Where were the Weapons of Mass Destruction? How did the CIA blow the call? I spent time before the Iraq war working on Iraq-related WMD intelligence operations, and was part of the Iraq Survey Group (commonly known as the ISG) combing Iraq for WMD. I have heard many glib, but wrong, answers to those questions. My answer? Nobody, not even the CIA, can raise a crop of spies in a land that has been sown with salt. The Iraq Survey Group was located on “Camp Slayer” in the huge Baghdad Airport military zone south of Baghdad. It operated from June 2003 until December 2004. It was initially led by David Kay until his resignation in late 2003. Kay was replaced by another former UNSCOM inspector, Charles Duelfer, who led the ISG until it was disbanded. The ISG was a mishmash of the CIA, the US military intelligence agencies, conventional US Army units, and representatives from Coalition countries. Not too surprisingly, this meant the ISG was a fusion of groups with different operating styles, answering to different, and often competing bureaucracies. I spent two stints in Iraq as part of the ISG, the first started in August 2003, the second in March 2004. After arrival, I was assigned to one of the ISG teams, which were split into functional disciplines: a Nuclear Team, a Biological Warfare Team, a Chemical Warfare Team, and a Delivery Systems Team. My ops boss handed me a list of people who had worked on programs proscribed by UN Sanctions; he said to contact and interview as many of them as I could, as quickly as possible. Many had already been interviewed repeatedly, with little or no information to show for it. This order set off my internal red-alert siren. I responded, “I can do the job quickly, or do the job well, but not both. If you want me to churn contacts, I can do that, and fail repeatedly just as fast as you want. Success will take longer.” Being told to have one or two interviews with someone, then move on if they do not immediately open up and spill their guts, was laughable. My response was based on basic psychology as applied to a CIA case officer‟s job: Getting someone involved in a proscribed WMD program to open up and admit what role they had played would take time, particularly if the interviewee personally violated US and UN sanctions. The interviewee had to believe that they would not go to prison if they opened up. They had to believe that their meetings with the CIA wouldn‟t get back to the insurgents or hard-core Ba‟ath party members, who would kill them for attending such meetings, regardless of whether they actually gave the CIA any information. Finally, they had to believe that being honest would not ruin their chances for future employment in Iraq, as they all had families to feed. Building a personal relationship is the bread and butter of espionage; an agent has to trust his case officer. Winning trust requires the (potential) agent to respect the case officer‟s integrity, courage and professional competence in managing the tradecraft of the case officer-agent relationship. Surprising as it may sound to spy movie aficionados, blackmail and extortion are not a case officer‟s stock-in-trade. The CIA teaches that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar: someone recruited by force will provide you information only grudgingly, and lie to you when they think they can, simply out of spite. In my time at the ISG, I chose to focus on building relationships, the traditional path to success. I met repeatedly with only a few people, sometimes discussing their work for Saddam, often just providing a sympathetic ear. The person I met with most was a senior member of Iraq‟s Military Industrial Commission. The “MIC” was a group of defense companies involved in various aspects of Saddam‟s WMD programs. The meetings were a litany of complaint. Still, CIA training paid off: they teach us to be relentlessly pleasant, even when it sticks in your craw. What was most annoying about this particular contact wasn‟t the fact that he was wrong, it was that he was right. “The Ba‟ath party purge is a disaster.” “I know.” “The disbandment of the Iraqi Army is a disaster.” “I know.” “We have no power, water, or safety.” “I know.” “Inflation is going nuts.” “I know.” And so on. The complaints continually reminded me that as an American official, I was part of the machine steamrollering Iraq. In between his complaints came bits and pieces about the WMD program he worked on. I think he was so flabbergasted that I didn‟t try to gloss over the USA‟s serial blunders that information about his job just started slipping out. Even so, it wasn‟t until the third or fourth meeting that real nuggets started coming. These were meetings I never would have had, had I churned contacts. Before I arrived in Baghdad, my MIC contact had already been talked to by three previous case officers, and told them little. I would love to fool myself into believing that I was simply the better case officer. In reality, my predecessors were operating as directed, and had only met with him briefly before moving on. In ignoring that directive, I reaped a reward. Just as the CIA “textbook” promised, after several patient meetings, my MIC contact started opening up. He invited me to dinner at his home. Anyone not familiar with Arab culture might miss the significance of such an invitation. In the Arab world, even among the poorest of men, inviting a guest for dinner allows the host to demonstrate the lavish depths of Arab hospitality, which can be extreme by western circumstances. For example, it is a bad idea to openly admire something in an Arab‟s home, because he may feel compelled to give it to you as a demonstration of his hospitality. Accepting the invitation would have honored him and given him great face. The invitation was a signal of trust; it showed a willingness to expose me to his most precious treasure, his family. In many Arab cultures, eating dinner at home creates an implicit guarantee that the host will never harm the guest. In building trust, accepting such an invitation, even at the risk of life and limb, is an essential a part of recruiting an agent (or in the peculiar case of the ISG‟s mission, simply getting someone to talk about their role in Iraq‟s WMD programs). Going to a dinner at an Arab‟s home can be a much surer path to getting sensitive information than throwing a bundle of money at the potential agent, which would usually be perceived as a deadly insult in Arab culture. I told my boss I had to go to a dinner at my contact‟s home, which was in a part of Baghdad that had not (yet) suffered a large degree of violence. He replied that not only could I not go, but that all personal meetings in homes, restaurants, and all other locations outside the Green Zone were forbidden. While it was true that some areas of Baghdad that were simply too dangerous to enter for any reason, I didn‟t think where I wanted to go was one of those places. The blanket prohibition on meetings outside the Green Zone was yet another roadblock to being an effective case officer. Case officers rely on the ability to change a relationship‟s dynamic by switching meeting locales from the dangerous, intimidating context of an official meeting in a public to an unofficial, intimate setting where the interviewee or potential agent feels comfortable. Meeting in the right setting may sound minor, but in practice, the importance of changing to a better meeting venue cannot be overstated. By depriving the ISG case officers of the opportunity to break bread in a private setting and establish bonds of trust with potential sources, our hands were tied behind our backs in yet another way. Turning down an invitation to dinner was, at best, faintly insulting to the host. Insults are not a good relationship-builder. I was able to overcome it in this case, but in many cases, that would have caused the blossoming relationship to be dead on arrival. My MIC contact eventually revealed information that was quoted word-forword in the unclassified Kay and Duelfer reports on Iraqi WMD as some of the only hard evidence of Saddam‟s actions to bust the WMD sanctions. To me, this demonstrated as nothing else could have what can be done when a case officer has direct access to somebody with information, and enough time to build a good relationship with him/her. I never paid my contact a dime. I think ultimately he just wanted an American official to look in his eyes, and tell him, truthfully, that we were making a lot of stupid mistakes, mistakes that were tearing Iraq to pieces. The power of the truth can be an astonishing thing to a person not used to hearing it. Naturally, before we could meet Iraqi WMD scientists, we had to track them down. In one case, I worked with a Defense Intelligence Agency officer at the ISG to locate a technician we needed to talk to. My DIA colleague noted that we could use the Iraqi National Congress, who were on the DIA‟s payroll and operated as the DIA‟s “people-finders.” “Of course,” my DIA friend said, “The INC will find the guy, but he will probably arrive to the interview stuffed into the car trunk, which tends to affect their willingness to freely talk. The INC doesn‟t exactly use kid gloves.” I declined the offer. While human intelligence often requires consorting with sleazy people, I and a lot of other CIA officers considered the DIA‟s compact with the Iraqi National Congress to have been a devil‟s bargain, one they later came to regret. My DIA colleague and I eventually found a source willing to lead us to the technician we were trying to find. We picked the source up and headed out into the Red Zone. As we got near our destination, our source pointed to a house near the end of a cul-de-sac, identifying it as the home of our target. However, the source adamantly refused to go down the cul-de-sac with us to examine it more closely. Despite the apparently tranquil street scene, he swore there were hidden watchers there, and that we would be ambushed if we tried to go extract the guy we wanted. I think our source was simply terrified that someone he knew might see him in our company and put the word out to the insurgent network. But it was not a warning we could afford to ignore: we didn‟t have the firepower or ready backup available to get out alive if our terrified source was right about the strength of the ambush. I never did get to talk to that technician. * * * CIA Headquarters was being squeezed by incredible pressure to “find the WMD.” In addition to the external political pressure, there was the terrifying fear in Headquarters of what failure to find WMD would do to the CIA‟s credibility. In that environment, telling Headquarters to “butt out and let the field officers tend to our own knitting” could only mean getting recalled in favor of someone who would toe the line. One case officer who headed the CIA‟s ISG detachment was recalled in late summer 2003. I never learned why. I do know he had a lot of Iraq experience, and he was the kind of guy who would not hesitate to pick a fight in a good cause. My surmise was that he tried to tell HQ to back off, but could not make it stick. The man who told me to churn contacts was an experienced senior case officer. Initially, I wondered why he advocated a course he had to suspect wouldn‟t work. He never explained his reasoning. Based on what I saw of the ISG, I drew my own conclusions. The pressure to produce results, or (failing tangible results) to give the appearance that every lead was being chased down as quickly as possible, did not allow a slower approach. Using bad tradecraft that was fast was more palatable than taking the risk of saying to CIA HQ: “Butt out. Leads will be chased in a methodical way, consistent with good operational practices, not like encyclopedia salesmen going door to door.” I wondered, “Why don‟t we push back against HQ?” Eventually, I came to my own conclusion on that score, too. Why fight for operational integrity, when there was little to be had? By late 2003, emails that the ISG was coming up dry, despite frantic searching, were being fired back to CIA HQ. They were tepidly received. The prevailing wind was clear: the search would go on, regardless of what we were not finding. Long before I arrived in Iraq, my station chief, upon returning from a trip to CIA Headquarters in late 2002, described the pressure that the WMD analysts and case officers were under. “Have you ever seen the German Uboat movie, „Das Boot‟? Remember where the U-boat has lost power and sunk to a depth where rivets were popping and ricocheting around the interior of the sub like bullets, because the sub was on the very edge of crush depth, where pressure would have imploded it? Well, that is Headquarters right now. We shouldn‟t be surprised if we hear some very weird stuff emanating from there, because nobody under that kind of pressure thinks straight.” This was months before the invasion, while the “case for war” was still being prepared. As events have subsequently proved, such pressure is toxic to both operations and analysis. The order to churn through contacts was only the first of many forced errors I saw made under killing political pressure from home, and the chaos of wartime exigency in Iraq. Another forced error was the disturbing practice of meeting the scientists, technicians, and Iraqi officials being interviewed about Saddam‟s WMD programs in public places that were easily observed. Locales such as Baghdad‟s Al-Rashid Hotel or the large Baghdad Conference Center, just across from the al-Rashid, were often used. The ISG‟s well-publicized mission was a unique circumstance for the CIA. Nevertheless, the practice of using such public locations was in complete contravention of CIA tradecraft about how to protect the identities of those you meet with. This practice continued even after we learned that Iraqis who were witnessed talking to the CIA in public were sometimes being “disappeared” by regime loyalists and insurgents. Knowing this was bad tradecraft, why did it become standard practice for many months to shield ourselves behind walls of the Green Zone, and meet in public places? Didn‟t the managers in the field who were running the CIA‟s ISG operations know better? I can only speculate, but knowing the managers, who were mostly very good officers, I would say they did. The short answer is: they did what they had to do to protect their junior officers from Washington‟s folly in assigning people to the ISG who shouldn‟t have been there. Safety for ISG staff often came at the expense of safety for Iraqis. A large portion of the CIA case officers assigned to the ISG as “weapons inspectors” had no WMD experience, no knowledge of Arab cultures in general or Iraq in particular. Many of the fundamentals about recruiting and running spies are universally applicable, but expertise in a particular discipline, i.e. WMD proliferation, takes years build. You cannot simply take an officer who is an expert in Russian counterintelligence (to pick a discipline at random), wave a magic wand, and declare him a WMD expert or a weapons inspector. Unfortunately, that was exactly the course of action forced on CIA HQ. It was ordered to supply a certain number of case officer and analyst bodies to the ISG, irrespective of their qualifications. The staffing situation was desperate; nobody could say “You can‟t send this person, because they don‟t know anything about WMD or Iraq.” The CIA prides itself on training case officers to hit the ground running anywhere. While a “Can Do” attitude is great, when case officers don‟t know the topic, the language, or the threat environment, they are hard pressed to simply stay alive and out of trouble outside of Baghdad‟s Green Zone. Approximately half the ISG case officers were fresh out of training, and had little WMD or Iraq expertise. And even knowing WMD didn‟t mean you knew how to survive in Iraq. A colleague named Roger was on the Nuclear Team in the ISG. He was a smart guy, and had WMD experience, but he was brand new to the operating environment in Iraq. One day Roger went out to a meeting and tried to use the traditional spy tradecraft we learn at the Farm: Roger had arranged to pick up an Iraqi nuclear scientist on the street and hold a rolling car meeting. Roger showed up to the pickup site, near a major traffic round-about in downtown Baghdad. The scientist wasn‟t there. Instead, a vehicle darted out into traffic, tried to cut off Roger, and opened fire on Roger‟s car. The meeting had been a setup to ambush Roger. Roger managed to get away, but he was much shaken. In Baghdad, the learning curve was lethal. Traditional tradecraft is meant to protect the identity of the participants in a clandestine meeting, in Roger‟s case, it made him easy to ambush. The CIA‟s operators in the ISG were not equipped like the US military; we didn‟t have a heavy armored fist to strike back against insurgent ambushes. We had radios, but minutes are an eternity when you are under fire. Chances are, if you can‟t escape by yourself, you won‟t be alive by the time the cavalry arrives. When a case officer like Roger got trapped in an ambush, he didn‟t have the kind of heavy weaponry the US military has, weaponry which sometimes gave the military the ability to “Shoot their way out of trouble.” Consequently, conventional tradecraft had to go out the window in favor of safety. In a hostile environment like Baghdad, building the necessary area knowledge and cultural expertise to operate safely and independently required a minimum of 3-6 months; most ISG case officers were not even in Baghdad long enough to build up the street savvy they needed to operate safely in that particular environment. Many ISG case officers simply didn‟t have the experience or training to operate securely outside the Green Zone; some case officers were sent to the ISG lacking training on how to avoid ambushes. This training gap occurred despite the CIA‟s official policy to give all officers headed for dangerous assignments anti-ambush training. As I had not previously deployed to a high-threat country, I was one of the case officers who lacked the anti-ambush training before I got to the ISG. When it came time to go back to Iraq again, I had still not gotten the training. I finally declared that unless I got the (supposedly mandatory) training, I wasn‟t going back. Baghdad, after all, was the most dangerous city in the world. My division training officer later told me she was glad I had made a stink: she had been telling senior management that people were being routinely shipped to Baghdad without the anti-ambush training, but her complaints were falling on deaf ears in the rush to keep the ISG fully staffed. My fuss allowed her to stop sending people to Baghdad without the crucial training, a practice always at odds with stated policy. Good security eschews over-reliance on armored vehicles for safety. Unfortunately, the CIA‟s ISG detachment was compelled to be co-located with the military contingent of the ISG at the Baghdad Airport. We had one practical way in or out, the Airport Road, also called Route Irish. This was a huge setback for tradecraft, because it tied ISG case officers to one easily observable location, and allowed insurgents to make note of our vehicles with little effort. The security problem was exacerbated because the ISG was sometimes given armored vehicles that were easy (even ridiculously easy) to identify. In one case, the ISG was given a civilian model canary yellow armored Hummer, surely the only canary yellow Hummer within a thousand miles. Driving such a vehicle down the Airport Road was like screaming an invitation to an IED attack. Armored cars run about $250,000 a piece and take a long time to build. Given their scarcity, there is never an inexhaustible supply of them; we had to use what we were sent. In a situation where the vehicles have been identified, the route is known, and an officer may not have the training to deal with an ambush, reliance on armor, instead of tested defensive tactics, became the only real defense, but an imperfect defense at best. We commonly left the Airport, only observe Iraqis signaling to confederates down the road to prepare ambushes. In one case, our security officers noticed a 10 year old boy near the entrance to the Airport Road, releasing doves every time one of our vehicles headed into town. CIA officers only shoot in self defense. This meant we were vulnerable to traps sprung by signals from people like the boy with the doves. Our rules of engagement meant we could not proactively take out such threats. On the plus side, this spared us the nightmares that would have gone with shooting a misguided but hostile 10 year old boy that was trying to help kill us. But we paid a price for those rules, too. In just one 24 hour period during my second stint in Iraq, 40 improvised explosive devices (IEDs), each made out of two 122 MM artillery shells cast in concrete and wired together, were discovered on the Baghdad Airport Road. An IED of this size would have the explosive power to penetrate any armored vehicle, including most tanks. In spring 2004, an ISG vehicle carrying a CIA case officer named Burt was bombed on Route Irish. While Burt and his security officers were evacuating to a second vehicle nearby, they were attacked with gunfire. Throughout the attack, US Army vehicles from the unit responsible for providing security on Route Irish kept rolling by our vehicles. No Army vehicles stopped to render any kind of assistance or help beat off the attack. Luckily, Burt and the others were able to speedily move to the second vehicle and evacuated without casualties. But nothing illustrated better than the attack on Burt that when a case officer got into trouble, he couldn‟t count on the military to bail him out. On three consecutive weeks in early 2004, the CIA contingent of the ISG lost one armored car per week to insurgent attack on the Airport Road. When simply getting into Baghdad was so dangerous, the prospect of regularly sending rookie case officers out into the seething insurgent snake pit outside the Green Zone had to make a senior CIA officer think twice. Personally speaking, I am glad that was not my decision to make. Because of the extreme danger all over Baghdad, 90% of the ISG‟s interviews with Iraqis were held in public places in the Green Zone, despite the risks to the Iraqis being interviewed. Some might call it risk aversion, and they would not be wrong. It would be equally true to say it was preserving the CIA‟s human capital, making sure junior officers lived to fight another day, rather than risking them cavalierly. Traveling the Airport Road was something all ISG case officers did routinely, but I never considered it a routine commute. Almost every day, when you looked north from Baghdad Airport, you were greeted by the sight of columns of greasy black smoke rising in the air. The smoke meant that somewhere in Baghdad, Coalition vehicles had just been attacked, or a car bomb had just detonated. I never asked anyone else in the ISG how that made them feel; we avoided such topics. In me, the daily sight of roiling smoke provoked a constant low level of dread. It often signaled fiery death for a fellow American. Oddly enough, although I was always tense on Route Irish, the sense of danger while transiting the Airport road was not bad. What did bother me was thinking about doing it again and again, feeling that one day, my luck would run out. Or course, you didn‟t have to be on Airport Road to be in danger. The larger Baghdad Airport zone, which included the ISG, received mortar fire on a daily basis. Such attacks were just insurgent potshots, a few rounds shot off on the fly, unlikely to hit anything important in area so large as the Airport zone…. unless you happened to win the bad luck lottery On my way to breakfast one day, an insurgent just outside the camp perimeter fired off a portable anti-aircraft missile directly over my head. He was trying to shoot down an incoming transport aircraft. On my way home from the internet room one evening, a rocket exploded 100 meters away. Daily life was peppered by such incidents. Despite the myriad challenges, the ISG eventually managed to talk to over 90 percent of the political and technical staff of Saddam‟s WMD programs. If a scientist left Iraq, we often sent someone from the nearest CIA station to talk to them. In one overly enthusiastic effort to leave no stone unturned, I received a cable from headquarters suggesting we lure a citizen from a Coalition country to Iraq, so we could detain and question him. How that one got out of headquarters I will never know; it would have given CIA‟s lawyers a heart attack. I sent back a politely worded “Thanks. That‟s nuts. We have no authority to do that, and don‟t intend to be left holding that bag.” I never heard that suggested again. For all the tradecraft lapses in the ISG, the CIA officers assigned there accomplished the mission. It did what is usually considered impossible: it proved a negative. The ISG determined exhaustively that Saddam no longer had the WMD he once possessed. Delivering (often unpleasant) truths is what the CIA is in business to do, and the ISG did that. Looking at the bigger picture, different tradecraft would not have changed the conclusion the ISG reached; it simply would have allowed the ISG to come to the same conclusion it eventually reached much more quickly, and in a way that exposed fewer Iraqis to risk. Some WMD analysts and traditional weapons inspectors would say the length of the ISG‟s mission was necessary to be absolutely sure that there was no WMD. I strongly disagree. The ISG‟s conclusions were ultimately dependant on a truth of human nature, not CIA tradecraft, or the number of holes we dug in the desert. This truth was simple: given sufficient incentive and a chance to do so, someone in a group will always roll over on their buddies. Saddam was never a beloved man, and many of those who worked on WMD programs did so as part of a “work here, or else” threat. There was never a shortage of motivation to expose the regime‟s misdeeds, just a lack of opportunity to do so. When Saddam was there, they would not talk to us. That all changed when the ISG set up shop in Iraq. The ISG offered large rewards for real evidence of current WMD programs, and even the chance to get out of Iraq. A ton of money and a ticket out is an offer too good to refuse in a war-torn country. Many tried to claim the money we offered, and we chased thousands of false leads. Some pundits cling to the theory that we could find Saddam‟s WMD if only we got access to Syria, where Saddam‟s WMD goodies are now alleged to be hidden. Such claims are sheer speculation. The lack of real leads allowed ISG case officers to recognize very early that there was no WMD to find, long before the more cautious analysts were comfortable openly stating that conclusion. The only real failure associated with the ISG was the reluctance of senior CIA officials to make it clear to the Bush Administration, after the absence of WMD was well established by late 2003, that the ISG was a waste of resources that the CIA could not afford, given the scarcity of personnel and urgent need elsewhere. We robbed Peter to pay Paul. Someday that robbery will bite us, in the form of an attack or crisis that catches the CIA unawares, because resources needed elsewhere were tied up in the ISG. The CIA detachment at the ISG, including both case officers and analysts, was not as large as the military contribution. Nevertheless, the CIA‟s Directorate of Operations (DO) is so small, and stretched so thin, that pulling those case officers from other assignments to work in the ISG meant we were blind or undermanned in other places. As former CIA Director Tenet said in his recent book: “The FBI has more agents to cover New York City than the CIA has case officers to cover the whole world.” Given that scarcity, I still wonder why the ISG was allowed to suck away resources for almost a year longer than necessary. * * * The story of the ISG is the story of WMD intelligence after the invasion of Iraq. But what happened to the WMD intelligence before the war? Why was the CIA so wrong? In movies, a “back-story” explains the history the viewer needs, so that the twists and turns of the plot make sense. Unfortunately, almost all media coverage on the Iraqi WMD intelligence has omitted the back-story. That begins long before the current Bush administration came to power. WMD programs, be they Iraqi, Iranian, Russian, etc, share certain basic similarities. The scientists who work on them are allowed no contact with the outside world. They work in isolated facilities. All their communications, i.e. phone, email, etc, are monitored by secret police. The scientist‟s family is often hostage for the scientist‟s good behavior. Such programs are often called “black” programs; they operate under such a shroud of secrecy that they do not appear to exist to outside observers. Scientists assigned to such programs have their passports confiscated, to prevent them from ever meeting a CIA case officer. An ISG colleague once met with a scientist involved in Saddam‟s defunct bioweapons program. The program tested lethal pathogens on human subjects. The foreign scientist had been invited to a research fellowship in Iraq. By the time he realized just what he was working on, it was too late. He had married an Iraqi Shia woman. He was told that he could perform the lethal experiments, or become a test subject himself. Also, his wife and her family would be killed. He did the tests. He claimed he altered the test protocols to kill as few as possible. Was he lying? Perhaps. From what I know, I have no trouble believing that Saddam‟s regime would coerce a scientist to perform lethal experiments, and keep his mouth shut about it. Any Western intelligence agency has little or no direct access to scientists who work on black programs. Black programs are just like the black holes. Astronomers have to study black holes by inference, by looking at how their activity affects the planets around them. Astronomers make guesses as to the composition and activity of black holes by seeing what is falling into them and how the black hole‟s gravity perturbs the surrounding section of space. In trying to penetrate black WMD programs, the spymasters and analysts at the CIA are forced into the same situation as astronomers: guessing what is going on inside by seeing what is going into them, and observing how the programs perturbs the strategic landscape inside the target country. Given the lack of access, recruiting spies inside a black program or in the senior ranks of a hostile police-state is a near-impossibility to start with. Nevertheless, sometimes the CIA strikes gold, either through our own efforts, or through the rare but vital contact with a legitimate “walk in.” Despite the lethal security surrounding them, sometime a scientist, military officer, or politician with access to high grade secrets will manage to contact the CIA (euphemistically called walking-in) and volunteer to work for us. In times past, America attracted such volunteers by being a beacon of hope. Legitimate Walk-ins are often conscience-driven men who hate the totalitarian regime they are part of, and are willing to risk their lives (despite grisly penalties), to fight against the regime. When it came to Iraqi WMD, we managed to recruit very few sources. We also had a noted lack of real walk-ins. The now-infamous fabricator “Curveball,” was looking for a meal ticket from German intelligence, not to bring down Saddam. To make matters worse, the Iraqi National Congress fed US intelligence agencies false WMD information to provoke the US to invade Iraq. Clearly, bad data drove bad analysis, and CIA‟s analysis of Iraq‟s WMD was very flawed. The flaws included disregarding information from sources that said Saddam had given up his WMD, and giving too much credence to Curveball and others. Yet few have asked the question: why didn‟t we recruit senior, well-placed spies that would have given us undeniable gold-plated info? Spies close enough to Saddam to have told his us his plans and intentions? And where were the crucial walk-ins? The answer is in the historical back-story. In the early 1970‟s, President Nixon encouraged the Iraqi Kurds to revolt, which they did. Saddam Hussein responded to the American pressure behind the revolting Kurds and came to terms with Washington. American advisers then pulled out of Iraqi Kurdistan. Saddam then slaughtered the Kurds who had risen up at our urging. In 1991, in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War, President George HW Bush asked Iraqis to revolt against Saddam‟s regime; they did. Bush then denied the Shia and Kurd revolutionaries the arms they needed to mount a successful challenge to Saddam. Unbelievably, the occupying USled coalition even permitted Saddam to use his combat helicopters to ruthlessly suppress the very uprising Bush had called for. Not to be outdone by the Republicans, during the Clinton administration in the mid-1990‟s, the CIA was ordered to foment an uprising against Saddam. This effort was again based largely in the Kurdish provinces in the north. At the last minute, after plans for the uprising had already been set in motion, the Clinton administration pulled the plug. The Iraqi opposition members decided to proceed without US support. Bereft of US help, the coup attempt was easily crushed by Saddam‟s intelligence apparatus and military. In one of the savage ironies common to intelligence work, this repeated support to, then abandonment of, Iraqi opposition was an eerie parallel to one the bloodiest, but cleverest, counterintelligence operations in history, known as “The Trust.” The Trust was an operation executed by “Iron Feliks” Dzershinski to smoke out and destroy opposition to the infant communist regime in Russia of the 1920s. Dzershinski‟s agents pretended to support the anti-communist opposition. This allowed him penetrate the opposition, to capture the opposition leaders, and destroy the organization. The “Trust” was a bloody plot to destroy those willing to fight the Soviet regime. What “Iron Feliks” accomplished by design, successive American Presidents did inadvertently, by getting the opposition to Saddam to stick their necks out, conveniently allowing Saddam‟s security thugs to chop them off. The glee of the Iraqi security services at our obliging help in creating an “American Trust”, not just once, but on three separate occasions, can only be imagined. The net effect was to sow salt on the fields of espionage in Iraq. The brutally effective “American Trust” perpetrated on the Iraqi opposition guaranteed that after the UN inspectors were ejected from Iraq in 1998, the CIA‟s case officers had no practical way to make up for the loss of UN inspectors. This historical reality has been completely ignored by official Washington, even by those who had every reason to know better. For example, David Kay, who headed the ISG in 2003, later publicly decried the CIA‟s “addiction to the crack cocaine of the United Nations Special Commission (aka UNSCOM) weapons inspectors,” and failure to develop human intelligence sources in Iraq. Kay was not trained as a case officer; it may simply be that his knowledge of human intelligence was miniscule. Or perhaps he intentionally dissembled. In any case, he failed to mention that the CIA had no practical alternatives to UNSCOM, because of the pre-war environment of scorched earth created by three US administrations. Compared to a good spy, weapons inspectors are a pale substitute as a source of human intelligence. The information from inspectors has to be viewed with caution, because secrecy is vital to authentic human intelligence. This means clandestine recruitment of spies in the heart of a regime or WMD program. When a regime knows weapon inspectors will be knocking on their door, they know what they have to hide and they hide it. Inspectors find a lot of smoke, but rarely do they find fire. In fact, UNSCOM had been bamboozled by Saddam until rescued by human intelligence. In the mid 1990s, UNSCOM had been close to declaring that Saddam had turned over his WMD. Then one of Saddam‟s inner circle, Hussein Kamel, defected to Jordan and blabbed about the true scope of Saddam‟s WMD programs. Kamel‟s information was shared with UNSCOM, which forced the Iraqis to fess up. Only after Kamel was UNSCOM finally able to make real headway in uncovering Saddam‟s bioweapons program. Kay acted as if the absence of solid human intelligence on Iraqi WMD was an indication of the CIA‟s stupidity, incompetence, or sloth, and not a reflection of the pre-war reality in Iraq. Of course, Kay‟s record in owning up to embarrassing realities has been less than stellar. Kay personally misidentified an Iraqi vehicle as a mobile bio-weapons lab before the 2003 invasion. He consistently beat the “Iraq has WMD” drum louder than anyone before the invasion, then distanced himself from the CIA after the ISG demonstrated there was no WMD to find. Yet while Kay‟s behavior was particularly egregious, he was far from the only person in Washington to develop a convenient historical amnesia when it suited him. By the late 1990‟s, Iraqis had developed a survival-driven aversion to working with the CIA. The case officers responsible for penetrating the Iraqi regime could no more have changed that than they could have repealed the laws of physics. No matter how much he loathed Saddam, any potential walk-in with more than a tenuous hold on sanity would have considered working with the CIA for about ten seconds, before deciding that there were much quicker and less painful ways to kill themselves and their families. There can only be “Intelligence Failure” if the operating assumption was that the CIA had any realistic chance to penetrate the inner circles of the Iraqi government, despite both the extremely hostile operating environment of Saddam‟s police state, and the negative instructive power to the Iraqi people of American perfidy, perfidy that had resulted in so many Iraqi deaths. Even in the face of such odds, the CIA was able to recruit some useful spies in northern Iraq immediately prior to the 2003 invasion, but only because we were able to demonstrate to potential spies that this time, we were in for the long haul. We would not sponsor yet another uprising, and then pull the rug out. But last-minute network building was no substitute for years of patient cultivation of sources in the heart of black WMD programs. The Pollyanna-like expectation of success, from Kay and countless others across the political spectrum, was tantamount to willful blindness. Willful blindness is a luxury denied to the lone case officer in the field, trying to recruit an agent in a hostile environment. Pretending the CIA had any realistic chance to penetrate Iraq on a large scale, given the mess that American policy had made there over the preceding decades, demonstrates a profound ignorance of Iraqi history, human nature, and the limitations of human intelligence. While Americans in the hothouse environment of Washington politics may be quick to forget our historical betrayals in Iraq, one may be sure that the Iraqi victims of the betrayals did not forget. This was at the heart of our WMD intelligence problems. Looking at how Iraq has turned out, other potential agents will not soon forget our latest adventure in Iraq, an adventure that will impact the CIA‟s ability to recruit sources of all stripes for decades to come.
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