The CIA has another intelligence collecting scandal to deal with. This time it was the November 2013 revelation that a former FBI agent (Robert Levinson) who disappeared while visiting Iran in 2007 was actually working for the CIA. Well, sort of. It seems Levinson was being paid by some CIA analysts to seek out some specific information while visiting Iran. The analysts were not using Levinson as a professional spy but as a professional observer.
The CIA, and most other intelligence agencies, often interview fellow citizens who have recently visited a foreign country and seek out items that may be unknown, or little known, to the intelligence professionals. China does this on a large scale and has been very successful with it. The problem with Levinson was that he had served in the FBI and was a trained observer. The Iranians apparently picked up both these items and arrested Levinson. This was done quietly and for years Iran denied any knowledge of Levinson. The U.S. kept the CIA connection (which took a while to discover) out of the news and paid the Levinson family $2.5 million to keep quiet. The U.S. government also convinced the media to cooperate regarding the CIA connection because it was believed this would make it more likely to get Levinson out. This did not work and now the media has gone public with the incident. Several CIA analysts were punished even though most intelligence personnel insist that this sort of thing is common and generally accepted. But once something like the Levinson matter becomes a media item the rules change.
This sort of thing was expected by people in intelligence and the media. For the last decade it was believed that enterprising journalists would come across details of how the CIA got back into the spying business. Great scandal usually follows and you know the rest. That’s because spying is a dirty business, and back in the 1980s the U.S. Congress decided that it only wanted to get intelligence from people with clean hands. No more buying secrets from traitors, murderers and criminals. No more employing this riffraff as spies and agents. Everything had to be done by the book, which would often be quickly rewritten depending on which way media and political winds were blowing. Thus the shift to spy satellites, electronic eavesdropping and database diving. After September 11, 2001, it was discovered that all that post-industrial electronic espionage was not effective enough against religious terrorists (especially ones who are paranoid about outsiders and their technology). So the order went out to get back on the ground and get dirty if you have to.
Getting back into the traditional spying business (“Humint” or “human intelligence”) was not easy for the CIA. Back in the late 1970s, and several times since, Congress has added layers of oversight and restrictions on Humint activities. It was increasingly difficult to protect spies and the CIA agents overseas who controlled them. As a practical matter, the CIA got out of any serious Humint work. Getting back in the business after 2001 was messy. There were few U.S. citizens, much less CIA employees, with significant practical experience. A lot of contractors were hired, many of them foreigners and some of those were of questionable loyalty. No matter, the U.S. was at a war and Congress was willing to back off for a while at least.
But many in the intelligence agencies realized that anything done while trying to infiltrate al Qaeda would eventually be gist for mass media reporting and Congressional investigations. No good deed will go unpunished either. Blaming contractors, especially foreign ones, would not provide perfect protection. Stateside careers would still be at risk. Sacrifices would have to be made with some of those paper bullets would find their mark. It might even lead to indictments and jail time. At the very least, there would be huge legal fees and lots of bad publicity.
Al Qaeda was infiltrated, often using several layers of contractors and lots of unaccounted for cash. There were dead bodies, betrayals and lots of favors to be repaid down the road. Because of security concerns (and not getting helpful people killed), the whole story won’t see the light of day for decades. The headline grabbing, mass media version will be out first, and it will largely be wrong. But it will be exciting, and that’s all that counts in the news business.