CIA plans riskier, more aggressive espionage

Posted in United States | 18-Nov-04 | Author: John Diamond

WASHINGTON — CIA Director Porter Goss told his new chief of spy operations this week to launch a much more aggressive espionage campaign that would use undercover officers to penetrate terrorist groups and hostile governments such as North Korea and Iran, according to a senior U.S. official with direct knowledge of Goss' plans.

The risky new strategy would be a sharp departure from the CIA's traditional style of human intelligence, in which field officers under flimsy cover as diplomats in U.S. embassies try to recruit foreign spies and gather tips from allied intelligence services. Those methods don't work with terror groups or in countries where the United States has no embassies, such as prewar Iraq or present-day North Korea and Iran.

The new strategy is dangerous — agents could gather much better information but would run a much higher risk of being killed if found out. Goss hinted at this strategy during his confirmation hearing and has told agency officials it is key to his effort to revamp the agency to meet new and unconventional threats.

The new spy operations chief, an official who is himself under cover, took over his post Tuesday after a messy shake-up in which his predecessor and the No. 2 official at the spy service resigned after clashing with aides to Goss. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the CIA has struggled to transform the Directorate of Operations, as the spy service is formally known, but not to Goss' satisfaction. When he was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Goss issued a scathing report in June that referred to the CIA's human intelligence efforts as "dysfunctional."

The move to more aggressive field operations represents Goss' first major effort to put into effect a strategy that he laid out on his first day on the job Sept. 24, when he told agency employees that the CIA is "the pointy end of the spear" in the war on terrorism, "and now is the time that we need the pointy end of the spear."

The speech was transmitted or distributed in writing to agency employees worldwide. Portions of the speech were read to USA TODAY by the U.S. official who described Goss' plans for transforming espionage operations. The official also read portions of an e-mail Goss sent to agency employees Monday telling them they should provide unbiased intelligence but must not oppose administration policies. The official asked not to be named because the speech and e-mail have not been made public, and because the CIA's clandestine operations are highly classified.

"Our core business in my view is close-in access to the plans and intentions" of adversary states and terror groups, Goss said in his speech. He said he expects the strategy to yield successes, but also painful failures he will have to explain to Congress. Goss said he would give his field officers "more autonomy" to do their work and pledged to back them if they fail. "We're going to encourage and expect calculated risk-taking that will be rewarded," he said. "I know it won't go right all the time. When it goes wrong, it will be supported."

Field officers who blow their diplomatic cover are typically thrown out of foreign countries. Under the new tactics, officers caught under deep cover could expect no protection and could be executed. If caught trying to penetrate a terrorist group, they could count on being tortured and murdered.

Goss wants to train and field more officers as "NOCs" — meaning they would work under "non-official cover" to give them more options for penetrating an adversary, the official said. Goss' strategy was described Tuesday night by former CIA director James Woolsey on Boston radio station WBUR's On Point program. Woolsey said he has spoken this week to top CIA officials.

The high-stakes shift in intelligence collection comes at a time of turmoil:

• Four senior officials have resigned from the CIA in less than a week, including the top two officials at the Directorate of Operations who left after feuding with aides to Goss.

• President Bush pressed Congress this week to pass legislation that could reduce the CIA's influence and access to the president by creating an intelligence post above the level of the CIA.

• With the United States involved in two wars and expecting further terrorist attacks, the CIA is struggling to close major intelligence gaps on the growing Iraqi insurgency and to find al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

• The intense scrutiny on past CIA mistakes shows no sign of abating. Bush met Wednesday with members of a government commission headed by former senator Chuck Robb, D-Va., that is investigating the poor intelligence reporting on Iraqi weapons prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Goss' push for more aggressive covert action and human intelligence collection comes as the Pentagon is gaining power to conduct operations previously restricted to the CIA. This year's defense authorization bill gives Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authority to spend up to $25 million to support "foreign forces, irregular forces, groups or individuals" assisting U.S. commandos in the war on terrorism. Such cash handouts to shadowy paramilitary groups had been the sole purview of the CIA.

In the e-mail sent to agency employees Monday, Goss warned of more turmoil ahead. He said he will "announce a series of changes — some involving procedures, organization, (and) senior personnel." White House spokesman Scott McClellan and CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano discussed its contents Wednesday.

Goss' e-mail gave his employees "rules of the road" concerning relations with the White House. "We support the administration and its policies in our work," Goss wrote. "As agency employees we do not identify with, support or champion opposition to the administration or its policies. We provide intelligence as we see it — and let the facts alone speak to the policymaker."

Gimigliano said that by "support," Goss meant providing accurate, unbiased intelligence, not political support for administration policies. At the White House, McClellan said the CIA's job was to "provide unvarnished facts" and stay out of policymaking. Likewise, McClellan said, policymakers would stay out of the intelligence business.

Contributing: Judy Keen