Inside the CIA's Syrian Rebels Vetting Machine

Syrian Rebels FSA
A Free Syrian Army fighter in Aleppo. Hosam Katan/Reuters

Nothing has come in for more mockery during the Obama administration's halting steps into the Syrian civil war than its employment of "moderate" to describe the kind of rebels it is willing to back. In one of the more widely cited japes, The New Yorker's resident humorist, Andy Borowitz, presented a "Moderate Syrian Application Form," in which applicants were asked to describe themselves as either "A) Moderate, B) Very moderate, C) Crazy moderate or D) Other."

After Senator John McCain allegedly posed with Syrians "on our side" who turned out to be kidnappers—a report later called into question—Jon Stewart cracked, "Not everyone is going to be wearing their 'HELLO I'M A TERRORIST' name badge."

Behind the jokes, however, is the deadly serious responsibility of the CIA and Defense Department to vet Syrians before they receive covert American training, aid and arms. But according to U.S. counterterrorism veterans, a system that worked pretty well during four decades of the Cold War has been no match for the linguistic, cultural, tribal and political complexities of the Middle East, especially now in Syria. "We're completely out of our league," one former CIA vetting expert declared on condition of anonymity, reflecting the consensus of intelligence professionals with firsthand knowledge of the Syrian situation. "To be really honest, very few people know how to vet well. It's a very specialized skill. It's extremely difficult to do well" in the best of circumstances, the former operative said. And in Syria it has proved impossible.

Daunted by the task of fielding a 5,000-strong force virtually overnight, the Defense Department and CIA field operatives, known as case officers, have largely fallen back on the system used in Afghanistan, first during the covert campaign to rout the Soviet Red Army in the 1980s and then again after the 2001 U.S. invasion to expel Al-Qaeda: Pick a tribal leader who in turn recruits a fighting force. But these warlords have had their own agendas, including drug-running, and shifting alliances, sometimes collaborating with terrorist enemies of the United States, sometimes not.

"Vetting is a word we throw a lot around a lot, but actually very few people know what it really means," said the former CIA operative, who had several postings in the Middle East for a decade after the 9/11 attacks. "It's not like you've got a booth set up at a camp somewhere. What normally happens is that a case officer will identify a source who is a leader in one of the Free Syrian Army groups. And he'll say, 'Hey...can you come up with 200 [guys] you can trust?' And of course they say yes—they always say yes. So Ahmed brings you a list and the details you need to do the traces," the CIA's word for background checks. "So you're taking that guy's word on the people he's recruited. So we rely on a source whom we've done traces on to do the recruiting. Does that make sense?"

No, says former CIA operative Patrick Skinner, who still travels the region for the Soufan Group, a private intelligence organization headed by FBI, CIA and MI6 veterans. "Syria is a vetting nightmare," he told Newsweek, "with no way to discern the loyalties of not only those being vetted but also of those bringing the people to our attention."

A particularly vivid example was provided recently by Peter Theo Curtis, an American held hostage in Syria for two years. A U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) unit that briefly held him hostage casually revealed how it collaborated with Al-Qaeda's al-Nusra Front, even after being "vetted" and trained by the CIA in Jordan, he wrote inThe New York Times Magazine.

"About this business of fighting Jabhat al-Nusra?" Curtis said he asked his FSA captors.

"Oh, that," one said. "We lied to the Americans about that."

Concerns about the CIA's vetting system arose long before the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, several CIA veterans told Newsweek. In Baghdad, one said, agency operatives had such thin faith in the system that they often had sweaty palms as they awaited a meeting with a newly recruited Iraqi spy—even though he had been cleared by CIA vetters—because they knew he might show up with a suicide vest under his jacket. That happened in Afghanistan on December 30, 2009, when a Jordanian physician recruited by the CIA on his claim to have access to Osama bin Laden turned out to be working for Al-Qaeda. He blew himself up at a CIA base, taking out seven agency operatives as well.

That double agent had been served up by Jordan's General Intelligence Directorate, a longtime partner of the CIA in clandestine operations. Relying on close liaisons to vet spies might've worked well enough during the Cold War, when the CIA's name files were meticulously updated by its small corps of Ivy-educated spies, but in the swirling chaos of the post-9/11 Middle East or South Asia, where Arabic (or Urdu, Farsi or Pashtun) names can be transliterated to English and back in endless varieties and where political allegiances are as blurry as the centuries-old colonial boundaries drawn up by bureaucrats in London and Paris, the CIA's vetters are just not up to the task, say spy agency veterans with long experience in the region.

"For two years I managed a lot of those folks," said one person not authorized to discuss the inner workings of the system. "A lot of them are contractors just coming out of college and don't have a lot of experience under their belts—not in the Middle East, or the region or in Arabic."

(The CIA declined comment on the vetting process. Navy commander Elissa Smith, speaking for the Defense Department, said in a statement that "the U.S. military has decades of experience screening foreign military forces for training. We also know the Syrian opposition better now than we did two years ago. While we cannot disclose the details of our sources and methods, we will screen thoroughly and conduct continuous monitoring.")

American embassies around the world are open to just about anybody who wants to sign up for the FSA. "They fill out a form. You get their four-part name, their date of birth, and then their tribe and where they're from and all that," the former operative explained. "Their work history, if there is any. Then you take that and run your traces through all your databases—your HUMINT and SIGINT [agency acronyms for information from human spies and National Security Agency intercepts, called signals intelligence]. And then you take certain aspects of that information, and you sanitize it, and you send it by cable to your station in whatever country, and you ask for their traces on this individual, to see if anything comes up.

"The problem with that process," the former operative continued, "is when you have a person sitting at a computer who doesn't know how to standardize Arabic names.… They may translate it correctly, but the person typing it in may or may not know how to look for it with all the name variances that might already be in the system."

When it came time to start vetting Syrian rebels, the CIA faced even more hurdles. When the Obama administration shuttered the American Embassy in Damascus in 2011, just as the civil war was exploding, the covert CIA station inside the building there was rolled up, too. The agency had to "make do," as one former operative put it.

"The main problem with plans that arm and train the 'moderates'—who ominously are moderate only in their fighting abilities," said Skinner, "is that it assumes perfect knowledge, or 'good enough' knowledge, about the people being armed. When in fact there is nothing close to that.… The background info on these fighters is next to nothing and misleading, especially in Syria, where we don't have a liaison relationship, and so the vast majority of even check-the-box vetting is by third parties [who are] out-of-the-country players with a stake in the game.

"As in Afghanistan, we can get scammed and misled at every stage with tragic results," Skinner added. "One can't simply build a loyal effective army thirdhand. It's like running a want-ad that says, 'Only Moderates Show Up for Free Weapons and Paid Training,' and believing that is effective screening."

"It's one thing if you're talking about a few dozen, or even a few hundred, individuals to run name checks or traces on," agrees Martin Reardon, a former high-ranking FBI counterterrorism official. "But the first group of [Syrian] rebels to be trained [by the U.S.] is supposed to number upwards of 5,000. Assuming the administration can identify that many 'moderate' rebels to begin with, it would be virtually impossible to accomplish even minimal background checks with any degree of reliability."

Another troubling lesson from the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria is that today's moderate can become tomorrow's extremist. "Just because that guy may be moderate today—who may really and truly be a moderate and despise Al-Qaeda or whatever—what if that guy is seen walking into the Green Zone by his friend so-and-so at the checkpoint?" the former CIA vetting expert said. "And everybody knows those guys coming into the Green Zone are there to see the CIA, or at least that's the assumption. So they grab his father, his son or his brother, and they take him captive. What's to stop them from forcing him to strap a bomb to his body and walking back into the next meeting with an [improvised explosive device] on his chest?"

Or this: "What if you're in Afghanistan and maybe you're friends [with a contact], but tomorrow you drop a bomb on his cousin? You think he's going to be your friend tomorrow? These things can change overnight. So this vetting idea—'once vetted, things are all right, we're good to go'—is crazy."

Given such accounts, the odds of keeping loyal troops seems like panning for gold—or worse, an exercise in self-delusion. But the former CIA operative, who served in a variety of Middle Eastern posts as well as headquarters, said Obama administration officials aren't fibbing about their faith in the system. They just may not realize it's shot through with holes. "Most of them think they're doing it pretty good, but they're also not our best and brightest in terms of knowing how to vet," this person said. "So I don't think it's a charade, I think it's misguided. They don't know how poor it actually is."

So what? responds former senior CIA operations officer Charles Faddis, who led a covert team into Kurdistan in advance of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. He says it's time to act, no matter how shaky the foundations of the CIA's Syrian army. "You can't run covert action without getting your hands dirty. We can't sit on the sidelines and have discreet, antiseptic contacts with these guys and accomplish anything," Faddis said. "If we're going to do this, we need to wade in."

Caution be damned. Hold our noses and pass the ammunition.

"We need to have people on the ground. We need to give them serious money and weaponry," Faddis said. "Unless we do that, we are never really going to have any control over what's going on, or any real idea who we should be in bed with."

This article originally ommitted that a report of John McCain posing for photographs with Syrians later revealed to be kidnappers has since been called into question.