By BOB DROGIN
Times Staff Writer
May 19, 2002
America's long-troubled spy service is ramping up at its fastest rate since the Vietnam War era. Money is pouring in--$1 billion so far, with more expected. So are bugged conversations, satellite photos and other raw intelligence about Al Qaeda cells and operations around the world.
"Today, the year 2002, I have more spies stealing more secrets than at any time in the history of the CIA," Jim Pavitt, head of the agency's clandestine service, told a Duke University Law School conference last month.
Among the CIA spies: an Afghan aide to Osama bin Laden who says he was paid nearly $50,000 to report on the Saudi dissident's terrorism organization, Al Qaeda, and recently was asked to pose as a prisoner and go as an informant to the U.S. detention center for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The CIA's Counter-Terrorist Center, a hub in the war on terrorism, has nearly tripled in staff, to about 1,200. Mock street signs--including Bin Laden Way--hang from the ceiling to help newcomers negotiate the ever-expanding maze of map-lined cubicles and conference rooms filled with computers.
How well the CIA's secret war is going is far less clear, however.
Intercepted conversations and other intelligence reports suggest another major terrorist attack may be in the works. A senior intelligence official said Saturday that "threats, things of concern" have increased again in the last month.
"These things, the noise, the chatter, go in cycles," he said. "We've seen this several times since Sept. 11. We are in an up cycle at the moment."
But the official said the threats were not specific as to when, where or how an attack might take place. "There's stuff everywhere," he said. "It may indicate something is up, but we don't know what."
Another senior intelligence official warns that the CIA is at a crossroads. "If there's another terrorist act, and we're caught flat-footed again, we run the risk of being dismantled," he said. "We're on a high, but it's fragile."
Indeed, last week's disclosure that the CIA on Aug. 6 told President Bush about the possibility of an Al Qaeda hijacking attempt has fueled a furious debate about whether the U.S. intelligence apparatus failed to detect or avert the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Moreover, the intelligence community's latest classified scorecard of Al Qaeda's top 27 leaders shows more than half--including Bin Laden--are believed to still be alive. The agency recently got a DNA sample from a Bin Laden family member in the event a body is found.
So far, the list indicates, nine Al Qaeda leaders have been killed and four are in custody, including operations chief Abu Zubeida and Ibn Al-Shaykh al-Libi, the alleged head of a terrorist training camp.
The four-page classified accounting also names about 65 lesser Al Qaeda and Taliban members believed to have survived the U.S.-led assault so far. Not all the names are known to be accurate, however, and photographs are missing for many.
Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, says the CIA deserves an "A-plus for effort, but six or seven out of 10 for results" so far. "I'm frustrated we can't do better," Goss said.
The CIA still has too few skilled analysts and too few overseas operatives able to penetrate and eliminate terror cells and networks, he said. "We are undermanned and overwhelmed."
Spy planes, surveillance sensors and other high-tech hardware have provided "extraordinary" intelligence, Goss said, but most spy satellites were built to watch ships and tanks during the Cold War. "We have a lot of capability that's not designed to peek in a cave."
Others are more critical. A congressional aide griped that the CIA still doesn't coordinate enough with other government agencies: "Things don't get shared like they're supposed to get shared."
And a former senior CIA official who retains close ties to the intelligence community says the CIA remains in the dark about key issues.
"We don't have answers yet to the fundamental questions" about Al Qaeda, said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Who's in charge? How do they communicate? How are they wired together? What are their capabilities? Is the U.S. their principal target? Are they still trying to get sleepers in? What are their operational plans?"
In response, a senior CIA official said Bin Laden holds operational plans so closely that even some of his top aides might not know the answers. "They continue to operate with extraordinary compartmentalization," he said. "There's hardly anyone in Al Qaeda who can answer those questions."
The CIA clearly had tried. "On Sept. 10, we were devoting more resources against the terrorist target than at any other intelligence challenge we faced," said Pavitt, the CIA spy chief.
The agency began targeting Bin Laden when he moved his base of operations to Afghanistan in 1996. The counter-terrorist center set up a Bin Laden "station," assigned to track the terrorism chief.
Covert teams went into Afghanistan at least once in the late 1990s to plant surveillance devices, while other operatives mapped and prepared a desert airstrip south of the Afghan capital of Kabul in case they found a chance to grab Bin Laden, according to a former Clinton administration official.
Other CIA operatives met with anti-Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan's Northern Alliance. Pilotless Predator aircraft, then armed only with cameras, were sent aloft to aid the search. Back at headquarters, senior CIA officials met each morning "to specifically discuss, 'What's Bin Laden up to and how can we get him?'" another official said.
"We looked at the possibility of various snatch operations," the official added. "We looked at getting locals to go after Bin Laden, but it was very hard. He and his crew were very security conscious."
The CIA relied, in part, on an Afghan spy inside Bin Laden's entourage.
In interviews with The Times, the Afghan said he had volunteered his services at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, on Oct. 16, 2000, just days after Al Qaeda operatives bombed the U.S. destroyer Cole while it was docked in the port city of Aden, Yemen. "I have been working with Osama if you want my cooperation," he recalled saying.
During interrogations, ultimately backed by polygraph tests, the Afghan told the CIA he had been a low-level aide in Bin Laden's camp for several years and had joined the renegade Saudi for meals and prayers. "In all, I saw Osama more than 100 times."
Over the next two years, the CIA paid the Afghan $500 to $1,000 a month for details about Al Qaeda operations, staff and infrastructure in Afghanistan. "They wanted to know: how many people? How many camps? How many houses? They had many maps. We were always working on that."
After Sept. 11, he was issued two satellite phones to call in coordinates for U.S. airstrikes on Taliban and Al Qaeda military positions in eastern Afghanistan, including four that ultimately were bombed.
And in March this year, the Afghan said, his U.S. handlers asked him to pose as a prisoner and go in as an informant to the Al Qaeda detention center at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. He didn't go, but agreed to help identify mug shots of those in custody.
The Times was able to verify key parts of the man's story and is withholding his identity for his safety. A CIA spokesman declined to comment, other than to say that the agency had informants inside Bin Laden's camp.
Obviously, they weren't enough. The CIA had been battered by budget and staff cuts, revolving-door leaders and plummeting morale in the 1990s. The crisis eased after the current director, George J. Tenet, was confirmed in 1997. But repeated screw-ups, including the failure to foresee India's nuclear test in 1998 and the U.S.' mistaken bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1999, suggested an agency adrift.
Then came Sept. 11. CIA headquarters at Langley, Va., was evacuated for fear it might be a target. By the time the shaken staff went back inside, the world was a different place.
"By midafternoon on Sept. 11, the mission of the CIA was permanently and radically changed," a senior intelligence official said. "We're a lead agency now. People know it. There's high energy; no time for conferences and reviews and panels. There's focus. We're hiring. We're talking to foreign governments, foreign [spy] services. We're the go-to guys.
"It impacts on every nook and cranny in the building," he added. "There's a new machismo. People say: 'We're gonna get the bastards. We're gonna kick ass.' A few years ago, if you talked like that, you'd be marginalized."
Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, agrees. The terrorist attacks "unleashed" an agency he had long called hidebound and timid. He sees a "different attitude at the CIA" since last fall.
Money has helped. Congress authorized $1 billion in emergency funding for the CIA last fall, on top of its estimated $3-billion annual budget. The agency will get more under proposed bills in Congress.
And after the attacks last fall, Bush quickly authorized the use of targeted killings and other no-holds-barred tactics that had long been restricted.
A.B. "Buzzy" Krongard, the CIA's executive director, told a group of Washington investment advisors in October that the Bush administration had "showered" the CIA with cash and power. "Today, there is only one rule, and that is, there are no rules," he said.
Now, the frantic all-nighters have largely faded at headquarters. But behind the barbed wire and black-uniformed guards with M-4 rifles, cars still jam the parking lots and pack the roadsides.
The counter-terrorism center, which includes experts from the FBI, Secret Service, Pentagon and other agencies, has spilled out of its ground floor facility. A veteran undercover officer will take over this summer from the longtime director, Cofer Black, who is taking a new job.
Nearly all those at the center were pulled in from other CIA units, so the agency has rehired several hundred retirees and other former employees to fill the gaps. Those fluent in Dasi, Pasto, Farsi and Arabic got special attention.
And more expansion is planned.
Next month's graduating class of more than 100 CIA officers from "The Farm," the agency's boot camp near Williamsburg, Va., will be the largest since the Vietnam War, officials said. Far more want to join: The agency has logged a staggering 80,000 job applications since last fall.
Some seek to join the CIA's Special Activities Division, the part of Pavitt's clandestine service. It has deployed about 150 former Navy SEALs and other Special Forces soldiers to Afghanistan since the fall.
Thus, the first American into Afghanistan in September was a 30-year CIA veteran operative, fluent in Arabic and Farsi, who was at a desk job at headquarters awaiting retirement.
The first American killed in Afghanistan in the campaign, Johnny "Mike" Spann, also was a CIA covert commando. To mark his sacrifice, the agency will chisel a 79th black star into the headquarters lobby wall this month. The white marble "wall of honor" commemorates members who died in the line of duty.
The CIA teams did little fighting themselves; they helped hire, arm and pay Afghan proxy forces. The operatives also searched and mapped at least two empty foreign embassies in Kabul in November after the Taliban abandoned the city. CIA officials decline to comment, but the agency elsewhere has reaped valuable intelligence by bugging foreign missions.
The CIA also remote-controls the small fleet of pilotless Predator aircraft. In late 2000, a CIA drone filmed a tall, bearded man in flowing robes, flanked by deferential guards. Bin Laden, it appeared, was crossing the street.
"You can't look at that and not say, 'Damn, I wish I had a missile on this thing,'" said an official who had viewed the tape. The Clinton White House agreed, and authorized arming Predators with Hellfire antitank missiles. The first were deployed just as the war began.
Despite their fame, the Predator missiles have missed several high-profile targets in Afghanistan. They scored their most notable success when a drone helped laser-target an Al Qaeda compound for Air Force bombers. CIA operators, alarmed that video monitors showed several men running away, launched the Hellfire. Among those who were killed was Mohammed Atef, Bin Laden's military commander.
Times staff writers Greg Miller in Washington and Rone Tempest in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times