With Spies Like These . . .
The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran appears to rely heavily on notes from a discussion between Iranian military officials involved in that country's nuclear weapons development program. What if, instead of such easily manipulated documentary evidence, the CIA's National Clandestine Service had been able to recruit a spy at the highest reaches of the Iranian government, someone who could just tell us what the country's nuclear capabilities and plans were?
It wouldn't have made any difference.
Ever since the inception of the CIA, the operational side of the agency has both believed in and spread the fantasy that foreign agents can provide vital secret intelligence that will clear up great mysteries, change the outcome of wars or prevent terrorist attacks. But this view of intelligence is a myth. To understand why, it's useful to look at what happened the last time the United States desperately needed a spy to get to the bottom of a covert weapons program and what happened when we actually got one.
According to statements by Tyler Drumheller, the former chief of the CIA's European operations, the CIA entered into a clandestine relationship with Iraq's then-foreign minister, Naji Sabri, in mid-2002. Drumheller has claimed that Sabri provided the CIA with documentary evidence that Iraq did not have an active program to pursue weapons of mass destruction.
But Sabri's information had no influence whatsoever on U.S. policy. Nor did it alter the CIA's own assessment of Iraqi weapons capabilities. This is because Sabri, like virtually every other CIA asset, could not possibly have been trusted. So any intelligence he provided was useless.
Intelligence from almost all CIA assets is unreliable for the simple reason that so many of them are double agents, meaning that the CIA recruited them but that they are being controlled by their own countries' intelligence services. When I worked at CIA headquarters in the early 1990s, I once suggested to a friend who worked in counterintelligence that up to a third of all CIA agents could be doubles. He said the number was probably much higher.
Concrete proof is always scarce in these matters, but from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, most and very likely all Cuban agents on the CIA payroll were doubles. So were a majority of East German agents during the Cold War.
If Sabri was being controlled by Iraqi intelligence as a double, the most likely goal of such an operation would have been to convince the U.S. government that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. This means that Sabri's "intelligence" would have been the same whether he was a double or not -- Iraq had no WMD. So the only way to figure out if it was real intelligence or disinformation would have been to determine with absolute certainty whether Sabri was a double.
The CIA has methods to try to detect double agents, but they're far from foolproof. Polygraph exams are probably considered the most useful and are frequently administered to agents. But it's unlikely that on the eve of war an Iraqi foreign minister would be able to sneak away for a polygraph exam without risking detection. Even if he did take and pass such an exam, the question of the polygraph's reliability would loom large. And even the biggest supporters of polygraphs would be reluctant to make a case for or against war on the basis of polygraph results.
But what if the CIA, for whatever reason, was convinced that Sabri was not a double agent? The agency still would have had to factor in the overwhelming likelihood that, like most CIA agents, he was working first and foremost in his own interest. (The collection of defectors and exiles who misled us so badly in Iraq practically gave new meaning to "working in your own interest" -- their goal was to have the United States invade their country.) In Sabri's case, his overriding concern probably would have been securing CIA protection in the event of a U.S. invasion. This could have led him to tell the entire truth about everything he knew. But it could just as easily have led him to tell us what he thought we wanted to hear.
Let's assume, despite all these obstacles, that the CIA somehow determined that Sabri was being truthful. Being truthful still wouldn't mean that Sabri knew the truth. Would the Iraqi foreign minister know whether Iraq had WMD? In Saddam Hussein's secretive police state, the answer could easily be no.