A matter of ethics for cloak-and-dagger set
The CIA's cloak-and-dagger department had an urgent issue for the boss. An undercover agent had infiltrated a terrorist group in the Middle East. But the cell's leaders had told him that, to prove himself, he had to assassinate a government official.
If US is to halt global terrorism, will it allow its spies to use more 'dagger'?Skip to next paragraph
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The dilemma for the CIA director: Should the agent do it? Should the US government, in effect, sacrifice one life now in the hope of saving many lives in the future by being able to foil terrorist attacks?
Stansfield Turner, CIA director under President Carter, made the call: "No." But the lesson, he says, still applies today: "Getting into these terrorist organizations with human agents is tough."
In the wake of Sept. 11, American intelligence agencies are intensifying efforts to infiltrate and destroy global terror networks. But for institutions most familiar with cold-war spying, this mission involves a new tangle of difficulties, dangers, and ethical riddles.
Compared with cold-war days, it's usually harder to get in. Groups are small, close-knit, and operate in areas less-accessible and less-familiar to US agents.
It's also harder to get out. Discovery can mean death (though Mr. Turner says his man escaped).
And success can involve the toughest of ethical dilemmas. "You don't get to be a senior terrorist by being the guy who keeps the books. You do it by being a terrorist" - which includes killing people, says Mark Lowenthal, author of "Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy."
As agencies beef up "humint," or human intelligence, they're starting with the barest of resources, especially in and around Afghanistan, observers say. After the invading Russians pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989 - and after the end of the cold war - the perceived threat to US interests in that area abated. By the mid-1990s, the CIA reportedly had no active agents in south-central Asia, the area so key today.
In 1995, furthermore, came the so-called "Deutch rules." They required field officers to get headquarters' approval before recruiting anyone with criminal or human-rights-abuse records. Insiders say the top brass seldom rejects a request. But others say the rules chilled operations - encouraging field operatives to drop sources and creating a risk-averse culture.
Now, in the wake of Sept. 11, Congress wants to change that culture. Besides an increase in funding (the amount is classified) and scrapping the "Deutch rules," the House intelligence committee wants to create a separate clandestine service for human intelligence, akin to Britain's MI-6.
But reshuffling desks won't solve the problem, says Herbert Meyer, a top assistant to CIA Director William Casey under President Reagan.
The agencies need new infusions of people with "brains, talent, and guts," he says. Aggressive recruiting of outsiders is key, he says - from hard-charging Wall Streeters and dotcomers to journalists and professors.
He recalls the mythic CIA predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services, which pulled in bright, tough agents and had wide leeway during World War II. "You have to be willing to put that kind of team in place," Mr. Meyer says, "and get out of the way" - especially in terms of ethical limits on agents.
The any-means-necessary approach has worked in at least one case. Jordan's intelligence service is one of the few agencies to actually defang a terrorist group. In the 1980s, Abu Nidal - seen as the globe's most dangerous terrorist - issued a death threat against King Hussein, who then reportedly told his agents to "go get them." The Jordanian agents reportedly used methods that included threatening to harm Nidal operatives' mothers or wives unless they got some cooperation.
Few observers figure that American agents will use such extreme measures. Even after Sept. 11, former CIA Director Turner says he'd make the same decision on that terrorist-group dilemma if confronted with it today. "You still have a real problem of asking yourself if you're justified sacrificing a certain life" for the possibility that future lives will be saved. "Even if a person gets in a terrorist group, you don't know that they're going to succeed."
As America sorts out new ethical standards for spying on suspected terrorists, it will need to shift to post-cold-war operational standards and procedures, too.
Spying on the Soviet Union - tough as it was - did have certain advantages. US agents had easy access to the enemy's capital city. The Soviets had a large political and military infrastructure that could be penetrated at many points. Its diplomats were spread across the world.
"There's just not the Osama bin Laden office that you can walk into in Paris," says Mr. Lowenthal.
In the case of the Soviet Union, US spies shared some cultural and even physical characteristics, making it fairly easy to carry out operations on enemy turf. The typical American CIA agent, however, sticks out in places like the bazaars of Pakistan.
And even while they were ruthless, the Soviets were at least rational and willing to negotiate, which suicide-ready terrorists don't appear to be.
Yet there is some hope for agents hoping to penetrate the bin Laden network. Disaffection - or even greed - has motivated some members of his group to defect. Intelligence agents hope to exploit schisms and splits that may exist.
One of bin Laden's top lieutenants, Ali Mohamed, was caught embezzling money from Al Queda - and fled for his life. He's now cooperating with US authorities. Another former member, L'Houssaine Kherchtou, is also cooperating with authorities.