When CIA Director Leon Panetta gathered reporters recently to discuss mistakes that allowed a suicide bomber to kill seven personnel in Afghanistan, he didn’t mention a separate disclosure the agency made that day: that it had sued a retired officer who wrote an unapproved memoir.
To some CIA veterans, the developments are related in ways that do not reflect well on the agency. An internal investigation blamed the December attack by an Al Qaeda double agent on “systemic failures” in CIA training, management, information sharing and vetting of sources. Former agents have publicly pointed out some of those problems for years, without response by the CIA.
But now, as it promises reforms in the wake of the bombing at an agency base in the eastern Khowst province, the CIA is seeking to punish a former agent for violating his secrecy agreement, which he says he did to blow the whistle on waste and incompetence.
The author of the 2008 book “The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture” writes under the pseudonym Ishmael Jones. A former Marine who served 15 years spying overseas under non-official cover before resigning in 2006, Jones describes a diminished agency that, even after 9/11, is stymied by a culture of careerism and lethargy. He argues that experienced spies in the field are routinely undercut and second-guessed by agency bureaucrats.
Jones’ book has drawn relatively little attention. The same is true of two other books by former case officers, whose memoirs also portray the agency as inept and bureaucratic. The CIA’s acknowledgement of failures in Khowst lends currency to these accounts.
“Khowst is not an aberration. It is a symptom of what is wrong with the CIA today,” says Charles Faddis, a former Middle East station chief and author of “Beyond Repair: The Decline and Fall of the CIA,” published last year. Both Jones and Faddis spent time in Iraq during the war.
Faddis argues the Khowst tragedy was a result of the “deprofessionalization” of the National Clandestine Service, the CIA’s operations arm. The spy cadre is no longer comprised mostly of seasoned overseas operators as much as “new hires, former support personnel and headquarters-based desk officers,” Faddis says.
Jones concurs. Ninety percent of CIA employees are stationed in the U.S., he says, embedded in a “Soviet-style bureaucracy” that relies on contracts with private firms run by former CIA officials.
The agency is “stiff, risk-averse and increasingly filled with individuals who see the CIA as simply another federal job,” Faddis adds. His book mentions one support officer overseas who refused to work after 5 p.m.
Another post-9/11 memoir, the 2004 book “Blowing my Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy,” by former case officer Lindsay Moran, who served for five years until 2003, draws a similar portrait.
Many current and former CIA officials object, saying field operatives don’t see the big picture.
“Look at the breadth of activity post-9/11 — the rapid move into Afghanistan, the toppling of the Taliban regime; the degradation of Al Qaeda leadership with new techniques and novel operations not even in existence nine years ago,” says Philip Mudd, who worked at the CIA for more than two decades, including a stint as deputy director of the Office of Terrorism Analysis. “Some high-risk operations fail because they’re high risk.”
Because of CIA officers, agency spokesman George Little said, “scores of terrorists have been taken off the battlefield, plots have been disrupted, and the lives of many coalition soldiers in Afghanistan have been saved.”
The Khowst operation, however, was not the CIA’s finest hour, critics say. The base was run by one of the agency’s most knowledgeable Al Qaeda experts, Jennifer Matthews, but she had almost no experience recruiting informants or working in hostile environments.
“She was always meant to sit behind a desk,” said Robert Baer, a former agent who wrote an article on the Khowst bombing for GQ magazine.
Matthews was killed in the suicide attack.
“Bob Baer’s comment about our fallen colleague, Jennifer Matthews, is not only offensive but wrong,” CIA spokesman George Little said.
One failure cited in the CIA’s review pinpointed what critics say is endemic: No one at the base knew who was in charge. The agency also acknowledged that no one had searched the suicide bomber.
Unlike Faddis and other memoirists, Jones published his book without completing the CIA’s prepublication review process.
Panetta said in a statement that the lawsuit reinforces that “CIA officers are duty-bound to observe the terms of their secrecy agreement with the agency.”
The lawsuit seeks all royalties from the book and any potential film. Jones says he donates all profits to charities that support soldiers’ families.
Jones says he disclosed no classified information, and the agency strung him along for a year.
“My options were either to scorn the censors or to keep quiet about fraud, waste and incompetence that put the American public at risk,” he said.
But Baer and Faddis say their highly critical books were approved by the CIA’s prepublication review board. “I’ve never seen them take criticism out,” Baer says.
Jones argues that his book is more damaging.
In support of his allegations that that the CIA wasted billions appropriated after 9/11 that was intended to send more case officers abroad, he describes millions of dollars funneled to a network of “front companies, offices, residential apartments, corporate shell companies,” with little discernable intelligence purpose. He visited one of these offices, he wrote, and found a single room with a man at a desk reading a novel.
The CIA’s budget is classified, as is the work of its inspector general, so it’s impossible to verify Jones’ account. A U.S. intelligence official, responding Saturday to the misspending allegations, said the CIA “doesn’t know what Jones is talking about.”
A senior congressional staffer not authorized to speak by name said, “After 9/11, money was thrown at intelligence to prevent further attacks and support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said a senior congressional staffer who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue. “Cuts are coming.”