Looking for Intelligent Life

By Chris Dishman

The Central Intelligence Agency, not only turned 50 this Summer, it also got a new director, George Tenet, who previously held the number two post in the agency. In his first interview since his Senate confirmation on July 10, DCI Tenet responded to ongoing criticisms that the CIA and the intelligence community do not have a clearly defined role in the post-cold war environment.

"My sense of our mission is extraordinarily clear," Tenet stated, " it is to pursue hard targets that threaten American interests around the world." The DCI further explained that these "hard targets" included drug and weapons trafficking and terrorism. "We are no longer in search of a mission. We know what the mission is. We know what the targets are."

But do Tenet and the CIA know where to focus the intelligence community's resources to fight these 'hard targets'?

In pursuit of combating drug and weapons trafficking and terrorism, the intelligence community needs to focus on increasing human intelligence (HUMINT) rather than continuing its reliance on electronic and imagery intelligence. The latter forms of information gathering were effective in providing intelligence during the Cold War. The CORONA satellite, for example, dispelled the notion that there was a Soviet missile gap and helped monitor the SALT 1 and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Unfortunately, these traditional forms of intelligence are not able to effectively counter the "hard targets" Mr. Tenet has in mind.

On June 25, 1996, a truck bomb explosion at the Khubar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killed 19 U.S. citizens and injured 500 persons. The subsequent investigation by the United States appeared to focus more on the inability of U.S. military personnel to prevent the attack than on gathering evidence to apprehend the terrorists responsible. In part, this assessment is accurate because the primary conduit for information regarding the bombing came from Saudi authorities; the ability of U.S. authorities to investigate was thereby qualified. Both FBI and CIA officials commented that Saudi investigators rarely allowed them to examine evidence in the case.

The inability of the United States to independently corroborate such accusations is due largely to an intelligence network devoid of assets in Southwest Asia. The intelligence community was unable to confirm or deny reports from the Saudi government regarding the forty people arrested. The FBI lacked the necessary intelligence to soundly analyze the conclusions of Saudi authorities.

While it is unlikely that a U.S. operative could have infiltrated the group responsible for the Dhahran bombing, HUMINT assets in Saudi Arabia could have established a link with informants and other channels that would have assisted the U.S. in confirming the legitimacy of the Saudi arrests.

More importantly, a network of informants contacting U.S. operatives, or possibly the operatives themselves, might have developed advance information that indicated an attack was going to take place near Dhahran. This detailed intelligence would have permitted U.S. counter terrorism personnel to focus on preventing an attack in this area.

Since the end of the Cold War, the CIA has cut its Soviet personnel by 2/3, and its weapons specialization staff by 25 percent. The CIA has not, however, emphasized the increased importance of monitoring activities in Saudi Arabia and Southwest Asia on a firsthand basis. According to Patterns of Global Terrorism, four of the seven nations it categorizes as sponsoring terrorist activities are located in this area -- Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria. The recent focus on terrorism as a national security threat mandates that the United States increase HUMINT assets in this region and in North Africa.

Compounding the geopolitical necessity of placing assets in this region, the nature of terrorist activity commands the need for increased HUMINT assets as well. Given the small, cell-like organization of terrorist groups, it is difficult to acquire information through electronic eavesdropping or reconnaissance.

Moreover, the use of surprise in terrorist attacks highlights the importance of knowing both the intentions and the capabilities of the group. Without HUMINT, the FBI would have had difficulty in arresting members of a group planning to bomb the Holland Tunnel and the United Nations. In this case, an informer provided the capabilities, intentions, and motivations of this terrorist group. More recently, DCI George Tenet revealed that the intelligence community thwarted two attacks on US embassies this year. Although no details were given, it is clear that HUMINT and the use of informants aided in some measure in preventing the attacks.

Informants are also important in locating terrorists who have sought refuge in a foreign country. Recently, Mir Aimal Kansi, who allegedly shot two CIA employees in front of CIA headquarters, was captured by United States officials with the help of Afghani individuals seeking part of a two million dollar reward. These persons lured Kansi to the Shalimar Hotel in Dera Ghazi Khan, Pakistan, where he was captured by FBI agents. It was important that Kansi was brought to Dera Ghazi Khan, a sizeable population center, in order to facilitate his capture and prompt flight out of Pakistan.

While traditional forms of electronic intelligence gathering are important in monitoring troop movements, verifying arms control agreements, and locating missile sites, they are less effective in combating those emerging threats to U.S. security outlined by Director Tenet. The intelligence community must complement its numerous counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation analysts with firsthand clandestine observers in volatile regions of the world.

Chris Dishman is a research associate at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. This article was originally published in the Christian Science Monitor.