Could you spot a secret agent? In the movies you can always tell by the kind of tuxedos they wear, the fancy cars they drive and the impossibly expensive wristwatches they sport. Maybe that’s because the iconic Secret Agent was patterned after an entertainer. Ian Fleming modeled James Bond after Hoagy Carmichael. “Rather like Hoagy Carmichael in a way. That black hair falling down over the right eyebrow. Much the same bones. But there was something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold.”
But in reality surely secret agents are much more low key. However, administration officials have of late been lamenting the absence of the intelligence operatives inside Syria. Ken Dilanian of Los Angeles Times reports that “despite a dire need for intelligence about the groups fighting to overthrow the Syrian government, the CIA has little if any presence in the country, seriously limiting its ability to collect information and influence the course of events, according to current and former U.S. officials.” The reason, according to Dilanian’s sources, was the decision to close the US embassy. “Closing the embassy left the agency without a secure base from which to operate, and CIA personnel left the country, the officials said.”
“We should be on the ground with bucket loads of money renting the opposition groups that we need to steer this in the direction that benefits the United States,” said a former CIA officer who spent years in the Middle East. “We’re not, and good officers are extremely frustrated.”
The CIA declined to comment. When asked about statements that the CIA lacks a presence in Syria, U.S. officials notably do not dispute the idea, talking, instead, about other ways of finding out what is taking place.
“We know a lot more than we did about the Syrian opposition a month ago and much more than we knew six months ago. That’s because of increased contacts diplomatically and through a variety of other means that I’m not going to discuss,” an Obama administration official said.
It’s a funny thought. James Bond operating out of an office in an embassy and driving out each day to meet his contacts, presumably after shaking off his tail. But there it is. The problems of US human intelligence have long been grist for the journalistic mill. A long article in the Atlantic, in two parts (here and here) described an organization staffed by not by spies or secret-agent men of popular conception, but by report-writers who hired locals to do the gumshoeing for them.
Sterling exceptions aside, the average senior officer rose through the hierarchy without ever learning much about the language, culture, or politics of the countries in which he served …
After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, covert action became politically riskier. More important, press revelations during the 1960s and 1970s about various CIA maneuvers of dubious legality and wisdom, followed by several bouts of congressional investigation, helped to sully the Agency’s covert-action credentials. Though covert action continued worldwide in the 1970s, it employed less manpower. Inside the CIA working on covert action no longer had the same prestige, and was becoming a slower track for promotions.
By the time Stansfield Turner became Jimmy Carter’s director of central intelligence, in 1977, the decades-old tug-of-war inside the Agency between covert action and espionage was over. Henceforth covert action would be only an avocation. Espionage [wretchard — recruiting foreign assets in positions of authority] was the area in which case officers could better manage their destinies.
They were like human resources professionals in a niche line of business. After a time, the article went on to say, they even had recruiter of the month contests with bonuses to match. Officers found candidate spies among the locals and submitted reports of sometimes dubious accuracy upwards. In order to avoid contradicting the State Department’s assessments of the country they were operating in, enterprising CIA officers would sometimes regurgitate State’s point of view, thereby ensuring they made no waves.
This made for a harmony whose defects were little noticed until Osama’s boys came crashing into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11. That provoked an orgy of hearings which led to reforms. Now it is assumed that the problems are fixed. But administration complaints that the CIA have nothing substantial on the ground in Syria are a disturbing indication that the fixes have not gone all the way.
It’s not like the Syrian crisis snuck up on anybody.
Syria has been at or near the top of the list of trouble spots for nearly a decade. The recent troubles have been going on for some months. It has been more than a year since the Arab Spring sent a wave of unrest through the region. So to hear a senior Obama administration say that almost with a sense of resentment that “it’s kind of hard to do a lot until you can get into a country. This issue is the subject of enormous amount of attention and concern” almost invites the response: ‘what have you been doing all this time besides expressing an enormous amount of attention and concern?’
Interestingly, nobody else in the region appears to be having any difficulty running around Syria. Not even journalists.
Several journalists have been spending time with rebel groups in Syria, living and traveling with them for days. But the CIA as a rule has been unwilling to let its officers do that, officials said. There would be no air support and limited rescue capability should the agents get into trouble.
“What are we going to do, just allow the Turks, the Qataris and the Saudis to have relations with opposition groups, and we not have direct relations?” asked Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. “That doesn’t make any sense. Those countries don’t always have our interests at heart.”
So it looks like there’ll be a shortage of intel on the ground, if the administration is to be believed. That is, until they can re-open the embassy. In the meantime, they’re going to have to “allow the Turks, the Qataris and the Saudis to have relations with opposition groups”. Inevitably that means that somebody else is going to run the show with the US looking, whenever it is allowed to, over their shoulders. Maybe that’s why the administration’s strategy is called “leading from behind”.
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