The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran appears to rely heavily on notes from a discussion between Iranian military officials involved in that country's nuclear weapons development program. What if, instead of such easily manipulated documentary evidence, the CIA's National Clandestine Service had been able to recruit a spy at the highest reaches of the Iranian government, someone who could just tell us what the country's nuclear capabilities and plans were?
It wouldn't have made any difference.
Ever since the inception of the CIA, the operational side of the agency has both believed in and spread the fantasy that foreign agents can provide vital secret intelligence that will clear up great mysteries, change the outcome of wars or prevent terrorist attacks. But this view of intelligence is a myth. To understand why, it's useful to look at what happened the last time the United States desperately needed a spy to get to the bottom of a covert weapons program and what happened when we actually got one.
According to statements by Tyler Drumheller, the former chief of the CIA's European operations, the CIA entered into a clandestine relationship with Iraq's then-foreign minister, Naji Sabri, in mid-2002. Drumheller has claimed that Sabri provided the CIA with documentary evidence that Iraq did not have an active program to pursue weapons of mass destruction.
But Sabri's information had no influence whatsoever on U.S. policy. Nor did it alter the CIA's own assessment of Iraqi weapons capabilities. This is because Sabri, like virtually every other CIA asset, could not possibly have been trusted. So any intelligence he provided was useless.
Intelligence from almost all CIA assets is unreliable for the simple reason that so many of them are double agents, meaning that the CIA recruited them but that they are being controlled by their own countries' intelligence services. When I worked at CIA headquarters in the early 1990s, I once suggested to a friend who worked in counterintelligence that up to a third of all CIA agents could be doubles. He said the number was probably much higher.
Concrete proof is always scarce in these matters, but from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, most and very likely all Cuban agents on the CIA payroll were doubles. So were a majority of East German agents during the Cold War.
If Sabri was being controlled by Iraqi intelligence as a double, the most likely goal of such an operation would have been to convince the U.S. government that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction. This means that Sabri's "intelligence" would have been the same whether he was a double or not -- Iraq had no WMD. So the only way to figure out if it was real intelligence or disinformation would have been to determine with absolute certainty whether Sabri was a double.
The CIA has methods to try to detect double agents, but they're far from foolproof. Polygraph exams are probably considered the most useful and are frequently administered to agents. But it's unlikely that on the eve of war an Iraqi foreign minister would be able to sneak away for a polygraph exam without risking detection. Even if he did take and pass such an exam, the question of the polygraph's reliability would loom large. And even the biggest supporters of polygraphs would be reluctant to make a case for or against war on the basis of polygraph results.
But what if the CIA, for whatever reason, was convinced that Sabri was not a double agent? The agency still would have had to factor in the overwhelming likelihood that, like most CIA agents, he was working first and foremost in his own interest. (The collection of defectors and exiles who misled us so badly in Iraq practically gave new meaning to "working in your own interest" -- their goal was to have the United States invade their country.) In Sabri's case, his overriding concern probably would have been securing CIA protection in the event of a U.S. invasion. This could have led him to tell the entire truth about everything he knew. But it could just as easily have led him to tell us what he thought we wanted to hear.
Let's assume, despite all these obstacles, that the CIA somehow determined that Sabri was being truthful. Being truthful still wouldn't mean that Sabri knew the truth. Would the Iraqi foreign minister know whether Iraq had WMD? In Saddam Hussein's secretive police state, the answer could easily be no.
Intelligence professionals have to sort through these kinds of problems all the time. But it's rarely, if ever, possible to come to a definitive conclusion.
So the CIA, on the eve of war, may have had something close to the dream recruit -- a member of Hussein's inner circle -- and he was providing intelligence on the most salient question of the war -- did Iraq possess WMD? -- and he was right. But what good did the intelligence do? None.
This shouldn't be a surprise. Although we dedicate enormous resources to recruiting "human sources," there just aren't many good ones available. The central problem is that the people who actually know the secrets we'd be interested in aren't recruitable. Officials at the highest reaches of foreign governments have wealth and power and usually no compelling reason to put those at risk. The most knowledgeable members of terrorist groups are ideologically committed and aren't going to work for the CIA or anyone else.
Unfortunately, everyone expects the CIA to recruit sources with access to important secret intelligence, and both Congress and the public count it as a "human intelligence failure" when there aren't any such sources to tip us off before major events. After each of these "failures" -- the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Sept. 11 attacks, Iraq's non-weapons -- the usual suspects are trotted out to explain what happened: Cuts in CIA funding as far back as the Carter presidency devastated the Directorate of Operations (poor Stansfield Turner is still getting blamed for CIA failures 30 years after he reduced the number of overseas slots for case officers); case officers don't receive adequate language training; Anglo-American case officers can't pass for locals in the world's foreign bazaars; and the CIA uses inadequate cover arrangements for its officers abroad. But the actual explanation is much simpler: The CIA can't recruit top-quality agents because it isn't possible.
This does not mean that there isn't some useful intelligence to be gleaned from various human sources -- just that these sources aren't always going to be recruited agents and that they aren't going to prevent terrorist attacks or change the outcome of wars. Sympathetic Europeans who work at companies involved in the illicit transfer of nuclear components might help us understand how the underground nuclear supply chain works. Scientists who attend highly specialized conferences might glean valuable insights into foreign capabilities.
But the majority of CIA agents do not fall into even these less glamorous categories. Most are worthless as sources of information, mid-level bureaucrats with no access to vital intelligence. They are recruited to give case officers something to do (at least they were when I worked at the CIA) since recruiting truly valuable sources is close to impossible.
Although the CIA probably can't alter this equation in any fundamental way, there are some ways to change how agents are recruited that would have a positive effect. Far fewer case officers, working in teams that carefully targeted potential agents, might be a good start. If the CIA had six or seven such teams, with 10 members each, and each team hoped to recruit a single agent every few years, the number of valuable agents might go up and the number of useless agents would definitely go down. Potential foreign agents should also have to pass a simple test before being selected as recruitment targets: Can they currently produce, or are there concrete reasons to believe they will eventually produce, information that would alter U.S. policies or actions? If the answer is no, recruiting and running a foreign agent isn't worth the personal risk to the agent, not to mention the risk to the United States in a world that is already paranoid about the CIA and where international reputation is an increasingly vital component of national security.
Joseph Weisberg, who worked in the CIA's Directorate of Operations from 1990 to 1994. His novel, An Ordinary Spy, will be published next month.