Amidst simultaneous media-driven foreign policy crises dealing with Russia and ISIS, most normally well informed Americans might well be forgiven for missing a recent Associate Press report headlined “CIA halts spying in Europe.”
The text somewhat contradicts the headline, as it goes on to describe how the Central Intelligence Agency has issued instructions to its case officers operating in Europe to stand down only on “unilateral operations” involving officials of foreign host nations, which presumably implies countries in the NATO alliance. What that means in plain English is that if one is an American spy assigned to the station in France, one’s “host country,” going after a French official to turn him into a recruited agent is currently not allowed. A “unilateral operation” is one in which the CIA controls and runs the agent clandestinely without anyone else being aware of the relationship.
The stand-down is reported to be in response to the recent flap in Germany where it was determined that at least one and possibly more German government officials were working as spies for the CIA, leading to the unprecedented expulsion of the Agency’s Station Chief by the Germans. It also comes on the heels of the Edward Snowden revelations about National Security Agency spying on top government officials in a number of European countries, including Germany, countries that are at least nominally allies of the United States.
While it may appear to be a no-brainer that spying on the German, French, or Italian governments would produce little information that would justify the blowback resulting from getting caught, there are a lot of good reasons why the CIA would like to have a source at the policy making level of any government. It is because what one is being told in diplomatic language might well conceal nuances or even a fallback position that could mean something quite different.
To cite only one example, while the U.S. is eager to pressure Russia over Ukraine, many European countries are much less willing to antagonize Moscow. If I were the U.S. President I would want to know just how hard my allies are really willing to push before making a commitment for Washington to take the lead. Likewise regarding ISIS, key U.S. allies including Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the Persian Gulf are going along with pressuring the terrorist group even though they initially supported it and continue to have mixed feelings about Sunni extremists in general. It would be nice to know what they are really prepared to commit to. I cite these two examples not because I think the U.S.-driven policies in either the Middle East or Eurasia are sensible, quite the contrary, but purely as seen from the perspective of Washington power brokers.
And then there is Turkey, America’s most important ally in the Near East. Unless I have missed something, Ankara is persisting in refusing to allow the United States to use its airbase at Incirlik to launch attacks on terrorist groups inside Syria, requiring Washington to stage attacks from carriers in the Persian Gulf. This puts them farther away from the targets and is logistically more complicated. There are also reports that Turkey has been buying black market oil from ISIS while also facilitating the supplying and manning of several terrorist groups operating inside Syria and Iraq. Press accounts from Turkey suggest that ISIS has been recruiting Turks and raising money in Istanbul and elsewhere inside the country without any interference from the police or intelligence services. There were also pro-ISIS demonstrations in Istanbul and elsewhere to protest the beginning of the U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria, again without any reaction by the authorities.
Persistent reports suggest that as many as 5,000 Turkish volunteers are serving with various rebel groups inside Syria, to include a number of former Turkish Army officers and possibly also some intelligence operatives. So one might reasonably conclude that Turkey, itself a Sunni state possibly aspiring to recreate something like the old Ottoman Empire complete with the caliphate, is somewhat ambivalent about what it actually prefers to see emerge from Syria and Iraq. It is almost certainly playing both sides off against each other, hoping to find a comfortable landing spot in between.
Even conceding that President Barack Obama’s current war on terror is a fool’s errand, knowing what Turkey is up to and what its actual intentions are would have to be a primary concern for policy makers in Washington, suggesting that there are a lot of good reasons to spy against at least some allies in Europe. Penetrating the Turkish government at top levels would be a perfect high-priority task for an American intelligence agency.
On a personal note, as a former CIA case officer in Europe whose working languages were Italian, Spanish, German, and Turkish the ban on developing sources who are host country officials would have hit me especially hard, diminishing the potential value of my services. But fortunately for practitioners of the second oldest profession, there are clearly holes in the new policy that it would be possible to drive a truck through.
The restriction, which has been in place for two months, reportedly focuses on host government officials. That leaves a lot of open ground. Presumably local citizens not employed by the government are fair game, as are foreign officials and residents who are either living or working outside their home countries. Recruiting a Russian official in Paris would be allowed, and probably likewise an Italian or Greek official if one could make the case that they might be useful. And it is always possible to find someone useful. A targeted Russian or Chines official might be wary when talking to an American, but more open to development by someone from a country regarded as less threatening. Agents who serve as intermediaries between a U.S. case officer and a target are referred to as access agents.
And actual intelligence value aside, the internal mechanics of CIA dictate that the game must go on no matter what the ground rules. Overseas officers are primarily rated on two criteria: recruiting new sources and running existing sources productively to produce disseminable information. If going after local government officials is no longer allowed, the ingenious minds of men and women who rely on a numbers driven game to achieve promotion will come up with something new to replace it. During my time in the Agency it was notorious that any recruitments made by almost any officer during the last six months of his or her tour were likely to be bogus, contrived to boost the numbers and produce a glowing final fitness appraisal when moving out of one posting and on to another. Which means that CIA case officers will persist in doing whatever they can to game the system and the number of access agents will skyrocket.
All of which means that a short-term panic that has produced a restriction on whom CIA can recruit will eventually be reversed when the realities of why we spy come home. The first time Susan Rice turns to the CIA representative on the National Security Council and asks, “What does President Recep Tayyip Erdogan intend to do?” and the answer is “We don’t know,” everything will return to business as usual.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.