A Street Fight

Parachuting supplies to CIA operatives working behind enemy lines is a tricky business, even in an age of Global Positioning Systems and spy-in-the-sky satellites. Supplies meant for the Alpha or Bravo team sometimes land on the Echo or Foxtrot team. Last fall one frustrated spook, hiding at a secret drop zone near Kandahar, sent this coded message to his handlers: "waited three hours through all possible windows: only one airplane passed and kicked off one bundle: some bags of beans and rice... and two bags of horse feed rpt horse feed. we do not have any f---ing horses."

Other CIA paramilitary officers did have horses, however. And they rode them to victory, in an improbable, partly planned, partly improvised assault on the Taliban that combined high-tech and ancient modes of war. The CIA's success in Afghanistan--the agency's ability to get on the ground quickly, join up with Northern Alliance fighters and guide U.S. Special Forces teams to the enemy--came as a surprise and a relief to many intelligence experts, inside and outside the government. There had been a rising tide of grumbling and at times outright mockery aimed at an intelligence service whose successes and failures over the years have been shrouded in myth.

The critics have not gone away. In recent books and articles a small but outspoken chorus of former CIA case officers has portrayed the once proudly swashbuckling agency as a timid, politically correct bureaucracy, overly concerned with being held to account by the press and Capitol Hill. Senior CIA officials interviewed by NEWSWEEK concede that the agency has gone through some dispiriting times, a period of scandals, drift and second-guessing that reached a low point by about 1995. The agency was spread thin, losing disgruntled old hands and--in hindsight-- insufficiently aimed at the hard target of terrorism.

It is focused now. Though the CIA won't reveal details, the agency played a critical role in the massive raid staged last month against Qaeda operatives hiding out in Pakistan, including Abu Zubaydah, Osama bin Laden's key deputy charged with running terror operations on the ground. (Zubaydah was shot in the groin trying to flee. "If he's singing," said a CIA official, "it will be in a higher pitch.") Since 9-11, the agency has been deluged with job applicants and showered with dollars by Congress, enabling the CIA to add more case officers (the CIA refuses to reveal the total, but the overall number is surprisingly small). Well before 9-11, these officials contend, the agency was rebuilding its "clandestine service," the spy handlers who gather humint (human intelligence) and run covert actions. The men at the top of the CIA do not predict miracles: creating a cadre of experienced case officers who can recruit and run agents inside terrorist cells is a very slow and chancy process. "We're about halfway there," said a top official.

How is the CIA really doing in the war on terror? The answer is: better than the agency's more vocal critics suggest. The more difficult question remains whether "better" is good enough. The CIA likes to say that its successes remain secret, while its failures (like a recently busted spying operation in Russia) make the headlines. Nonetheless, it is possible to get at least a partial look inside the shadow war. NEWSWEEK interviewed present and former agency officials and knowledgeable outsiders to put together a picture of the agency's progress. While some intelligence experts remain gloomy, most agree that the CIA is making gradual headway against a very difficult foe. One major terrorist attack, of course, could make even that carefully hedged assessment sound like so much wishful thinking.

The resourcefulness and courage of the CIA men who infiltrated Afghanistan shortly after 9-11 is beyond doubt. NEWSWEEK interviewed a member of the first team that went in, a former Army Special Forces soldier who joined the CIA in the mid-'80s. Rick (not his real name) shipped out with his team--two CIA case officers who speak Farsi and Dari, two former Special Forces operators (a former Navy SEAL and Rick), a communications specialist, a medic and three air crew--on Sept. 19, eight days after the terror attacks. On earlier missions into northern Afghanistan, agency case officers had nearly died in local helicopters ("flying coffins," said Rick), including one that had been chased by a Taliban MiG fighter. So the agency bought a better chopper from the Russians and stenciled on a memorable tail number: 91101. After 9-11, the agency did not wait to obtain landing rights from surrounding countries as it moved its team into northern Afghanistan, and it ignored the military's careful requirement that any commando raid be backed up by an "extraction plan" and search-and-rescue teams. If the CIA group got into trouble it was on its own.

As even Pentagon officials will concede, the CIA can move more nimbly than the military in these situations. It is lucky that the agency has any paramilitary force--its "special activities" group had atrophied after the cold war, dwindling to a skeleton force by 1997. It is also fortunate that the agency had maintained contacts with the Northern Alliance through several earlier, unsuccessful attempts to track and target Osama bin Laden. Landing in the northwest corner of Afghanistan on Sept. 26, Rick and his NALT (Northern Alliance Liaison Team) found their local allies willing to fight the Taliban but woefully lacking in supplies. The first mission was to call in airdrops of "beans, bullets and cold-weather gear," said Rick. (Many of the Afghans were wearing sneakers and sandals.) For themselves, the agency men requested good leather saddles, to improve on the wooden ones provided by their hosts. The NALT team was followed by five more six-men teams, Alpha in the northwest, Bravo at Mazar-e Sharif, Charlie in the west, Echo and Foxtrot in the south. The agency teams secured HLZs--helicopter landing zones--for military Special Forces who arrived with their laser target designators to enable American air power to strike Taliban positions. (Rick named his HLZ after his daughter.) Relations between the military and the CIA--touchy in the past--were relatively smooth. Rick was an old friend of the commander of the Fifth Special Forces. "I'd just pick up the SAT phone and call him," he says.

The NALT leader, Joe (not his real name), a case officer who had been about to retire with 30 years' experience when 9-11 happened, radioed back to Washington that he was "confident" the Taliban would break under bombardment. CIA Director George Tenet brought this on-the-ground evaluation directly to President George W. Bush. By the beginning of November, with little visible progress on the battlefield, some of Bush's top advisers were starting to wonder: is it time to send in heavy reinforcements of U.S. troops? But the agency's man was proved right: by early December, the Taliban was in full rout.

The CIA did have to cope with uncertain allies. The local warlords were sometimes more interested in fighting each other than the Taliban. And the Northern Alliance was thoroughly penetrated by Taliban spies, who reported back on the CIA's presence and location. At one point, a Taliban counterattack threatened to overrun one CIA-Northern Alliance position. While the CIA forces opened fire with automatic weapons, their Afghan protectors hid behind a rock. "Get up! Get up and fight!" shouted a CIA man. Came the reply: "This is not our village. This is not our fight." The CIA man shouted back, "What the hell does it look like? I'm from this village?" The Afghans joined in the battle and the Taliban was repulsed. The every-man-for-himself ethos showed up again at Thanksgiving. The CIA tried to airdrop frozen turkeys to its men, but the Afghans got there first. The Northern Alliance dined on turkey with all the fixin's. The CIA men ate beans.

Some of the airdrops were bundles of $20 bills. The CIA "bought more Taliban leaders than it killed," said one official. The price tag was anywhere from $50 to $100,000 (always paid in U.S. dollars, the preferred currency). "A package of a million dollars looks about like this," said Rick, spreading his arms about two feet wide. Headquarters cabled the operators on the ground to inquire what steps were being taken to safeguard the cash. "We're sleeping on top of it," cabled back the team leader.

In December, when Qaeda and Taliban remnants fled into the mountains near Tora Bora, CIA team leaders warned that the border into Pakistan was "totally porous," said Rick. Central Command would not commit U.S. ground forces, and Afghan and Pakistani efforts to close the door were sometimes halfhearted. At the CIA no one was surprised when bin Laden and most of the top Qaeda leadership got away. "We are in full pursuit, and we will find them," a senior CIA official told NEWSWEEK.

The fall of the Taliban brought little celebrating at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. "We understood that here comes the hard part," said a top official. "Even if we do catch bin Laden, the leadership will be quickly replaced. It's just like a drug cartel." Because the 9-11 attacks caught the intelligence community by surprise, it was widely assumed that the CIA had failed to penetrate Al Qaeda. Agency officials were exasperated when congressmen demanded to know: how come John Walker Lindh, a California teenager, could join Al Qaeda, while the CIA was shut out? In fact, say CIA officials, the agency had "scores" of assets reporting on Al Qaeda before 9-11, though only a few sources were actual terrorists. "So what?" scoffs Robert Baer, a former case officer and one of the agency's harshest critics. "They've got somebody whose cousin has a friend who knows somebody. All these sources didn't warn them about 9-11."

Getting inside a terrorist organization is extremely difficult. The notion that an American can work his way in by putting on a burnoose, speaking Arabic and "hanging around the mosque" is "cowboy stuff," says one top spymaster. During the cold war, the best CIA assets were all "walk-ins," disillusioned Russian military or KGB officials who "self-recruited"--offered their services to the Americans, sometimes to show their disgust with the communist system, sometimes for cash, often for both. In the war on terror, the most useful turncoats still walk in. Before 9-11, the CIA received on average about 15 volunteers a month offering to spy on Al Qaeda. After 9-11, the rate increased to 15 a day. Almost all are worthless--nuts, visa-seekers, scam artists. And the occasional useful walk-in is generally a "scumbucket," says a top spymaster--a thief, a kidnapper, or worse.

CIA officers have always been willing to take risks and go into the "street" to meet would-be spies. But in the mid-'90s, there was a reluctance to recruit assets who could become problem cases. At Langley, the bureaucrats were fearful of being dragged before a congressional committee to justify how they could have hired a "human-rights abuser." Now the cautious approach is "gone," says one high-ranking agency official. "We've sent out every possible guidance: we're taking risks."

The CIA often works with foreign intelligence services to penetrate terrorist groups. The services of some Arab states do not labor under the same constraints as the CIA. "The Egyptians, they're kick-a--. They can do things we can't do," says one CIA official. The Egyptians, as well as the Jordanians and probably others in the Middle East, have been known to arrest whole families in their quest for information. But foreign security services have their own agendas and divided loyalties.

One case officer described his attempt to enlist the services of an intelligence officer working for an unnamed country, a "state sponsor" of terrorism. At first, he got some help from an unusual source. In a casual conversation with the wife of the CIA case officer, the wife of the foreign intelligence officer volunteered that her husband had close ties to a terrorist group. The CIA case officer met with the woman, who offered to help the CIA gain access to her husband's files. But it might be necessary, the woman suggested, for her husband to have "an accident." "We don't do that," the CIA man explained. The wife seemed disappointed. ("It was an arranged marriage. She detested him," explained the agency man.) The woman agreed to help the CIA, even to take a lie-detector test. She stipulated that there were only two things she would not do: personally kill her husband or take off her burqa. "It was clear," the CIA man said, "that of the two, killing her husband would be easier for her." In the end, despite the wife's help, the CIA man never did make an agent of the intelligence officer. Sometimes the culture gap is too wide.

Navigating such treacherous and unfamiliar territory requires exceptional experience, subtlety and skill. Bedeviled by declining budgets and a hostile press and Congress after the 1986 Iran-contra scandal, the CIA became scattered, sclerotic, unsure of its post-cold-war role. From the perspective of 9-11, it's obvious that the agency should have zeroed in on global terrorism. But the agency's various "customers," the federal agencies who count on its intelligence gathering, were also interested in economic spying, nuclear proliferation, the war on drugs and other priorities.

Morale has greatly improved under Tenet, who became director in 1997. Though initially suspect as an outsider--he had been staff director of the Senate intelligence committee--Tenet became popular for his plainspoken and boisterous manner. A basketball and Motown fan who has been known to sing golden oldies in his office, Tenet wisely bonded with Bush by personally delivering his intelligence briefing almost every morning. After 9-11, Tenet's White House connection amounted to job insurance.

In its rush to catch up with Al Qaeda, the agency may act too hastily. One former official notes that almost all the Africa analysts at headquarters were arbitrarily re-assigned to the Counter-Terrorism Center. This ex-spook fears that the agency will go overboard and forget the reforms and controls of the past 30 years. On Capitol Hill the CIA still has to endure a grilling for its role in the 9-11 disaster. "The fact is we had a catastrophic intelligence failure. The whole reason we have an intelligence community is to avoid catastrophic intelligence failures," says one CIA official. Agency officials say that the investigators will turn up some missed signals but no major blunders that could have been reasonably foreseen and avoided. That remains to be seen: congressional investigations have a way of taking on a life of their own. Investigators will look closely at the poor handoff of information between the CIA and the FBI. In the meantime the agency will be scrambling to avert the next nightmare.

In the past presidents had often turned to the CIA when all else failed. Covert action is very tempting when diplomacy doesn't work out or the cost of military action is too high. In real life the CIA often does get stuck with Mission: Impossible. It should be no surprise when the real-world result is less than a success. The difference this time is that the stakes are so high--as high, or higher, than during some of the longest hours of the cold war. With an enemy fanatically determined to use weapons of mass destruction to kill as many Americans as possible, failure is not an option.

Join the Discussion