When a suicide bomber killed seven CIA employees operating from a secret base in Afghanistan, the news gave Americans a rare look into the spy agency’s expanded role on the front lines against al-Qaida and its allies. It also prompted fresh debate over the military use of an agency that operates in shadows and secrecy.
Afsheen John Radsan was assistant general counsel for the CIA during the tense years after Sept. 11, 2001. Now he directs the National Security Forum at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. He took time to talk to MinnPost about the aftermath of the Dec. 30 bombing in Afghanistan.
MP: Is this expanded use of the CIA sustainable? In other words, can that agency ramp up to face new terrorist fronts as they emerge in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere?
AJR: The CIA’s role is crucial in countering terrorist groups, in going after al-Qaida. We would not be able to do this without a strong and effective CIA. . . . I agree that the CIA can’t do everything. And it can’t be everywhere. But what other agency would be able to carry out these functions?
This is not the first time that we’ve ramped up the CIA’s activities during a war. During the Vietnam War, we had many CIA officers in Indochina.
MP: Maybe a better question is whether it should ramp up. The incident triggered fresh debate about empowering the CIA to play a larger role in military operations.
AJR: More and more, some people will say that what the CIA is doing in Afghanistan and other places is closer to military activity. And then they conclude it should be folded into the Pentagon. That’s a fair debate. . . . When you don’t want to send in the Marines but you think the diplomats are insufficient, you need something in between. That’s been the CIA.
The America public should understand that the CIA as a collective, did not want to do all of these things after 9/11. There were people who said we should stick to our traditional intelligence-gathering function. . . . But after 9/11, the president looked around the room in his cabinet meetings at Camp David. He wanted people inside Afghanistan. And of all of the agencies, it was the CIA that could put people into place far sooner.
MP: But do we have sufficient checks to ensure that the CIA’s covert military operations comply with applicable domestic and international laws?
AJR: The structure is good, but we need more vigorous oversight from external actors — by that I mean Congress, the media — in making sure these things are done consistent with American law and policy.
Even more effective than that are the internal checks, the inspector general, the lawyers. They have what they call accountability review boards within the clandestine service of the CIA.
And the culture of law-abiding behavior needs to improve. There is a tension between having a secret agency and democracy. I don’t think you can ever completely resolve that tension, but you can find a better balance to make sure that people doing these necessary activities are doing them in a way that comports with what the president wanted and comports with American law.
MP: Is more reform or regulation needed?
AJR: I believe in the CIA’s mission. If we are going to be a global power, you have to have an intelligence service and a good one. But I’ve been critical of the CIA because I think they sometimes resist oversight or reforms that would be in the CIA’s long-term interest.
They were accustomed to people not second guessing them, and I think they would be better off with more vigorous checks — but checks from people who don’t want to close down our intelligence services, checks from realistic people.
MP: A related concern is the expansion of war by assassination or targeted killing. The nature of al-Qaida may have forced that tactic, but how can accountability be ensured?
AJR: Make sure the decision has been given by the president — and everything we have on the record suggests that the president has authorized continuing the Predator (drone) strikes.
We also want to make sure that the targeting is accurate. That depends on the quality of the predators, the intelligence gathering, the cameras, the infrared and the human sources. We want to make sure we are targeting and firing on people that we have an armed conflict with and we are not targeting civilians.
MP: Do we need to do a better job in that regard?
AJR: There have been credible reports that civilians have been killed, too many. Yes, we should do better. We should be even more vigorous in trying to insure the accuracy of the targeting.
But people should recognize that in any war human beings are going to make mistakes. That’s an unfortunate reality, and we have to do everything we can to reduce mistakes.
I’m not saying the CIA has done anything wrong, but the Pentagon has far more experience than the CIA on these kinds of issues, on making sure the targeting is accurate. … say, in a war when they are dropping bombs. … They have kind of a chain of command that they’ve developed through the rules of engagement.
MP: The incident seems to have exposed the weakness in a strategy that relies on informants. What next steps does the CIA need to take to correct any weakness?
AJR: We need all layers of intelligence. We have technical sources, but what the technical sources cannot do is get into the minds of people. That’s why you need human sources, to get into the minds and to get the nuances. But any time you deal with human beings you deal with their imperfections, the dangers, the nagging questions of whether this is a legitimate source or a double agent. That’s endemic to espionage.
MP: Are we amplifying the risks now?
AJR: If you were going into the CIA during the Cold War, you could expect to go live in a European capital. Now the front lines are in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria. . . . And during the Cold War, intelligence officers had various government covers. They were spying on each other out of embassies. There were some rough rules between us and the Soviets — you didn’t attack known intelligence officers; you didn’t kill KGB officers; they didn’t kill CIA — because this could lead to war, and it would be counterproductive.
Al-Qaida doesn’t follow those rules. If you are going to try to get al-Qaida sources, they are not going to be in the embassy circuit. . . . So to get those sources you have to put yourself at risk.
In that sense the risk is amplified. It’s because of the nature of al-Qaida, not because of the particular activity.
MP: Even before this incident, U.S. intelligence operatives were accused of being “clueless” about the part of the world in which they were operating. With the loss of these CIA experts, do we know even less?
AJR: We need to get better at running human sources. I’m not saying we did anything poorly, but that is very important in this conflict against al-Qaida. Americans are probably not as experienced in duplicity as people from other countries. We also are a newer power, so we are not used to these activities in the alleys, the caves, the back streets. . . . We probably don’t have as many people fluent in the languages of that region. We don’t have as many people that are fascinated by that region. We don’t have as many American equivalents of Lawrence of Arabia who learn the culture, learn the language. That is very important.
On other side, al-Qaida can study us easily. We’re an open society. They figure us out. Their operatives have lived here. They are gathering information about us, probing our weaknesses. To match them, we have to be able to do the same.
MP: How much has al-Qaida gained by hitting a target inside the CIA?
AJR: This was a victory for al-Qaida. It was a loss for us. It shows that they are able to attack us there and that they can run double agent operations which are sophisticated operations. This shows they are a formidable enemy. That’s not a surprise to the people at the CIA. They have been reminding the policy makers and indirectly the American public that this is a significant threat.
Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.