Losing the Spywar Has Consequences
The New York Times has run an excellent report detailing the severe methods which our enemies in Pakistan are employing to blunt the power of our UAVs in the struggle against Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. Although not enough Americans seem concerned about the Obama administration’s prodigious use of drones to kill our enemies – not to mention innocent people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – it’s a cause for deep concern around the world, especially among Muslims. As I’ve explained elsewhere, I find UAVs to be a necessary tool in counterterrorism but one which the current administration is overusing to a dangerous degree. We fail to understand how the weapon our enemy terms “the Hand of Allah” is viewed by those on the receiving end of the Hellfire missile from nowhere. Certainly the geniuses in DC seem to be giving too little thought to the long-term consequences of employing drones as the weapon of first resort in our aggressive, worldwide anti-AQ operations.
But that problem may be solving itself in Waziristan, Pakistan’s ungoverned wild frontier, since as the Gray Lady explains, AQ and their helpers are doing a bang-up job of killing off America’s eyes on the ground, both real and imagined. Mujahidin are tracking down locals whom they suspect are helping out the infidels, spotting targets for UAVs and whatnot, and they’re killing them off in horrible ways. Often their confessions, real or feigned, are filmed in close-up for effect, as is a customarily awful death. The message is indelible: this is what we do to spies.
Surely many of those caught in the AQ counterespionage dragnet are innocent, or nearly so, which perhaps is the point. Soviet efforts to root out enemy spies during World War Two brought in plenty of non-spies, who were subjected to the same tortures as actual Gestapo agents. Not for nothing did Stalin term his fearsome counterintelligence agency SMERSH – short for Smert’ shpionam (“death to spies”). They meant it, and often they cared little about whom they brought in for “questioning”; causing general panic, and building deep resistance to helping the enemy, was the idea. Soviet methods were blunt and brutal, including torture on an industrial scale, but despite what progressives today may wish to imagine, also devastatingly effective at winning the spywar against the Nazis. And that victory in the intelligence realm was critically important to Stalin’s unprecedented military triumph in 1945.
Much the same may be happening today. It’s difficult to imagine that many Pakistanis will yearn to help the Americans or their local allies, at any price, when the consequences are so obvious, so public, and so unspeakable. I’m not convinced that the mujahidin are top-shelf experts at counterintelligence – I’ve studied enough campaigns where their own CI performance was subpar, sometimes disastrously so – but I’m certain that we suck at it. By being at least somewhat competent in counterintelligence, AQ is winning the spywar.
American intelligence has never exactly excelled at CI, as it’s known in the trade, and the history of U.S. counterspy efforts includes ample tales of woe, but recent years have been especially painful, with devastating consequences. Lest anyone brush these failures off as “just spy-on-spy stuff,” I implore you, dear reader, to remember CURVEBALL, the Iraqi fabricator who sold German intelligence, the BND, a bill of goods about Saddam’s WMD, which DC bought too, with well-known results a decade ago; this was a rare case where a basic lack of counterintelligence vigilance helped cause a war.
It’s not like things have gotten better of late. The list of CI disasters in the struggle against the mujahidin is long, but none was so public as the tragedy which unfolded at Afghanistan’s FOB Chapman, three years ago today, when a Jordanian AQ operative who we thought was ours but was really being run by the enemy, blew up himself and nine others – five CIA officers (including the chief of base), two CIA contractors, a Jordanian intelligence officer, and an Afghan security guard. It was arguably the worst day in CIA’s history, not least because it revealed a complete and total failure of basic counterintelligence awareness. We thought we were playing AQ, but really they were playing us, and people died. In the desire to believe in the golden source, caution was thrown to the wind.
It’s not like people haven’t been trying to get the attention of American intelligence about this stuff for eons. Jim Olsen, one of the CIA’s few bona fide counterspy experts in recent decades, published his Ten Commandments of Counterintelligence, which shows what ought to be done with admirable clarity. Every U.S. intelligence officer should be required to read and memorize. I give you the shortest version and encourage anyone with more than a passing interest in espionage and defeating terrorism to read the original closely:
1. Be Offensive
2. Honor Your Professionals
3. Own the Street
4. Know Your History
5. Do Not Ignore Analysis
6. Do Not Be Parochial
7. Train Your People
8. Do Not Be Shoved Aside
9. Do Not Stay Too Long
10. Never Give Up.
As a former CI officer I find it depressing that American intelligence never seems to catch on at any sort of institutional level, but I’m also certain that change can happen when it is really required. The U.S. Intelligence Community, as I like to explain, is deeply enamored with technology, for some very valid reasons: our excellence in things like SIGINT and IMINT really is number-one anywhere, and it’s enormously impressive (as well as expensive), not to mention a critical enabler of our war against the terrorists. That said, all the technology in the world cannot help us if our basic intelligence model continually ignores something as vital as CI. We may own the skies above Waziristan, but the enemy owns the ground, where people actually live, and they are willing to employ old-school, ruthless CI methods to defeat our 21st century toys and techniques. And that is why the enemy is winning.
[N.B. The opinions expressed here are the author's alone and certainly not those of the Naval War College or the Department of Defense.]