WASHINGTON — Terrorists must be rubbing their hands in glee.
In moving quickly toward authorizing a Department of Homeland Security, Congress is inadvertently jeopardizing the CIA's ability to collect "humint" the intelligence from human sources that is indispensable in the battle against terrorism.
What Congress isn't considering is that a major portion of human source reporting comes to the US from foreign intelligence services, which are aghast at the intelligence-handling roles projected for the new department. So far, these roles are not clear in the draft legislation but the fact that this department will have access to US intelligence is a subject of great concern.
These foreign services are sure to curtail intelligence-sharing with the US at least until the reorganization is sorted out. That will take years.
House Intelligence Committee member Jane Harman (D) of California last week joined the chorus bemoaning the CIA's poor performance with human intelligence on terrorism, but those critics seem to have little idea of how bad it can get.
Think about it. You run the intelligence arm of a foreign government sympathetic to the US. Despite Washington's demonstrated inability to protect secrets, you have let your CIA counterpart persuade you to share information collected from sensitive human sources.
Most of your incentive for sharing is the intelligence you receive in exchange, but your primary responsibility is to protect your own sources and methods. You constantly worry about moles and leaks. How many more Lee Howards, Aldrich Ameses, and Robert Hanssens are embedded in the CIA and FBI? What lack of discipline accounts for detailed US war plans against Iraq showing up on Page 1 of The New York Times?
Such worries strain the already fragile relationship of trust that your CIA counterpart has cultivated. Repeated reassurances that the US can protect sources and methods wear thin.
In intelligence, the First Commandment is that only those with proper clearances and a demonstrated need for the information are given access. So, as head of a foreign intelligence service, you shudder that a new 170,000-person bureaucracy is to get access to your information on its way to US policymakers. Will this not compel you to urge your government to reduce the intelligence shared with the US, in order to protect your sources and methods?
I had to grapple with such issues in the late 1970s when I was posted in Europe to manage intelligence liaison with a major US ally. It was a constant struggle to persuade the host country's intelligence service to share the reporting we needed, even though that country depended heavily on the US for its own defense. This was before traitors like Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen were found at the heart of US Intelligence and before the US government started leaking like a sieve.
Let's say the German foreign intelligence service recruits a sensitive agent in Baghdad whose information on Iraq turns out to be reliable. Are the Germans likely to pass that agent's information on to their CIA counterparts to be passed along to unknowns at the Department of Homeland Security for whatever further dissemination it deems appropriate?
Not a chance. And US intelligence normally will have no way of knowing how much intelligence is being withheld.
Equally damaging, potential spies will be just as skittish about dealing with the CIA and with any country that has an intelligence-sharing relationship with it.
So, time out.
If oversight has any meaning at all, Congress must slow down creation of the new department and give more attention to the implications for intelligence collection. Americans have been told that the next terrorist attack is not a question of "if" but "when." If that is the case, a disruption to intelligence could not come at a worse time.
Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst from 1964 to 1990. He is now co-director of the Servant Leadership School, an inner-city ministry.