Last December 30th, a horrific bombing snuffed out the lives of seven American patriots. We can only wish that the same blast had snuffed out the politically correct policies that may have led to those young peoples’ deaths. With heavy hearts, and a salute to our fallen heroes, it is fitting and proper that we should soberly consider the bureaucracy that placed those brave but inexperienced officers at a fire-base in a war zone.
Was it political correctness that killed the CIA operations officer, the analyst, and the others supporting the meeting, just as surely as the blast and fragments from the package strapped under the bomber’s robe? Every clandestine meeting with a terrorist is dangerous and potentially deadly. The meeting itself is a tiny part of the operation. Training and preparation, planning and cultural knowledge, understanding your asset’s personality, motivations, needs, and problems, are just a few of the issues that an operations officer must juggle and attempt to control. But the first step is the selection process itself that chooses candidates who will become operations officers in a war zone.
When the meeting is held in conjunction with a foreign intelligence service, as the presence of the Jordanian intelligence officer seems to suggest this one was, another layer of complications is introduced into an already complicated situation. Language, control, compatible goals, strategy, tactics, all must be coordinated, discussed, hashed out, and agreed upon with the partner. Vastly separated by culture and objectives, a CIA ops officer and her foreign counterpart must dance down a delicately balanced tightrope.
By their very nature, penetrations of terrorist organizations are dangerous, crafty, deceptive, and hard to handle. Whether the source is playing the role of a terrorist at the behest of a hostile intelligence handler, or is a real terrorist cooperating with friendly intelligence officers, the key element of the source’s personality is deception.
A terrorist is not usually the most savory character. In fact, he probably has a long history of walking on the wrong side of the law. Arrests, jail, detention, prison, living double lives, lying about his true intentions, beliefs and plans are second nature to a terrorist. Crimes, deceit, double-dealing, conspiracy, murder, rape and robbery are every day facts of life for a terrorist. He has been involved in black market schemes, counterfeiting, visa fraud, online fraud, identity theft, and multiple other schemes, cons, and rackets.
As if the background of the target does not pose enough challenges, remember that the target comes from a culture so different from that of middle America that, for the average American, the terrorist source may as well be from Pluto.
The target is likely a Middle Eastern male, probably native Arabic-speaking. He is also a member of a vastly complex, interwoven network of social, tribal, national, religious, clan, ethnic, and other groups. The flavor of Arabic he speaks, and the name he bears immediately identify him as a certain clan/tribe/ethnicity. He practices, or used to practice, a form of Islam that is strongly affected by his tribal and ethnic background.
He likely has participated in some sort of Islamic revival movement. He has probably traveled abroad, perhaps to the West. He has been bombarded with Western culture from the day he was born. He has a grasp of English, at least in reading. He probably has been educated in a technical discipline. He is of above average intelligence. He is able to use charm, and knows how to manipulate Americans. He has a strong, though misguided, understanding of American culture and lifestyles. His view of Americans is not complex. He thinks that American men are big, play football and drink a lot of beer. He thinks American women are blond, have large breasts and are eager to engage in casual sex with strangers they have just met. He admires, covets, and loathes the American lifestyle, economy and culture. He is interested in converting any American he meets to Islam.
The target is smooth like a snake, and would rather slip a knife into your American ribs than deal with you. He is meeting with an American intelligence officer for his own reasons, which very likely have nothing to do with the reasons the American is meeting with him.
While every case is different, that is a rough profile of a potential terrorist asset. It might also be helpful to review who a terrorist asset is not. This man is not a diplomat. He does not attend embassy cocktail parties. He is not a European sophisticate looking for an American contact to discuss the Copenhagen round of global warming talks. The terrorist is not impressed with American ideas of equality or political correctness. He does not fear a sexual harassment lawsuit. He shares not one of PC America’s concerns about “offensive speech,” or “the glass ceiling.” He is not interested in hearing the American view of the Middle East.
A CIA ops officer has the task of meeting, assessing, developing a close friendship with, and then recruiting the terrorist described above. The most highly coveted recruitment would be a member of an enemy terrorist organization. If that terrorist had, or could nurture a connection to, or information about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, the recruitment would be a ticket to super-stardom for the ops officer.
Who are the CIA ops officers that are pitted against this hardest of hard targets? What is the profile that the CIA uses to find and hire the operators to work against these kind of adverseness? Based on the CIA’s profile for hiring, you would think this job requires the same skills as an investment banker, an NGO advisor, an accountant, a lawyer, or another high-class professional.
CIA’s recruitment center, flooded with applicants after 9/11, set an arbitrary minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.75 for a candidate to be considered. Falling back on traditional profiles of clandestine service candidates, created during the Cold War, the CIA filled huge classes with eager young faces. The typical recruit came from a prestige school, with a BA or MA in International Relations, Political Science, Area Studies, or other soft liberal arts. The recruit had studied a foreign language, to less than fluent proficiency. Since a class-action lawsuit in 1993, it is now more likely that the recruit is female.
She has foreign experience, probably a semester, or a year, in an American university’s study abroad program, most likely in Europe. She is in her mid-20s. She has never been arrested, never been involved in anything shady or illegal, has never used drugs, and drinks alcohol moderately. She sweated through her polygraph test, probably the first time she has ever been questioned by a hostile authority.
After passing the academic screening and an interview, candidates passed a security clearance, including a thorough background check, drug testing, psychological screening (“I’m fascinated by fire: T or F”), and a polygraph exam. Those with arrest and criminal records are deemed unsuitable. A rowdy, street-smart male is likely to be screened out at some point in the process.
These recruits are the type of kids you would want your child bringing home as a life partner. They come from all the best schools, eager, arrogant, confident, swaggering, innocent, and full of potential. But are they the right candidates for dealing with cunning terrorists?
The answer should be clear. Absolutely not. The recruits make very good choir boys and girls, squeaky clean, innocent, naive, and wholly unsuited to deal with terrorists. However, the problems with the CIA’s process just begin at recruitment. You think that these fresh kids will be trained. Training could be used to create some of the street-smarts required to deal with terrorists and other dangerous sources. But the training to prepare the choir boys to deal with reprobates would take years and years. They only have a few months.
Mandatory sexual harassment training in the CIA is rigorous and repeated. More like communist “self-criticism” sessions, this training infuriates most males, and empowers most females. The video vignettes used in the training paint with a broad brush. Males are pig-headed imbecilic, racist predators. Females are hard-working, put-upon, victims of the white male hierarchy. Past lack of female representation in management has given way to a flood of newly minted Senior Intelligence Service females, and mid-level female managers up and down the chain of command, including in the field.
The “street smarts” training that CIA operations officers go through is quite helpful, if the recruit brings a high level of street sense to the first day of class. If not, the training is all but wasted on the naive innocents. If you’ve never been worried about being detected by the police, if you’ve never been arrested, if you’ve never lied about your activities, if you’ve never cased a location to prepare for an illegal activity, if you’ve never sweet-talked someone into (or out of) something, the training is a confusing whirlwind of alien concepts.
The recruits, selected for their high GPAs, and pristine backgrounds, gamely go through the motions. They learn the basics, and the concepts, intellectually, but for the vast majority, they are in a frightening upside-down universe of moral ambiguity and repulsive manipulation. Where right is wrong, and wrong is right; where you must become best friends with your worst enemy; this is the universe of deadly con-games.
While it is true that females can often be much better, generally speaking (and on certain realms), at manipulating and reading subtle signs in others, the unspoken issue of sex and sexual expectations greatly complicates a female ops officer’s attempts to ply her craft. Political correctness dictates that the CIA and its experienced ops officers should not mention this fact of nature, and in fact, they pretend it does not exist. Unlike other, highly effective intel services, which use sex as part of their arsenal, the PC CIA treats every ops officer as if they are interchangeable.
After training, the newly minted female ops officer is assigned to a post in “the Sand Box,” Afghanistan or Iraq, or to a more genteel post. In neither one does she learn anything about the realities of the street culture of her targets. What she does learn, and become acculturated to, are the realities of American government culture. She learns how to survive and prosper in the bureaucracy. At either the fire base, or genteel circles, she becomes adept at negotiating the social maze of American PC culture. And while this is important for her career, it does not advance America’s fight against terrorists.
In human intel ops, initial attempts at making contact with a potential source might involve an arranged meeting in a public place, or the source may walk-in to volunteer. When a female ops officer approaches a stranger in public, especially an Arab male, the sexual electricity is super-charged. Even with a walk-in, the ops officer is thrust into a highly emotionally charged relationship, with an immediate need to begin to sort out truth from lies and distortions.
Even if operating in the same culture and language, such situations are extremely difficult to handle. But when attempts at befriending and manipulating take place in an alien culture and language, maybe through an interpreter, the relationship is so complicated as to be unmanageable. A male ops officer has a difficult enough time in navigating through the twists and turns of a development, without sexual baggage hanging over each meeting.
PC denial of reality may not have much immediate effect in other US government offices, like the Department of Agriculture, but in CIA operations, the effects are immediate and obvious, to an objective observer. Painful as it may be for the PC crowd to admit, we must adapt to the target culture. We cannot force our targets to adapt to our culture. We should not send a woman in to do a job, and pretend she is not handicapped by her gender.
The father of one of the dead officers knew instinctively that a war zone was not the right place for a girl who had graduated from Keith Country Day School and Colby College, which offers a semester abroad program in Spain, and one in France. The bereaved father recalled: “I begged her not to go, I said, ‘Do you know how dangerous that is? That’s for soldiers.’”
Acknowledging this reality does not demean the work of old, new, or current female ops officers. They are doing their best, and are patriots, one and all. Any exception that one may cite (as there are highly effective female ops officers), simply proves the rule. They clearly have a role to play in the CT intel war. However, just as in our armed forces, where women are not allowed in combat roles, we should use the debacle at Khost as impetus to sift PC dreams of equality from the realities of operating against terrorists.
Kent Clizbe is a former CIA operations officer with extensive counter-terrorism experience. He has written articles on the CIA and the Obama administration’s war on the counter-terrorism operators, for Newsmax, ParcBench, and others, since he stopped contracting with the Agency in 2007.