Intelligence: December 9, 2004


One reason the United States has had a difficult time getting information from inside Islamic terrorist organizations, is fear of media backlash. Nothing ruins an FBI or CIA career faster than being involved in an embarrassing news story. Over the last two decades, this has made these two agencies risk averse. Of course, thats the natural attitude of any bureaucracy. Dont rock the boat and you will get ahead. But years ago the CIA got its reputation as a can do espionage organization because of all the anything goes people who joined the CIA in 1947. These were OSS (Office of Strategic Services) veterans. The OSS was created during World War II to give the United States an overseas espionage capability. Since their was a big war going on, the OSS was told to get results, and not worry too much about how they did it. Mistakes were made, toes (in Washington) were stepped on. As a result, the OSS was shut down as soon as World War II was over. But as the Cold War got started in the next few years, it was realized that something like the OSS was needed. So the CIA was created. 

The CIA cowboys from the OSS went at their Cold War tasks with gusto. However, the Cold War was not seen as an anything goes war. As time went by mistakes were less tolerated. Mistakes were made, and by the 1970s, Congress outlawed cowboy spies. By that time, spy satellites have become very capable. Politicians felt more comfortable with nice, clear satellite photos. Reports from spies inside the Soviet Union, or other potential hot spots, were too expensive in terms of potentially embarrassing news stories. So what if satellite photos missed vital things like what the people inside the hostile nations were actually thinking? Pictures didnt lie (actually, they often did), and spies were not worth the costs (although sometimes they were.)

With the war on terror, the satellite photos are even less valuable, and spies inside enemy organizations are invaluable. Much has been made of increased hiring of spy trainees at the CIA. Its even been admitted that it will take 5-10 years of field experience before these new recruits become useful. But what is not said is that the FBI and CIA are still reluctant to take chances. Despite the house cleaning in the 1970s and 80s, there were still some old hands (and guys who were hauled out of retirement after 911) who knew how to make things happen. You dont have to put your own CIA trained agent into al Qaeda. Instead, you get to people who are already connected, and find those who is willing to switch sides. These people are always out there. Getting to insiders is critical for Islamic terrorist organizations, for they recruit either from relatives of existing members (about 20 percent) or from people already know to existing members (about 60 percent.). So your best bet is establishing information and middle-man networks that enable to you to get to know people close to the Islamic terrorist networks. This isnt just theory. Its been standard practice for thousands of years. Israel has always used this approach, and thus know far more about the inner workings of the terrorists it has been battling for decades. The CIA once used this technique successfully. But there were occasionally embarrassing news stories of the CIA putting lowlifes and criminals on the payroll. This made big news. Major embarrassment. Many CIA careers went down in flames as a result. The CIA got the message. 

Note that police forces around the country (and the world) regularly use the same approach with nary a negative media backlash. Thats because nearly everyone has a personal interest is catching the criminals that prey on us all. The CIA and FBI often go after groups that are seen as less of a threat by many Americans. Take the attitudes of Americans, and Europeans, towards nations that produce, or harbor, Islamic terrorists. Everyone wants terrorism to go away, but theres less agreement on how far you should go to make it happen.

If there are any serious attempts to infiltrate Islamic terrorist organizations, it has to be kept secret. The first you may hear of it is a breathless news story about the CIA having terrorists on the payroll. At that point it will be too late. Once that news story has run its course, the insiders the CIA has "hired" will be gone (probably killed by insiders not on the CIA payroll), and everyone will again understand who really runs espionage operations in the United States.




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