CIA Struggles to Spy in Iraq, Afghanistan

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Times Staff Writers

Confronting problems on critical fronts, the CIA recently removed its top officer in Baghdad because of questions about his ability to lead the massive station there, and has closed a number of satellite bases in Afghanistan amid concerns about that country’s deteriorating security situation, according to U.S. intelligence sources.

The previously undisclosed moves underscore the problems affecting the agency’s clandestine service at a time when it is confronting insurgencies and the U.S.-declared war on terrorism, current and former CIA officers say. They said a series of stumbles and operational constraints have hampered the agency’s ability to penetrate the insurgency in Iraq, find Osama bin Laden and gain traction against terrorism in the Middle East.

The CIA’s Baghdad station has become the largest in agency history, eclipsing the size of its post in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War, a U.S. official said. But sources said the agency has struggled to fill a number of key overseas posts.


Many of those who do take sensitive overseas assignments are willing to serve only 30- to 90-day rotations, a revolving-door approach that has undercut the agency’s ability to cultivate ties to warlords in Afghanistan or collect intelligence on the Iraqi insurgency, sources said.

There is such a shortage of Arabic speakers and qualified case officers willing to take dangerous assignments that the agency has been forced to hire dozens -- if not hundreds -- of CIA retirees, and to lean heavily on translators, sources said. The agency has also had to use soldiers for tasks that CIA officers normally perform, sources said.

Even without the personnel challenges, Iraq and Afghanistan are seen as so dangerous that it is difficult for agency officers to venture outside guarded districts and compounds without security details, making covert meetings with informants extremely difficult, sources said.

CIA officials said Thursday that the agency had no shortage of eager volunteers for tough assignments, or any lack of resolve in the war on terrorism.

But current and former officers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the agency was confronting one of the most difficult challenges in its history.

One former officer who maintains close ties to the agency said it was stretched to the limit. “With Afghanistan, the war on terrorism, with Iraq, I think they’re just sucking wind,” he said.


But the officers also said the latest problems point to a deeper problem with the CIA leadership and culture. Some lamented that an agency once vaunted for its daring and reach now finds itself overstretched and hunkered down in secure zones.

“They claim that they’ve rebuilt the [clandestine service] and it’s firing on all cylinders,” said a former station chief in the Middle East. “Is it? I would say not. Not if you don’t have trained manpower.”

The CIA dismisses such criticism, and President Bush has recently voiced support for six-year CIA Director George J. Tenet. The president said he believed the agency was serving the country well. The CIA has also won praise for its role in dismantling the upper ranks of Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network and helping round up the top figures in Saddam Hussein’s regime.

But in many respects, the CIA is an agency under siege, with several inquiries underway into its prewar assessments on Iraq, and an independent commission still investigating intelligence failures related to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Swift Rotation

The U.S. official acknowledged that the CIA station chief in Baghdad was removed in December after weeks of increasingly deadly and sophisticated attacks against U.S.-led coalition forces and civilian targets.

“There was just a belief that it was a huge operation and we needed a very senior, very experienced person to run it,” the official said.


The official declined to disclose the number of CIA personnel in Iraq, but other sources said it exceeded 500 people.

The replacement of the station chief means that the high-profile post has been held by three senior officers since Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq in May, sources said. The job of Baghdad station chief is a demanding one that includes briefing top U.S. officials in Iraq, providing frequent updates to Washington on the stability of the country, and overseeing all of the operations and analysis done in the nation.

The first of the three recent station chiefs had served at the Baghdad station before the Persian Gulf War in 1991. He went to “run operations [from] across the border” before the invasion last year, was fluent in Arabic and was “extraordinarily experienced” in setting up and running large intelligence operations, according to a former senior intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But that officer had always planned to leave the job in June 2003, and has since moved on to another station in the Middle East, sources said.

His replacement had served as station chief in a neighboring country and was to stay in Baghdad for at least a year. But he was pushed out in December amid a combination of personnel problems and growing concern in Washington that the agency was failing to get an adequate grip on the Iraq insurgency.

Speculation Over Report

Some speculated that the officer might have angered officials in the Bush administration with a pessimistic report he produced in November saying that a growing number of Iraqis believed the U.S. coalition could be defeated. But the U.S. official denied that the report, which was quickly leaked to the media, played any role in the ouster.


The current station chief is a highly regarded officer who “rose rather meteorically” during operations in Kosovo, which was the agency’s last major buildup of assets, a former CIA officer said.

Many of the CIA’s employees have been based at secure compounds at the airport in Baghdad, with others working in the so-called Green Zone, the heavily fortified area in central Baghdad around the headquarters for the Coalition Provisional Authority. There are smaller offices, known as bases, in Basra, Mosul and other parts of the country.

Several sources said there had been squabbling over the agency’s mission and priorities, with some saying that the CIA had been drawn too much into troop-protection work ordinarily done by the military. As a result, some are concerned that the agency has not been able to concentrate on recruiting the spies that will be needed as crucial sources of information for years to come after sovereignty is transferred from U.S. hands this year.

The CIA is also in charge of setting up a new Iraqi intelligence service, drawing at least in part on former members of Hussein’s Mukhabarat. But although candidates are identified and vetted in Iraq, much of the training is said to be taking place outside the country, in Jordan or Egypt.

A number of sources said the main problem confronting the Baghdad station has been security constraints that inhibit the ability of operatives to move about the country.

The U.S. official acknowledged that instability and violence made “it harder for people to do their job. They’re not locked down, but it adds to the degree of difficulty everyone faces.”


Several sources said that when agency officers venture beyond their secure compounds, they are accompanied by security details or must travel in convoys. The U.S. official said all of the agency’s employees being sent to Iraq are given weapons training, and that clandestine officers are given more specialized paramilitary training.

The agency is in the midst of a multiyear effort to rebuild its clandestine service, and officials say recent recruiting classes have been among the largest in history. But the service was badly depleted in the 1990s, amid post-Cold War cuts and a crackdown on perceived abuses in the service. Many of the agency’s most experienced hands were demoralized by the changes and left.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the agency has brought back hundreds of retirees, dubbed “green-badgers” for the color of the identification cards issued to those who return to the fold under contract. The agency has also turned to young officers without any overseas experience.

New agency recruits with military backgrounds are being sent to Iraq as soon as they emerge from the CIA training academy in Virginia, said one former agency official.

“They don’t speak the language, don’t know how to recruit,” the official said. “It’s on-the-job training.”

The U.S. official said that all of the agency’s personnel in Iraq were volunteers and that the CIA has not had to make any “directed” assignments, meaning ordering someone to go. “We’ve got plenty of people who are anxious to take assignments,” generally of one year, the official said.


But others said many of the agency’s personnel were there for just one to three months. “That was true for the station as well as the [weapons search team],” said David Kay, who resigned last month as special advisor in Iraq to Director Tenet. “None of us were happy about that.”

So-called domain experts on Hussein and his associates were “the clearest case,” Kay said. “They were over for 30 or 60 days and then get rotated back,” he said. “It was a real issue.”

Former case officers said such turnover made recruiting spies almost impossible. “To get the lay of the land takes a month,” one former station chief said. And if you manage to cultivate a source in that time, “you have to turn him over to someone he doesn’t know the next month.”

The problems also extend to Afghanistan, sources said. One CIA veteran said he recently spoke with an officer who had served as a base chief in Kandahar for 60 days, an unusually brief tenure for such an important assignment.

The base in Kandahar is one of five or six the CIA established in Afghanistan after the U.S. invaded the country in 2001, all reporting to the agency’s primary station in Kabul, the capital. But a number of those remote bases have been closed in recent months, according to current and former CIA officials.

The closures have alarmed some in the intelligence community because they come at a time when remnants of the deposed Taliban regime appear to be regrouping and preparing fresh attacks designed to disrupt elections planned for the summer. The U.S. military is also planning a spring offensive, aimed at catching or killing Bin Laden.


‘It’s Very Frustrating’

One former senior CIA official said the bases were closed because of security concerns. “It’s very frustrating” for CIA officers in the country, the official said. “They are locked down very tightly. There’s very little unilateral [intelligence collection] going on, and they closed most of their bases out in the countryside because they feared for the safety of their people.”

The U.S. official acknowledged that the bases had been closed. But the official said the agency had done so for several reasons, and had not reduced the number of personnel in Afghanistan.

“It’s not just because it’s a dangerous place -- it’s been dangerous all along,” the official said. “The bases that have been closed have been closed for reasons of efficiency, because the job can be done better somewhere else.”

The CIA has struggled to fill high-ranking posts in other countries, sources said. Four former CIA officers with close ties to headquarters said in separate interviews that the agency struggled to fill its top post in Pakistan last year, that at least five candidates turned down the job of station chief in Islamabad before the agency found an officer willing to take it.

A former senior officer in the agency’s Near East Division said he was “badly jolted” by that news, and that most who turned it down did so for family reasons, such as a working spouse or children in school. “They were all the sort of things you’d expect in the corporate world,” he said. “But this isn’t the corporate world.”

The CIA disputes those claims. “There were a number of people who wanted that job and were vying heavily for it,” said the U.S. official. “I’m not aware of anybody turning it down.”