The CIA's tough task in recruiting spies
Infiltrating Al Qaeda and other terror groups will require changes in techniques and culture.
WASHINGTON — Here's one way the CIA's spies might have learned more about what Saddam Hussein was really up to with his weapons of mass destruction programs: Send in an undercover agent playing an oil businessman to curry favor with Mr. Hussein's two sons, Uday and Qusay, who were known to entertain such visitors and had heavy hands in the country's security apparatus.
It is conceivable that Uday, especially, who was known to have an alcohol and drug problem, would have conveyed Iraqi secrets. "What better thing to do than send in some guy who could play a sleazeball - bring Uday, Qusay sports cars, girls, whatever - and simply elicit information?" asks Robert Baer, a former undercover operative who left the CIA in 1998. "It's not a nice business, espionage. Nor is it particularly safe, but there are a lot of things that can be done."
But those kinds of things weren't done. Not then, and apparently not now. With news that Osama bin Laden's trail is still cold, the failures - no eyes on the ground in Iraq before the US invasion nor among the Al Qaeda leadership prior to 9/11 - are the focus of a plethora of investigations and reports, including the current intelligence reform bill being debated in Congress.
Nearly everyone agrees the spy program needs help. Government officials, former and current intelligence officials, and outside experts alike agree that policymakers need better information on those who would harm America's interests - from members of the Al Qaeda terror network to rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran.
But Mr. Baer and other former officials say the agency must do more than add officers and beef up language courses to change the agency's culture. They think recruiting efforts need to be redirected. They suggest enlisting first- or second-generation Americans living abroad. Moreover, they say, the agency must stop hiring operatives from the cold-war era to train today's recruits.
Michael Scheuer, a former senior intelligence official, says recruiting a terrorist to spy for the US today is much different from soliciting a Communist. During the Soviet era, he says, the CIA targeted the party's youth. It wasn't easy: Many had just come through the Communist youth organization and embraced Marxist ideology. But if the CIA spy could make contact with a young officer early, build a lasting friendship, the operative could find recruits.
"They would find that it was the politburo leaders who had the gravy jobs, nice apartments, dachas in the country, and cars," Scheuer says. "[The youth grew to] see it was nothing but gangsterism, and their disillusion with that and their growing admiration of American society made it easier for them to work with us."
But the opposite occurs within Islamist terror groups. If the CIA targets the young, it gets someone who is street savvy - a gunrunner, document forger, or drug trafficker. But as the militant burrows deeper into the group, as the CIA would want, he finds the Al Qaeda doctrine and leaders more appealing.
"The ideological lure of militant Islam is stronger as you progress into the organization," Scheuer says. "From the perspective of Islam, now, Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are decent, pious men."
Moreover, not just anyone can walk in and join a cell. Marc Sageman, a retired CIA psychiatrist who's studied terror recruitment patterns, says 60 percent of those who linked up with Al Qaeda knew a member of the network. Another 20 percent were related to an Al Qaeda member.
A familial relationship was also a prerequisite for joining the Abu Nidal group, a terror network active in the 1970s and '80s. "The Abu Nidal organization had a habit of recruiting only from relatives of people already in the organization," says Stanley Bedlington, a former senior CIA counterterror official. "If somebody came along and said, 'I'd like to join Abu Nidal,' chances are that person would be killed."
But the CIA was able to recruit an undercover agent, a relative of one member. He penetrated the group and provided details about its finances. That enabled operatives in the US to electronically manipulate Abu Nidal's accounts, making it appear as though some high-level members were skimming from their leader. Abu Nidal ordered several of them killed. The group eventually disbanded as a result of the internal chaos.
The culture of the CIA changed, though, starting in the late 1980s. First, Aldrich Ames, the CIA analyst who stole US secrets for Russia, was exposed, which led to stiffer security clearances for agency employees. Then, the cold war ended, and the CIA downgraded its human-intelligence operations.
Today, those with foreign backgrounds can't be hired to work at Langley or as official employees overseas. Take Nadia Masid. A Jordanian in her 20s, she's been in the United States five years. She received a master's degree in international studies here, speaks fluent Arabic, French, and English, and works at a US law firm translating and researching Islamic terror groups.
Ms. Masid, who won't be eligible for US citizenship for another 1-1/2 years, applied for a job on the CIA's website last summer. But her application was rejected after she checked the "noncitizen" box. Baer and others say even Americans now applying at the CIA who have relatives in a suspect country, especially the Middle East, will not survive the screening process. Change may be coming, though. Porter Goss, the new CIA head, has vowed do whatever is necessary to improve the nation's spy capabilities. "[The human intelligence] needs to be redesigned," Mr. Goss said during confirmation hearings.