Terrorist Threat Spurs New Debate On 'Human' Spies
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The official version is this: Ramzi Yousef, the reputed architect of the World Trade Center bombing now on trial in New York, was captured by authorities in Pakistan acting on an informant's tip. There seems to be more to it than that.Skip to next paragraph
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The arrest of Mr. Yousef, US intelligence sources say, was aided by a tip supplied to the Central Intelligence Agency by a source inside one of the cells of Islamic extremists the accused terrorist set up in Pakistan, Thailand, and the Philippines. "We had inside knowledge," says one official who declined to elaborate, citing the cardinal rule of protecting sources and methods.
The capture of Yousef represents what former and present intelligence officials cite as an example of a major CIA success in using information from human sources to fight terrorism.
Others include thwarting Iraqi plots to bomb the US Embassy in Paris and assassinate former President George Bush, and the 1994 arrest in Sudan of the notorious terrorist "Carlos the Jackal."
Nevertheless, last month's truck-bombing of the US military compound in Saudi Arabia and the suspected sabotage of TWA Flight 800 have focused renewed attention on US capabilities in what those in the espionage business call HUMINT, or human intelligence. With the Clinton administration intent on boosting US counterterrorism efforts, HUMINT is regarded as a critical necessity.
High-tech versus infiltration
Yet some intelligence officials, lawmakers, and independent experts say HUMINT has for too long been neglected in favor of the high-tech wizardry that allows the US to peer from space into other countries or intercept their radio and telephone communications. HUMINT, they say, must be greatly improved if the US wants to boost its ability to preempt attacks on its citizens by foreign extremists.
Concedes John Gannon, the CIA's deputy director of intelligence: "Human intelligence will have to be more focused."
Neil Livingstone, a Washington-based antiterrorism expert, is more blunt: "We are doing a lousy job."
Others disagree. They say that the CIA's record is highly commendable given the extreme dangers and difficulties of trying to penetrate extremist groups, the most valuable source of HUMINT.
These groups are more amorphous and loosely knit than before. They operate in small, highly compartmentalized cells that work through hard-to-track, globe-spanning networks that take advantage of advanced communications technologies like the Internet.
"It's a hard problem to the extent that terrorist action has moved to even more shadowy groups, groups we don't know," explains Greg Treverton, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, who is now with the Rand Corp., a think tank.
Another constraint on improving HUMINT, experts say, is public and congressional concern over the types of people the CIA recruits as informants. Those concerns were reignited last year by reports linking Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, a Guatemalan army officer on its payroll, to the murders of a leftist rebel and an American citizen, and to other human rights abuses. As a result, CIA informant recruiting has come under intensified scrutiny and the agency has tightened its guidelines.