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Sunday, November 28, 2010

C.I.A. Agents, Blowing Their Own Cover

This summer, a former spy who calls himself ­Ishmael Jones got into trouble with his old bosses at the Central Intelligence Agency.

No, the agency didn’t put out a contract on his life or ship him to Guantánamo. Instead, in July, it sued Jones, the author of “The Human Factor: Inside the C.I.A.’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture,” accusing him of breaking his secrecy agreement and failing to get the required approval to publish. If the C.I.A.

intended to make the book disappear, it failed. When the suit was reported last month, the book — a modest seller when first published in 2008 — shot up the Amazon rankings.

In the book, Jones writes that he submitted the manuscript for approval and that the censors returned it with all but a few paragraphs “wiped out,” even though he had revealed no classified information.

He argues that the agency censored his memoir not because he gave away secrets but because it disliked his views. After reading the book, one finds it hard to disagree.

It used to be rare for C.I.A. employees to recount their exploits, or grievances, in print. Now, they’re oversharing as eagerly as the cast of “Jersey Shore.” I’ve written five C.I.A.-related thrillers since 2005. Along the way, I’ve read more than my share of books by insiders, seeking hints of how the agency works — and doesn’t.

The books make for fascinating, disturbing reading. Collectively, they shine a bright light on the agency’s darkest secret of all, its inability to do its job at the most basic level.

The United States will spend $53 billion this year on secret intelligence efforts, with the C.I.A. getting much of that money. Yet if Jones and other former employees are to be believed, the agency remains dismally unable to deal with terrorism or rogue states. It is a bureaucratic, risk-averse behemoth that rarely holds its managers accountable for failure. Its problems were not solved, and may have been made worse, by the reorganization of the intelligence community after Sept. 11, 2001.

Outsiders have lodged similar complaints for years. But the C.I.A. and its defenders typically dismiss such criticism by saying that the agency’s failures are reported, while its successes must remain secret. But these new memoirs cannot be shoved aside so easily. The most intriguing come from the case officers, like Jones, who actually meet foreign agents and collect information for the C.I.A. on a daily basis.

In book after book, operatives describe an agency that hires smart, aggressive and patriotic Americans, and then does its best to make sure they fail. Since 2008, two memoirs, Jones’s “Human Factor” and Charles S. Faddis’s “Beyond Repair: The Decline and Fall of the C.I.A.,” have gone so far as to call for the agency to be abolished and replaced.

While not the best written of the recent books, Jones’s paints the fullest picture of the agency’s troubles. He claims he served under “nonofficial cover” — that is, overseas and without diplomatic protection — for more than a decade. The agency never publicly discloses how many similar operatives are working, but Jones’s account makes clear that the number is tiny, at most a couple of hundred worldwide. A vast majority of employees work either at the C.I.A.’s headquarters in Langley, Va., or under diplomatic cover in American embassies.

Jones regards this breakdown of resources as worse than shameful. Employees under diplomatic cover are generally known to the intelligence services of the countries where they work and can operate only with the tacit approval of their host nations. Only nonofficial operatives can recruit agents in true secrecy. Only nonofficial operatives have a real chance of meeting or infiltrating terrorist groups. But these operatives face much higher risks than those under diplomatic cover, and the C.I.A. fears using them.

Instead of taking real risk, the agency fetishizes the rituals of tradecraft, Jones says. In one sad and hilarious passage, he writes of meeting another case officer, who devises a routine familiar to anyone who has ever watched a spy movie. The case officer would carry a magazine folded under her left arm, and Jones was to ask, “Can you tell me the way to the parking lot?” She was to reply, “Are you looking for the hourly parking?”

Jones objected. Since the meeting would be in “the benign city” of Philadelphia, he had a different suggestion: he would approach her in the lobby and say, “Hi, Mabel.”

Jones describes the C.I.A. as addicted to the process of recruiting foreign agents, while rarely considering the value of their information. Embassy-based station chiefs and headquarters officers demand complex recruiting operations when simple meet-and-greets would do. And the agency’s preferred recruiting method — cash — tends to attract low-level diplomats and retired military officers who peddle dubious tales.

In “Blowing My Cover: My Life as a C.I.A. Spy” (2005), Lindsay Moran, who served in Macedonia, writes of meeting a man who claimed he knew the whereabouts of a Balkan war criminal. Halfway through the meeting, Moran knew the man was lying, but she paid him anyway. “Word had spread that the C.I.A. was doling out big bucks for info, and the man had obviously come to cash in. . . . The C.I.A., I’d been discouraged to discover, paid for faulty information all the time.”

Moran’s amusing book, which portrays her as a combination of Bridget Jones and James Bond, ends with her resigning to marry the photographer of her dreams. Less amusing is the fact that Moran probably should not have been hired at all. By her own account, even during training, she doubted the morality of recruiting foreign agents, the core of being a case officer. Yet when she told her supervisors at the Farm about her fears and requested a transfer to a back-office position, they refused. Moran finished training but lasted barely two years in the field before quitting. (The hero of “An Ordinary Spy,” a novel by Joseph Weisberg, who worked briefly for the agency in the 1990s, doesn’t even make it through his first tour.)

Such cases are common, Charles Faddis, a case officer for 20 years, argues in “Beyond Repair.” Faddis describes the agency as rife with incompetence at every level and compares its leadership training unfavorably with that of the military. “Sixty years after its founding,” he writes, the agency “has never developed any system for the selection, training and cultivation of leaders.” Even the Sept. 11 attacks did not produce meaningful change. Faddis argues that adding a director of national intelligence to oversee the agency simply imposed another layer of bureaucracy. Of the 4,000 new employees in the director’s office, “not a single one of them runs operations. Not a single one of them recruits assets or produces intelligence. What they do produce, however, is process, lots of it.”

Faddis calls for replacing the agency with an elite group of nonofficial operatives, a return to its roots as the World War II-era Office of Strategic Services. But neither he nor any of the other memoirists really expect change. The intelligence community, like Wall Street, has emerged from its deepest failure largely unscathed, thanks to a massive government bailout. As Iran develops a nuclear bomb, Al Qaeda regroups for new attacks, and North Korea threatens war, readers of these books may be forgiven for feeling less than confident about the C.I.A.’s ability to predict, much less prevent, the catastrophes ahead.

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