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Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?

The sensational revelations of recent years about the Central Intelligence Agency almost obscure a larger point: the Agency is just no good at what it's supposed to be doing. So writes the author, a former CIA officer, who describes a corrosive culture in which promotion-hungry operatives collect pointless intelligence from worthless foreign agents. Reform, the author warns, may be impossible

by Edward G. Shirley

The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.
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  • THE arrest of Aldrich Hazen Ames, a CIA operative turned KGB mole, in February of 1994, fundamentally changed the public perception of the clandestine service of the Central Intelligence Agency. Before Ames only "case officers," operatives who recruit and run foreign agents, knew how dysfunctional the service had become. Since Ames the outside world has learned that much is rotten in the Directorate of Operations -- the official name of the clandestine service, known to insiders simply as the DO. Yet the senators and congressmen who oversee the DO, the journalists who report on it, and the civilian directors who run it have failed to understand and to confront the service's real problems. Even among CIA analysts who work in the Directorate of Intelligence, the overt, think-tank side of the house, few have grasped the extent of the DO's decrepitude.

    Politically charged, usually lurid stories of CIA misconduct have deflected attention from telling questions about U.S. intelligence. Journalists level charges of Agency involvement in Latino drug-smuggling rings. The American wife of a Central American guerrilla accuses the DO of complicity in torture and murder. Female case officers sue their male bosses for sexual discrimination.

    All these affairs have blackened the Agency's image. None advances the debate on whether the clandestine service actually spies well. Protected by secrecy, by a disciplined and obedient bureaucracy, and by the average outsider's basic ignorance of and fascination with espionage, the leadership of the DO has pre-empted and stalled pressure for Agency reform.

    In 1985 I joined the Directorate of Operations. A devout cold warrior, I had no qualms about espionage or covert action against the Soviet Union and in defense of America's national interests. I was proud and eager when the Near East Division chose me to join its ranks. I had dreamed for years of applying my academic training in Islamic history to the DO's Middle Eastern mission.

    Twelve years later I retain an appreciation for espionage -- for those rare moments when a case officer contributes to his nation's defense. But I have long since lost my pride in the DO, which has evolved into a sorry blend of Monty Python and Big Brother. I resigned in 1993.

    When current and former case officers gather, their conversations inevitably converge: they wonder whether the DO has irretrievably fallen apart. A few years ago I asked a former colleague who had served in Moscow whether she had ever successfully explained the DO's problems to an outsider. "No, never," she replied. "I've given up trying. You have to explain so much you get lost in the details, or you just sound like a whiny, unpatriotic left-winger."

    The CIA, with a certain fanfare, recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. The Agency wants the American public, and especially Congress, to believe that its men and women won the Cold War, along the way had a few problems, and yet are now rising to the challenges of the twenty-first century. In front of the intelligence-oversight committees in Congress senior Agency officials repeat the CIA's new mission statement about battling terrorism, drugs, the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and rogue regimes in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and North Korea. With the Ames fiasco receding, some current and retired CIA officials are asserting that if Congress and the press would only back off, the professionals would once again get the job done.

    CIA recruiting

    One feature of a closed society is that it lies to itself as readily as it lies to outsiders. Writing as "X" in his 1947 assessment of the Soviet Union, the diplomat George F. Kennan borrowed from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; the passage applies equally to the CIA's present-day Directorate of Operations.
    From enthusiasm to imposture the step is perilous and slippery; the demon of Socrates affords a memorable instance of how a wise man may deceive himself, how a good man may deceive others, how the conscience may slumber in a mixed and middle state between self-illusion and voluntary fraud.
    The sad truth about the CIA -- what the Ames debacle didn't reveal -- is that the DO has for years been running an espionage charade in most countries, deceiving itself and others about the value of its recruited agents and intelligence production. The ugliest DO secret is how the clandestine service encourages decent case officers, gradually and naturally, to evolve into liars about their contribution to America's security. By 1985, the year Ames volunteered to spy for the KGB, the vast majority of the CIA's foreign agents were mediocre assets at best, put on the payroll because case officers needed high recruitment numbers to get promoted. Long before the Soviet Union collapsed, recruitment and intelligence fraud -- the natural product of an insular spy world -- had stripped the DO of its integrity and its competence.

    Younger operatives are resigning in droves, because they have given up hope of reform. The attrition was sufficient to provoke an investigation by the inspector general in 1996. Though the inspector general's office did a poor job of questioning young case officers who had resigned, the final report doesn't deny the increasing resignation rate among the best and the brightest who entered the DO during the Reagan years. Nearly three quarters of the case officers from my 1985 junior-officer class have quit the service. When my class entered, we were told that the DO had the lowest attrition rate -- under five percent -- in the U.S. government. Though this figure was no doubt inaccurate -- a normal and healthy rate of attrition in any bureaucracy should be higher -- it does reflect the DO's credo that officers don't quit the clandestine service unless they are flawed. Within the DO and in front of Congress senior officials downplay the rising resignation rate and even deny that the directorate's younger officers -- let alone its best ones -- are abandoning ship.

    But the senior officers themselves know the truth. As early as 1988 a senior CIA official responsible for the Directorate of Operations' budget and personnel visited stations and bases worldwide, discreetly asking young case officers why so many good young officers were quitting. The official wanted to know whether junior officers would be willing to participate in a round-table discussion with the deputy director of operations, the boss of the clandestine service. The senior official, not a case officer herself, didn't realize that she was asking case officers to commit professional suicide. The round-table discussion never took place.

    A Dysfunctional Family

    AMERICANS were shocked by the DO's nine-year failure to catch Ames, a hard-drinking, free-spending KGB mole inside the Soviet-East Europe Division. How could the DO have entrusted its premier agents -- probably the best Soviet agents the CIA ever had -- to a counterintelligence case officer with such evident flaws? Unlike the usual agent chaff that case officers recruit in order to get promotions, these Soviet agents were the real thing. Treason and his spending habits aside, the truth is that Ames was not much different from many of his peers. He was disgruntled and he drank too much. He disliked recruiting foreign agents and he did it poorly. He distrusted most of his colleagues, particularly those more senior. He was stalled in his career as a mid-level officer (a GS-14), slightly higher in grade than the average retiring case officer.

    Before the collapse of the Soviet Union moving in the cocktail-party circuit was the primary, often the only, way a case officer could rub shoulders with Communist "hard targets" -- foreigners who were extremely difficult to approach, let alone develop and recruit. In seeking to press the flesh, many officers drank too much. More important, many case officers -- and Ames was one of them -- chafed at the recruitment game, the desperate socializing in search of a foreigner who could be written up as a promising "developmental." Case officers grow cynical in such a world -- and they've been living in one since the 1960s. Before he volunteered his services to the Soviets, Ames amused himself in Mexico City by privately critiquing the station's case officers and their numerous recruited agents, who produced very little intelligence. Contrary to the common, outsider view of him, Ames was attentive to both operational details and intelligence reports. He discovered before most of his peers did that one of the most renowned case officers working in the Latin American division was a corrupt fraud, who inflated or invented most of his agents and probably pocketed some agents' pay in diamonds. Though dismissed from the service, the case officer was never jailed. On his spacious balcony in a high-rise above Mexico City, Ames often passed evenings with friends wryly belittling the DO's contributions to America's defense.

    Deeply troubled and venal, Ames slipped across that space between dissent and treason, believing it was all a charade. Given his free-spending ways, the Agency should of course have found him sooner. But spotting Ames psychologically, or by questioning his peers, would have been very difficult. In the CIA family there are many dysfunctional members.

    Peeling away the layers of the Agency's mystique -- by learning how to read agents' files, acquiring familiarity with operational details, gaining access to "restricted-handling" cases -- can take years. One thing, however, did not take me long to learn: there was a severe discrepancy between the reputations of most senior officers and their talents. Sterling exceptions aside, the average senior officer rose through the hierarchy without ever learning much about the language, culture, or politics of the countries in which he served. The good case officers in my junior-officer class hunted vainly for mentors like Richard Helms, Paul Henze, and Robert Ames -- renowned case officers from the past who knew their languages and their countries well. Not a single Iran-desk chief during the eight years that I worked on Iran could speak or read Persian. Not a single Near East Division chief knew Arabic, Persian, or Turkish, and only one could get along even in French. One Near East officer, sent during the Iran-contra affair to assess and debrief Manucher Ghorbanifar, the slick and savvy Iranian middleman between the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime and the Americans and Israelis, spoke no Persian and had no background in the Middle East. He repeatedly had to ask Ghorbanifar to spell the names of well-known senior Iranian officials.

    At the Agency's espionage-training school ("The Farm") at Camp Peary, near Williamsburg, Virginia, instructors regularly told trainees that cultural distinctions did not matter, that an operation was an operation regardless of the target. Whether Arab, German, Turkish, Brazilian, Persian, Russian, Pakistani, or French, targets were (as Duane Clarridge, a Europe Division and counterterrorism-center chief, baldly put it) "all the same." "An op is an op," a favorite mantra of English-only case officers, is one of the DO's most self-defeating conceits.

    Of all the clandestine service's Cold War missions, no task was more mystique-building, but at the same time more illusory, than the recruiting of Soviet agents. The No. 1 operational directive of every case officer was to recruit KGB officials, Soviet military-intelligence officers, and Soviet diplomats, but this essentially amounted to little more than paper-shuffling between CIA headquarters, in Langley, Virginia, and case officers in the field. Real recruitment was more often than not a sheer fluke. According to Soviet-East Europe Division officers, the best agents Ames killed were all "walk-ins," who had volunteered their services to the United States. Handling walk-ins is no mean feat, and CIA case officers have often handled sensitive walk-ins exceptionally well. But "recruiting" walk-ins has little to do with the protracted "recruitment cycle" -- the spotting, assessing, developing, and recruiting of foreigners worldwide -- on which the DO has built its budget and esprit de corps.

    During the Cold War, DO managers in the field wanted young case officers to telephone, out of the blue, Soviet officials with whom they had no plausible reason to be in touch. The lucky case officers who made it past the telephoning and the awkward encounters were encouraged to socialize as intensely as possible. They were to ignore the constant advice of KGB defectors who warned that if a case officer met a Soviet citizen, he should simply say hello, offer a business card with a home telephone number, and then say good-bye. If the Soviet wanted to defect or to work in place against the Communist system, he would send a message. KGB defectors argued that the active development of Soviets would only draw the attention of Soviet counterintelligence, and would amplify a Soviet embassy's or consulate's normal paranoia. Yet the CIA persisted. The DO's mystique and pride, not to mention its jobs and budget, were at stake.

    Terrible DO failures occurred in the 1980s and 1990s in Latin America, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Not just in the Soviet Union did the CIA lose numerous agents. An organization whose motto is the verse from the Gospel of John "And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free" had grown sloppy, developing a lackadaisical appreciation of the distinction between fact and fiction. Some good agents, and many mediocre or worthless ones, died for their case officers' mistakes; in an environment in which poor-quality agents routinely got inflated into first-rate ones, case officers frequently put agents who really didn't know much into harm's way.

    A Liars' Paradise

    FROM 1947 through the early 1960s it was good to be a case officer. Almost everyone feared the Soviet Union; Communists in league with the USSR were everywhere. Except for the United States, the world was poor. More important, Washington knew very little about the postwar world for which it had reluctantly become responsible. The communications and transportation revolutions had not yet taken place. Relatively few Americans traveled abroad. Slow-moving diplomatic pouches, not arduously encrypted and decrypted cables, were the primary means of contact between Washington and the field. Diplomats and spies were often at the forefront in obtaining and analyzing information. A U.S. embassy official in Moscow could write a telegram about the Soviet soul, as Kennan did, that would actually be passed around among White House Cabinet members. What today might seem self-evident, or academic, was then exotic and classified.

    The CIA sent its case officers out to gather all the information they could, and in most countries outside the Communist bloc they found the locals receptive. Enlisting the support of the Germans, the French, or the Japanese in the face of a common enemy was not Mission Impossible. An overwhelming mutual interest, not money, brought American case officers and otherwise prickly foreigners together. Many, if not most, of the Agency's finest intelligence-producing sources were unpaid. In the first two decades of the Agency's existence, when the DO evolved out of the covert-action-oriented Office of Policy Coordination and the espionage-oriented Office of Special Operations, recruiting spies was not a head-counting game. According to one old Agency hand, "We would never have tolerated ... bragging about lining up ducks [recruitments], as if clandestine intelligence were some kind of assembly line."

    The Directorate of Operations (or, as it was then euphemistically known, the Directorate of Plans) was a clubbish group of men. Even after the huge expansion of the clandestine service, during the early 1950s (more new employees were hired then than during the Vietnam War), graduates of prestigious colleges and universities predominated. Washington's Metropolitan and Alibi Clubs perhaps had as many operational discussions within their walls as did Agency headquarters. Senior officers ranked and promoted their juniors in a highly subjective manner. This old-boy system had its problems. But racking up recruitments, good or bad, did not necessarily get an officer promoted.

    In the 1950s and early 1960s the CIA's top leaders -- men like Allen Dulles, Frank Wisner, Richard Bissell, Tracy Barnes, and Desmond Fitzgerald -- were profoundly devoted to covert action. Covert action (orchestrating coups, anti-Communist insurgencies, academic conferences, labor unions, political parties, publishing houses, and shipping companies) required considerable manpower, and it drew the intellectual crème de la crème. It compelled a higher degree of intellectual curiosity, accomplishment, and operational savoir faire than did espionage ("espionage" referring specifically to the recruitment of foreign intelligence agents). With so many talented officers working in covert action, and with most of the foreigners involved being friendly collaborators and not "recruited" assets, the DO could scarcely base promotions on the number of recruitments a case officer made each year.

    After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, covert action became politically riskier. More important, press revelations during the 1960s and 1970s about various CIA maneuvers of dubious legality and wisdom, followed by several bouts of congressional investigation, helped to sully the Agency's covert-action credentials. Though covert action continued worldwide in the 1970s, it employed less manpower. Inside the CIA working on covert action no longer had the same prestige, and was becoming a slower track for promotions.

    By the time Stansfield Turner became Jimmy Carter's director of central intelligence, in 1977, the decades-old tug-of-war inside the Agency between covert action and espionage was over. Henceforth covert action would be only an avocation. Espionage was the area in which case officers could better manage their destinies.

    Not so great espionage

    Sometime in the late 1960s and early 1970s recruiting became the case officer's categorical imperative. The Vietnam War helped to propel the change. Before the war espionage was a cause; Vietnam turned it into a business. The CIA was in competition and collusion with the Pentagon in the acquisition and dissemination of intelligence about South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. As the war intensified, CIA chiefs in Saigon demanded a minimum of 300 intelligence reports a month from their station. Local agents of highly dubious value were continually added to the roster and the payroll in order to meet this unrealistic objective.

    Confronted with an expanding war, Langley significantly enlarged the case-officer corps. Now far fewer new officers came from the nation's elite schools. The growing anti-war movement on eastern college campuses deprived the Agency of the long-cherished "P" (professor) factor in its discreet, highly successful university recruiting networks. Scandals involving domestic mail interception, wiretaps, and surveillance activities by the CIA, reported by Seymour M. Hersh in The New York Times in 1974, finished off CIA-university relations.

    The war combined and accelerated three factors highly corrosive of the clandestine service: a surplus of easily recruited "sources"; poor quality control on intelligence reports; and falling admission standards for case officers. Though there were CIA operatives and analysts who realized (and steadfastly advised Washington policy makers) in the late 1960s that America's war in Vietnam was lost, Southeast Asia became, bureaucratically, a liars' paradise, where aggressive, self-promoting case officers quickly got ahead.


    The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.

    Edward G. Shirley is a pseudonymous former case officer in the CIA's Directorate of Operations. He is the author of Know Thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey Into Revolutionary Iran (1997).

    Illustrations by Ross MacDonald

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; February 1998; Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?; Volume 281, No. 2; pages 45 - 61.

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