Diminished intelligence

Ex-spies say the CIA isn't up to the task of out-smarting Osama bin Laden -- despite billions of new spending in the wake of his embassy bombings.

By Jeff Stein

Published September 12, 2001 10:47PM (EDT)

What to hit?

When the shock wears off, the Bush administration will be casting about for ways to retaliate against those responsible for Tuesday's hideous terrorist attack. No doubt it already is.

It will have to wait. And think. Because Washington will find hurling jets and missiles over the Middle East a lot easier than hitting the right target.

The Central Intelligence Agency, meanwhile, may be the last to know where to go or who to hit, much less who done it here.

According to some of its own former spies in the region, America's premier information-gathering agency is virtually "blind" in the Middle East. And while some Republicans blame the problem on cutbacks in intelligence budgets, in fact Washington has thrown piles of money at counter-terrorism programs since 1998, when U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were destroyed by Osama bin Laden's men.

Bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire who is Public Enemy No. 1 in the FBI's pantheon of thugs, is suspected of dispatching Arab kamikazes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon Tuesday morning. A fourth hijacked plane was headed to Washington when passengers reportedly wrestled control from the hijackers and brought it down in western Pennsylvania.

All of this seems bitterly ironic, since bin Laden was the CIA's own man in Afghanistan 15 years ago, during the U.S.-backed Islamic holy war to oust the Soviet Red Army. Now our spies can't seem to find him.

The shocking attack on American soil is leading some in Congress to begin to call for the head of CIA director George Tenet, Fox News reported Wednesday.

But the CIA's performance in the Middle East was coming in for scathing criticism -- from some of its own former agents -- before the Tuesday attacks. "I would argue that America's counter-terrorism program in the Middle East is a myth," says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a European-based CIA agent who quit the agency in disgust after nine years tracking terrorists through the region.

Gerecht's provocative statement in the July/August issue of the Atlantic Monthly went entirely unnoticed by a national news media obsessed with the affair of a congressman and an intern, even while credible terrorism forecasts filled the in boxes of anyone who was even half-watching. Arab newspaper editors in London were warning of a "big, big" action from bin Laden two weeks ago.

To intelligence insiders, however, Gerecht's public alarm was long overdue. Despite all the big talk of bin Laden and his men shaking in their boots "around the campfire," as officials have boasted, CIA managers have allowed the best and brightest to leave in droves. While the Bush administration chases a chimera of billion-dollar missile defenses, the ranks of well-seasoned Arabic-speaking Middle East operatives have gone unfilled.

"The [CIA] branch chiefs have never set foot in the Middle East," Bob Baer, who spent 17 years infiltrating Palestinian and other terrorist organizations until he quit in 1997, said in a telephone interview.

"They didn't speak Arabic, didn't speak Persian. The Beirut office has basically been closed since 1990-1991," Baer said. "They've got one guy out there who speaks a little French.

"So look at Lebanon," Baer continued, his voice rising Tuesday as black smoke billowed over the Pentagon. "You've got terrorists running all over there and we've got no real office there. We can't talk to them. We can't talk to the fundamentalists, we can't send people into the mosques."

"All the people in the counter-terrorism center and the FBI basically dismantled counter-terrorism over the 1990s," Baer said. "They didn't dismantle it by taking people out, they dismantled it by putting people in who knew nothing about it to run it -- people who have never been overseas."

Whoever is responsible for Tuesday's attack, there's a muted chorus of complaints about the CIA that will become louder as days go by and the perpetrators go unpunished.

Scott Ritter, who headed the United Nations team hunting Iraqi weapons after Desert Storm in 1991, said he was appalled by the terrorists' apparent ease in slipping through airport security, hijacking four airliners, and flying them into the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

"How such a large-scale, coordinated effort went undetected by law enforcement and intelligence services is incomprehensible, except that for the past decade we have allowed our capabilities to lapse in the one area we need the most: human intelligence."

Former Vice President Al Gore chaired a White House commission on aviation safety but "there is no mention in this report of the prospect of terrorists hijacking planes and crashing them into buildings," said John V. Parachini, executive director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington. "Today's tragic incidents raise profound questions about aviation security," Parachini added, saying experts will pore over previous incidents, such as the Egypt Air crash off the coast of Canada in 1999, in which the pilot is alleged to have purposefully crashed the plane, and the 1994 hijacking of an Air France plane by members of the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria, who threatened to crash the plane into Paris.

Parachini also called for "a better balance ... between concern about conventional weapons like explosives, car bombs, and aircraft and more esoteric weapons" like chemical and biological bombs.

Gerecht and Baer say the CIA isn't up to the task of preventing future terrorist attacks. It has few, if any, operatives equipped to penetrate clandestine organizations like bin Laden's al-Qa'ida, ("The Base") in the mountains of Afghanistan. That takes patience as well as skill, both in short supply at the CIA.

A first step would be squatting among the hopeless poor in the vast slums of Pakistan, Algeria and Palestinian Gaza, fishing grounds for the Islamic Jihad. The fundamentalists' job is made all the easier with global television streaming portraits of unimaginable wealth into their huts, or while U.S.-made Israeli F-16s roar overhead.

For the CIA, the task of getting to bin Laden the slow way may be impossible, Gerecht said.

"Westerners cannot visit the cinder block, mud-brick side of the Muslim world -- whence bin Laden's foot soldiers mostly come -- without announcing who they are," he wrote.

"No case officer stationed in Pakistan can penetrate either the Afghan communities in Pershawar or the Northwest Frontier's numerous religious schools, which feed the manpower and ideas to bin Laden and the Taliban, and seriously expect to gather useful information about radical Islamic terrorism -- let alone recruit foreign agents," Gerecht wrote.

"Even a Muslim CIA officer with native language abilities (and the Agency, according to several active-duty case officers, has very few operatives from Middle East backgrounds) could do little more in this environment than a blond, blue-eyed all-American," Gerecht continued. "Case officers cannot long escape the embassies and consulates in which they serve."

CIA agents under official cover as diplomats or business executives are photographed and registered when they take up their posts in the Middle East, Gerecht and others said. Police in the regional regimes are salted with sympathizers of Islamic Jihad, bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Baer, who is fluent in Arabic, blamed CIA "complacence" for not addressing the problem.

Iraq, he said, was "a black hole" of intelligence in the decade following Desert Storm.

Not even the super-secret National Security Agency, which monitors foreign phone lines and radio communications, was getting any useful information out of Iraq, according to an intelligence source. The same was true for Saudi Arabia, and several other posts in the region.

"There was nothing coming out of there. We were deaf," the source said.

Baer says the CIA had a hard time persuading many of its officers to take backwater posts, not just in the Middle East, but Africa and Latin America. Instead it resorted to hiring CIA retirees at a fees as high as $20,000 a month.

He charged that since such private contractors had no career incentive to undertake the risky, and sometimes dangerous, task of recruiting foreign agents, they spent their tours relaxing, soaking up the local culture, and making future business contacts with local potentates.

As a result, CIA information dwindled to a trickle, or in the case of Saudi Arabia, even less, he says.

"We were getting nothing out of there. Nothing."

Baer said it was unlikely that bin Laden had the skill and assets to pull off Tuesday's sophisticated, coordinated attacks on his own, moreover.

Stressing that he had "no knowledge" about who was responsible, Baer said past experience suggests that bin Laden would have had to reach out for help from someone else.

"They don't have the ability to coordinate that many airplanes, four airplanes," he said. "Every time they've done an attack it's been horribly botched in one way or another, including Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. They left traces all over."

That may have happened again at Boston's Logan Airport, news reports suggest.

"I'm not saying he's not involved," Baer said of bin Laden. "I'm just saying he could not coordinate this alone. He's got a bunch of yahoos around. It takes a professional, trained terrorist group who's fought in a war. He never did. He was always sitting in Peshawar," just inside Pakistan, during the war against the Russians.

Baer's nominee for helping bin Laden is the Lebanon-based Islamic Jihad, veteran Muslim fighters trained by Iranian instructors.

"The Islamic Jihad in Lebanon are the pros," he said. "They fight 24 hours a day. They did the (Lebanese) civil war, they've fought everywhere else. They did (a terrorist bombing in) Buenos Aires, they did (a hijacking in) Bangkok, they can operate overseas ..."

Baer said Tuesday bin Laden "didn't have people who could" fly an aircraft, before reports out of Miami about Arabs taking lessons.

"You need infrastructure in the United States, obviously," he added. In the days leading up to New Year's Eve 2000, "We saw in the millennium bombs his infrastructure was for shit -- [the FBI] caught everybody. The guy ran. I mean, who brings explosives across the border in the trunk of a car -- past Customs? Or the Los Angeles airport thing. It was a joke."

"Islamic Jihad," Baser declared, "would never have done that."

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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