In the Middle East, a Catch-22 for the CIA
The CIA uses the term "liaison" to describe its contacts with foreign intelligence services. And in Arab capitals such as Tunis, Cairo and Amman, these relationships can be so seductively beneficial that they limit the CIA's ability to run its own "unilateral" operations to learn what's going on inside the host country.
This conundrum - how to work with your hosts and also spy on them - is one of the difficulties facing the CIA as it tries to understand the youth revolution spreading across the Middle East. The agency has cultivated its relationships with people such as Gen. Omar Suleiman, Egypt's chief of intelligence and now vice president, but it has not done as well understanding the world of the protesters.
It's a Catch-22 of the intelligence business, especially over the past decade, when counterterrorism became the CIA's core mission: The agency needed good relationships with Arab intelligence services to collect information about al-Qaeda, but to maintain those relationships, the agency sometimes avoided local snooping. The CIA did recruit some long-term contacts within the Egyptian establishment who are said to have provided crucial intelligence in recent days. But it's a far cry from the early 1980s, when the Cairo station chief would regularly meet the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups.
"We pulled back more and more, and relied on liaison to let us know what was going on," says one former station chief who's a veteran of the CIA's Near East Division.
These have been trying days for that fabled division, which runs clandestine operations from Morocco to Bangladesh. One agency veteran remembers how "NE" officers would boast to trainees at "the farm": "We are the elite of the operations directorate! We have the most important targets."
But this elite status gradually morphed: Not only were the division's targets important, but so were its liaison partners. Careers were made on a station chief's rapport with the head of Jordan's General Intelligence Department or Egypt's General Intelligence Service. An ambitious officer couldn't afford to have strained relations with his local host.
The problem of dependency became acute after Sept. 11, 2001, when the agency spent many hundreds of millions of dollars bolstering friendly services - especially from authoritarian, pro-American regimes such as Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Pakistan. Those are the countries now shaken by protest.
Egypt posed a special problem. The military-backed regime was paranoid about foreign spies who might be meeting with domestic opposition figures. The Egyptians maintained such aggressive surveillance that every CIA officer sent there took a special six-week class, known as the "Hostile Environment Tradecraft Course," to learn how to operate in "denied areas."
It was a paradox worthy of the sphinx: Even though the United States was spending billions of dollars to assist Egypt and its military, the CIA had to treat Cairo the same way it did Beijing or Moscow. Thanks to extensive military-to-military contacts and other links, supplemented by clandestine polling, the agency did keep tabs on Egypt - but as the current crisis developed, the United States seemed behind the information curve.
Modern communications technology has aided spying, but it put station chiefs on an electronic leash, limiting the unconventional contacts that might warn what was ahead. Headquarters was now able to micromanage operations: One chief of the Near East Division sent so many nit-picking messages that he became known as "The Mailman."
The CIA's defenders say the agency can juggle liaison and unilateral operations, or as one senior official puts it, "walk and chew gum at the same time." This official notes that since January 2010, more than 400 of the agency's 1,700 intelligence reports on the Middle East and North Africa have focused on issues related to stability.
The revolution in Tunisia was a surprise, says this CIA defender, because it "wasn't clear even to President Ben Ali that his security forces would quickly choose not to support him." As for Egypt, he says, "analysts anticipated and highlighted the concern that unrest in Tunisia might spread well before demonstrations erupted in Cairo. They later warned that unrest in Egypt would likely gain momentum and could threaten the regime."
Here's the bottom line: The CIA is caught in a jam that's emblematic of America's larger problem in the Middle East. The agency has been so focused on stopping al-Qaeda that it has been distracted from other questions. America depends on good intelligence as never before, and the simple truth is that the CIA has to lift its game.