The XX Committee

This is Why U.S. Intelligence Can’t Have Nice Things

It’s happened again.

Another 101-level counterintelligence failure has put Washington, DC, in the headlines in an unflattering way. For the umpteenth time.

I’ve been a consistent defender of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) against scurrilous charges, particularly when these are emitted by uninformed commentators or people who are collaborating with foreign intelligence services. But I won’t defend the indefensible.

The Associated Press has a new story that details a truly hare-brained American scheme to foment anti-regime sentiments in Cuba. According to the report, the U.S. Government, with (unstated) IC support, in late 2009 began dispatching Venezuelan, Costa Rican, and Peruvian young people to Cuba to stir up trouble for Castro. Some posed as tourists, others as health care personnel, some of whom used an HIV prevention program as cover. But their mission, to “identify potential social-change actors,” never stood any chance of success.

Because Cuban counterintelligence is legendarily effective, especially on their own turf, and rooting out yanqui spies is their Job Number One. It’s what they get out of bed for in Havana, frankly. This reality is known to literally everybody in the IC who deals with Cuban affairs. It was a shock in 1987, when the highest-ranking Cuban intelligence defector to ever jump ship revealed to the Americans that every single human source that CIA had run in Cuba since the revolution had actually been a double agent reporting to Havana — but experienced counterintelligence (CI) hands weren’t all that surprised. Cuba has a highly accomplished intelligence apparatus that generally runs rings around American opponents, as I’ve explained in detail.

What tough and realistic training did our operatives receive to fend off hard-charging Cuban CI before they were sent into the lion’s den? None. As the AP explains, “One said he got a paltry, 30-minute seminar on how to evade Cuban intelligence, and there appeared to be no safety net for the inexperienced workers if they were caught.” In other words: sayonara, sucker.

The AP found USAID and its contractor, Creative Associates International, continued the program even as U.S. officials privately told their government contractors to consider suspending travel to Cuba after the arrest of contractor Alan Gross, who remains imprisoned after smuggling in sensitive technology.

This is unconscionable, not to mention profoundly stupid. Despite U.S. assurances that “We value your safety,” that clearly was not the case. Worse, some of these operatives were paid barely more than five dollars an hour, below minimum wage, to put themselves into the sights of Cuban counterspies. Moreover, was no thought given to how using HIV programs as cover might expose genuine health care workers to unnecessary risk? 

I ought to be surprised, but I no longer am. The dismal performance of U.S. counterintelligence has reached such unprecedented depths, lower even than in the lamentable days of the Cold War when the KGB and its partners usually beat Americans in the SpyWar handily, that I wonder if reform is even possible now. I’ve been firing off flares for years, as have others, no effect.

A decade ago, I thought that the CURVEBALL fiasco, in which an Iraqi defector fooled U.S. intelligence with false information about his country’s WMD programs, with disastrous consequences, might spark reform, because it was a flagrant case of what can happen when CI vetting of sources is inadequate (particularly when it’s being done through partners, here Germany’s BND).

Nothing happened.

More recently, I thought that the disaster at Afghanistan’s Forward Operating Base Chapman at the end of 2009, which killed seven CIA officers and contractors, plus two foreign partners, when an al-Qai’da operative blew himself up, might bring change, since that tragic incident was a clear case of basic counterintelligence failure, illustrating the lethal consequences of poor vetting of sources (again including poor CI liaison work with a partner service, here Jordan’s).

Nothing happened.

Then, over the last year, we’ve had the Snowden disaster, the biggest counterintelligence failure in the history of U.S. intelligence, and probably anybody’s. For want of decent vetting, on more than one occasion, the U.S. IC let Edward Snowden into the inner sanctum of secrets, and he stole them — more than 1.5 million documents — and gave them to self-styled journalists, then fled to Russia, where he remains. The consequences of this epic failure will be felt for a generation in America’s spy services.

If this doesn’t spur real counterintelligence reform, nothing ever will. Yet I continue to wonder. Evidence to date indicates that fundamental changes, long overdue in CI and security, have yet to be implemented across the IC. In customary fashion, we should expect overreaction in certain areas, which will uncover a bunch of false moles and traitors, while critical areas will go unaddressed.

 Several years ago I explained why reforming CI is so difficult for Washington, DC:

CI professionals are seldom popular. They are spooky by nature, prone to complex explanations to seemingly unconnected events (to an extent this is a job requirement), and they seldom bring good news. Who, after all, wants to be told by the hush-hush guys down the hall that your premier operation—the one that you’ve been working on for months if not years, the one that was supposed to make your career—is actually just a mirage? Moreover, developing a cadre of effective CI officers takes time and talent, as a good counterintelligence officer must be a genuine expert in his or her particular region of interest, and he or she must have a detailed, and preferably encyclopedic, knowledge of the opposing service’s operations and tactics going back years or decades. Yet the United States must get serious about counterintelligence if it wants to protect its interests in a dangerous world. During my time in the intelligence community, I worked with CI officers from many agencies, including the talented staff of the CIA’s Counterintelligence Center. These people sometimes find it difficult to make CI work because of the pervasive bias against counterintelligence at Langley. Let it be hoped that this latest counterspy debacle will force the CIA, and all of our intelligence agencies, to finally get serious about counterintelligence. This is the real world, not merely a thriller spy movie.

I stick by all that, and I hereby issue another plea to the IC get serious, at last, about counterintelligence. The costs of failure are embarrassing headlines in newspapers, and far worse. If we can’t get counterintelligence right — meaning we can’t protect our secrets and prevent needless setbacks in operations due to a lack of CI vigilance, or even common sense — I have to wonder what the purpose of our vastly expensive Intelligence Community actually is.

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