Bring Back Human Intelligence

(A previous version of this article appeared in The Christian Science Monitor. TIDES World Press Update placed it under its “Articles of Significant Import” heading. TIDES stands for the Translingual Information Detection, Extraction and Summarization program, a U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – DARPA – research effort.)

The democratization of technology is generally a wonderful thing. The Internet, powerful computers, cellular phones and other such devices, which were once available only to governments or a select few, are now available to almost anyone. But with this comes the nagging thought that deadly technologies are also widely available. One no longer needs a standing army to carry out mass destruction; individuals or small groups of bad guys can generate untold suffering, be it through the use of conventional or unconventional weapons.

Such groups thrive on guerrilla warfare tactics. They blend in with the civilian population and launch surprise attacks, as happened on September 11, 2001.

Given this reality, the role of intelligence gathering in uncovering terrorist plots has taken on a dramatic new significance. The CIA, FBI, and other agencies that employ human intelligence – or HUMINT, in the feds’ parlance – are our first line of defense against the new enemy. They arguably have become the most important function of the U.S. government.

The key to busting up terrorist plots is by infiltrating the groups with real-live humans; satellite photos and other electronic gizmos are not nearly enough.

But America’s HUMINT capabilities weakened significantly during the past few decades, accelerating in the 1990s and suffering a further blow in 2009 with the Obama administration’s decision to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate CIA interrogators.

It started with the Church Committee investigation in the 1970s, which was an effort to expose and correct some of the CIA’s excesses during the Cold War. But in view of the enemy we are up against now, the changes went too far.

In the aftermath of the Church Committee investigation, scores of Middle East case officers were laid off or forced to retire. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978 imposed strict rules on intelligence gathering, and created large bureaucratic hoops that CIA and FBI officers had to go through before they could wiretap suspected terrorists. In fact, FISA-related obstacles were largely responsible for the FBI’s decision not to search the computer and apartment of Zacarias Moussaoui (the alleged “20th hijacker”) prior to September 11.

In the mid-1990s the intelligence agencies’ hands became even more tied. The Aldridge Ames spy case resulted in a purge at the CIA, making the remaining case officers reluctant to get to know foreigners out of fear of becoming a suspect, according to Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer and author of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism.

Aggravating the situation were 1995 CIA guidelines associated with the practice of gleaning information from foreigners with questionable human rights backgrounds, leading to multiple layers of bureaucracy whenever a case officer wanted to recruit an asset. A new Director of Operations in 1995 fired all “access agents” – foreigners who have access to potential intelligence sources – according to Baer. By 1995, HUMINT reports on many Islamic terrorist groups slowed to a trickle.

The culture of political correctness affected the intelligence community as well. Especially at the FBI, agents were reluctant to conduct surveillance on ethnic Arabs out of fear of being accused of racial profiling.

A U.S. News and World Report article carried the disturbing revelation that in the months prior to September 11, the bin Laden unit at FBI headquarters turned down a request from one of its field offices to send a confidential informant to participate in an Al Qaeda training camp. There is no word from the FBI on why the request was rejected, but the incident is not surprising in light of the atmosphere within the intelligence community at the time.

Though collecting HUMINT is supposed to be the CIA’s chief function, fewer than 10 percent of its employees work outside of the United States, according to the book The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture by Ishmael Jones.

And now its job is even harder. The majority of its HUMINT reports since 9/11 reportedly have come from prisoner interrogations. In addition to the negative impact on CIA morale, the Obama administration decision likely will result in less information and/or less valuable information gleaned from interrogations.

Bureaucracies are susceptible to sclerosis over the course of their lifetimes – a gradual weakening of their original mission amid a steady accumulation of rules, regulations, politics, political correctness, lawsuits, careerism, and administration (much of it imposed by Congress). Our intelligence agencies are not immune.

Obviously, the shock of September 11 prompted the hiring of a lot more Arabic-speakers. And fortunately, the 1995 CIA guidelines on recruiting foreign agents have been significantly loosened, according to an Agency spokesman. FISA has been loosened as well, but not nearly enough. U.S. intelligence operations are still subject to a labyrinth of rules and regulations deriving from Congress and the executive branch. Considering the extreme danger the country is facing, policymakers have a lot more to do to facilitate the gathering of HUMINT.

Patrick Chisholm is editor of PolicyDynamics.