CIA Sends More Agents to Iraq to Help Crack the Insurgency
Under growing pressure to produce better information on the insurgency in Iraq, the CIA has embarked on its largest mobilization of manpower to the region since the war began, said U.S. intelligence sources familiar with the operation.
In recent weeks, the agency has begun a buildup that one source said could add as many as 100 people to an agency presence that is already several hundred strong in the war-torn country. Among those being sent, sources said, are case officers, counter-terrorism analysts and a small contingent of senior officials from the agency’s clandestine service.
The moves come at a time when many in the intelligence community acknowledge that they are frustrated with their inability to penetrate an insurgency that continues to carry out deadly attacks on American soldiers and Iraqi civilians almost every day.
The deployment also gives the CIA ammunition to counter criticism that it is not doing enough. One official briefed on the plans said the agency had described the mobilization as part of a broader push to “get on top of the problem.” The deployment coincides with an ongoing effort by the CIA to begin assembling a new Iraqi intelligence service, partly by tapping remnants of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s vast but notoriously corrupt spying and security apparatus.
Aspects of the plans were described by current and former CIA officials as well as sources in the military and on Capitol Hill.
Intelligence officials said the primary objective of the CIA reinforcements was to help teams already in Iraq identify the leadership of the resistance and locate it for the military. The Pentagon has created a new Special Operations group dubbed Task Force 121 that has been charged with hunting “high-value” targets in Iraq and Afghanistan. The CIA already has elements working alongside Task Force 121 and other military units, and the fresh deployments will bolster that effort.
With the majority of the most-wanted former regime figures depicted in the Pentagon’s playing cards having been killed or captured, military officials say a more serious current threat comes from the lower tiers of Hussein’s Baath Party, as well as his military and intelligence services and paramilitary Fedayeen fighters. In addition, hundreds or perhaps thousands of foreign fighters have trickled into the country, some thought to have ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
For months there have been complaints from commanders in Iraq as well as military officials in Washington that U.S. forces have been hamstrung not by a shortage of troops but by a lack of intelligence. Just last week in Washington, Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a key to turning the tide in Iraq is to get “much, much better at gathering and sharing intelligence.”
Much of that criticism is aimed at the military’s own intelligence assets, including counterintelligence units responsible for cultivating sources among the civilian population. But the CIA also has come under fire for the lack of “human intelligence,” information gathered by spies on the ground that is considered key to cracking the insurgency.
A U.S. official disputed suggestions that the new deployments were in response to criticism, or represented a belated recognition of the seriousness of the problem in Iraq.
“The notion that this just snuck up on us is absurd,” the official said. “We’ve had senior, highly qualified people over there from before the war started. We send additional people when there are additional needs to address them. There’s more and more work to be done, additional leads to be followed.”
He declined to provide any specifics on the numbers or assignments of agency employees involved in the latest wave of deployments. Other sources said they included a deputy division chief and one or more group chiefs -- high-ranking clandestine service officers responsible for overseeing operations in large swaths of the globe. Such officers would likely be taking leadership roles on the ground in Baghdad, directing operations and evaluating the reliability of collected intelligence.
Though many in the community consider the new assignments a positive development, they are skeptical that boosting the number of people in the country will produce meaningful results.
“They’re just going to fill up the green zone with spooks,” said one former CIA officer, referring to the fenced-off, fortress-like portion of Baghdad that serves as headquarters for the Coalition Provisional Authority as well as the military leadership.
Certain environments are so dangerous for Westerners that CIA case officers will not be able to venture out into the community to recruit sources tied to the resistance, he said.
“You’re not going to get in your SUV and go out and meet some guy in Sadr City at midnight,” said the former case officer, who has experience in Iraq. “You have to go out in force” -- meaning armed and accompanied by an escort -- “and you can’t make a clandestine meeting like that.”
As a result, he said, the agency might continue to be largely dependent on information from “walk-ins,” or volunteer sources. “You listen to people coming in, run them through a polygraph, stick $1,000 in their pockets and send them out with instructions not to come back until they have some hard information,” he said.
The number of analysts in the country is “climbing toward 50 right now” and will exceed that after the latest round of assignments, an agency source said. Though the analysts being deployed include experts on the region and counter-terrorism, others are being pulled away from unrelated assignments and topics, the source said. Some have volunteered for the work, but in other cases there have been “directed assignments” that employees can decline, but do so at risk of adverse consequences to their careers.
The source likened the atmosphere to that at the agency in the 1970s, when the CIA was desperate for staffers to send to Southeast Asia. The rule was, “Don’t say the word ‘Vietnam’ or you’ll find yourself on a plane over there.”
The White House confirmed that it has signed off on a plan to create a new Iraqi intelligence service, a development first reported in the Washington Post on Thursday. The CIA has been recruiting or utilizing former Iraqi intelligence operatives since the summer, sources said, but is now trying to work out the new service’s structure.
The service appears likely to be run, at least initially, by Interior Minister Nouri Badran. He and Iyad Allawi, the head of the Iraqi National Accord, have been at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., this week discussing details of the new service.
But the effort to build a new Iraqi intelligence apparatus from the ashes of the old is fraught with difficulties, starting with the challenge of identifying former operatives who can be rehabilitated and trusted.