- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2009


The collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” as our leader Vladimir Putin has said, yet we have much to be thankful for. He has charged us to restore Russia’s power and prestige. We hold controlling positions throughout government and industry. From the remnants of old networks, we are rebuilding collection capability and penetrations throughout the former Soviet states, accumulating wealth and expanding our influence globally.

Behind the curtain of international cooperation, we have surged our activities inside the United States. In sheer numbers, we are at Cold War heights: running agents of influence, acquiring valuable technologies and collecting secrets. While America concentrates on finding terrorists, it is paying far less attention to finding our spies. And by its own hand, it is creating new vulnerabilities we can exploit.

U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. is investigating CIA officers for their conduct of terrorist interrogations, even though the president promised this would not happen. They obtained time-urgent intelligence on terrorist plans, following interrogation guidelines laid down by the Justice Department. But President Obama denounced those guidelines and made the details public, while telling the CIA, “Don’t worry, we’re not looking backwards, no one will be punished for following the old rules.” And then the criminal investigations began.

As a consequence, the CIA thinks its new president is either a hypocrite or that he is weak. Seven former CIA directors implored him to put a stop to the investigations, warning that public revelations about past operations are jeopardizing intelligence collection. He did not heed their advice.

For us, of course, this is very good news. Now, American intelligence officers have to question every order they are given. Before, they had to ask, “Is this a lawful order?” Now they have to wonder, even if the order is lawful, whether they may be punished anyway if the political climate changes. So the risk takers will be suppressed or leave, and the rest will hesitate for fear of jeopardizing their careers.

The Americans’ greatest strength has been their agility; now that is nearly gone. New operations are being delayed, with more lawyers and layers of review. As one trusted contact explained, “Why should they stick their neck out? No one was ever punished for protecting their agency or avoiding personal liability.” So they are stalling to find reasons not to act, ceding the advantage to us.

They need their foreign intelligence allies now more than ever (dependencies we are well-positioned to exploit). Their resources are stretched thin supporting operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they must turn to foreign spy services for access and sources they lack.

But the director of national intelligence has been fighting with the CIA over who manages these partnerships. Their intelligence partners were already confused about who is in charge within America; now they are confused about who is in charge abroad. The White House tried to settle the dispute - but foreign services still wonder who they should talk to, or who they should listen to. And the turf wars continue.

By disclosing extremely sensitive information about terrorist interrogations, they have proven once again to be an unreliable partner. We anticipate more secrets will emerge now that terrorist detainees are to be tried in civilian courts, with the same rights as U.S. citizens to confront witnesses and to challenge the government’s evidence.

Foreign intelligence services are more reluctant than ever to trust the Americans with their secrets. Cooperation is already shutting down in some areas - fertile ground for our disruption activities to drive a wedge between America and its allies.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi charged that the CIA “lies to Congress all the time,” sending her allies scrambling to produce proof so she can save face. Politicians pay no political cost for attacking CIA, but the collateral effect is to expose secrets that make our job easier. (Strange that some of the same politicians were outraged over the leak of an insignificant case officer’s name, even though we had known her identity for years.)

The CIA’s funding and programs are under attack from two political camps that accuse them of being either “lawless cynics” or “incompetent bureaucrats.” Congressional critics are flexing their oversight authorities while the CIA is embroiled in more litigation today than ever before. Recall that it took decades for the CIA to recover from the investigations of the 1970s - years that we used to advantage in undermining pro-Western governments, supporting insurgencies and implanting spies.

Not surprisingly, their morale has never been worse, which means new recruitment prospects for us. It is human nature. Men who believe their worth is unappreciated have always been our most lucrative volunteers.

Most significantly, our opponent has lost interest in us. Their counterintelligence enterprise is weak and disjointed. So long as they remain distracted, our opportunities will grow.

The Cold War may not have ended well for us, but we are the beneficiaries of its demise.

Michelle Van Cleave served as head of U.S. counterintelligence under President George W. Bush.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide