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Tripping over CIA’s bureaucratic hurdles

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Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture

By Ishmael Jones

Encounter Books, $27.95, 383 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN WEISMAN

If even half of what Ishmael Jones, the pseudonymous author of "The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture" tells us is true, we have reason to be afraid, very afraid. Mr. Jones, who spent almost two decades as a NOC, or non-official cover case officer at CIA, paints a picture of a bloated, top-heavy, molasses-slow bureaucracy in which careerism trumps initiative, risk aversion wins over audacity, and spying — the CIA's core mission, the spotting, assessing, developing and recruiting of foreign nationals to steal or divulge secrets — can become a career-killer.

Mr. Jones is not the first CIA operative to describe an agency incapable of performing its core mission. But he is the first to do so without going through CIA's vetting process.

It is understandable that CIA wouldn't want any of "The Human Factor" published. Mr. Jones relates not dozens, not scores, but hundreds of incidents in which CIA managers created a system of bureaucratic hurdles that effectively prevented Mr. Jones and his fellow deep-cover case officers from doing their jobs, lied to Congress and covered up ineptitude with obfuscation and smoke and mirrors. Some examples:

On assignment to an unnamed Middle East country, Mr. Jones queries headquarters about his mission — recruiting a scientist with knowledge of chemical weapons and WMD programs. "After a month," he writes, "responses began to dribble in . . . Then came long lists of questions about my operational proposals, as well as reasons why things might go wrong. When I answered the questions more followed. The time it was taking them to come to a decision was making it impossible to move the operation forward. In one case — I'd met the target multiple times — the chief asked, 'What will you tell him when he asks you where you got his name?'"

"Congress," Mr. Jones writes, "asked the Agency how many new personnel it had hired as non-State Department officers. The Agency created a number by tallying all of the support staff, the officers in training, and the people who were assigned to posts in the United States. The number looked good."

"After President Bush gave his 'Axis of Evil' speech," Mr. Jones writes, "the Agency began sending my colleagues on missions to these and other rogue states. They didn't conduct any intelligence operations there — just visited, stayed in hotels and returned to write detailed after-action reports about their itineraries. HQs briefed Congress about all of them. This became known around HQs as Axis of Evil Tourism."

And then there's the Three Stooges mentality at headquarters. "Like most organizations, the CIA had its own stationery. Its official envelopes had 'Central Intelligence Agency' written on the return address. The Agency mistakenly used this stationery for a mailing on its new diversity policy, a mailing sent to officers ... who were working deep under cover in foreign countries."

In the early 1990s, Mr. Jones sought permission to recruit Abdul Qadir Khan, Pakistan's leading nuclear scientist when Khan made a trip to the Middle East. "Our station in Islamabad would hear none of it. The Agency had no interest in contact with Khan or his subordinates." This is the same A.Q. Khan, of course, who the CIA had to admit a decade later sold and exported nuclear technology to rogue states.

Because the CIA had been so badly burned by double agents working for East Germany, Cuba and the Soviet Union, headquarters developed a system for testing that "turned out to be an enormous pile of rear-end covering extra paperwork. ... Lots of the tests were silly or inconclusive."

Charlton, one of Mr. Jones' deep-cover colleagues spent his time creating "front companies, offices, residence apartments, corporate shell companies often in out of the way countries where the Agency had limited access." Why did Charlton do that? Because, Mr. Jones explains, "during Agency briefings to Congress, the Agency could point to a map studded with pins, each representing an Agency presence. Many of these pins were the Potemkin facilities Charlton had created."

Some NOCs became so frustrated over the CIA's inability to deal with operational approval requests in a timely fashion that they took desperate measures. Loman, another of Mr. Jones' deep-cover colleagues, "had been assigned to a country in North Africa. He reported directly to headquarters, cutting a local agency station out of the loop. Still, he received no replies to his requests for approval." Loman's solution? "Finally he flew to HQs, found a computer terminal and answered his own requests. He returned to North Africa and carried out his operations,. When he needed new approvals he traveled back to HQs and sent them to himself. He continued to answer his own messages for about six months until he was caught."

In 2003 and 2004, at the height of the Global War on Terror, Mr. Jones says CIA's leaders were "inventing new ways to draw down our overseas presence. For instance, they were requiring officers to change assignments every two years." For NOCs, who had to weave themselves into the societal fabric of the country in which they worked, a two-year tour virtually guaranteed that they'd be able to produce no useful intel.

"During the spring of 2006, American intelligence activities in Europe shut down. The Agency had been terrified of conducting intel operations in France for some time. Then the Italian station sent a cable to Agency offices worldwide stating that did not intend to approve travel to . . . Italy because hotel rooms were difficult to reserve from early spring to late fall." Similar cables were sent worldwide by CIA stations in Switzerland and Germany. "No one," writes Mr. Jones, "seemed to find it unusual that a major part of the Agency's operational territory had just been shut down."

The Central Intelligence Agency is not happy with Mr. Jones. A CIA spokesperson has referred to "The Human Factor" as "fiction." To be candid, Mr. Jones does divulge information that might be considered sources and methods. He provides readers with several operational details that CIA is loath to talk about. He points out for example that CIA stations are actually sometimes located in U.S. embassies, and that many CIA officers work under State Department cover. He confirms that CIA has multiple stations and bases inside the continental United States, from which the agency targets foreign nationals. And in a couple of cases, he slips up and actually identifies a specific country in which he worked.

None of this is particularly shocking. But Mr. Jones did - as all CIA employees do - sign an agreement not to publish anything without it being vetted. This agreement Mr. Jones has obviously broken.

His goal, however, is noble. Mr. Jones obviously believes that the United States deserves the best intelligence organization in the world. He believes passionately that every American taxpayer is being cheated because we are paying scores of billions of dollars for a bloated, ineffective, risk-averse organization that cannot perform the mission for which it was created. Since the intelligence disaster that was 9/11, precious few heads in the intelligence community have rolled. In fact, George Tenet, the director of central intelligence responsible for the greatest intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor actually received the Medal of Freedom for presiding over the 9/11 debacle.

One wonders what sort of award Mr. Jones will get.

John Weisman's most recent CIA novels, "Jack in the Box" and "Direct Action," are available from Avon Books. He can be reached at blackops@john weisman.com.

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