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John Weisman: Direct Action
John Weisman: Direct Action


John Weisman: Black Ops

John Weisman is one of the select company of writers to have had books on both the New York Times fiction and nonfiction bestseller lists. His acclaimed short stories have twice been selected for Best American Mystery Stories. A former journalist, Weisman has worked in more than three dozen countries. His latest book, the shadow war thriller Jack in the Box, is now available in hard cover through HarperCollins/William Morrow, bookstores nationwide, and Amazon.com. Last year's bestselling SOAR has just been released in paperback. He can be emailed at blackops@johnweisman.com, or reached through his website, www.johnweisman.com.

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June 13, 2005

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Direct Action
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About two-and-a-half years ago, a retired CIA contact of mine -- I'll give him the pseudonym Edward C. STIGGINS -- told me that in the mid-1990s he'd had a part in writing the internal damage assessment Langley had conducted in the wake of the Aldrich Ames debacle. Aldrich Hazen Ames, for those of you who may have forgotten, is the traitorous turncoat CIA officer who betrayed dozens of CIA's precious Soviet human assets and turned over untold quantities of information concerning America's intelligence operations, sources, and methods to the Russians for cash.

One ambitious way to solve the hemorrhage caused by Ames, STIGGINS said, would have been to create a new and wholly clandestine directorate of operations within the existing directorate of operations. "Completely sterile. New people, new compartments, new everything."

STIGGINS paused. "Of course Deutch would never have gone for it -- it was far too risky a concept for Deutch and his people." Deutch was John M. Deutch, Bill Clinton's director of central intelligence. And Deutch's people were deputy DCI George Tenet and executive director "Tora-Tora" Nora Slatkin, neither of whom had any background in running or overseeing real-world intelligence operations or personnel before they'd been appointed to their jobs.

Neither, for that matter, did Deutch, a tall, bumbling, angular, bookish MIT professor of chemistry and Pentagon bureaucrat who'd had no experience at all in the smoke-and-mirrors world of intelligence and espionage prior to his selection as the chief of America's spy apparatus. STIGGINS put his wine glass down. "It was a good idea -- a small, nimble, aggressive covert DO inside the big, sluggish, bureaucratic overt DO." He looked at me slyly. "And wouldn't that make one hell of a book."

In December of 2003 I was sitting in Les Gourmets des Ternes, a restaurant on the boulevard de Courcelles in Paris, just off the Place des Ternes. I was lunching with an Iranian contact I will call Shahram Shahristani. Shahristani is a former one-star general in the Iranian Army. Under the shah, he ran one of Iran's top-line military intelligence units.

"I will tell you something CIA doesn't know," Shahram said between bites of sole meunière. "Imad Mugniyah visited Gaza in the past year. He went there on behalf of the Seppah-e Pasdaran -- Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps."

I hadn't heard a whisper and told him so. "Still, it is true," he said. "He was there to coordinate the creation of Hezbollah cells in Gaza and the West Bank. Hezbollah terrorists will work alongside Fatah's al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad."

That caught my attention. After Usama bin Laden, Imad Mugniyah is the most wanted terrorist in the world. "From whom did you hear this, Shahram?"

"There is a man," he said. "Said is his name. An Iranian officer. For years he was liaison between Arafat and the Revolutionary Guard Corps. He worked with Imad Mugniyah. Lately, he has become disenchanted. I heard about Mugniyah from him." 

Shahristani put his fork down. "But to your CIA I am persona non grata." Shahristani poured himself some Evian water and sipped. "CIA," he said, "is rotten clear through. All they do at Paris station is sit around writing emails to each other. The place should be burned to the ground and razed. And the fact that that Imad Mugniyah and Usama bin Laden cooperate-that Iran and al-Qa'ida have a relationship? They want to know nothing. " He put his Evian down and stared at me, his eyes intense. "You should write a book about it."

John Weisman
John Weisman
Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel
Soon after I got back from Paris I went to a cocktail party in Northern Virginia. I fell into conversation with a CIA annuitant I know casually. I'll call him Walter S. MORRIS. In 2002, MORRIS returned to Langley on a contract basis to help train non official cover intelligence officers, commonly referred to as NOCs. Unlike the case officers who work under official cover, NOCs work without a net.

"How's it going?" I asked MORRIS. "You still at Langley?"

"Nah," he said. "You have no idea how bad things are these days. I bailed."

That was an opening wide enough to drive a six-by through. "Like, how bad is it?"

"It took us some time, but we were able to identify a sizeable number of potentially ideal NOC candidates," MORRIS said. "They were exactly the sort of people we need the most these days. They were all foreign born and so they had native-speaker language capability. They all held dual citizenship, and best of all, they all had current passports for their former countries. They could -- and they did -- come and go. They were exactly the sort of covert intelligence officers the 9/11 Commission had recommended in its report."

"Sounds terrific."

"It was terrific. All we needed was money -- a supplementary funding package for their training."

That made sense. Dual nationals must be kept under ultra deep-cover. Ideally, you don't send dual-national NOCs to the Farm, which is the commonly used sobriquet d'espionage for Camp Peary, CIA's massive clandestine training facility near Williamsburg, Virginia. Basic Common-sense OPSEC dictates that dual national NOCs be treated specially: trained in secret, one by one, in safe houses and in total isolation. They should never go near Langley. They should never mix with anyone from the clandestine service except for their handlers.

I looked at MORRIS. "They must have been ecstatic."

MORRIS shook his head, "I was told there'd be no supplemental unless we took every one of these people to Langley and blue-badged them first. I was told they'd never be trusted unless they were formally brought in and sworn."

"Whose decision was that?"

MORRIS drained his gin on the rocks and rolled his eyes skyward. "My guess? Seventh floor. But who knows for sure. And then I heard they wanted to train the NOCs as a group -- send them all down to the Farm." He shook his head. "The place is completely dysfunctional." He looked at me. "You should write a book."


There are still some good people at CIA. Hardworking, talented, and dedicated. Unfortunately, for most of the past couple of decades, they have been led by bunglers, bureaucrats, incompetents, naifs, amateurs and dilettantes. CIA's downward spiral began in earnest with Jimmy Carter's director of central intelligence, Admiral Stansfield Turner. Turner, a technocrat who mistrusted human-sourced intelligence, took office in March of 1977. Four months later he announced his intention to reduce the directorate of operations by 800 people. Turner kept his word -- and decimated the DO. At the same time, Congress established detailed ground rules laying out how and when CIA had to inform the intelligence oversight committees about covert action. Once that procedure was in place, a steady stream of leaks about CIA's covert and clandestine programs and activities began to flow off Capitol Hill and into the media.

There was a brief respite during the tenure of William J. Casey, but after Casey's death the decline continued precipitously under William H. Webster and Robert M. Gates. The cautious Judge Webster was known in-house as "the stealth DCI." Gates, a career analyst who was well-known within CIA circles to detest the directorate of operations, instituted a DO personnel policy he called "cross-fertilization," under which analysts, reports officers and even secretaries were brought into the DO as case officers.

R. James Woolsey, President Bill Clinton's first DCI, may not have been an incompetent, but he couldn't get an appointment at the White House. In fact, after a deranged individual named Frank Eugene Corder stole a small airplane and crashed it into the southwest corner of the Executive Mansion directly below the president's bedroom in 1994, wags at Langley joked that the pilot had in fact been Woolsey, making one last desperate attempt to see Clinton.

In 1995, in the wake of the Ames scandal, Clinton replaced Woolsey with John Deutch, the MIT chemistry professor. And Deutch named as his deputy George Tenet, a former congressional staffer. And with them came le déluge.

So by the time Tenet politicked his way into the CIA directorship in July of 1997, the directorate of operations was already a shambles. But Tenet burnt it to the ground.

Here's a partial -- and I emphasize the word -- list of SNAFUs, TARFUs, and FUBARs that occurred on Tenet's watch, either as director or as deputy director.

  • So as not to offend a politically correct Congress, Langley jettisoned scores of productive agents because they had committed alleged human rights violations or had criminal records. Valuable networks -- including the sorts of agents capable of penetrating terrorist cells, totalitarian governments, and narco-organizations -- were lost.
  • Rationalizing that with the Cold War over and it was time to save money, CIA either closed down many of its Sub-Saharan African stations or staffed them with annuitants. Langley also shut down many of CIA's bases in Western European cities. The result? CIA became increasingly deaf, dumb, and blind at the same time al Qa'ida was expanding its operational turf to include Western Europe and Africa.
  • Language skills languished. There were few Arab speakers, and virtually no one who could speak Pashto, Farsi, or Dari. Islamist cells in Western Europe went unnoticed because there were no case officers in Germany or London with any Arabic. Hence no penetration or access agents could be recruited. CIA was essentially blind, but didn't know it.
  • The DO, larded through as it was with scores of Gates's "crossfertilization" personnel, became less and less capable of performing its core mission -- spotting, assessing, developing, and recruiting spies on behalf of the United States. But Tenet did little to remedy the situation, with the result that
  • CIA became hugely dependent on its liaison relationships with other intelligence agencies for handouts of human-sourced intelligence.

    And how did all those missteps play out on the world stage?

  • The Indians tested a nuclear weapon, but CIA knew nothing about it.
  • CIA mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
  • North Korea started reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods but CIA was in the dark until the North Koreans themselves announced what they'd done.
  • Al-Qa'ida was able to launch well-planned simultaneous attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and against the USS Cole in Yemen.
  • On September 11, 2001, thousands of Americans were murdered in a brutal, well-planned, well-executed act of war against the United States about which CIA had been essentially blind. And yet incredibly Tenet later told a the 9/11 commission that what took place on September 11, 2001 was not an intelligence failure. "Failure," Tenet claimed, "means no focus, no attention, no discipline -- and those were not present in what either we or the FBI did here and around the world."
  • Tenet's CIA fumbled the WMD intelligence issue prior to the invasion of Iraq. Despite this, according to Washington uber-reporter Bob Woodward's book "Plan of Attack," Tenet told President George W. Bush that the proof Saddam had WMD was "a slam dunk."

    Now George Tenet doesn't bear sole responsibility. The United States Congress deserves a huge share of the blame for the sorry condition of our intelligence community, or IC. After all, for all those years of decay, rot, political correctness, and risk aversion under Turner, and Webster, and Gates, and Woolsey, and Deutch, and Tenet, the two congressional oversight committees responsible for making sure the IC was functional and the DO was efficient had their collective heads stuck in the legislative sand, and essentially did nothing to remedy the situation. One year before 9/11, HPSCI, the House Permanent Subcommittee on Intelligence, barely mentioned terrorism in its FY 2001 report. The committee was more worried about the security of State Department laptops than it was about Usama bin Laden. The Senate was no better. Just a few months before 9/11, Sen. Richard Shelby, who headed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, abbreviated SSCI and pronounced, appropriately, "Sissy," returned from a tour of CIA's Middle East stations. He told the Washington Post that from what he'd gleaned from our intelligence people on the ground, he believed Bin Laden was "on the run."

    Just as bad, by not taking a tough love approach to oversight and demanding results, Congress for decades looked on from the sidelines as CIA failed in its mission. Indeed, by its own unconscionable dereliction of duty, it could be argued Congress tacitly encouraged CIA leadership to create the current IC culture, which rewards failure with promotions and cash incentives, while stifling creativity, out of the box thinking, and audacity.

    And the more I thought about the mess we're in, the more I realized that STIGGINS, MORRIS, Shahram, and others who'd told me horror stories were right: I should write a book about the current state of CIA. Which is how DIRECT ACTION (published on June 14 2005 by William Morrow; $24.95; and available at bookstores everywhere and on Amazon.com) came to be written.

    DIRECT ACTION is about an American intelligence community that is so operationally dysfunctional that it even has to outsource its core mission, the collecting of human intelligence. Indeed, HUMINT-gathering by private firms and CIA subcontractors is something that is actually taking place as you are reading this article.

    And even though DIRECT ACTION is a work of fiction, the book is built on the real-world stories told to me by people like STIGGINS, MORRIS, Shahristani, and dozens of other world class operators. I'm talking about true American heroes. Covert warriors who have spent the best parts of their lives in the worst places on earth. Case officers who, despite the never-ending torrent of "thou-shalt-not" memos pouring out of Langley, still panned for intelligence gold. Case officers who put their careers on the line simply by doing what they'd been hired to do: spotting, assessing, developing, recruiting, and running unilateral agents and networks that might, just might, provide the United States with a hint of our adversaries' intentions and capabilities.

    It is unfortunate that many of these shadow warriors came to understand during the last few decades that the toughest battles they'd face would not be against Usama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Taliban, or even Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Iraqi terrorist combatants. The bloodiest combat -- and the most casualties -- would occur during the constant, grinding, take-no-prisoners bureaucratic war against audacity, creativity, and daring that was being waged day-in, day-out in the corridors of CIA headquarters by the very people who were supposed to lead, inspire, and protect them.

    © Copyright 2005 John Weisman. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.



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