November 21, 2011

What You Need to Know About the CIA Getting Rolled Up in Lebanon. That, and Larry Munson. (Updated)

As some of you may or may not already know, Hizballah, together with the Lebanese government, has rolled up what is believed to be the vast majority of the assets of the Central Intelligence Agency in Lebanon. Ken Delanian of the Los Angeles Times and Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press have more, but this story has already attracted the attention of the U.S. Congress, which has some questions for the CIA.

I know about as much about clandestine operations and running agents as I do about playing linebacker in the NFL, but I do know a little about Lebanon, and I also know something about what my boss John Nagl likes to refer to as "learning organizations," a concept I believe to be relevant here. I first heard about this story from a journalist over lunch last week, and I'll relate to you what I told him and some of what he told me.

1. As many of you know, Hizballah and Lebanese intelligence have been quite good at rolling up Israeli intelligence assets since 2006. (Contrary to what I would have thought, Israel managed to keep a pretty good human intelligence network alive in Lebanon after its withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.) Our intelligence assets were vulnerable to the same counter-intelligence methods that did in the Israelis, but we apparently blew off the warnings.

2. Given that negligence, if I am a member of the U.S. Congress, I am going to ask if it is really true that the station chief in Beirut was subsequently promoted within the ranks of the CIA. If told this is in fact true, I am going to ask who, if anyone, is being held accountable.

3. I am also, if I am a member of the U.S. Congress, going to be asking whether or not CIA tradecraft has eroded over the past decade as the agency has chased the bright shiny ball we'll call "drone-strikes-in-Pakistan". (A question that, quite frankly, needed to be asked after the 2009 bombing in Khost.) It's great to have an intelligence agency with a knife in its teeth, but the primary mission of an intelligence organization is to gather and analyze intelligence, not to thwack bad guys. If you fail in that primary mission, questions have to be asked as to why you are failing.

4. The CIA strikes me as an organization that hates having to explain itself and has every bureaucratic reason to avoid doing so. In the same way that the U.S. Army has an institutional interest in convincing policy makers that every general officer is equal to another, the CIA has an interest in convincing outsiders that external evaluation will compromise valuable tactics, techniques and procedures and will endanger operational security. (This is not a good recipe for an organization that learns from its mistakes and solicits external criticism in an effort to be more effective.) All organizations resist criticism, but intelligence organizations resist criticism and then wrap themselves in the cloak of all-important operational security to avoid it. Again, if I am the U.S. Congress, I am going to call bulls***, and I am going to do so in the following way.

  • I am going to assemble a high-level panel of retired agency veterans and veterans of other U.S. intelligence and military organizations to assess where, exactly, things went wrong in Lebanon. (I would try to get people like Hank Crumpton and John McLaughlin but might also try to get a real outsider like Mark Allen -- which would drive the agency absolutely crazy and would provoke cries that these kinds of things simply cannot be done. Which might be exactly why they should be done.) I would charge this same panel with asking whether or not tradecraft has eroded across the agency and, if it has, to suggest changes to improve it.
  • I would demand the CIA hold people accountable. I would demand, in short, heads. We cannot recruit assets in the Arabic-speaking world when people do not believe we will protect them and that they are vulnerable to a) the methods used by Hizballah and Lebanese intelligence and b) our own poor tradecraft.

Because that's what it really comes down to: poor tradecraft. This is not a matter of some Lebanese Karla lurking out there, out-smarting us. This is our premier intelligence agency getting sloppy, resulting in the death or incarceration of some brave U.S. allies.

UPDATE: Greg Miller has more information in today's Washington Post. Key lines:

CIA veterans familiar with the exposure described the harm as extensive. “It has caused irreparable damage to the agency’s ability to operate in the country,” said a former CIA official with knowledge of the case. The former official attributed the failure to a breakdown in tradecraft. “It is all a result of bad counterintelligence tactics.”

One of my commenters, meanwhile, has some intelligent words in defense of the agency. Check it out.


On a completely unrelated note, famed University of Georgia radio announcer Larry Munson died yesterday. I grew up around SEC football and remember my father, a friend of Munson's, introducing me to the great man. ESPN has compiled a list of Munson's greatest calls, several of which came in games against my Volunteers. My own personal favorite has to be Munson's reaction on seeing a new freshman running back by the name of ... Herschel Walker. Bill Bates may have gone on to enjoy a stellar career with the Dallas Cowboys, but listen to Munson as Walker, a freshman, absolutely runs him over. My god, a freshman!