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Will Porter Goss reform the CIA’s clandestine service? Though the media have focused on senior-level resignations under the new director, Goss’s hiring priorities are a better indicator of whether meaningful change is arriving at Langley. So far, all signs show that his CIA will be the CIA of his predecessor: bureaucratically moribund at headquarters and operationally ineffectual in the field. If this were not the case, we would see Goss and the White House announcing plans first to fire, not hire, hundreds of operatives who do not advance the agency’s primary counterterrorism mission.
President Bush, partly in response to the Sept. 11 commission’s recommendations, has ordered the case officer cadre increased by 50 percent, augmenting the numbers both of “inside” officers, who usually work out of embassies and consulates, and, more important, the nonofficial cover officers, known inside the agency as NOCs (pronounced “knocks”). Since the CIA’s beginning in 1947, “inside” officers have dominated the operations directorate. Even in the agency’s most muscular years–the 1950s and the 1980s–nonofficial cover operatives represented only a tiny slice of the clandestine service.
According to active-duty CIA officers, there is a general realization that the number of nonofficial operatives needs to go up: It’s difficult even to imagine scenarios in which the CIA’s fake diplomats–the people under official cover–can meet, let alone “develop” possible agents who might be useful against the Islamic extremist target. Yet there will be enormous resistance inside the clandestine service to giving priority to the NOC corps in counterterrorism.
A similar push for more NOCs occurred in the early 1980s, when the Reaganites, reacting to the ideologically driven force reductions of the ’70s, decided to energize the CIA by expanding its clandestine capacity. The result: More NOCs were hired, but even more “inside” officers took to the field, including, for the first time, officially designated “counterterrorist” case officers. In the bigger stations and bases, case officers were stacked up like firewood. In many major cities, where fake business cover was easier to maintain, NOCs, too, started to pile up, and to search for something to justify their jobs. The number of mediocre “recruited” foreign agents exploded. The resignation rate among the more talented operatives rose rapidly.
President Bush and Goss are well on the way to repeating the errors of Ronald Reagan and William Casey. It should not require a detailed knowledge of agency history and operations for outsiders to see that most case officers, both “inside” officers and NOCs, have no relevance to the counterterrorist efforts.
This is especially true for the operatives in the Near East division and the counterterrorism center, the two parts of the CIA most responsible for running operations against Islamic extremists. “Inside” officers simply cannot maneuver outside in an effective way. An officially covered case officer posted to Yemen trying to fish in fundamentalist circles would be immediately spotted by the internal security service, to say nothing of fundamentalists. And security concerns since Sept. 11 often seriously restrict the activities of CIA officers based in official U.S. facilities abroad.
Meanwhile, nonofficial cover officers working in the Middle East are, according to active-duty case officers, still mostly doing short-term work, flying in and out on brief assignments. Like their NOC colleagues elsewhere in the world, they are usually trapped by business cover that has little relevance to high-priority, dangerous targets.
The agency desperately needs to develop the culture and capacity to mimic the Islamic activist organizations that attract young male militants. Creating such useful counterterrorist front organizations–Islamic charities and educational foundations–isn’t labor-intensive, but it does take time. A dozen operatives, based at headquarters and as NOCs abroad, would be sufficient. But the clandestine service as currently structured and led would resist designing such a program, let alone trying to attract the people with the right backgrounds to accomplish the task. To go after the Islamic terrorist target in this way–to wean the CIA from its ever-growing dependence on Middle Eastern intelligence services and stations full of “inside” officers–would cause a revolt at Langley.
To my knowledge, there has never been a single study of the efficacy of CIA officers deployed against any target during the Cold War. The agency never once sat down and reviewed how and why case officers were stationed abroad. Certain targets would suddenly grow in importance–Cuba, Iran or Iraq–and large operational desks would become even larger task forces, all fueled by the assumption that bigger is better. According to active-duty officers, no serious evaluation has so far been done on the world of Islamic extremists, even though the number of officers assigned to this target has grown exponentially.
The CIA unquestionably needs to hire more operatives. It needs to have case officers better-schooled about the targets they chase. But unless the system is overhauled, the old blood will poison the new. In clandestine intelligence collection and covert action, bigger is rarely better. Only by thinking small, day after day, do case officers occasionally have the good fortune to make a contribution to their nation’s defense.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former case officer in the CIA.
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