The spies who got left in the cold

Last Updated 10 January 2010, 16:40 IST

As I reflect on disturbing events of recent weeks — the massacre of seven CIA officers in Khost, Afghanistan, and the near bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on its way to Detroit — I can see in my mind’s eye a young man. He is West Asian, with a thin, mustachioed face and pallid skin, and he stands nervously in the middle of a very public square, unnoticed amid a swirling crowd. Glancing furtively at his watch, he begins to walk, as he was instructed, along a prescribed route.

Another young man, an American who is a CIA case officer, has already circled the square, shielded by the passers-by. He is alert to anything out of place, to someone loitering near a motorcycle, to a group of men sitting aimlessly in a car, to anyone who may be paying attention to his source. He is dressed to look like any other dark-haired male of no particular account in this dusty and obscure third-world city in the 1980s.
Under the officer’s sweater is a crude bulletproof vest, giving him the barrel-chested look of a wrestler. The vest is of limited protection, but a partial insurance against faults of judgment.

The case officer begins to follow his source at a discreet distance. He knows the young man well, or believes he does. His assessment, upon which his life may depend, is that the source, though a member of a terrorist organisation and willing to put his life at risk to meet an American spy, is a physical coward. Personal loyalty is important to him, as is his relationship with the American, from which he hopes to benefit.

Circumstances can change, however, and with them, motivations. In a world of fear and desperation, today’s friend can become tomorrow’s deadly enemy. The case officer is confident that while the source could perhaps find the opportunity to shoot him, he lacks the courage ever to do it himself. While this lack of fortitude may be a blessing, it could easily lead him, if discovered and placed under pressure, to guide others to their American target, to do what he himself could not.

Satisfied at length that no one is watching the source, the case officer suddenly approaches him from behind, grabs him by the elbow and pulls him abruptly down a cobblestone alley, in a direction the source could not have anticipated.

In this case, the officer’s faith is rewarded. The West Asian becomes a valuable asset. But the case officer is not always so fortunate. A year later, in a different city, he has just inherited a new source. Working against the government of a state sponsor of terrorism, the source is what is referred to in the business as a ‘principal agent’, running his own network of subordinate spies. With the case officer’s encouragement, the principal agent has managed to lure a potential subagent out from the police state where he lives. They hold a series of meetings during which the principal agent vets his friend, assesses him and formally recruits him into the network, all under the watchful guidance of the case officer.

As I look back at that young case officer poised at that moment in time, I wish I could speak with him now. I wish I could remind him that his own confidence, his ambition and his desire for success are in fact his worst enemies.

Some of the story concerning that principal agent we will never know. We will never know precisely why one day, in setting up another meeting with his old friend, he ignored his training. He had been told — hadn’t he? — that he must never allow himself to fall into a pattern, that he must never be predictable. And his case officer, in spite of endless soul-searching, would never know whether any of the myriad things he might have done differently would have saved a brave man whom he had sworn to protect.


What we do know is that one evening, the principal agent and his boyhood pal, now his betrayer, had dinner at a shabby seaside restaurant; that they sat at the same table they had occupied the night before; that a group of four men in a car drove slowly around the block twice; that two of the men entered the restaurant and strolled over in front of the principal agent’s table; that each then emptied his pistol into the agent’s chest.

In the wake of President Obama’s speech on intelligence last week, there is much soul-searching going on, at CIA headquarters in Langley and elsewhere, about what happened in Khost on December 30. It comes as a cold slap in the face, but one that implicates us all. For these men and women, like the uniformed troops they serve alongside, have assumed great risks, and they have assumed them to keep the rest of us safe at home.

There may well have been some element of human error or incaution. Young operatives might have allowed their desire to strike a blow against America’s enemies to override their professional caution. Or, perhaps, having weighed the risks and gains of the alternatives, the officers simply came up short. In the wilderness of mirrors that defines human intelligence in counterterrorism, the threat of disaster is an inescapable presence.
The importance of the human intelligence work done by officers like those we lost at Khost is only increasing over time. The growing sophistication of our enemies, as they react to the grievous losses they have suffered, makes us all the more reliant on human spies.

Trainees who aspire to join the National Clandestine Service, the undercover arm of the CIA, get careful instruction. They are instilled with a proper regard for their mission, for the laws they must follow, for the sacred obligation to sources, and for their duty to one another. Much stress is placed on loyalty. Loyalty can take many forms, but when all is said and done, loyalty is essentially tribal. That is as true for us as it is for any Afghan. CIA officers undertake risks not for any ideology, but to protect Americans from those who would want only kill them. At a time when calamity is a poignant reminder of the loyalty displayed by CIA officers toward us, we might reflect on what we owe them in return.

Sacrificing intelligence operatives out of political expediency is a bipartisan sport. Officials in the George W Bush administration did not hesitate to blame the spies when it suited them and the Obama administration is proving, if anything, worse. Last spring’s decision to release secret justice department memos on the interrogations of suspected terrorists was a blatantly partisan act. It was designed to win political advantage by holding intelligence officers up to opprobrium and scorn.

How, in the face of such betrayal, can we expect to bring new generations into the intelligence ranks? It is possible to reward loyalty with loyalty while still insisting on the highest standards of professionalism from our intelligence officers. Indeed, we can better reinforce excellence in intelligence when we judge it with honesty, realism and a sense of proportion. Politicians will behave dishonourably so long as it benefits them. It is up to the rest of us to tell them, “Enough.”

(Published 10 January 2010, 16:40 IST)

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