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The CIA Doctor
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Kelley has raised the necessary question of what kind of activity an intelligence agency can engage in before it steps over a line and does far more harm than good, a process sometimes referred to as “blowback.” Her analysis of CIA use of a Pakistani doctor ostensibly involved in an eradication program to collect DNA samples in an area where terrorists were believed to be in hiding suggests that the US government is careless when it comes to the unintended consequences of some intelligence operations, leading locals to avoid programs to eradicate diseases like polio because of local concerns that the inoculations are all part of some kind of CIA plot.

I cannot argue with Kelley’s thoughtful analysis, but, as a former intelligence officer, my viewpoint is a bit different. I think that the recruitment of a single doctor to provide information from a part of Pakistan that was a no-go area for Americans was operationally a bold but necessary initiative. After all, you have a CIA because you expect its officers to be both creative and aggressive in their efforts to obtain information, not to sit around at desks in embassies collecting paychecks. The capture or killing of Osama bin Laden and other top leaders of al-Qaeda was and is very much in the US national interest even if one can argue about how they came to be terrorists in the first place. Using a doctor involved in a hepatitis eradication program (the US government claims it was a genuine program but critics have claimed more plausibly that it was fake) was supposed to remain a secret, protecting the doctor, the program, and, inter alia, US government interests. There clearly was a tradecraft failure in that Dr. Shakil Afridi aroused the suspicion of his medical colleagues – he should have had a solid explanation or cover story to explain his activities, which he apparently failed to have. As a product of that suspicion, the Pakistanis arrested Dr. Afridi as he was trying to leave the country shortly after the killing of bin Laden.

But more disturbing to me is that the case against Afridi was truly made when the Obama White House, or possibly someone in congress, began to leak information to the media confirming his involvement with the CIA. That sealed his fate because it tapped into the anger of Pakistanis regarding CIA and SOCOM unilateral operations carried out inside their country. Why the confirmation was provided at all continues to be something of a mystery to me, but it is important to realize that the exposure of Afridi and what he was doing was not carried out by the CIA, which would have taken pains to protect both the man and his activity. When Hillary Clinton and a number of congressmen subsequently began demanding Dr. Afridi’s release because he was a “hero,” that made it inevitable that the Pakistan government would go all out to convict him rather than work out a secret arrangement for his freedom.

As the Obama Administration has appointed a pair of prosecutors to look into the leaks of information on the US Cyberware on Iran and the drone assassination program, they should also include the handling of the information on Pakistani Doctor Shakil Afridi in their inquiry, a deliberate leak that compromised the security of a US intelligence asset. If the inquiry is conducted with any integrity at all I have no doubt but that the trail will lead directly back to a bad decision made by the White House.

CIA cannot use journalists, clerics, or academics as sources and also has internal restrictions on other types of contact, including using agents with criminal records (precisely the types that are likely to have good information and good access). By all means add health workers to that list, but eventually you will reach a point where running an intelligence operation will just become too lawyered up to be viable. I would argue in favor of CIA having considerable latitude to run somewhat risky operations in situations where there is just no alternative way to collect critical information. That is not to suggest that I would approve of wholesale exploitation of medical and humanitarian missions as cover mechanisms for CIA officers, but, as far as I know, that is not currently the case (others might disagree). It is indeed true that there have been cases of medical volunteers being killed in Afghanistan because of suspicion that they were western spies and Kelley’s point that disease eradication programs have suffered as a result of the same concerns is unquestionably correct.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: CIA, Pakistan 
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  1. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Agree as to his recruitment. Agree as to the necessity of killing bin Laden. Agree that Obama and his people doomed a valuable agent.

  2. TomB says:

    It seems to me that just talking about this Afridi business, or even that and the drone leaks and the cyber-war leaks still doesn’t begin to capture the scope of a huge post-9/11 development. Indeed, one that merits a book even perhaps. (Hint hint, Giraldi.)

    It seems to me, that is, that yet another casualty of our post-9/11 policies and actions has been the long-standing paradigm or understanding that existed between our Intell agencies and people and our political branches and political people, esp. the White House.

    Knowing and sharing secrets, that is, both sides knew they could help themselves or hurt the other by selective leaking, and so—in general of course, with exceptions—they strove to refrain from doing so, especially when it would have seemed to be part of any sort of that kind of PR tug of war between them.

    Since 911 however, especially starting with Mr. Bush’s people I think, I at least started seeing a feeling of freedom on their part to leak whatever they wanted so long as it helped them, no matter how it hurt the CIA or other Intell agencies or their people or processes.

    Just sort of a completely different, amateur understanding on the part of Bush and his people that “well gee of *course* that’s what secret information is for, to be leaked if it supports us and suppressed if otherwise because … what *else* is it good for?”

    And then however I sensed some leakages from the Intell community trying to protect itself, as some of the foregoing leaks, sure enough, were nothing less than attempts by the White House especially to use the CIA’s credibility, or to blame it for this or that, or etc. and so forth.

    And this breakdown, so far as I see, has continued apace and these current leaks are part and parcel of same. Obama and Co. leak about the drones and/or the cyberwar maybe to bolster their jewish support, or perhaps the CIA or others leak to show that no, they were ordered to do this or that and it wasn’t their idea, and on and on.

    Rather surprisingly it’s hard to say now that a movement towards the destruction of secrets is a bad thing. Ordinarily of course, with any half-way sane political people and policies in charge you’d *want* them to have the use of secrets.

    In other words, in the usual instance we’d like secrets not because they are intended to fool us/keep us in the dark, but others.

    But my God now …. For instance, this cyber-war business. Well, that’s an Act of War for goodness sake. And Iran is hardly in the dark that it was being attacked, and almost certainly knew it was us behind it or supporting it. Thus it can seem that the only reason it was kept secret was not to fool anyone else, but instead to fool *us.*

    And does anyone believe that if Iran has reciprocated the Act of War and attacked us due to same that Obama would have stood up and ‘fessed up’ to our attacking first?

    In any event, just more of the wreckage that our post-9/11 policies and actions have bequeathed us, with nobody knowing the full scope of same, what the results will be and etc. and so forth.

    And just more evidence that we are sort of in a Brave New World Now, just blundering forward like some blind giant, leaving nothing but wreckage in our wake.

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