A CIA spook spills his secrets

Henry Crumpton's new book, "The Art of Intelligence," gives a rare glimpse into intelligence's inner workings

Published June 4, 2012 7:13PM (EDT)

Henry Crumpton       (AP/Andy Wong)
Henry Crumpton (AP/Andy Wong)

By definition, firsthand accounts of the inner workings of the Central Intelligence Agency are uncommon -- and such accounts of the agency's clandestine service are even more rare. That's why Ambassador Henry Crumpton's new book, "The Art of Intelligence," is so important: It gives the public a rare glimpse of the myriad gray areas that now exist at the friction points of statecraft -- in particular the gray areas between war and peace, vigilance and aggression, general awareness and outright spying.

Crumpton joined the CIA's clandestine service in 1981, spending much of the next quarter-century abroad. During the lead-up to and aftermath of 9/11, Crumpton was the deputy chief of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, participating in the rise of drone warfare and leading the agency's Afghanistan campaign right after the attacks. He later headed the agency's domestic clandestine service, ultimately serving as an ambassador-at-large as the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism.

With the publication of his book, Crumpton has made headlines with his assertion that there are now more spies operating on American soil than ever operated during the Cold War. He recently joined me in studio in Denver on my radio show to discuss President Obama's "kill list"; what went wrong before and after 9/11 in Afghanistan; how America's national security apparatus targets suspects; and whether it's fair to worry that the changing definition of warfare is undermining age-old democratic ideals.

The following is an edited transcript of our discussion. You can listen to the whole conversation by clicking here.

What is the best way for the average person to understand the CIA's clandestine service?

The CIA clandestine service is the espionage arm of the United States, and that’s really about collecting foreign secrets, and there’s many ways to do this. I focused in my early years primarily on recruiting foreign nationals to spy for America. They would steal secrets and provide the CIA operations officer such as myself these secrets. And this was supplemented by technical collection, supplemented by surreptitious entries where we would directly steal foreign secrets...It’s specific information that is accurate and timely and relevant and actionable, so the end user, the policy maker, whether it’s the president or it could be a war fighter or a diplomat, they can use it. They can put this intelligence to action.

How do you balance whether to work with or bust a potential spy for being involved in something that we don’t want them to be doing? They might be a valuable source but they also might be doing terrible things in order to be in a position to be a source.

Well, first there are specific laws, there are regulations, there are standards that the clandestine service must adhere to. For us to recruit and run a terrorist who is actively and directly involved in killing innocents is something that the CIA cannot do. That’s a limitation, but it’s a limitation that the CIA accepts.

However, to recruit a terrorist that may be a part of a support network, providing communications or material support or otherwise engaged, that’s something the CIA can do and must do to understand the plans and intentions and plans of al-Qaida and other terrorist enemies. And if you look at the motivations that drive these foreign nationals to commit espionage, to spy for the CIA, they go from the exulted to the most base, and that’s the challenges of an operations officer: How do you understand these motivations, how do you develop relationships, and then how do you make both operational and moral decisions?

What happens to a source after he or she helps the CIA stop a terrorist plot?

Each case is different. If you think that recruiting an intelligence source, a penetration of a terrorist network is hard, keeping them in play is harder. And there are decision points along the way. The best case, that source is able to stay within that terrorist organization and continue providing intelligence.

What were we not doing before 9/11 that we should have been doing?

Pre-9/11, I think the CIA, the counterterrorism center in particular, was doing a good job. We started sending teams into Afghanistan in September of ’99, working with our Afghan allies we’d built an extensive human source network throughout the country when 9/11 happened. In fact, we had 100 sources in every province among every tribe in Afghanistan; we were acutely aware of the threat. The CIA provided strategic warning to the White House throughout the summer of ’01 saying that al-Qaida was planning something big -- that we felt an attack was imminent, and I write about this in the book. The failure, I believe, prior to 9/11 was more of a policy failure than an intelligence failure.

So you’re essentially arguing that it wasn’t that we didn’t know the threat, it was that the policy didn’t match what we did know.

Right, and not only the intelligence, both word and deed, of al-Qaida that attacked our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 ... They almost sank the USS Cole in Aiden Harbor in October of 2000. Al-Qaida was at war with us, and the CIA understood this, and we tried to inform the policymakers, but in many respects I think it so fundamentally [challenged] our notions of war, of nation on nation, army on army, and the [threat] did not conform to that.

Even in the CIA there were some that wondered how could this group of non-state actors in one of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan, on the other side of the world, how could they really pose a threat to the homeland?

Certainly we knew al-Qaida was a threat, but did we really know exactly what kind of threat they posed?

Before 9/11, there was a memo with a specific reference to New York City and to the ‘93 attack on the World Trade Center; I mean, that was in the memorandum. Now the CIA did not have specific tactical intelligence of where and when and how; that was missing. But this is the important part about intelligence: The policymakers and the public, they can not expect intelligence perfection at a tactical level, particularly in what I view at the time as in the context of strategic policy failure. We advocated the CIA to go into Afghanistan in a more robust way, to do more not only in terms of intelligence collection, but expand what was a very narrow, limited covert action(s) ... so that we could engage al-Qaida and we could take out bin Laden before 9/11. [But] we didn’t have the authorities or the resources, in my view, to do that. That was a policy failure.

Has the military footprint in Afghanistan made it more difficult to develop the human relationships that may have better accomplished what we aimed to accomplish in Afghanistan?

Yes, it may have, particularly in comparison to how we responded in the fall of 2001. Back then, the CIA teams reinforced, supplemented by special operations teams -- very small -- dropped in behind enemy lines, and we were dependent on our Afghan allies for our survival and for our collective victory, so in those type of high-risk operations, you have got to have intimate relationships. But from 2002 to 2005 we basically failed to seize that window of opportunity. Afghanistan was relatively quiet; people were looking for our support, not just the U.S., and then the U.S. military in a sense responded in a more conventional way.

You seem to be arguing that CIA covert operations to develop intelligence -- like the kind we did before and right after 9/11 -- are a much more appropriate way for us to conduct statecraft. But if war becomes more stealth, won't we lose our democratic rights to be informed about wars being waged in our name?

I think we need to recognize the changing nature of warfare. There’s greater asymmetry of power. There are more non-state actors populating the battlefield, and the battlefield is global. It’s more complex, more condensed, and the enemies, our adversaries, are increasingly smaller and smaller. These are micro actors with macro power, and you’ve got to have intelligence that informs statecraft so we can be more precise, more flexible, and faster in our responses, and that requires secrecy.

The tension that you outline, it’s an important question. How do we wage war and what is the new definition of "war"? Often, I use the analogy that recently war is like managing disease. It’s how do you manage that risk? How do you keep that risk off our shores? How do you protect U.S. interests, and intelligence is going to be playing an increasingly important role because of the nature of war, how it’s changing.

If the CIA or the White House declares somebody a threat, is there any way for that person to prove they're not a threat and get off a "kill" or "target" list?

Well, I think that if you’re looking at the list that drives the president to issue basically lethal authorities to engage, that is extensive, rigorous, scrubbed determining that the person is a threat. Now I can’t rule out the possibility that if the person were to surrender to the U.S. Embassy, and I would encourage that. There may be other ways, but I’m pretty confident based on my historical knowledge that once you’re on that list you deserve to be on it.

Now it raises a bigger issue of how do we determine who should be killed, including U.S. citizens? Particularly with U.S. citizens I think we need to have even more rigorous standards to make that determination.

Do you think the president should have the power to put someone on a "kill list" without any oversight?

I think that the process is pretty rigorous, going back not just in the last couple years but even before 9/11, when you look at detention targets for rendition, lethal covert action, it’s a rigorous process. Not only do the attorneys in the White House review and the president must direct it, the leadership of Congress is informed, they are advised, and they are on board. So it’s not willy-nilly and it’s not ad hoc.

Personally, I’ve got some concerns about U.S. citizens that are placed on this list without a more, perhaps, thorough review or at least a better understanding for the American public. Now, some of these U.S. citizens, they’re members of al-Qaida, they’ve declared a war, they’re killing Americans. I have no problem with us using lethal force against them. I just want to make sure that the process is correct.

Tell us about the history of drone warfare, the CIA's role in it, and the role -- if any -- of the law in constraining this kind of warfare.

In 2001, the CIA began employing them day and night. A lot of the [actions] were very obvious, where you’re engaged in combat, you’re supporting troops that are under fire, so we’re cranking hellfire shots to protect our troops, or you’ve got a clear identification of the enemy.

There are others where the calls are less than perfect, and I can’t think of anything more imperfect than espionage in war, of all of man’s endeavors. But we had attorneys there; we had policymakers vet all of these shots, and like anything, you do the best you can under the guidelines.

What was particularly challenging, not only for us but I think in the future, is that when the war changes, and laws do not change with them, but the operator, whether it’s a CIA officer or the FBI special agent or the special forces guy, they are held accountable to legal standards that are now questioned by a new administration.

Are Americans being spied on inside the United States by the CIA?

No, absolutely not. The department that I ran, the division, was called national resources -- it’s part of the clandestine service, it has offices scattered throughout the United States -- and the focus, the mission is exclusively on the collection of foreign intelligence. It happens to be within our borders. Now that could include the recruitment of foreign nationals that are here, it could include the debriefing of an American citizen who may have acquired foreign intelligence while they were overseas.

The private sector, in particular, is a very important partner. They can provide cover to the CIA for operatives that are working overseas, and a lot of guidance on new technologies that are changing espionage, warfare and how we live, so it’s a critical element of the clandestine service.

In your book you recount meeting with a university president about foreign nationals on a campus, and you say that helping spy on foreigners in the United States "falls under the bounds of the rights and the obligations of citizens under our Constitution." Are you really saying that Americans should be spying on foreigners here at home?

My point is that American citizens have got civic responsibilities, and as the complexity of threats and adversaries grows, the value of intelligence will grow. The interdependence between private citizens and intelligence, the CIA, the … in particular, will grow. It’s just the nature of war and the nature of risk. And the great thing about this is that it’s entirely voluntary. The CIA has no law enforcement authorities; they have no way to compel American citizens. This is, if you will, a voluntary civic force, and I think that’s why it’s so effective and so strong.

What would you say to a foreign national in the United States who might say he doesn't like the idea of being perceived as guilty or worthy of surveillance simply because he's from a different country?

I think the overwhelming majority of foreigners here are welcomed warmly and are not viewed as threats. In fact, it’s one of the great strengths of our nation that foreigners can come here on business, come here to educate themselves, and we want to encourage that. But for those foreigners that have got intelligence that can help protect the United States of America, well, then, from an intelligence perspective they are legitimate targets.

When you talk about "targets" in your book, you invoke the idea of "radicals." How does the CIA decide what is a radical, potentially threatening message or behavior and somebody who is simply a dissenter?

There are many levels of analysis that go into this based on this foreign intelligence to determine not necessarily who’s a threat - that’s important, but who may be a potential cooperative source. Someone who admires America, who shares some of our same objectives, in bringing free enterprise, liberal values, liberal institutions to their part of the world, and if we can cooperate or forge a cooperative relationship with this individual to spy for America to help advance our nation’s interest, then why not?

By David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

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