Illustration by Cristiana Couceiro
It was in a CIA station in Europe in 2005 that I realized how much was changing about American spycraft. I was chatting with a supervisor working to set up his next assignment. He was eagerly volunteering to go to what we referred to as the War Zone, a group of countries that formed the nexus of the global war on terror. We were four years out from the September 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden was still out there somewhere, and stopping the next terrorist strike was paramount in our minds.
But why, I asked him, was he so eager to go in person? My colleague had no military background. In Europe, we were free to walk the streets while still contributing to fighting the war on terror. Over there, he would be separated from his family for a year, living in a shipping container on a compound surrounded by fortified walls and barbed wire, the target of mortar-shooting terrorists. His answer: In 20 years, when CIA officers looked back, serving in the War Zone in the early 2000s would be like having served in Europe in the 1980s. The Cold War had been formative for the officers who preceded us. And the global war on terror would be the defining conflict of our generation. He needed to be in the middle of it.
He was not alone in thinking this way. The aftermath of September 11 was a tumultuous time for the CIA. The agency was publicly blamed for not stopping the attacks; then it was blamed for supporting the misconception that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. To call these “intelligence failures” was unfair, in my opinion, but the critique stuck, and the agency quietly went about reorganizing itself.
The new threat demanded a new way of spying. What the classic Cold War spycraft officers had painstakingly learned didn’t help in this new mission. Attending soirees and rubbing elbows with international VIPs wasn’t how you tracked down terrorists, who hid in hillsides and remote compounds in hostile territory. Chalk marks on a street lamp to signal a meeting; dead drops in a park, filled or emptied after hours traipsing through a bustling city to determine whether you were under surveillance—these techniques now seemed obsolete. The new kind of spying, the kind my colleague was jumping into, was done by officers based in military compounds, only able to leave with a Glock on the hip, in armored personnel carriers, guarded by armed men and women in uniforms with the American flag sewn on the arm.
Over the past 15 years, this “global war on terror” mindset has become the default at the CIA. After accusations that it was stuck in the Cold War, the agency began to trade concealment devices and human sources for military hardware. Under a directive from President George W. Bush, it expanded its ranks to fight terror. It bulked up its abilities to track and target a dispersed enemy fighting an asymmetrical war. Gone were the days, it seemed, of risky brush passes in a heart-pounding, adrenaline-filled four-second period when an officer was “black”—meaning free, just for a moment, from hostile surveillance and able to pass a message to an asset. The Cold War was over; we had a new enemy to defeat.
But here’s the unfortunate irony of that transformation: Our Cold War adversaries hadn’t actually gone away. While American attention was turned elsewhere, Russia had quietly continued applying its formidable knowledge of traditional spy tradecraft.
Using old propaganda techniques, and its usual modus operandi of dangling potentially compromising material on subjects of interest, Russia has spent the past several years slowly rebuilding its great empire and quietly undermining the foundations of Western democracy.
Russia has conducted some of its malfeasance through digital means—the U.S. intelligence community publicly accused Russia’s intelligence services of hacking the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. America’s response in the years ahead will certainly need to grapple with the Russian cyberthreat. But figuring out who is ordering such attacks—and why, and who is financing them—requires good old-fashioned human intelligence. The rubbing-elbows kind. Indeed, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said publicly that the intelligence community’s report on Russia’s intervention in the election was based, in part, on information from human sources.
I fear the CIA is forgetting how to cultivate those sources at a time when Russia’s well-financed and ruthless government security apparatus presents an ever-growing threat. Of course, the CIA can’t take its eye away from terrorism, and from intelligence-gathering in the War Zones. But to succeed in this new confrontation with our old nemesis, the agency will need to dust off some of its old tricks, and relearn the way it used to do business.
Now, after rebuilding itself to fight the global war on terror in militarized zones, is the CIA prepared to return to the shadows?
For decades after the CIA was created in 1947, the agency focused on providing policymakers with the best possible information about enemy plans, intentions and motivations, and human intelligence was the linchpin of that. During the Cold War, officers in the CIA’s clandestine service spent years learning how to spot, assess, develop and recruit human sources. They learned to speak foreign languages fluently and picked up tips and tricks to network with people who might have access to communist activities or information about the Soviet atomic program.
The end of the Cold War left the agency untethered. Without a well-defined enemy, the CIA couldn’t figure out its mission. In his 2007 book, Legacy of Ashes, the journalist Tim Weiner wrote that former Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms once told him, “In World War Two … we knew what our motivation was: to beat the goddamn Nazis. In the cold war, we knew what our motivation was: to beat the goddamn Russians. Suddenly the cold war is over, and what is the motivation?” Experienced officers headed for the door. By 1996, according to Weiner, the CIA’s career training center had a total of only 25 clandestine-operations recruits; by the end of 1998, the agency had lost about 1,000 experienced clandestine officers, people trained in that old-school spycraft.
During the Cold War, officers in the CIA’s clandestine service spent years learning how to spot, assess, develop and recruit human sources.
The attacks of September 11 gave the agency a clear new mission—but one that pulled officers even further from traditional tradecraft. The new enemy operated in the rough terrain of failed states scarred by years of war; the old way of doing things—hobnobbing with the international community to get information on a state actor—was no longer adequate. As a colleague once said to me, “Terrorists don’t go to cocktail parties.” The agency set about reforming itself.
Very quickly, the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, or CTC, grew. It had been seen as a small, almost quaint shop of analysts—one officer I know was told in early 2001 not to join CTC because, as a colleague put it, the center had no future. But then, spurred by the 9/11 Commission, which recommended strengthening the CIA’s clandestine collection capabilities to be able to prevent another terrorist attack, Bush in 2004 issued a presidential directive ordering a 50 percent increase in the number of operators and analysts at the CIA. The increase also aimed to bring in officers proficient in “mission-critical languages” like Arabic, and to recruit new research and development officers “to find new ways to bring science to bear in the war on terrorism,” as the directive put it.
The CIA doesn’t release figures on how many employees are assigned to work on terrorism, and an agency spokesperson declined to comment for this article. But for those of us on the inside at the time, the new focus was clear. The agency went on a hiring spree and created new cadres of officers tasked with tracking and targeting the enemy. From my own experience, it seemed everyone I met who was coming out of training was set to join CTC, and many of my colleagues in other divisions were pulled from those assignments to help in its mission.
Over the years, as the terror threat spread, the demand grew for agency officers to focus not just on Afghanistan and Iraq, but on Syria, Yemen, Libya, Mali and other countries facing off with the Islamic State and various Al Qaeda offshoots. Nearly everyone, it seemed, was working some counterterrorism angle. Farewell parties for colleagues heading off to serve in the War Zones became routine. While promotion didn’t explicitly depend on serving there, let’s just say it looked better if that box was checked. Your next tour might depend on it.
There was a perceptible change in the culture inside the agency, too. Espionage is traditionally a nebulous practice that creates what the intelligence community calls “a wilderness of mirrors,” and that thrives in a foggy, less-defined environment. Spies tend to like working in the shadows. In the War Zones, CIA officers were constantly partnering with military personnel, who generally prefer a more precise definition of the battlefield and want to maintain a strong show of force. As more and more CIA officers spent time with their military counterparts, I watched a more military-style mentality seep into the agency. Back at headquarters in Langley, we started to see CIA officers show up dressed in cargo pants and Under Armour shirts. Buzz cuts seemed to appear everywhere.
As more and more CIA officers spent time with their military counterparts, I watched a more military-style mentality seep into the agency.
Out in the field, the CIA increasingly aimed to locate and track high-value targets like bin Laden. Given the physical risks, intelligence officers required high, and very visible, security. Wandering the streets to learn the culture and meet people was simply too dangerous. The nature of the target also required working with new allies, particularly Middle Eastern partners who better understood the culture, terrain and languages of the enemy. Combined, the new approach was a radical departure from traditional clandestine operations.
In 2004, Bush also signed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which officially created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or DNI—another 9/11 Commission recommendation meant to help the intelligence community’s disparate agencies communicate better. But to many throughout the intelligence community, the DNI only added a layer of bureaucracy. For years after the creation of the office, agencies tripped over each other trying to figure out how to cooperate. The heavy bureaucracy became a great tool to avoid doing anything risky. New metrics put in place guaranteed that promotion inside the agency depended on not screwing up. Some managers seemed to find it easier and safer simply to avoid intelligence-gathering operations, and certainly not any risky ones that might leave them accountable. It was far easier to trade information with friendly foreign partners, which gave the appearance that a lot was happening, even if in reality it was just a lot of paper being traded back and forth. For many, the era of high-adrenaline, high-risk clandestine derring-do to collect intelligence seemed over.
As the culture and mission of the agency changed, so did the workforce. The war on terror had created a burgeoning private intelligence, homeland security and defense industry. I saw many older and more experienced officers cash out to join the private sector. Others blasted the bureaucratic changes that seemed to hamper the flexibility the agency had previously held so dear. According to Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, “By 2005, half of the CIA’s workforce—operators and analysts alike—had five years’ experience or less.” This new generation of young intelligence officers would be greatly influenced by the new mission and the new way of doing business. Now, 12 years on, those same officers are surely moving into management positions and mentoring younger officers coming in. The war on terror mindset is all they know.
In short, the CIA looks very different today from the way it did at the height of the Cold War. The transformation was a necessary one, given the nature of the threat and the continuing evolution of groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The global risk environment is shifting again, however, and I fear that much of the institutional knowledge about running traditional espionage operations—which will be necessary in this new environment—is gone.
Despite any grand bargains that President Donald Trump thinks he can make with Vladimir Putin, those in the intelligence community surely recognize that Russia will continue to be a formidable adversary whose plans and intentions will need to be checked. And even if the new president is not interested in intelligence about Russia, he is hardly the intelligence community’s only customer; other agencies and Congress will still be interested. Finding the answers to what Putin and his comrades are up to will require using a host of intelligence tools, and developing and maintaining human sources will, in my estimation, be one of the most crucial.
It is clear now that, while we were fighting the war on terror, Russia was not twiddling its thumbs. Its security services are good—frighteningly good—and extremely patient. And they are not kind to anyone they see as opposition. Our diplomats and spooks already know this. The Russians have been harassing them overseas for years. Former colleagues who worked Russian targets have shared stories of returning home in various cities throughout the world to find a lamp moved from one table to another, or to discover their dog locked in a closet. Others were welcomed by a pile of human excrement on the rug or in a bed—all just professional courtesy from Russia’s intelligence services and their allies to remind American officers: Hi. We’re here.
In fact, the scrutiny seems to have intensified in recent years. The Washington Post reported last year that staff members at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow have been under increasingly heavy surveillance, subject to slashed tires on their cars, routine police stops and general intimidation. In 2013, the Russians arrested an American diplomat they suspected of spying, posted embarrassing photos of bizarre and wacky items they claimed were his spy paraphernalia—including unconvincing wigs and glasses—and then kicked him out of the country. This past June, a guard for the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and physically attacked an American diplomat as he attempted to enter the building, possibly because the FSB suspected him of being a spy.
The CIA certainly already has sources it relies on. But even under the best circumstances, it is not easy for a CIA case officer to spot, develop and ultimately convince new sources to risk their reputations, families, jobs and sometimes lives, to share secret information with a foreign government. And, with the new presidential administration that’s in power, agency officers do not currently find themselves in the best circumstances.
The best sources are motivated not by money but by a righteous concept—often the very principles the United States stands for.
Why? The best sources are motivated not by money but by a righteous concept—often the very principles the United States stands for: hope, opportunity, equality and freedom. Disdain for authoritarian systems and a desire for more liberal democracy, for instance, might be particularly motivating for anyone considering taking the risk to share information about Russia. During the Cold War, the difference between the American and Soviet political systems made this an easy contrast. Today, it is hard to imagine an asset risking his or her life for an American president who has faced serious, repeated questions about his ties to Russia. Not to mention that Trump has demonstrated a penchant for flattering Putin, and for using the same talking points as the Kremlin and Russia-friendly outfits such as RT and WikiLeaks. Add these facts to a string of high-profile leak cases, including Edward Snowden’s revelations about American spying, and even the best case officer will have trouble reassuring an asset that his or her identity will truly be protected. It doesn’t help that Putin has a well-documented history of jailing and killing Kremlin opponents, sometimes even with the legal approval of the country’s parliament.
Of course, the CIA doesn’t collect intelligence alone; we have allies to help us. But now, some U.S. officials are worried that distrust of Trump and his relationship with Putin could stop other governments from sharing information with the United States. And some foreign counterparts have made it clear those concerns are well-founded. “Until we have established whether Trump and senior members of his team can be trusted, we’re going to hold back,” a British intelligence officer told the Sunday Times, days before Trump’s inauguration. “Putting it bluntly, we can’t risk betraying sources and methods to the Russians.” Around the same time, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported, “Israeli intelligence officials fear that top-secret information that has been exposed to the United States will be leaked to Russia—and from Russia to its close ally, Iran.” Hyperbole? Maybe. But if Trump continues to praise Putin and bash European institutions such as NATO and the European Union, that could affect how much other countries share with us, and how much we will be left to gather for ourselves.
The CIA finds itself in a tough spot. Having remade itself for the 21st century, it still has the 20th century tugging at its sleeve. Will the agency be able to keep tabs on Russia’s plans? Will it be able to persuade people to provide information that would put their lives at risk? Will it be able to entice those sources without anyone—particularly Russia—knowing? Although the agency has been slow to adjust to new realities in the past, its officers certainly recognize how high the stakes are now. The pivot back toward traditional espionage will be a shock to the system, but a necessary one if the United States wants to gauge Russia’s true intentions. Putin brought his empire roaring back. I hope the CIA will prove it can do even better.