Terrorist Threat Spurs New Debate On 'Human' Spies
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But the problem is that terrorist organizations can only be infiltrated by people the extremists accept as one of their own. Because CIA officers are barred by law from committing criminal acts, that means having to use informants unbound by such constraints. "In order to make this work, you have to recruit rotten, unsavory people," says Arthur Hulnick, an ex-CIA official. "Penetrating a terrorist group means you have to recruit a terrorist. He's murdered or killed or hurt in some way. It's not a business that involves nice people."Skip to next paragraph
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Says a former CIA field officer, speaking on condition of anonymity: "If you infiltrate an agent, they are going to check his background and also insist that he do something like kill somebody to prove himself."
The agency in the past has helped informants fake such tests, the former officer says, but that is risky business. "If you negate an operation, then they [terrorists] start looking to see what happened, the source is blown, and you have to get him out," he says.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, who as Senate Intelligence Committee chairman led the criticism of the CIA over Colonel Alpirez, says that given the threat of terrorism, "a broader standard" should be adopted for people recruited to penetrate terrorist groups. By comparison, operatives like Alpirez are of highly questionable value, he says.
HUMINT was once the backbone of spying, the source of most information. None was more prized than that provided by agents or informants secreted deep inside rival governments or groups regarded as US enemies. But priorities changed with the explosion of cold-war-fueled advances in computers and spy satellites.
Satellite surveillance and the interception of communications now consume the bulk of the estimated $28 billion annual budget of the CIA and the 12 other agencies making up the US intelligence community. About $3 billion is believed to be spent on HUMINT.
The shift in priorities came in 1977 under former President Carter's CIA director, Stansfield Turner. The former admiral downgraded HUMINT, fired 17 field officers, and transferred others. Resources were poured into spy satellites and communications interception.
Tough to recruit informants
Former CIA officials and other experts claim that the upshot of Mr. Turner's restructuring was the agency's failure to forecast Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979. An effort was begun to revitalize HUMINT, but the damage was so extensive that the CIA is still working to recoup, they say.
In counterterrorism, high-tech espionage is no substitute for a well-placed informant, says the former field officer. "You can photograph all you want. But you have to have somebody under that roof to tell you what's going on in there," he explains.
CIA officials say they're also trying to overcome the constraints of having too many white male officers, who have difficulty "mixing in" in places like the Middle East. The agency is trying to recruit more ethnic minorities. "It's more complicated than in the old days," says the CIA's Gannon. "Expertise on these issues is a much greater challenge. It has implications for the kinds of people we recruit, our development programs, and how we deploy them in the field."