Michael Ledeen is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center and Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that democracies would have a tough time with foreign policy, in large part because it was so hard for them to maintain secrecy. Recent events show how prescient he was. Indeed, the story reveals one of the most chilling developments in the history of our secret intelligence services.
You wouldn’t know it from the “news coverage,” but the CIA’s global secret internet communications network was uncovered by Iranian spooks between 2009 and 2013 (that would be the first Obama term), thanks in part to Iran’s enlisting an American double agent who knew all about the system. A very big deal, as Yahoo reported and Breitbart summarized:
According to Yahoo News, CIA officials were stunned at how quickly and thoroughly the Iranians penetrated the system, which relied on phony corporate websites. One of the report’s cringe-inducing details is that once the Iranian double agent pointed out a disguised CIA website, Iranian intelligence unraveled the rest of the CIA network using Google searches for similar sites and monitoring traffic to those websites.
This was quickly followed by China’s catastrophic compromise of America’s spy network in 2011 and 2012, which culminated in the arrest and execution of about 30 U.S. agents and sources, essentially destroying the American network in China.
It seems the Iranians were in cahoots with the Chinese, and you should not be surprised to learn that the Russians were part of the anti-American operation. Indeed, there seems to be no known limit on the global catastrophe, from the dozens of men and women who risked—and often lost—their lives for American security, to the knowledge our enemies gained about our sources and methods. All over the world.
With dawning horror, U.S. officials realized that once Iranian or Chinese intelligence officials were able to pinpoint CIA assets within their own borders, they were almost certainly capable of zeroing in on similar digital signatures in other countries, former officials said.
Former officials said the fallout from the compromises was likely global in scope — potentially endangering all CIA sources that used some version of this internet-based system worldwide.
American agents were identified, rounded up, and executed. There does not seem to have been the sort of drastic remedial action you might expect in such a disaster. Instead, according to a bevy of former intelligence officials, there was a “near-total lack of accountability” in the intelligence community.
It would not be surprising if there were a lot more to this story. That “double agent,” for example, probably means that several CIA operations were penetrated. The agent may have had friends working on other projects. Such cases help explain why the CIA has an unenviably consistent record of almost always getting Iran wrong, from the revolution that removed the Shah in 1979, right up to the dreadful deal Obama cut with the mullahs, and to the current European campaign against the latest round of sanctions against the Islamic Republic. We are now learning, for example, that the Iranian nuclear weapons program was bigger than we (the CIA, mainly) had believed.
What is to be done? Putting terrific leaders at the top of CIA obviously won’t do the trick. Pompeo, a good man, was director for nearly two years, and there is still no sign that the Intelligence Community is significantly improved. I’m afraid we have to go back to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s prescription: shut it down and start a new secret intelligence service. It’s a big country, full of talented people. The analyses can be farmed out to think tanks and research centers, where much of the good work is done anyway. As for operations, much of the work should be done by the military, as General Flynn intended (this is one of the reasons CIA went after him, first at DIA and then again at the National Security Council.
And I have a scheme. Recruit young scholars and business people. Pay them to live abroad, and to befriend the next generation of leaders. That way, some years down the road, we will have agents in place who are on first-name terms with the top people. My own experiences testify to the effectiveness of this stratagem. I went off to Italy as a graduate student, and assimilated into the Roman political and intellectual worlds. One of the people I befriended was Bettino Craxi, then an unknown Socialist, who went on to become prime minister. One night it was urgent for President Reagan to talk to Craxi, who wouldn’t take a call from our Embassy late at night. But he did take a call from me, his old friend. It worked out. We need these informal avenues. CIA at its best has them, but not nearly on the necessary scale.
It’s not hard but it’s urgent work. Faster, please.