The FP Memo

The FP Memo: Wanted: Spies Unlike Us

The CIA must cultivate foreign sources, reward service overseas, and tap America's top students to once again get good information on enemies of the United States.

TO: Porter Goss, U.S. Director of Central Intelligence
FROM: Robert Baer
RE: Getting the CIA Back in the Game

It's been a rough three years, Mr. Director. The agency missed the boat on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it miscalculated the armed resistance inside the country, and some say it bears primary responsibility for leading the United States into an unnecessary and costly war. Much of the criticism is overblown, and much overlooks the equally grave failures of other sectors of the government. Still, the CIA is clearly broken, and you have a chance to fix it.

Avoid two traps at the outset: Don't waste your time thinking that the recent, and much ballyhooed, intelligence reform bill is going to put things right. As you must know already, a top-level reshuffling of the intelligence community won't do anything to improve the CIA's performance. And don't spend too much time fighting battles over your new management team. Most of them will have moved to other jobs before they learn the nuts and bolts of intelligence gathering.

Reform is needed across the board, but the Directorate of Operations (DO) should be your first target. Its mission -- recruiting and running foreign spies -- should be the agency's core function. Give the DO the tools it needs, and intelligence analysis will take care of itself. Not to be too blunt about it, but if the DO had a source close to Osama bin Laden, 9/11 would not have happened. Here are my suggestions:

Reform the Promotion System: The old DO rule was that the only way an officer could be promoted was by recruiting sources, and the higher up, the better. Bring a Soviet official into the fold, and you could count on making it into the senior service. At the very least, an officer was expected to recruit one valuable source for every two-year tour overseas. It was never easy, but the expectation guaranteed that officers were motivated.

Then the Cold War ended, and intelligence gathering took a back seat. Within the DO, promotions tilted away from the overseas service and toward those who rarely left Washington. Rather than rotate into the field, officers were encouraged to try their hand at postings outside the CIA, but safely within the Beltway -- at the Pentagon or the National Security Council, for instance. Jim Pavitt, who ran the directorate through Sept. 11, 2001, and the Iraq war, hadn't served outside the United States since the mid-1980s.

To those in the ranks, the message was unmistakable: Not only was time in Washington the fastest way to climb the agency's ladder but recruiting spies -- an inherently risky business -- could put your career in jeopardy. No wonder the number of officers working the streets in such places as Beirut, Amman, and Sarajevo has dwindled. There was no reward for the effort. No wonder, either, that the CIA had no sources on WMD in Iraq leading up to the war. Think of what that says about how broken the agency was, and still is.

Know Your Sources: Give the DO credit for not being shy. It didn't let the absence of credible, on-the-ground sources prevent it from providing a steady stream of intelligence before the Iraq war, most of it contending that Saddam Hussein had retained large stocks of WMD and had a program to build a nuclear bomb. Unfortunately, most of this reporting came from Iraqi exiles, the very people who had spent the last three decades trying to draw the United States into a fight with Saddam. I had left the CIA when this intelligence was disseminated, but I would bet that few of the analysts involved were aware of its provenance.

This problem has an easy but essential fix: Provide the identity, affiliation, and reporting record of sources to senior analysts responsible for final assessments. If this information had been available during preparation of the now infamous October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq, recipients would have been aware that it was Iraqi exiles -- and not objective sources -- who claimed Saddam was retaining WMDs. The NIE would have been considerably watered down, and today the president and the country would have more confidence in the CIA.

Integrate Federal, State, and Local Databases: There is no shortage of proposals floating around Washington for a supercounterterrorism agency that would consolidate law enforcement and intelligence databases. But proposals and a buck-fifty get you a cup of coffee, especially when so many civil libertarians are lined up against you. The CIA's own counterterrorism center has been working on this problem since it was established nearly 20 years ago and still hasn't found a way to DO the job.

It's important to understand how the system works now. If a CIA officer in the field comes across the name of a suspected terrorist, he or she can instantly trace it in agency databases. The officer cannot do the same with databases maintained by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, or any other federal agency. To access those databases, the officer either has to make a phone call or send a written request. And the same is true of FBI or State Department officers who want to check CIA electronic files. This antediluvian lack of integration has, of course, had tragic consequences. Because the FBI couldn't access CIA databases, it failed to notice that two Saudis entering the United States were suspected terrorists. The two were among the 19 hijackers on September 11. I understand the fear that the snoops will end up snooping on us, not them. But the risks of uncoordinated intelligence are simply too great.

Recruit on College Campuses: Mr. Director, when you joined the CIA in 1962, it recruited actively and effectively on college campuses. If a student excelled in an obscure language such as Uzbek and expressed a desire to serve his country, a friendly professor might direct him or her toward Langley. It was a vetting system that helped the CIA attract the best and the brightest. The Vietnam War helped put an end to this system and left in its wake a hostile professoriate. Today, the agency relies too heavily on volunteers who come knocking on the door. Having a booth at college job fairs is no substitute for guidance from university professors and administrators.

Reviving even an informal feeder system would surely meet resistance. But if you're able to reconnect with the country's top universities and their students, the rewards will be great down the line. Today, the directorate needs six years to vet new employees: a year of working at headquarters, a year of training, a year of language study, and a three-year journeyman tour overseas. For those who prove inadequate along the way, the only recourse is to shunt them off to jobs where they can't do any harm. Imagine how much better the system would work if the CIA identified the prime talent at the front end.

Lower the Retirement Age: Intelligence gathering is a young person's business. Meeting with a source at two in the morning and then being at work by eight the next day wears you out. My best guess is that a DO officer serving most or all of his or her career overseas has a useful shelf life of about 20 years. Sure, some of us end up spending our graybeard years down at the Farm, instructing new recruits, but the need there is limited. What the DO doesn't need is worn-to-the-nub senior officers clogging up the system at the top. Lower the retirement age to 45 for employees who spend their careers in the field.

Stop Relying on Foreign Governments: Like water, CIA field officers are inclined to take the path of least resistance. Why work the streets when you can have a long lunch with a counterpart from some foreign intelligence service, exchange a packet of documents, and go back to the office satisfied you've done a day's work? Better still, "lunch spying" doesn't run the risk of a recruitment attempt going bad. But that is not how first-class intelligence is collected. The interests of foreign governments rarely dovetail with our own. In the months preceding Sept. 11, 2001, Germany, where the plot was hatched, was more focused on protecting the rights of immigrants than stopping an attack on the United States. We should have had our own spies in al Qaeda's Hamburg cell.

Change the Security Clearance System: If you are, say, an American born in Islamabad who happens to have a second cousin working in the Pakistani intelligence service, the chances of getting security clearance to join the agency are close to nil. Third-generation Americans with no known foreign relatives but who have spent much of their lives overseas have a better chance, but the odds are still slim, especially if those overseas years were spent studying in a place like Cairo.

Of course, there is always a risk that someone who has studied in Cairo -- and picked up an Egyptian girlfriend or boyfriend, and a lot of other Egyptian friends -- will have gone over to the dark side. But the CIA and the DO desperately need people who speak foreign languages and who know parts of the world crucial to the United States. To reject such people solely because they aren't provincial is yet another way the agency cuts off its nose to spite its face.

The CIA needs to establish a system with distinct clearance levels. Level One would cover typical CIA employees and would include a top-secret clearance, a polygraph every three years, a regular financial audit, and a thorough investigation of all foreign contacts. If a Level One employee announces his or her intention to marry a Russian with a cousin in the Russian intelligence service, send a nice present and say goodbye. At the core of our intelligence system are secrets that must be kept, and the best way to do that is to isolate the guardians of those secrets from the outside world.

The problem with isolating people, though, is that they cannot understand the way the world works. That's why a second class of CIA employees should be created: people who spend the majority of their lives outside the country. They attend foreign universities, marry foreign spouses, and have children who are not Americans. In short, they have divided loyalties. They should be given only secret clearances: no access to intelligence from the National Security Agency, no access to advanced satellite-imaging systems, and no access to our nuclear secrets. (You know the et ceteras.)

Why give such people any clearance? Because we get a window on the world. Let's say the CIA hires a young U.S. citizen educated at the American University of Beirut who marries a Saudi girl, and who maybe even converts to Islam and moves to Saudi Arabia to take a job. After five or six years living in the kingdom, he's sure to speak fluent Arabic and move in circles regular CIA employees can't even glimpse. He might even get close enough to the fundamentalists to recruit one as a source. This reform would radically alter protocols that have been in place since the CIA was founded in 1947. It will be tough to force through the system, but it is crucial if the CIA hopes to adapt.

Recruit on the Dark Side: The directorate needs to recruit a third class of employees: those who skirt the law. I have in mind the dealers in embargoed and stolen oil who beat a path to Baghdad through the 1990s and who stayed up late drinking and partying with Saddam's son Uday. Imagine if the CIA had someone next to Uday, some confidant to whom that psychopath might have blurted out the fact that his daddy had secretly destroyed all of the WMD. There might not have been a war. No mounting casualties and no intractable morass.

You know as well as I do, Mr. Director, the heat you'll take when one of these risky recruits goes bad. But it's up to you to tell Washington what many of the people around you are reluctant to say: We're waging war, not running a church social.

The FP Memo

The FP Memo: How to Sell America

The new U.S. public diplomacy guru must get the United States on local TV, make U.S. foreign aid more visible, and show the Arab world how diverse American opinion really is.

TO: Karen Hughes,
Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy
FROM: Ramez Maluf
RE: Rebranding America

You have accepted what must be one of the hardest jobs the U.S. government has to offer: coordinating American public diplomacy and improving the image of the United States in the Arab world. The post has already chewed up several of your predecessors, including high–flying advertising executive Charlotte Beers. It's a particularly difficult portfolio because you have to operate within the parameters of a foreign policy that is deeply unpopular in the Arab world. Events such as the elections in Iraq and Afghanistan are helpful, of course, and progress on Middle East peace would be a boon for relations. But you'll probably struggle to improve the image of America in the face of hostile Arab public opinion.

It's a daunting but essential undertaking -- and not just for Americans. Enmity between the United States and the Arab world does Arabs no good; Arab ambitions can only be achieved through the development of a positive and constructive relationship with the West in general, and the United States in particular. Here are some suggestions from the Arab side of the fence.

Create an Alternate Reality: For too long, Americans have thought of Arabs primarily in terms of regional conflicts. Arabs, in turn, have looked at the United States mainly through the prism of its policies on such divisive issues as Palestinian rights. To Americans, the word "Arab" conjures images of war, terrorism, and political Islam. To Arabs, the "United States" connotes a pro–Israel superpower that is occupying Iraq and imposing political and cultural changes. These stereotypes now run deep, and changing them is a long–term project.

There exists in some minds the notion that the United States can improve its image by somehow "winning the argument" over U.S. policy. Don't buy it. Defending American policy will always be an important element of your work, but if your office confines its activities to justifying U.S. policies, its success will be limited and you'll burn out in no time. This head–on approach actually restricts dialogue and cements the existing counterproductive imagery. Instead, your work must focus on issues over which you have some control, and where U.S. policy can do the least harm.

Don't waste your time disputing the stereotype. Move the argument elsewhere and introduce other images. The United States needs to change its "brand" in the Arab world, and the focus should be on images relevant to Arabs in their own context. Just selling an image of Americans as a freedom–loving and democratic people attentive to human rights within the United States will not do. Initiatives such as the $15 million "Shared Values" advertising campaign, which showed Muslims living in a tolerant and diverse United States, only reinforce the perception that Americans care little about the rights of peoples outside their borders.

The new U.S. brand should be relevant to the target audience and should vary from country to country. In Lebanon, support of the anti-Syrian movement was welcome and strengthened America's image. The United States is also strongly identified with Lebanon's educational institutions -- an association that you should seek to amplify. In other countries, support for certain political movements could benefit the U.S. image, but there is plenty of room to make progress on nonpolitical issues, such as greater Internet accessibility for the young (in Syria, for example, such an initiative would be welcome), irrigation of desert areas (as in Egypt), and better schools (North Africa).

The United States already supports many such programs, of course, but there is no real attempt to forge an image. To their credit, U.S. development agencies assess need and then parcel up aid in disparate projects accordingly. This practice has the effect of diffusing the public relations impact of U.S. aid. However important, a sewage treatment facility in the desert doesn't carry much PR punch. A more focused approach would be wiser. Imagine, for example, a publicized campaign to build children's parks in large Arab cities. The idea is to have public landmarks that are beneficial, friendly, and undeniably direct contributions from the United States.

Avoid a Pan-Arab Strategy: It's tempting to try a blanket approach for dealing with the Arab world. Arab countries, after all, have many shared values and a sense of common identity. But the 22 countries that make up the Arab world are distinct. Whatever their unifying historical traits, Arabs have been living under different regimes for decades, each with its own fault lines. If you choose to deal only with pan–Arab issues, you will be at a disadvantage; it is at that level that the U.S. image is weakest. Public relations is a nascent profession in the Arab world, but PR firms do exist in Beirut, Dubai, Cairo, and Riyadh. Seek their expertise on local strategies.

Don't Neglect Local News: Arab media have transformed themselves in the last decade. Ten years ago, Arabs had no alternative to state–controlled television. Today, many if not most Arabs have access to dozens of satellite stations from around the globe. Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, and Hezbollah's Al Manar are just a few of the 200–odd stations available. These stations are spread along a wide political and cultural spectrum, but they are all pan–Arab and cater to an audience interested in pan–Arab political, cultural, and entertainment programming. You obviously cannot ignore these outlets, but keep in mind that they often downplay and misread local news and politics.

Local television is a promising alternative. Loyalty to any particular network is weak in the new Arab media environment, and local stations are becoming bolder and more relevant. Local media offer a route that bypasses the often rigid and unbalanced perspectives of the regional networks. Lebanon is a case in point. In the wake of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's assassination in February, the pan–Arab networks focused on a predictable storyline -- Syria's being cornered by Europe and the United States. Most local channels in Lebanon, by contrast, showed the population struggling for free and fair elections without outside interference. Unfortunately, U.S. public diplomacy has almost entirely neglected local television in the Arab world. Addressing that neglect should be one of your most urgent priorities.

Sponsor Arab Oprahs: One of the Bush administration's signature initiatives in public diplomacy is Alhurra, a U.S.–sponsored television network targeted at the Arab world. Media ratings are notoriously unreliable in Arab countries, but those that are available suggest that Alhurra is foundering. In a poll conducted last year, Alhurra scored poorly as a primary source of news, and only 2.3 percent said it was a secondary source. Al Jazeera ranked first, with 52 percent.

Don't expect Alhurra to compete with Al Jazeera for evening news. Instead, Alhurra should focus on other programming, including Free Hour, the talk show hosted by television personality Ziad Noujeim and others, that addresses controversial issues, both within the United States and the Arab world. Recent discussions have included the role of Islam in politics, the Syrian regime, and religious education. This talk–show format exists on other stations, but Alhurra is particularly bold in inviting people from all sides to join the debate. A sign the show is succeeding is the quality of people who now appear on the program. Initially, anti–American politicians and religious figures shied away from the U.S.–funded network. Today, that has changed. And if the participants are interesting, people will watch, whatever their initial misgivings about the network.

Alhurra should continue to diversify its content. A colleague of mine recently proposed airing a reality show that over a period of 13 weeks would choose the best Arab political "candidate." The idea was to select 12 people from different Arab countries between the ages of 20 to 30. Each would be selected for their ability to give speeches, perform community service, generate funds from sponsors for worthwhile causes, and answer political and social questions from a journalist. One person would be voted off the show every week, until they were left with the best Arab candidate. The show would have been a hit, and Alhurra should have jumped at the offer. An administration interested in Arab regime change should be particularly keen on a program that shows people being voted out, after all.

Capitalize on Michael Moore: When I lived in the United States, one of the aspects of American society that fascinated me most was the diversity of opinions on all subjects and the dynamism of public debate. Most Arabs live in societies where popular expression, other than in support of the government's agenda, is almost nonexistent. The Arab world generally sees only the results of American political debates in the form of U.S. government policy. But Arabs love to watch Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, or hear actor Sean Penn rail against the war in Iraq, or read that a senator or congressperson argued in favor of a more equitable policy in the Middle East. This dynamic, and its electoral and social complexities, is not sufficiently advertised outside the United States. Try a hard-hitting documentary on the 2004 U.S. election. Odd as it may seem, your office should take pride in making opposition to its policies known. It's one of the beauties of the American system.

Mind the Messenger: Find charismatic speakers to be on television. Stuffed-shirt officials will not win hearts and minds, however profound their thoughts. If the speakers are fluent in Arabic, all the better. But the most important thing is that they be affable and comfortable talking to Arabs. Many U.S. officials seem unsure of how to deal with their audiences and more concerned about what people in the State Department will think of them than about genuinely engaging with viewers. Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, for example, had a folksy style that translated well on Arab television; State Department official for near eastern affairs David Satterfield does not. The way to engage an Arab audience is to be close to it in spirit. Much is made of the fact that American viewers fail to connect to Arabs on TV because of their accents, the way they dress, their beards, and because they are too passionate. The same applies the other way around. Americans do not need to wear kaffiyehs, but they should at least be agreeable. Humanizing your spokespeople will help get people to listen.