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CIA Casualties Highlight Intel-Gathering Operations
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CIA Casualties Highlight Intel-Gathering Operations

National Security

CIA Casualties Highlight Intel-Gathering Operations

CIA Casualties Highlight Intel-Gathering Operations
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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The CIA operatives killed in Afghanistan were working to develop sources within al-Qaida, a task that has proven incredibly tough, and their loss is a heavy blow to the agency's ability to gather intelligence there. Former CIA analyst and author Michael Scheuer says the primary problem in trying to gain human intelligence in Afghanistan is that the U.S. is seen as "foreign, infidel occupiers by all Afghans."


The deadly suicide bombing at the U.S. base in Afghanistan highlights a challenge for spy agencies. The CIA relies on human intelligence, credible information from people who understand the culture, the warlords and the insurgents. Yet, if an individual's close enough to enemy targets to provide useful information, how can they really be trusted?

Michael Scheuer ran the CIA's effort before 9/11 to target Osama bin Laden. He has since left the CIA and has written extensively about intelligence gathering, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MICHAEL SCHEUER (Former CIA Analyst): Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: Now, one former CIA officer has been quoted as saying that in the Cold War the biggest worry was that a Russian double agent might feed you false information. But these days, if you have a double agent, he might detonate in your face. Does this call into question the whole intelligence strategy in Afghanistan?

Mr. SCHEUER: No, I don't think it does. But he's right. It's a double-edge threat now. It used to be just feeding bad information, but now this man may well have fed us bad information for a year and then killed our officers to boot. So, it's a very serious, very deadly business. I think Americans tend to forget what we're trying to do out there is to get people to commit treason against their country, their organization, or in this man's mind, probably against his faith.

NORRIS: And that requires recruiting people, individual one-on-one recruitment. And to the extent that you can answer this question, how do you recruit informants that can provide credible human intelligence? And how do you know when you've turned them?

Mr. SCHEUER: It's a very human process. So much depends on, of course, identifying someone who has access to the information you need, finding a way to meet him and then trying to build rapport with him over time - finding what would entice him to work with you. Is it money? Is it a liking for America? Is it a dislike for the person you want to collect against?

NORRIS: How does the role of fundamentalist religion complicate things in a place like Afghanistan? Does it make it harder to use cash, for instance?

Mr. SCHEUER: Yeah, it makes it very difficult. In the Cold War, the people who wanted to work for us worked for us because they admired our society and found their society repulsive. They found out the Soviet Union was, at the end of the day, just a gangster organization. Unfortunately, in the Islamist military organizations, their leaders are actually on the battlefield. There are people who have given up livelihood such as a surgeon in terms of Zawahiri, a very prominent family in Egypt, the son of a multibillionaire in Osama bin Laden. So, what happens is the person you're talking to is very attractive by his own system and not very attracted by yours.

NORRIS: And I want to ask you, also, how you know if you've actually turned someone. If you believe that you could actually trust them, if there is actually such a thing as trust when you're talking about espionage.

Mr. SCHEUER: Ma'am, I don't think you ever trust anybody 100 percent, but when you recruit someone in our organization, he takes a polygraph test, you check the information he gives you regarding biographical details. You create tests for him to do to see if he'll do what you tell him to do. And, of course, over time you take the information he gives you and try to corroborate it with information from other sources.

NORRIS: What are the particular challenges in trying to gather human intelligence in a place like Afghanistan?

Mr. SCHEUER: Primarily the problem is that we are viewed as foreign, infidel occupiers by all Afghans. And at the end of the day they want us out more than anything else. And we - you know, the president - neither president of the recent presidents have told the American people the truth about that. The Taliban would not be effective if the local people weren't supporting it. They increasingly see us as the successors to the Soviet Union, as occupiers of Afghanistan. So it makes human collection very, very difficult and increasingly dangerous.

NORRIS: I understand that you know many of the people that were killed in the bombing in Afghanistan.


NORRIS: To the extent that you can actually talk about this, what, beyond just the loss of human life, what does this mean for the CIA? What was lost in terms of the expertise in the brain trust?

Mr. SCHEUER: Well, several of the people were among the top, I would say at least the top five experts on al-Qaida in the United States, people with anywhere from 10 to 15 to more years of expertise in trying to find a way to destroy al-Qaida. When you lose that type of expertise, it's very hard to replace it, impossible to replace it in the near term.

BLOCK: Mr. Scheuer, thank you very much.

Mr. SCHEUER: You're welcome, ma'am.

BLOCK: Michael Scheuer ran the CIA's effort before 9/11 to target Osama Bin Laden. He has since left the CIA and has written extensively about intelligence gathering.

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