In the new war on terrorism, the American intelligence community is beginning to ask: How far can we go?
CIA officials, members of congressional oversight committees and others say they find themselves in conversations about such covert tactics as kidnapping family members of suspected terrorists, hiring Afghan drug lords and bandits as informants, and possible assassination attempts.
There’s no sign that such extreme plans have been launched, officials said, but little apparently is off-limits -- or off the table. Armed with additional funding and a presidential order authorizing lethal action if necessary, the CIA is reaching out to its retired veterans and others for manpower and ideas. The discussions are so wide-ranging that the CIA almost appears to be “winging it” as it searches for new techniques, said one recently retired senior intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“This is a new business, and no one has any answers or any real plans on what’s the best way to do it,” said the official, who spent 24 years at the agency. “They’re not flying blind, but there is a lot of experimentation that’s going on.”
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham (D-Fla.) cited as an example a dinner he attended last week with people who work on intelligence issues and have connections to the intelligence community. The dinner conversation ranged in part on how U.S. military commander “Black Jack” Pershing used Islam’s prohibition on pork to help crush an insurgency on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao after the Spanish-American War at the turn of the last century.
In one instance, Graham explained in an interview, U.S. soldiers captured 12 Muslims. They killed six of them with “bullets dipped into the fat of pigs.”
After that, Graham said, the U.S. soldiers wrapped the Muslim rebels in funeral shrouds made of pigskin and “buried them face down so they could not see Mecca. Then they poured the entrails of the pigs over them. The other six were forced to watch. And that was the end of the insurrection on Mindanao,” Graham noted.
Actually, Mindanao’s 300-year-old insurgency still simmers today, in part aided by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network. In any event, Graham made it clear that he wasn’t advocating utilizing Pershing’s brutal tactics in the battle against Bin Laden, a tactic sure to outrage Muslims worldwide.
Still, “we need to try to get inside the motivation of these people,” he said. The goal is to understand “the religious fanaticism that drives this [terror network] and turn it to our benefit.”
If terrorists aren’t motivated by political ideology or money, Graham said, U.S. intelligence may be forced to prey on other vulnerabilities, including “families, relatives, religious beliefs.”
“I know there are a lot of people who are putting ideas like that forward,” he added.
Asked whether the CIA or other agencies should use torture to gain information, Graham said, “I personally would advise the U.S. not to have a double standard on human rights in terms of people who are in detention.”
But he added that “some have suggested instead of us taking information, [we should] allow states with more aggressive capabilities [to do so]. That would be a possibility.”
A former CIA operative with 30 years of experience said a debate has raged over interrogation techniques since Sept. 11. “A lot of people are saying we need someone at the agency who can pull fingernails out,” he said. “Others are saying, ‘Let others use interrogation methods that we don’t use.’ The only question then is, do you want to have CIA people in the room?”
In response, a U.S. intelligence official said the CIA does not mistreat captives, but sidestepped a question about whether it allows officials from other countries to do so. The agency was dogged by such accusations during the Vietnam War and other conflicts.
Asked if the agency would hire those involved in Afghanistan’s drug trade, the official indicated that the CIA would reach out to anyone who can help in the war on terror. Under intense pressure from Congress since Sept. 11, the agency has eased its restrictions on hiring so-called unsavory informants, including known drug traffickers.
“We will deal with people we need to in order to get the job done,” the official said.
Afghanistan was the world’s largest source of opium until June 2000, when a Taliban-led crackdown in effect halted opium poppy cultivation in most of the country, according to United Nations officials. The ban has started to unravel, however, since the U.S. military assault began this month.
Some analysts have argued that Bin Laden has laundered money from the Afghan drug trade, which is the main source of heroin in Europe and Russia, to finance terrorist activities. But warlords in Afghanistan’s opposition Northern Alliance also are deeply involved, U.S. officials say, and during the last year, areas under its control have produced the bulk of Afghanistan’s opium.
Another former CIA operations officer, who served extensively in the Middle East, said he has been contacted separately by two “high-ranking” agency officials seeking “ideas on how we can tackle” the terror networks.
The former officer said he offered two proposals. First, he said, he urged the CIA officials to consider assassinating known financiers of al-Qaida.
“I said, ‘If you start killing guys who write checks, people are going to stop writing checks,’ ” the former operative said. “These guys sat and watched CNN and their hearts were filled with joy when they saw those buildings go down. This is a war, and war means taking the battle to the enemy, not trying to figure out what the enemy is going to do next.”
When one of the CIA officials asked how U.S. military Special Forces troops could carry out such covert plots, the former officer said he burst out laughing.
“It can be a street crime,” he said. “You want to use guys who are natives. You don’t jump in in black helicopters with ‘U.S. Army’ written on them.”
The former CIA officer said he also suggested the agency begin targeting close relatives of known terrorists and use them to obtain intelligence.
“You get their mothers and their brothers and their sisters under your complete control, and then you make that known to the target,” he said. “You imply or you directly threaten [that] his family is going to pay the price if he makes the wrong decision.”
Both CIA officials seemed stunned by this proposal, the former officer recalled: “They said, ‘Wow, no one is talking about anything like that.’ ”
The former officer said both conversations left him with the impression that the CIA is too timid.
In many ways, the search for new solutions reflects a growing recognition that the agency, created during the Cold War to spy on Soviet-bloc countries, may be ill equipped to fight the new threat.
“People are saying that at Pearl Harbor we had horse cavalry and battleships,” another former official said. “Afterward we had airborne forces and carrier fleets. How do they change now? How do they build something new? That’s part of the dialogue.”
Another former official said he is fearful that the agency will become mired in the kinds of abuses that led to embarrassing scandals in the past, such as the botched assassination attempts of 30 and 40 years ago on several foreign leaders opposed to U.S. policies.
“Now what they’ve got is a lot more money, and people are saying, ‘The things we couldn’t do before, well, now we can do them,’ ” he said. “I don’t want to raise people’s expectations to think that’s going to work. I’ve seen the cowboys in action. They aren’t necessarily very good at it.
“There’s a mystique about intelligence that I think is highly undeserved,” he added. “Just because [intelligence is] difficult to obtain doesn’t mean it’s inevitably better. Just because you hear people on the phone doesn’t make it true. People lie. They gossip. They scam one another. A lot of stuff that was generated by [spies or informants] wasn’t worth very much.”
A former senior White House counter-terrorism official concurred. He said former President Clinton signed a secret “finding” authorizing the use of lethal force against Bin Laden after U.S. intelligence linked him to the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in August 1998.
“It basically authorized the CIA to do whatever was necessary to remove Bin Laden, to target the command and control of al-Qaida, up to and including the use of lethal force,” the official said.
“It gave the CIA pretty broad latitude. The question is what they can do now that they haven’t already tried.”