By Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 18, 2005
The CIA has established joint operation centers in more than two dozen countries where U.S. and foreign intelligence officers work side by side to track and capture suspected terrorists and to destroy or penetrate their networks, according to current and former American and foreign intelligence officials.
The secret Counterterrorist Intelligence Centers are financed mostly by the agency and employ some of the best espionage technology the CIA has to offer, including secure communications gear, computers linked to the CIA's central databases, and access to highly classified intercepts once shared only with the nation's closest Western allies.
The Americans and their counterparts at the centers, known as CTICs, make daily decisions on when and how to apprehend suspects, whether to whisk them off to other countries for interrogation and detention, and how to disrupt al Qaeda's logistical and financial support.
The network of centers reflects what has become the CIA's central and most successful strategy in combating terrorism abroad: persuading and empowering foreign security services to help. Virtually every capture or killing of a suspected terrorist outside Iraq since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- more than 3,000 in all -- was a result of foreign intelligence services' work alongside the agency, the CIA deputy director of operations told a congressional committee in a closed-door session earlier this year.
The initial tip about where an al Qaeda figure is hiding may come from the CIA, but the actual operation to pick him up is usually organized by one of the joint centers and conducted by a local security service, with the CIA nowhere in sight. "The vast majority of successes involved our CTICs," one former counterterrorism official said. "The boot that went through the door was foreign."
The centers are also part of a fundamental, continuing shift in the CIA's mission that began shortly after the 2001 attacks. No longer is the agency's primary goal to recruit military attaches, diplomats and intelligence operatives to steal secrets from their own countries. Today's CIA is desperately seeking ways to join forces with other governments it once reproached or ignored to undo a common enemy.
George J. Tenet orchestrated the shift during his tenure as CIA director, working with the agency's station chiefs abroad and officers in the Counterterrorist Center at headquarters to bring about an exponential deepening of intelligence ties worldwide after Sept. 11.
Beneath the surface of visible diplomacy, the cooperative efforts, known as liaison relationships, are recasting U.S. dealings abroad.
The White House has stepped up its criticism of Uzbek President Islam Karimov in the past year for his authoritarian rule and repression of dissidents. But joint counterterrorism efforts with Tashkent continued until recently. In Indonesia, as the State Department doled out tiny amounts of assistance to the military when it made progress on corruption and human rights, the CIA was pouring money into Jakarta and developing intelligence ties there after years of tension. In Paris, as U.S.-French acrimony peaked over the Iraq invasion in 2003, the CIA and French intelligence services were creating the agency's only multinational operations center and executing worldwide sting operations.
The CIA has operated the joint intelligence centers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, according to current and former intelligence officials. In addition, the multinational center in Paris, codenamed Alliance Base, includes representatives from Britain, France, Germany, Canada and Australia.
"CTICs were a step forward in codifying, organizing liaison relationships that elsewhere would be more ad hoc," a former CIA counterterrorism official said. "It's one tool in the liaison tool kit."
The CIA declined to comment for this article. The Washington Post interviewed more than two dozen current and former intelligence officials and more than a dozen senior foreign intelligence officials as well as diplomatic and congressional sources. Most of them spoke on the condition that they not be named because they are not authorized to speak publicly or because of the sensitive nature of the subject.
The CTICs are entirely separate from the covert prisons, known in classified documents as "black sites," that the CIA has run at various times in eight countries. Legal experts and intelligence officials have said that the prisons -- whose existence was disclosed in a Washington Post report earlier this month -- would be considered illegal under the laws of several host countries. The CTICs, by contrast, are an expansion of the hidden intelligence cooperation that has been a staple of foreign policy for decades.Deepening Ties
The intelligence centers were modeled on the CIA's counternarcotics centers in Latin America and Asia. Faced with corrupt local police and intelligence services, in the 1980s the CIA persuaded the leaders of these countries to let it select individuals for the assignment, pay them and keep them physically separate from their own institutions.
Officers from the host nations serving in the newer CTICs are vetted through background checks and polygraphs. They are usually supervised by the CIA's chief of station and augmented by officers sent from the Counterterrorist Center at Langley. Such daily interaction with U.S. personnel, say intelligence officials, helps keep the foreign service focused.
The first two CTICs were established in the late 1990s to watch and capture Islamic militants traveling from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Chechnya to join the fighting in Bosnia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia, two former intelligence officers said.
Days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Tenet outlined a global campaign against terrorism to President Bush. It included invading Afghanistan to wipe out al Qaeda's main base of operations as well as a "Worldwide Attack Matrix" detailing operations against terrorists in 80 countries. The matrix also listed priority countries where al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan were likely to flee during a U.S. invasion.
"If you brought a big hammer down on Afghanistan," as a former CIA official described it, "there weren't too many areas where people could squirt out" and hide. The most likely were Yemen, Saudi Arabia, urban areas of Pakistan, and Indonesia.
On Sept. 17, 2001, Bush signed a classified Presidential Finding that authorized an unprecedented range of covert operations. The overall counterterrorism program included authorization of lethal measures against terrorists and the expenditure of vast funds to coax foreign intelligence services into a new era of cooperation with the CIA, current and former intelligence officials said.
To beef up operations in the priority countries and elsewhere, the agency dispatched officers from its proliferation, counternarcotics, Europe, Africa, Asia and Middle East divisions, said several current and former intelligence officials. It sent paramilitary teams from its tiny Special Activities Division and enlisted the military's Special Operations Forces to augment the teams.
But agency officials knew that a surge of hundreds of CIA officers would not be adequate to solidify the new worldwide infrastructure that Tenet and his top aides envisioned. The agency quickly turned to dozens of sometimes reluctant foreign intelligence services, which had much more intimate knowledge of local terrorist groups and their supporters.
The agency had extensive inducements to offer foreign services once Congress opened the spigot, which it quickly did. "The money was just flowing," said one CIA case officer. In fact, the budget for the CIA's operations increased in the first two years by 2 1/2 times what it had been before Sept. 11, according to two government experts.
The Counterterrorist Center at CIA headquarters, which manages the CTICs and all other counterterrorism efforts, bought its friends SUVs, night-vision equipment, automatic weapons and push-to-talk radios for countries where intelligence services were starved for even basic material. It sent instructors in surveillance, data analysis and military Special Forces tactics to teach hostage rescue, VIP protection and counterterrorist assault. Foreign countries sent officers to the CIA's training school for weeks-long courses in counterterrorism operations and analysis.
The new cooperative ventures depended as well on loosening U.S. rules for sharing electronic eavesdropping and other precious "signals intelligence," which experts estimate provides 80 to 90 percent of the information the United States gathers about terrorist networks. Tenet ordered streamlined regulations.
The National Security Agency, which manages, analyzes and distributes electronic intercepts, quickly became a new partner in the joint centers, and established a Foreign Affairs Directorate that now handles sharing information and equipment with 40 countries.Tenet Courts Yemen
Persuading foreign presidents and intelligence chiefs to begin or deepen relationships with the CIA often took the personal intervention of Bush, Vice President Cheney and the secretary of state. But closing a deal was left to the CIA's chiefs of station, other top officials, and foremost, Tenet, "the master of liaison," as one longtime intelligence officer dubbed him.
Gregarious and comfortable in foreign settings, Tenet by Sept. 11 had earned a reputation among Muslim countries as an honest broker in the Arab-Israeli dispute and for his role in training Palestinian security forces.
He was a natural at bonding with foreign chiefs of service, current and former intelligence officials said. Once, during a dinner for a foreign service chief, the guests asked Tenet about Bush, whom Tenet briefed every morning. "He would tell them what time he gets up. He'd say, 'The president calls me Jorge.' It was really human-being-to-human-being," said a former intelligence official. "He didn't give away anything classified, but they felt important and could go back to their president and say, 'The president calls him Jorge.' "
"George Tenet is a charming man, but also a very tough cookie," said a senior French official.
Yemen, with its terrorist training camps and al Qaeda presence, was one of Tenet's most significant successes. Its president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had little control over the northern border with Saudi Arabia, which had turned into a haven for extremists, and even less over his violent rivals.
Faris Sanabani, a Yemeni presidential adviser, said Tenet's trips to Yemen after Sept. 11 helped persuade Saleh to work with the CIA in a way that would have been unthinkable before. "He made an effort to reach out when people were really scared of Yemen," said Sanabani, who sat in on meetings between Tenet and Saleh. "He's the kind of person who doesn't work from a report or from behind the office desk."
In the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Saleh thought Yemen was next on the target list, said one current and one former intelligence official. Tenet did not disabuse him of this idea, they said. "You don't take anything off the table," one said.
At the same time, Tenet "listened to him, took his views seriously and did not rebuke him. He sought to meet Saleh's needs," he said.
Tenet provided millions of dollars for Yemen's cooperation. He gave helicopters, eavesdropping equipment, weapons and bulletproof vests. He brought in 100 Army Special Forces trainers to help Yemen create an antiterrorism unit.
Tenet also won Saleh's approval to fly Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles over the country to hunt and kill al Qaeda figures. In November 2002, the CIA killed six al Qaeda operatives driving in the desert, including Abu Ali al-Harithi, suspected mastermind of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.
"All of the sudden our enemy became common," Sanabani said. "That's why Yemen and the United States reached out to one other."Indonesia
Countering terrorism has overshadowed just about all other foreign policy concerns, including "making friends with the sorts of characters you would not have been in the same room with before," one former foreign intelligence official said.
In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country and the center of gravity for an al Qaeda affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, that meant befriending Lt. Gen. Abdullah Hendropriyono, then head of the intelligence service.
Sporting black hair lacquered with hairspray and colorful jackets with matching ties and socks, Hendropriyono was more flamboyant than most chiefs. A former Indonesian special forces commander trained at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Hendropriyono was accused by human rights activists of ordering attacks that killed more than 100 unarmed villagers in 1989, according to Associated Press and other published reports. In 2004, he threatened action against foreign humanitarian groups monitoring human rights issues, published reports said.
Hendropriyono replaced an intelligence chief who had conducted surveillance against U.S. and Australian officials, according to U.S. and Australian sources. Al Qaeda leader Omar Farouq had the U.S. Embassy under surveillance and U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Gelbard believed that the Indonesians had purposely blown an operation meant to capture a bombing team targeting the U.S. compound in Jakarta.
In August 2001, Hendropriyono was "a breath of fresh air," said one CIA officer who worked with him. "He was focused, very controversial, but very dynamic." Unlike his predecessor, he was willing to work with the Americans, at a price.
Besides phone calls and office visits, Tenet worked hard on Hendropriyono's requests for goods and services. "These guys had 1970s technology," the CIA officer said. "They were dying for equipment, surveillance, wiretaps."
Tenet came through on two of Hendropriyono's personal requests as well: to provide seed money for a regional intelligence school, the International Institute of Intelligence on Batam Island, and to get a relative of Hendropriyono's into a top-rated American university. When his grades proved an obstacle, the CIA director arranged for him to attend the National War College at Fort McNair, four sources said.
Hendropriyono proved his willingness to cooperate by arresting Muhammad Saad Iqbal Madni, a Egyptian who the CIA believed was linked to British failed shoe bomber Richard C. Reid. He also agreed to allow the CIA to take Madni to Egypt for interrogation under a process known as "rendition."
Hendropriyono agreed to expand the cooperation, and officers arrested a few dozen Indonesians suspected of links to terrorism. He began efforts to close down terrorist financing.
Then he secured the approval of his political leadership to apprehend Farouq, believed to be a top al Qaeda figure in Southeast Asia. "He forced [the Indonesian security services ] to work with us and we started picking up the bigger fish," Gelbard said. Attempts to reach Hendropriyono were unsuccessful.The Goss Era
Porter J. Goss, who succeeded Tenet as CIA director just over a year ago, could hardly be more different. For all of Tenet's gregariousness, Goss is the picture of reserve. And there are indications that Goss may not place as much emphasis on combining forces with others overseas.
When Goss took over, he said he valued these partnerships but announced a goal of improving what he called "unilateral" intelligence collection and operations. "We have gotten more unilateral, though still not as much as I'd like," he told employees in a staff meeting. "It's getting the right kind of people trained in the right places under the right cover against the right targets."
There are plans to send more case officers into the field and to increase deep-cover positions that would require officers to spend longer periods, and perhaps their careers, in one country, integrated into the culture and, in some cases, cut off from the traditional embassy-based CIA station.
Stories about Goss's reluctance to meet with his foreign counterparts are rife, fueled in part by a cable from headquarters to overseas station chiefs, saying appointments with foreign services should be arranged for Tuesdays or Thursdays. The memo, CIA officials have said, was not meant to discourage such meetings but to assure officers that Goss would set aside time for such important visitors.
During a recent trip to the U.S. Special Operations Command base in Qatar, Goss did not meet with the head of the country or Qatar's intelligence chief. Intelligence officials say that is because Goss had met with them recently. Others say Tenet would never had flown so far and missed a chance to schmooze.
In any case, current and former intelligence officials predicted that the new, deeper relationships with foreign intelligence agencies will endure because the countries involved have a strong, common interest in confronting terrorism. And they said CIA station chiefs will continue to cultivate and encourage the ties, given the success they've yielded thus far.
"Most of these relationships are built on the ground," said a former intelligence official who spent most of his career overseas.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.