Intelligence: Gearing Up For A Shadow Struggle

The evidence against Lotfi Raissi seemed pretty damning. The Algerian pilot had allegedly given flying instructions to four of the suspected hijackers in the suicide attacks on New York and Washington. Raissi swore that he was totally innocent, but investigators had video pictures of the man with the hijackers, as well as correspondence and phone records. Yet a few days after Raissi's arrest at his home near London's Heathrow Airport in the wake of the Sept. 11 atrocity, Britain's Scotland Yard was about to let the man go. It seems that British law does not allow the authorities to hold a man in custody merely because American law enforcement believes he might be a material witness to a crime committed in the United States. American investigators had to scramble to contrive a charge against Raissi. The crime? On his application for a pilot's license, Raissi allegedly failed to disclose a minor arrest for theft and an old knee injury.

So, with creaks and groans, do the wheels of justice grind on to fight the crime of the new century. Many frightened Americans would like to hunt down and kill any terrorists--along with their aiders and abettors--as quickly as possible, and worry about civil liberties later. But the fact is that several centuries of the rule of law, as well as long-standing bureaucratic and national rivalries, guarantee that the shadow war against terrorism will be groping, erratic and frustrating. Whether it will be successful ultimately depends on cooperation between spies, both at home and abroad. Trust is not a quality generally associated with espionage. But in its battle against a threat that seems at once global, seamless and suicidal, the American intelligence community is going to need extraordinary cooperation from a patchwork of foreign security services that sometimes seem more devoted to stonewalling or subverting each other than to engaging a common enemy.

First, American intelligence services will have to stop fighting each other. The CIA, which spies abroad, and the FBI, which chases criminals at home and abroad, have only recently begun cooperating better, and their cultures still clash. The United States is combating terrorism with a rickety structure built a half century ago to contain global communism. Generally speaking, the FBI has been better at solving crimes than preventing them. The gumshoes are dogged about dragnets (almost 500 people have been arrested so far in the hijacking investigation). But their intelligence analysts, hobbled by aging computers, are not highly esteemed by the rest of the intelligence community. "The FBI thinks that Islamic terrorists are organized just like the Mafia," says a former high-ranking CIA official. "They pull out their wiring diagram for the Gambino family and substitute the name Al Qaeda." The FBI is notorious for not sharing information with other agencies, while hogging any credit. (Insiders' joke: dogs from the FBI, the DEA, Customs and the Department of Agriculture are sent to sniff a mysterious package. The DEA dog finds drugs, the Customs dog finds money and the Agriculture Department dog finds diseased meat. The FBI dog snorts the drugs, buries the money, eats the meat--and issues a press release.)

President George W. Bush has appointed a special assistant for Homeland Security, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, to make the agencies work together. But unless Ridge is given control over budgets and hiring and firing--highly unlikely--bureaucratic rivalries will continue to undercut investigations and intelligence gathering.

Battered by scandals, the CIA has been struggling with low morale. Former CIA officials and case officers are very doubtful about the agency's ability to penetrate the terror cells of Islamic extremists. "The Company" has fewer Arab-speaking case officers and less regional expertise than it did during the cold war. The agency's best assets have always been "walk-ins," disaffected foreign nationals who offer to spy against their own country. "You don't get walk-ins from terror cells," says a former case officer. The agency did once get a walk-in who was a Libyan intelligence officer. But the turncoat neglected to tell the CIA about a Libyan plot to bomb Pan Am Flight 103 until after the jetliner exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. (The man, Abdul Majid Giaka, became talkative only when the agency threatened to drop him from the payroll.) Giaka was supposed to be a key prosecution witness against one of the two alleged Pan Am 103 bombers--but was so discredited as a liar that the accused terrorist got off. A retired CIA case officer with deep experience in the Middle East estimated that it would take the agency six years to build an intelligence service capable of "seeding" agents into the radical Islamic underworld.

That's much too long for a population worried that the next terrorist strike will be a biochem or even nuclear attack. Americans may begin to feel more like Israelis, who regard terrorism as a ticking bomb. The Israeli approach is direct: kill or be killed. After the "Black September" movement slaughtered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, Israel's Mossad tracked down and killed the terrorists, one by one (as well as an innocent Moroccan waiter in Norway who was snuffed by mistake). But retaliation has hardly stopped suicide bombers from striking Israel.

The Mossad has a wary relationship with U.S. intelligence, which has accused Israel of spying on the United States. A better bet to help America roll up (and knock off) terror cells may be Egyptian and Saudi intelligence. The Egyptians are ruthless. "They play the old-fashioned game," says an ex-CIA case officer. "They not only round up individuals but the entire family to have, how you say, an arduous conversation." Egypt may have been too effective rooting out Islamic extremists: many of them fled elsewhere, including to America, in order to re-form their cells. The Saudis have probably done more to penetrate Al Qaeda than any other foreign intelligence service, but Al Qaeda in turn has penetrated the Saudi regime. Two interrelated global charities directly financed by the Saudi government--the International Islamic Relief Organization and the Muslim World League --have been used by bin Laden to finance his operations. The organizations were left off the list of groups sanctioned by the United States last week, U.S. officials hinted to NEWSWEEK, in order to avoid embarrassing the Saudi government. Judging whether Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, is friend or foe can be equally dicey. The ISI has helped the CIA hunt bin Laden, but it also trained Taliban soldiers (including, probably, some of bin Laden's) at camps in Afghanistan. Among the charitable organizations originally listed as a bin Laden front was the Rabita Trust for the Rehabilitation of Stranded Pakistanis. One small problem: the president of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, was on Rabita's board. Intelligence officials tell NEWSWEEK that Washington gave Musharraf 36 hours to quit, but when he didn't, the Rabita Trust was quietly dropped from the list.

Some Middle Eastern intelligence services are more reliably trustworthy. Jordan methodically thwarted an Al Qaeda plot to attack some local resorts frequented by Westerners at the time of the 2000 millennium. Jordan's King Abdullah has stuck his neck out for Bush (Abdullah's late father, King Hussein, was on the CIA payroll for two decades). Likewise, the Filipinos have foiled a number of plots aimed at Westerners in the Far East. In 1995 Abdul Hakim Murad was arrested for planning to kill the pope and blow up 11 American airliners. Eager to learn more, the Philippine National Police Intelligence Group beat Murad, forced water into his mouth, crushed lighted cigarettes into his private parts, made him sit on ice cubes, threatened to rape him and told him that he'd never see the light of day in Manila. (Murad did not spill, however, until the Filipinos threatened to turn him over to Israel's Mossad for further interrogation.)

The CIA does not torture, "but we've always worked with agencies that do do that," says a former U.S. defense-intelligence operative. "Our policy is: don't do it, don't tolerate it, argue against it and, by God, don't be there when it happens. But if someone comes to you with information, you don't ask, 'Was the guy treated well?' You ask about the reliability of the information."

No one has been more skillful at looking the other way over the years than British intelligence. The Brits have been America's closest ally in spying as well as everything else. But British intelligence has incurred the wrath of other services by tolerating--some would say protecting--some pret- ty questionable characters in its midst. French counterterror officials sneer about "Londonistan" because the British cite their scrupulous adherence to human rights and the rule of law as an excuse not to arrest several figures widely regarded as bin Laden lieutenants. The French want to get custody of Sheik Abu Hamza, "The One-Armed Man," who has a claw for a hand (lost to a mine in Afghanistan). The British insist that Sheik Abu is a harmless blowhard. The sheik, who preaches at the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London, is allegedly a bin Laden associate linked to a terrorist attack before a G7 ministers' meeting in Lille, France, in 1996. The French suspect that Britain is either buying protection from Sheik Abu or using him as a double agent.

So it goes in the wilderness of mirrors, the spy vs. spy world that was murky enough in the cold war and is practically opaque in the New War of Terror. "The intelligence effort will be a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle," said a veteran American intelligence officer. "And all the pieces are pure black." While Bush has demanded that each nation choose sides in the struggle ahead, intelligence veterans know better. In the real war against terrorism, alliances will be vague and shifting, deceit and revenge the norm. Defeating the terrorists is unlikely. Disrupting them is more achievable, but only by working closely with foreign intelligence services while winking at their methods.