Skip to comments.How we won the spy game
Posted on 12/09/2001 3:37:59 PM PST by Pokey78
The CIA was almost written off after the events of September 11, but the defeat of the Taleban in Afghanistan is due to the West's superior intelligence
The most surprising aspect of the rapid defeat of the Taleban, culminating in the surrender of their last stronghold, Kandahar, has been the surprise it has caused in much of the British media. The Guardian reported on November 9: Key Afghan commanders are on the verge of abandoning the fight against the Taleban because their confidence in US military strategy has collapsed. As Guardian readers perused this pessimistic report, the BBC simultaneously broadcast the news that the town of Mazar-i Sharif had fallen to the supposedly demoralised forces of the Northern Alliance. Four days later, just as Taleban forces were fleeing from Kabul, The Guardian was forecasting that they would stand and fight and that the battle to dislodge them was likely to be very bloody.
Some of the leading pessimists of the last few months were equally gloomy and equally mistaken at the beginning of the Gulf War a decade ago, predicting that the conflict with Saddam Hussein would turn into a long and bloody campaign in which the American will to fight on would be steadily undermined by the return of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of body bags to the United States. In reality, the land war was one of the shortest in history with some of the smallest casualties. After a massive aerial bombardment lasting almost six weeks, Saddams army, the fourth largest in the world, was routed in a mere 100 hours of ground fighting with the loss of only 148 American lives.
The speed of the Taleban defeat, like the even more rapid rout of Iraqi forces in 1991, has been due in part to the late 20th-century transformation of US air power, which has emerged from its traditional role in support of land forces to become a decisive factor in breaking enemy resistance. The victories in both the Gulf and Afghanistan, however, were also hastened by good intelligence.
Immediately after the Gulf War, President George Bush (the elder) paid public tribute to the role of the intelligence community: The intelligence was outstanding and the community performed fantastically. He was lavish in his praise for all three main forms of intelligence collection: from human sources (Humint); from signals interception and cryptanalysis (Sigint); and from overhead photography and other imagery (Imint).
The CIA had a good war in 1991. Bush summoned to the White House all the agencys heads of station in the Middle East to congratulate them in person. Ten years later, however, at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, the CIA was almost written off by some commentators. Taken by surprise on September 11, it was said to lack the local knowledge and language skills needed to play a significant role in defeating the Taleban.
In reality, the first US unit to enter Afghanistan at the beginning of the war came from the CIAs euphemistically named Special Activities Division, whose existence had been kept so secret that it had yet to be discovered by the media. Officers of the division had been going in and out of Afghanistan on covert missions for the previous four years and had built up valuable contacts with the Northern Alliance. Since the beginning of the war the division appears to have played an important part in identifying Taleban and al-Qaeda targets, in intelligence collection (on a much greater scale than the abandoned al-Qaeda documents found by journalists in Kabul), and in channelling weapons and finance to those Afghan fighters most anxious to take on the enemy.
The first US combat fatality in Afghanistan was that of a 32-year-old Special Activities Division officer, Mike Spann, whose death in an unusual break with tradition was announced personally by an emotional George Tenet, the Director of the CIA, on November 28 and posted on the Agencys website: Mike was in the fortress of Mazar-i Sharif, where Taleban prisoners were being held and questioned. Although these captives had given themselves up, their pledge of surrender like so many other pledges from the vicious group they represent proved worthless.
Spanns death during the prison uprising in Mazar-i Sharif revealed for the first time the existence of the Special Activities Division. As well as it taking a leading part in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, there is little doubt that the division is also currently engaged in covert operations against the al-Qaeda network far beyond Afghanistan.
The biggest innovations in US intelligence collection during the wars in both the Gulf and Afghanistan appear to have been in Imint. The Air Force-Army Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), though still at the development stage when the Gulf War began, succeeded in providing commanders with near real-time target information in all weather conditions. The Air Force also deployed U-2 spy planes equipped for the first time with the Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System
(ASARS) to track moving vehicles and provide high-resolution imagery of fixed targets at night as well as by day. The Pioneer unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) provided excellent tactical Imint on enemy troop deployment for Marine, Army and Navy units. On one occasion, Iraqi troops tried to surrender to a UAV hovering above them.
The unprecedented success of imagery collection in the Gulf War created a demand for Imint far beyond what anyone had anticipated. The problems of meeting this demand were exacerbated by chronic inter-service rivalry. Remarkably, the computer systems employed by the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines frequently could not communicate with each other. The chairman of a Congressional inquiry later complained, When it came to intelligence imagery, it was like we had four separate countries out there rather than four services from one country. Since US Navy computers could not handle the air tasking orders (ATOs) issued by the US Air Force, these had incredibly to be flown in hard copy to the aircraft carriers in the Gulf.
The US armed services in Afghanistan have clearly learnt from their failures of co-ordination a decade ago. The Air Force and CIA unmanned Predator reconnaissance aircraft which continuously patrol the skies above Afghanistan use laser systems to identify targets for Navy fighters based on aircraft carriers while special forces on the ground provide target co-ordinates for both Navy and Air Force pilots.
Imint has probably been even more important in Afghanistan than in the Gulf. At this very moment both US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, and targeting units based in Saudi Arabia can see on their computer screens real-time imagery transmitted by the Predators and other aircraft from Afghanistan.
Imagery provided by a CIA Predator is reported to have led in mid-November to the detection and killing of a leading group of al-Qaeda terrorists. Unlike the UAVs in the Gulf War, Predators are also equipped with Hellfire anti-tank missiles to fire at the targets they identify. To most TV viewers who remember the Gulf War news footage of smart weaponry destroying Iraqi targets ten years ago, the images from Afghanistan today may seem little different. But while only 10 per cent of the bombs used in the Gulf War were precision-guided, the figure nowadays has risen to 90 per cent. (Even smart weapons, of course, do not always hit the correct target.) The new Imint technology deployed in Afghanistan includes thermal-imaging equipment allegedly capable of detecting a human presence deep inside the cave complex near Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan where bin Laden was reported to have taken refuge. With the onset of the bitter Afghan winter the capacity of these systems to identify other occupied caves will be enhanced by their ability to detect warm air escaping in sub-zero temperatures from tunnel entrances.
Good intelligence will become even more vital when bin Laden has finally been run to ground and the last remnants of Taleban resistance extinguished. So long as the war continues, the main function of intelligence is to support the Armed Forces, to act as it did in the Second World War and a series of other conflicts as a force multiplier, and thus to hasten victory. When the war ends intelligence will replace the armed services at centre-stage, its chief role to detect and avert the further attacks which al-Qaeda and its fellow-travellers are already planning.
To achieve that mission both Western intelligence communities and their political masters will have to do better than they did before September 11. Some of the denunciations of the intelligence failure which made possible the destruction of the World Trade Centre and part of the Pentagon, however, have been exaggerated. It now tends to be forgotten that for several years George Tenet and other senior CIA officers had repeatedly emphasised the threat from bin Laden both in public and in private.
In February of this year, for example, Tenet told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: Osama bin Laden and his global network of lieutenants and associates remain the most immediate and serious threat (to US security) . . . He is capable of planning multiple attacks with little or no warning.
It was not, however, envisaged that the multiple attacks would be carried out by 19 suicide terrorists hijacking four aircraft. The failure to foresee the scale of the threat from suicide bombers derived from the failure to see the connection between the dramatic increase in the use of human bombs by the Palestinian terrorist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad against Israeli targets since the beginning of the second Intifada in September 2000 and the plans simultaneously being developed by al-Qaeda to attack the United States. The same mistake will not be made again. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have far more would-be suicide bombers on their books than they are willing to recruit. Even after their defeat in Afghanistan, the same will doubtless be true of al-Qaeda.
A far more intractable problem which contributed to the intelligence failure on September 11 was inadequate co-ordination between the various branches of the US intelligence community. Intelligence that might have diminished the scale of the al-Qaeda atrocities was not passed on to those who needed it. Two of the hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf Alhamzi, both of whom boarded American Airlines Flight AA77 at Dulles international airport in Washington, are reported to have been on a watch-list of suspected terrorists prepared by the Immigration and Naturalisation Service. That list, however, was not made available to the Federal Aviation Administration. If al-Mihdhar and Alhamzi had been prevented from boarding Flight AA77 on September 11, it would, in all probability, not have crashed into the Pentagon half an hour later.
On September 16 Tenet circulated a memorandum entitled Were At War to the intelligence community, demanding better intelligence sharing and an end to previously endemic turf battles. That call has since been publicly echoed by Tom Ridge, the newly appointed Director of Homeland Security. Though President George W. Bushs recent claim that information sharing between the CIA and the FBI is seamless sounds somewhat optimistic, there have undoubtedly been improvements. The FBI, for example, now distributes to airlines lists of suspected terrorists.
The intelligence failure which made possible the terrorist attacks on September 11 involved European governments and intelligence agencies as well as the United States. Keeping track of al-Qaeda and its fellow travellers was not given nearly high enough priority. It is probably significant, for example, that there is no mention of such groups in the memoirs of the former Director-General of MI5, Stella Rimington, published a few days after the attacks.
The probable leader of the hijackers, Mohammed Atta, seems to have carried out much of the planning for the attacks at a base in Hamburg also used by two of the other hijackers. Though the German authorities were well aware that there was a Taleban office in Frankfurt from 1996 until this summer, they paid little attention to its activities. It is now believed that the office arranged for several hundred Islamic extremists in Germany to receive training at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Among them, it appears, were Atta and his two associates in Hamburg.
The wave of arrests, freezing of bank accounts and increased surveillance of actual and suspected al-Qaeda networks across Europe since September 11 represents a major, long-overdue catching-up exercise which will doubtless help to avert some future terrorist attacks. It is too late, however, to make up all the lost ground.
One of the chief problems which the intelligence services of the United States and its allies will have to face after the end of the war in Afghanistan will be the substantial number of al-Qaeda sleepers who have been allowed to establish themselves in the West in recent years. Ulrich Kersten, the head of the German federal criminal agency, the BKA, believes that at least 70,000 Islamic extremists have received terrorist training at al-Qaeda camps. Terrorist cells are believed to exist in more than 50 countries, from the United States to the Far East.
Their targets may well include next summers football World Cup in Japan and South Korea. The head of the DST (Frances MI5), Jean-Jacques Pascal, has recently revealed that in March 1998 the French authorities, using intelligence obtained by the DST and other European agencies, broke up a cell linked to al-Qaeda which was planning to bomb World Cup matches in France a few months later. This time last year, another DST operation, assisted by its European allies, disrupted a plan by another cell to attack the European Parliament in Strasbourg during the Christmas holidays.
Al-Qaedas main target, however, remains the United States. As a senior White House official has acknowledged, We have to assume that since there were (al-Qaeda) cells prior to September 11 buried in the United States for some time, there might be others. This is the most dangerous fact for American security right now.
Just how dangerous is revealed by the case of the Egyptian-born Ali Abul Saoud, alias Ali Muhammad, a trusted aide of bin Laden who succeeded in becoming a US Army sergeant, received special forces training at Fort Bragg, and passed on special forces manuals to al-Qaeda. The Saoud case came to light only when he approached the FBI after falling out with al-Qaeda, apparently after a dispute over money. It would be surprising if Saoud were the only al-Qaeda member to have succeeded in penetrating the US Armed Forces.
Since September 11 the hunt for the hidden al-Qaeda network in the United States has led to the largest criminal investigation in American history. Terrorist support groups have so far been identified in the Washington suburbs, Texas, California, Boston, New Jersey and Detroit. In one apartment in Detroit the FBI discovered three airport security badges, an assortment of false identity documents, and notes in Arabic revealing a plot to kill the former Defence Secretary William Cohen during a forthcoming trip to Turkey.
One of the problems currently facing the FBI, MI5 and other security agencies as they attempt to unravel the complex network of al-Qaeda and its fellow travellers is the frequent identity changes of their members. Take, for example, the case of the Saudi, Muhammad Rashid Daoud al-Owali, one of those accused of bombing the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1998. According to the FBI, during terrorist training in Afghanistan he changed his name to Muhammad Akbar and posed as a Qatari. From Afghanistan he moved to Yemen, shaving off his beard and using an Iraqi passport in the name of Abdul Ali Latif. In Yemen he obtained a Yemeni passport and travelled to Nairobi under the alias Khalid Salim Saleh bin Rashid.
These are not new problems, however, for Western intelligence services. During the Cold War KGB illegals were even more adept than al-Qaeda at changing nationality and living under false identities. At one point the Costa Rican envoy in Rome, Teodoro Castro, was actually a Soviet intelligence officer named Iosif Grigulevich who later re-emerged under his real name as one of Russias leading academic experts on Latin America. At another stage in the Cold War, the supposedly German-born piano tuner to Nelson Rockefeller and a series of other New York celebrities was, in reality, a KGB illegal officer named Anatoli Rudenko.
What is now required is for Western intelligence agencies to refocus the expertise acquired during the Cold War hunt for KGB illegals into the search for al-Qaeda sleepers.
Because the al-Qaeda network is so widely spread across the globe, the intelligence effort required to unravel it will require an unprecedented amount of international collaboration. According to a White House official: The good news is that, for the first time, we have a real, international intelligence network. As David Sanger, the New York Times correspondent, has observed, the United States, Russia and China also for the first time since the end of the Second World War now feel more threatened by international terrorism than by each other. Before September 11 the idea that American forces would now be operating out of former Soviet territory, sometimes with Russian help, would have seemed incredible. Simultaneously China has begun supplying the CIA with intelligence on al-Qaeda operations in Xinjiang.
Much more controversial is intelligence collaboration with countries such as Sudan which in the past have sponsored terrorist groups themselves. In 1998 the Clinton Administration refused a Sudanese offer to hand over two men suspected of involvement in the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and turned down a proposal for an FBI liaison office in Sudan. Since September 11, however, Sudan has been supplying to the United States intelligence on al-Qaeda and bin Laden, who was once based in Khartoum.
Limited intelligence collaboration with such dubious partners is justified because of the extraordinary potential threat from al-Qaeda and its allies. Bin Laden has told his followers that acquiring weapons of mass destruction is a religious duty. There is ample evidence from documents and laboratory equipment captured from al-Qaeda bases and safe houses in Afghanistan that this threat deserves to be taken seriously.
Not all the documents contain bad news. Some of the notes on the construction of nuclear weapons found in an al-Qaeda house in Kabul turn out to have been copied from a spoof website. Fanatics are not noted for their sense of humour.
There is, however, little else by way of light relief in the captured al-Qaeda material. At one training camp 30 boxes full of phials were discovered with the label Sarin the deadly but odourless nerve gas used six years ago in a terrorist attack on the Tokyo underground by the homicidal Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo. Laboratory examination of the contents of other phials will doubtless reveal other horrors. It is even possible, as recent reports have suggested (but not proved), that bin Laden had plans for a dirty nuclear device capable of scattering radioactivity over a wide area of the United States.
There is, as I wrote in The Times on September 13, worse to come even than the destruction of the World Trade Centre and the attack on the Pentagon . . . The question, alas, is not whether the terrorists of the 21st century will use weapons of mass destruction but when and where they will do so.
Christopher Andrew is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Cambridge University. His most recent book, with Vasili Mitrokhin, is The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West (Penguin, £9.99).
Is this the same CIA that has used unmanned, and both armed and unarmed drones in Afghanitsan?
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Stay well - stay safe -Stay armed - Yorktown
Still, it looks like we're doing some good HUMINT work.
I once talked to a westernized Arab (he'd left Syria in the 1960s because he was a Chaldean Christian), and he said that the key to getting intel in Arab countries would be to send in Arabic-speaking CIA agents, businessmen, and students who were briefed on how to interact with Arabs--specifically, they need to gossip over coffee. You don't need to give heavy-duty stuff on our side, but the more amusing your tale, the more likely you are to get whatever gossip the OTHER guy knows. Maybe it'll be worthless. But maybe they'll tell you all about their idjit son who left the family rug-weaving business to take up with some fruitcake imam in Pakistan, and, oh yes, he's at the madrassa just west of Islamabad...