and counter-terrorism funding.

Posted by: blasmaic | December 30, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Panetta acts as the Agency's front man to Congress. There's no reason to think he understands the subtleties of analysis or collection, much less paramilitary operations. The Agency is attempting to make the best of an ignorant, hubristic policy decision by the chest-thumper Dubya, who decreed the Taliban to be our mortal enemy. Had we proceeded with any degree of nuance, we would have used the Agency's capabilities to co-opt the Taliban and the ISI, rather than embark upon what is already an epic failure: the effort to create an entirely new government from inveterate swindlers who can never, ever be trusted to act in any way contrary to their own self-interest, and who will never, ever form an effective structure to suppress Islamist extremism.

This dirtiest of deadly games demands unsavory pacts and tactics. The Clandestine Service is our last, best hope to salvage something from the ruins of our empire.

Posted by: johngladsd | December 30, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Gee, do you think the CIA can find Bin Ladin now?

(pssst, he's being sheltered in Pakistan)

Posted by: areyousaying | December 30, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

The US has no business telling other countries how they must live. This country is falling apart. Or haven't any of you noticed?

American policymakers have never been accused of understanding the countries they destroy. It's beyond their capacity, as our history amply demonstrates.

This country is run by careerists and corporations. To call it a democratic republic is a joke.

Drone strikes kill innocent civilians, as everyone knows. Your praise of those strikes, steve_real, reveals that you have the soul of a terrorist - though one suspects you lack the cojones.

The Al Queda types, religious fanatics of the Pat Robertson / Pastor Hagee variety, are winning hands down. They successfully drew the world's surviving superpower into a series of unwinnable and unsustainable wars. As Zawahiri said: "we have them right where we want them. If they leave, they lose everything, if they stay, we bleed them dry." Box cutters and keen insight into the ruthlessness of America's ruling class are hastening the demise of the empire.

For those of us who actually care about the constitution and aspire to real democracy, the nationalists so well represented in WP blog comments are like buffoons in a black farse. You support policies that are achieving the exact opposite of your stated objectives: making the world a more dangerous for American citizens, and the United States a weaker (and deeply hated) world power. You collude in the destruction of the Bill of Rights and welcome tyranny. Spitefully. You could not be destroying America more effectively if you were working for Al Queda, which, in practical effect, you are.

Posted by: musicalcole | December 31, 2010 2:13 AM | Report abuse


We trust, sir, that God is on our side, yet it is more important to know that we are on God's side.

Musicalcole you can blow off steam and call me a few names, or whatever, I don't really care...but please don't get in between me and my US Central Intelligence Agency.

I do suggest, however, that you take some time off, get a passport, and go see this beautiful world of ours, before you go off half cocked again.

For the glory of Christianity is to conquer by forgiveness, so in that spirit, I forgive you, because it does appear to me that you are a very upset person.
Yes @Musicalcole, you are very upset in deed.

Posted by: steve_real | December 31, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

The War has been going on for 10 years, at a cost that will bankrupt the United States Government, and will cause a complete collapse of the Pakistani Government. This collapse will release large numbers of Nuclear Weapons into unknown hands. With Unknown results. Western Europe will be severely threatened, as well as major cities in the United States. This scenerio is supported by many diplomatic, and military cables released by Wikileaks. There is no doubting the results of the Collapse of Pakistan's Government, and the loss of control of it's nuclear weapons into unknown hands.

Thinking out of the box, was always something stressed in the employment literature passed out in college campuses in the past, even though it's not been used as much as it was stressed in the hiring brochures.

The first thing that has to be done, is the removal of Foreign Fighters form the Pakistani tribal area's.

This is a war. When a war ends, or when you want to end a war, you allow the soldiers from both sides to go home. Offering an amnestsy program to foreign fighters, to be returned to Saudi Arabia for placement into a program like the Care Rehabilitation Center, as well as incarceration in facilities in their host countries, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Yemen, would remove the foreign fighters from the War Zone.

This offer should be extended to Bin Laden as well, return to Saudi Arabia, to the Care Rehabilitation Center, and imprisonment in Saudi Arabia. Imagine in 3-5 years, Bin Laden and his deputies, or other members of the organization, making statements condeming what has been done, or using their position to shut down the organization completely with statements and fatwas.

This not going to be a popular suggestion. However, the continued presence of Bin Laden and his organization in Pakistan, and his close ties to the ISI, and the Taleban, are causing the Pakistani Government, Military, ISI, and the Nuclear Program, to all become on the edge of a very dangerously unstable situation, where the end result will be Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons in uncertain hands.

When the Pakistan's Nuclear weapons are loose, and they are being detonated in Western Europe, or the United States, perhaps everyone will wish they had considered a different option, or a more out of the box idea, to try to end this situation, and stabilize Pakistan, before it's too late.

Time is running out, for the United States, for the Pakistani Government. Taleban, and Al Qaeda are just waiting, entrenched, and waiting. The release of the Wiki documents just re-enforces the dire reality of what is going on in Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and what the consequences are going to be, of not getting these Foreign Fighters out of the Tribal area's, and stabilizing the situation in Pakistan.

A different solution is needed.

Posted by: mohammedfaroukgb | January 2, 2011 2:40 PM | Report abuse

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