Risky Business: U.S. Must Rely On Foreign Spies

The deadly suicide bombing of a CIA base in eastern Afghanistan last week is an uncomfortable reminder of how reliant U.S. spy agencies have become on foreign intelligence services.

The bomber was apparently a 36-year-old Jordanian doctor who had been recruited by Jordanian intelligence to penetrate al-Qaida's terrorist organization. He had been a trusted informant and was invited to the CIA base. Seven CIA employees were killed in the attack, along with a Jordanian intelligence officer.

The attack exposes some of the risks of relying on foreign intelligence agencies to help vet and run key intelligence assets. But the practice has become an unavoidable reality in the fight against al-Qaida, as well as the CIA's larger mission.

"It's core to what we do as an agency," former CIA director Michael Hayden tells NPR.

Hayden refused to discuss any specifics of last week's attack, but he says that forging close relationships with foreign intelligence chiefs was one of his primary missions when he ran the CIA from 2006 until February 2009.

"The general tradeoff is that CIA is big, global, and resource-rich, and the local service is focused and linguistically smart, and that makes for a good partnership," says Hayden. "They may find something of local significance. We can then put it into a global context for their benefit and ours."

These relationships help fill some key gaps for U.S. spy agencies.

"The U.S. intelligence community relies considerably on foreign intelligence services to protect American security," says Andy Johnson, who spent 12 years working on the Senate Intelligence Committee, including as its staff director from 2007 to 2009. "Some foreign intelligence services have the language skills, the cultural makeup and the understanding of potential targets that we do not."

Over the years, the CIA has built a very productive working relationship with Jordan's intelligence service. "They are probably the best in terms of their intent and their competence," says a former intelligence official. "They have knowledge we don't have."

Jordan provided key information on the whereabouts of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, who was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2004. Jordanian intelligence officers also interrogated key al-Qaida suspects at the behest of the CIA in the years immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

More broadly, the CIA has also cultivated close partnerships with spy agencies in other friendly countries, like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, as well as less likely allies like Syria.

Those relationships have been "a significant contributor" to U.S. efforts to degrade al-Qaida's leadership since Sept. 11, according to intelligence sources.

"There has been considerable progress made at building up bilateral relationships with other foreign intelligence services against terrorist targets," says Johnson, who now oversees national security analysis at Third Way, a liberal Washington think tank. "The intelligence community has not achieved as much as it wanted to with the development of unilateral assets."

Some critics of the CIA complain that the spy agency has not been aggressive enough in hiring and deploying the right kind of officers to recruit its own sources. One problem is that the CIA's strict internal security policies make it very difficult to grant security clearances to people who have spent many years overseas or have close family members living in target countries.

But intelligence veterans say that that foreign intelligence services will always be a necessary component when it comes to targeting al-Qaida.

"You need to have Arab-looking, Arabic-speaking people to penetrate these networks," says Richard Russell, a former CIA analyst who now teaches at the National Defense and Georgetown universities. "You're using them as proxies — agents of access to people you otherwise couldn't get close to with a 10-foot pole."

U.S. intelligence agencies have powerful capabilities to intercept telephone calls and e-mails, but al-Qaida has become very disciplined at avoiding electronic communication.

This means that intelligence officers have to rely on much more aggressive efforts to recruit potentially dangerous sources.

"It's a high-risk and potentially higher-reward strategy to use individuals who were either formerly affiliated with the terrorist group or who may be used to infiltrate a terrorist group," Johnson says.

What makes last week's attack unusual is that one shortcoming of relying on foreign spy agencies is that they rarely allow their most prized sources to meet U.S. officials in person.

But in the Afghanistan incident, the bomber, identified as Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, was invited to the CIA base expressly to meet with U.S. officials.

"It's the cost of doing business," says Russell. "It's a risk."

But, he adds, "If you're in the business, you're kind of surprised it hasn't happened sooner."

The risks are even more pronounced when the partnerships the CIA has built with countries like Pakistan. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have worked successfully with Pakistani security services to capture or kill key al-Qaida figures, including Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

But Pakistani spy agencies helped to create and support the Taliban in Afghanistan and some Pakistani officers are believed to maintain close, even supportive ties, to the group.

"You work with them because you have to, not necessarily because they have the same level of trustworthiness," says one source.

There is a risk that the attack will prompt CIA officials to implement new security measures that could restrict their ability to recruit new sources in the future.

"The concern is that you overcompensate now and are so reluctant to talk to people that you lose your offensive advantage — that you're not going out to take risks and contact people," says Russell. "It's a hard balance to find."

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