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Looking to Future, CIA Should Focus on Human Intelligence

By Chris Dishman / August 6, 1997



The CIA's 50th anniversary celebration came two weeks after confirmation of George Tenet as director of the CIA. In his first interview since his July 10 confirmation, Tenet responded to criticisms that the CIA and the intelligence community don't have a clearly defined role in the post-cold-war world.

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"My sense of our mission is extraordinarily clear," Tenet said. "It is to pursue hard targets that threaten American interests around the world." He explained that these "hard targets" included drug and weapons trafficking and terrorism. But do Tenet and the CIA know where to focus the intelligence community's resources to fight these "hard targets"?

The intelligence community needs to focus on increasing human intelligence (HUMINT) rather than relying on electronic and imagery intelligence. The latter forms of information-gathering were effective in providing intelligence during the cold war. The CORONA satellite, for example, disabused us of the notion of a Soviet missile gap and helped monitor the SALT 1 and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But these mechanical forms of intelligence aren't able to detect and counter Tenet's so-called hard targets.

On June 25, 1996, a truck bomb explosion at the Khubar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killed 19 US citizens and injured 500 other people. Because of an intelligence network devoid of human agents in Southwest Asia, CIA and FBI officials weren't able to independently corroborate Saudi investigators' reports regarding the 40 people arrested.

While it's unlikely that a US operative could have infiltrated the group responsible for the Dhahran bombing, HUMINT assets in Saudi Arabia could have established a link with informants that would have assisted in confirming the legitimacy of the Saudi arrests. More important, a network of informants contacting US operatives, or possibly the operatives themselves, might have developed advance information indicating a pending attack.

Since the end of the cold war, the CIA has cut its Soviet personnel by two-thirds and its weapons specialization staff by 25 percent. But it hasn't expanded monitoring activities in Southwest Asia. Four of the 7 nations that Patterns of Global Terrorism categorizes as sponsoring terrorist activities are located in this area - Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Its recent focus on terrorism as a national threat should push the US to increase HUMINT assets there and in North Africa.

Given the small, cell-like organization of terrorist groups, it's difficult to acquire information through electronic eavesdropping or reconnaissance. Moreover, the use of surprise in terrorist attacks highlights the importance of early information on intentions and capabilities of the group.

Without HUMINT, the FBI would have had difficulty in arresting members of a group planning to bomb the Holland Tunnel and the UN. In this case, an informer provided capabilities, intentions, and motivations. Tenet also revealed that the intelligence community had thwarted two attacks on US embassies this year. No details were given, but clearly HUMINT aided in preventing those attacks.

Informants also are important in locating terrorists who have sought refuge in a foreign country. Recently, Mir Aimal Kansi, who allegedly shot two CIA employees in front of CIA headquarters, was captured by US officials with the help of Afghan individuals seeking part of a $2 million reward.

While traditional forms of electronic intelligence-gathering are important in monitoring troop movements, verifying arms-control agreements, and locating sites, they're less effective in combating emerging threats to US security. The intelligence community must complement its counter-terrorism and counter-weapons analysis with clandestine observers in volatile regions of the world.

* Chris Dishman is a research associate at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.