The Counterintelligence Imperative

The Counterintelligence Imperative

How persistent failings in counterintelligence imperil U.S. national security.


Hezbollah is publicly gloating about the capture of up to a dozen Lebanese who were working as agents of U.S. intelligence. The fate of those individuals can be assessed as grim, while the damage to U.S. interests cannot be small, particularly given the rising tensions in the region, especially between Washington and Hezbollah's sponsors in Tehran. Certainly there is a lot of explaining to be done at Langley. By the standards of Mossad's insiders’ joke—"May we read about you in the newspapers!”—David Petraeus and his agency are having a very bad week indeed.

How this major operation was blown will not be officially admitted anytime soon. Initial reports indicate some seriously flawed tradecraft by the CIA. Hezbollah seems to have tracked the CIA operatives on the basis of sloppy cell-phone usage—pretty much Espionage 101-level screwups. Rumors abound that CIA officers used the cover term PIZZA to request meetings with Lebanese agents, then met them at a Beirut Pizza Hut.** Such amateurishness may be acceptable in a benign environment, but operating like this in Lebanon against Hezbollah, one of the world's savviest terrorist groups in terms of counterintelligence, was a recipe for disaster. In the spy war against Hezbollah and Iran, the U.S. adversaries decisively won this round.


The depressing truth is that CIA counterintelligence disasters have become almost routine in recent years, and accountability seems to be minimal. In December 2009, another counterintelligence snafu led to the deaths of six CIA officers (and one Jordanian partner), the second-deadliest day in the agency's history. Due to a lack of basic counterintelligence vigilance, Humam al-Balawi—a Jordanian doctor and al-Qaeda affiliate who pretended to be cooperating with our side but really was under al-Qaeda control the entire time—was allowed to enter Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, with a suicide bomb strapped to his person. In that case, the horrible consequences could not be kept out of the newspapers.

The CIA kept another, even bigger counterintelligence mess out of the papers more successfully, at least for a while. Back in the 1990s, dozens of Iranians who were reporting to the agency were rolled up—many were apparently executed—when they were identified by Tehran's counterspies thanks to a basic failure of communications security by Langley. In that sad case, the ramifications were severe and long lasting, as the CIA was left virtually blind inside Iran, a defect that arguably has never fully been made good.

Why these sorts of failures seem to happen regularly has many explanations. In light of the newest disaster, it's tempting to point fingers at the transformation of the CIA since 9/11 into a counterterrorism agency first and foremost. There's no doubt that the new generation of case officers and analysts is well versed in the arcane and deadly art of “targeting”—the euphemistic term for getting lead, often from a Predator, onto an al-Qaeda suspect. Half or more of the CIA workforce, like that of other intelligence agencies, is made up of people hired since 9/11, many straight out of their studies. The Khost tragedy also highlighted the baleful impact of relying too heavily on partner intelligence services, even good ones like the Jordanian service, to perform basic counterintelligence vetting of sources. Certainly espionage tradecraft has taken a hit at the expense of the fight against al-Qaeda, which is sexier bureaucratically for young officers seeking promotion. Spycraft is old school and unsexy in today's CIA.

And nothing in the intelligence world is more old school and less sexy than counterintelligence. Entering the ranks of CI, as it's known in the trade, is seldom a career-enhancing move for a promising young officer, not to mention that it possesses an aura of mystery and sometimes obsession. The depressing truth is that, while the CIA has lost some of its espionage edge since 9/11 as it has pursued so zealously the killing of terrorists, the agency wasn't very good at CI to start with. Its Cold War CI record makes for depressing reading. Certainly after the mid-1970s fall of James Jesus Angleton, the gifted but erratic officer who headed the CIA's CI staff for a generation, counterintelligence became a wasteland where careers went to die. It's no exaggeration to draw a direct line from the fall of CI to the notorious case of Aldrich Ames, the KGB's mole inside the CIA who blew most of the agency's valued Soviet sources in the mid-1980s; a more vigilant CI cadre inside the agency would have caught Ames, who was leaving traces of his treachery all over the place.

But CI isn't just about catching spies. Its real purpose, poorly understood by outsiders, is to be a quality-control method for espionage. And there, too, the CIA's Cold War record can be assessed as mixed at best. It was a rude shock in 1987 when a high-ranking Cuban defector revealed what some experienced CI types had suspected—namely, that every CIA source run in Cuba since the early 1960s had been a double agent under Havana's control. With some access now to East Bloc files, it's clear that the CIA's record against most communist intelligence services during the late Cold War was only marginally better. These failures haven't stopped, and they're not confined to the CIA. Lest anyone write off such failures as "just spy-on-spy stuff," look to the notorious case of CURVEBALL, the Iraqi fraudster whose incorrect information about Saddam's alleged WMD program played a key role in supplying the Bush administration with falsehoods in the run up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. Here, again, a partner service—in this case Germany's BND—was viewed with insufficient skepticism, and CI vetting failed. The result was that U.S. intelligence, especially the Defense Intelligence Agency, accepted unsubstantiated claims that it wanted to believe, with awful consequences.

CI professionals are seldom popular. They are spooky by nature, prone to complex explanations to seemingly unconnected events (to an extent this is a job requirement), and they seldom bring good news. Who, after all, wants to be told by the hush-hush guys down the hall that your premier operation—the one that you've been working on for months if not years, the one that was supposed to make your career—is actually just a mirage? Moreover, developing a cadre of effective CI officers takes time and talent, as a good counterintelligence officer must be a genuine expert in his or her particular region of interest, and he or she must have a detailed, and preferably encyclopedic, knowledge of the opposing service's operations and tactics going back years or decades. Yet the United States must get serious about counterintelligence if it wants to protect its interests in a dangerous world. During my time in the intelligence community, I worked with CI officers from many agencies, including the talented staff of the CIA's Counterintelligence Center. These people sometimes find it difficult to make CI work because of the pervasive bias against counterintelligence at Langley. Let it be hoped that this latest counterspy debacle will force the CIA, and all of our intelligence agencies, to finally get serious about counterintelligence. This is the real world, not merely a thriller spy movie.

John R. Schindler is professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI, and a former National Security Agency expert in counterespionage and counterterrorism. The opinions expressed here are entirely his own.