By CNN's Pam Benson
The year has been a rollercoaster ride for the CIA–incredible highs coupled with significant lows. But those dramatic ups and downs also underscored how intelligence is evolving and the agency is changing to keep pace. Keeping secrets is becoming more difficult and what the agency now does is sometimes more visible. And– the enemy is getting better.
On the critical counterterrorism front, 2011 was a momentous year. The crowning moment–maybe of even the last decade–was the CIA finally pinning down the location of enemy number one, Osama bin Laden, and then overseeing the raid by Navy special forces on a safehouse in Pakistan which led to his death, bringing an end to the nearly ten year pursuit of America's most wanted terrorist.
The raid is a prime example of the new warfare the CIA is engaged in. The counterterrorism battle is frequently being waged by CIA officers and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) forces working side by side. Former CIA Director Mike Hayden said "it's clear the Agency and JSOC are now in a privileged position in terms of how we want to fight this war." The retired Air Force general referred to the CIA today as looking more like the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the World War two-era intelligence service that had a more operational, paramilitary role.
That type of warfare is heavily dependent on the use of unmanned, armed aircraft.
Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born propagandist and operator for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was blown apart by a CIA operated drone attack while driving in a remote area of Yemen. Al Awlaki had been tied to the attempt by Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, the so called underwear bomber, who unsuccessfully tried to blow up a passenger airliner on its way to Detroit on Christmas day two years ago. And alleged Fort Hood shooter Major Nidal Hasan had been in communication with al Awlaki before his shooting spree that left 13 dead at the Texas U.S. Army post.
U.S. intelligence officials have said hundreds of other extremists have been taken off the battlefield through CIA operations in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.
Shortly after leaving his job as CIA director, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in July that the U.S. is now "within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda."
His deputy for intelligence issues, Michael Vickers, even put a timeframe on al Qaeda's ability to carry out terrorist operations saying that "within 18 to 24 months, core al Qaeda's cohesion and operational capabilities could be degraded to the point that group could fragment and exist mostly as a propaganda arm."
A senior U.S. official said documents seized from the bin Laden compound "showed both he and his lieutenants were complaining that they were losing the intelligence war."
The use of the drones to eliminate suspected terrorists has been problematic for the CIA. The recent crash of an agency-operated unmanned spy plane in Iran was a stark reminder of the aircraft's vulnerability. Although the Iranians bragged that they had brought the plane down, possibly by means of a cyber attack, the U.S. insisted the crash had nothing to do with outside intervention. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers emphatically said "there was a technical problem that was our problem, nobody else's problem."
Rogers added these types of planes have gone down in a number of different places. "These things are not infallible. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong in these environments," he said.
There are also claims by Pakistan’s government that hundreds of civilians have been killed in Pakistan by missiles launched from CIA drones. U.S. officials have insisted the drone strikes have become far more precise, with few civilian casualties this year, but it is one of the risks of the program.
No one wants to talk publicly about the secret drone program even though its one of the few more visible operations run by the usually opaque CIA. Panetta would not specifically discuss the drone programs run by both the military and the CIA, but did recently say "there are technologies that are extremely important in developing the kind of intelligence and information we need in order to be able to defend the security of our country...we are going to continue to use them in the defense of US security."
Another low point this year for the CIA was the exposure by the terrorist organization Hezbollah of CIA informants in Lebanon followed by the outing of several CIA officers working in the country. Hezbollah was apparently able to track the cell phones conversations of the parties.
The careers of those covert officers are likely hampered now that they have been identified. Former CIA officer Robert Baer said "they've been burned." Hezbollah is often seen as a group of "bearded primitive bomb throwing terrorists," said Baer, but in reality, it is a formidable adversary. "They're into police files. They're into military intelligence files. They can get on any skype message. They tap telephones, get into phone databases. You name it, they can do it and they're very good at it." Baer maintained it is the US that needs to catch up to Hezballah. "We're so used to fighting the Taliban and these tribal groups in Afghanistan that we're really falling behind on what's called spycraft or tradecraft," he said.
But Congressman Mike Rogers said human intelligence, often referred to as HUMINT, is one of the toughest aspects of spying. "Anytime you have HUMINT activity around the world, somebody is going to get caught. That's the unfortunate part of this business. So I don't want people to be led to believe there has been a collapse in tradecraft at the CIA. I don't believe that to be true." But Rogers acknowledges the CIA will have to make adjustments in Lebanon, a likely reference to having to pull out the compromised officers and bring in new ones.
Ronald Kessler, the author of "CIA at War" said considering the risky work undertaken by officers trying to gather intelligence in restricted locations or enemy territory, "it's no wonder there aren't more roll-ups of CIA officers and CIA assets."
A senior U.S. official would not discuss the specifics of some of the claims made concerning CIA operations, but the official did say "It seems to me that if Iran, Hezbollah, Pakistan, and al Qaeda are feeling compelled to wage propaganda operations against the Agency, then the CIA must be doing something right. And let's remember that any intelligence organization that takes risks will win some and lose some–the Agency is winning way more than its losing."
Some members of Congress criticized the CIA for not predicting the extent of the Arab uprising.
When Tunisia's democracy movement ignited a year ago and soon spread to Egypt and other nations, questions were raised about whether the intelligence community failed to predict things were about to boil over.
Some Senators wanted to know whether the intelligence community failed to realize tens of thousands of Egyptians would take to the street after years of massive unemployment and dissatisfaction with the authoritarian regime. Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said, "I've looked at some intelligence in this area which indicates some lacking."
Adm. Mike Mullen, America's top military officer at the time, told the Daily Show in February, "To a great degree I think the timing of it certainly caught us as it moved from Tunisia and sort of across to the really difficult challenge that sits there right now in Egypt."
Intelligence expert Kessler said people often have unrealistic expectations of the intelligence community and expect the CIA to have a crystal ball. He said the Arab spring is a perfect example. "When people said the CIA should have known this individual in Tunisia was going to set himself on fire and that was going to ignite the Arab spring, that's just foolish," said Kessler.
An incident with a CIA contractor operating in Pakistan continued the downward spiral of US relations with a critical counterterrorism partner. Security contractor Raymond Davis was jailed after he killed two armed Pakistani men who threatened him. Davis was eventually released by the Pakistanis after the victims families were paid off, but it once again raised the question of the U.S. government's dependence on contractors.
The United States was unaware of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il's death until its announcement on North Korean TV two days after the fact. Could that be considered an intelligence failure? The experts we spoke to agreed that you can't expect the CIA to know exactly when the leader of a police state has died if that country wanted to keep it secret which was the case here.
A U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, "The key point in a situation like this is not marking the exact second the dictator dies-while clearly that would be great to know-but having a solid framework to assess what might come next. Experts have spent a lot of time developing and updating assessments of things to watch for, to help policymakers understand which direction the transition is going."
But Kim's death led to the inevitable discussion about the command and control of North Korea's nuclear program. And some experts maintain the U.S. just doesn't know enough. Paul Stares, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations said, "It's a black hole. I don't think we even know whether they have a deployed capacity. The devices they tested, it's unclear whether they were truly weaponized devices. There's some speculation about having some bomb designs for that purpose."
Former CIA Director Hayden said North Korea, Hezballah and Iran are the most challenging adversaries. "They have been the three toughest target areas we had.. the Iranians were very good, North Korea was a closed society and we all considered Hezballah to be the A team, a very sophisticated adversary," said Hayden. He called Hezbollah a disciplined, high-tech terrorist organization whose intelligence capacities rival that of governments.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Rogers agreed that the enemy is getting better. "Our counterintelligence threat is more significant than it has been in the past. These intelligence services are getting much, much better. I can't say they are on par with the United States but some are darn close," Rogers said.
There are other factors impacting the intelligence community, namely the digital revolution. "Remember the internet has changed a lot," said Rogers. "It has changed our counterintelligence strategy like you wouldn't believe–sometimes hard to believe– but it has changed the spy business in a way I've never really seen before."
Gen. Hayden said the intelligence business is much more difficult because of electronics and social media. "Everything is so inter-connected. Everyone's electronic signature is so much more powerful and ubiquitous that it really is more difficult to do things and remain secret for an extended period of time," Hayden said. But the enemy has the same problems. Hayden pointed to Iran's failed effort to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S. this year. "We each have our successes and failures," said Hayden.
As successful as the CIA's counter terrorism efforts have been this year, Hayden, who was CIA chief from 2006-2009, understands the pressure the Agency is under to balance its missions. "When I was director, I had to keep reminding myself that this counterterrorism role wasn't the only thing we're doing, that we had to also remind ourselves to keep focused on our traditional espionage mission and the tradecraft required for it. It's not saying our tradecraft suffered. This is a constant risk and a constant challenge because of the roles the Agency is playing today."
Clark Ervin, a former Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security may have summed it up best when he said, "intelligence is an art and not a science and it's tough to be right always."
The CIA would not respond to the specific issues raised in this story, but spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood offered the following written comment: "At the end of the day, I think it's clear that this has been a year of extraordinary achievement by the hardworking men and women of the Central Intelligence Agency who truly believe that what we do matters, and helps to keep America safe. At the end of the day, the President, Congress, and the American people ask us to take on the hard jobs-as our mission statement says 'we accomplish what others cannot accomplish and go where others cannot go'-and the hard jobs get done only when you take some risks."
Post by: CNN's Pam Benson
Filed under: 9/11 • Al Qaeda • Analysis • Anwar al-Awlaki • Arab Spring • Central Intelligence Agency • CIA • drones • Intelligence • Kim Jong Il • Middle East • Military • Navy SEALs • North Korea • Osama bin Laden • Pakistan • Panetta • Panetta • Pentagon • Spying • Terrorism • Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab
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