Shock and Horror: Spies Engage in Bribery

Some U.S. national-security and intelligence officials are expressing exasperation at revelations—including front-page stories two days' running in the nation's most important newspapers—alleging that the CIA has been secretly bribing numerous aides to Hamid Karzai, the embattled Afghan president.

The officials don't even try to deny such shenanigans are occurring: they believe such practices are essential to American intelligence and defense operations in the region. What they fear is that any move toward curbing the authority of the CIA and other U.S. agencies to approach, and by means fair or foul, co-opt sources of information, however dubious their character, might significantly hamper American efforts to collect strategic and tactical information essential to American military and political operations in the region.

"You've got to pay people," says former CIA operations officer Bob Baer, whose books Sleeping With the Devil and See No Evil made him a celebrity and formed the basis of the George Clooney film Syriana. "That's what the CIA does. It bribes people." In order to monitor the level of corruption in a place like Afghanistan, Baer says, it only makes sense that U.S. operatives would have to talk to, and if necessary, bribe those involved in the corruption to find out what is going on. "How hard is that to understand?" Baer asks rhetorically.

On Thursday The New York Times reported that the CIA for many years had been funneling secret payoffs to Mohammed Zia Salehi, an aide to Karzai who currently is at the center of a sensitive corruption inquiry by internal Afghan investigators. In July, Salehi was arrested in connection with the corruption probe, but The Times says he was quickly released after Karzai personally intervened and called a senior anticorruption investigator on the carpet for an explanation. On Friday, The Washington Post reported that the CIA had been making secret payments to what the paper characterized as "numerous" members of Karzai's government. The Post said one of the main purposes of such payments, which again may have continued for years, was to ensure that U.S. Intelligence could keep tabs on the activities inside a government "in which the Afghan leader is often seen as having a limited grasp of developments."

While U.S. officials were reluctant to discuss specific identities of any Afghan official who might have been, or still is receiving, such payments, officials don't even try to deny that such activity is occurring, and that some U.S. government dollars—maybe even quite a few—could end up in the hands of crooked or otherwise bad people.

U.S. officials do deny that any American payments that Salehi might have received had any relationship to the corruption scandal in which he has become embroiled. The Times says the scandal relates to allegations that Salehi solicited a bribe in return for trying to sit on an investigation of a business that helped Afghans export money out of the country.

The frustrations the revelations are provoking inside U.S. intelligence circles are evident from the increasingly tart comments that some serving American national security officials are offering. "On one hand, we're open to the idea of reconciliation with extremists like the Taliban, who have American blood on their hands. On the other, we're going after people who are actually helping us against the Taliban. It doesn't make much sense," said one U.S. official, who asked for anonymity when discussing a highly sensitive topic. "But some in Washington have yet to realize an eternal truth: good government's important, but in places of conflict and corruption, you sometimes have to rely for vital information and vital action on influential players who have been known to take a bribe or two."

The official added that the Obama administration's top priority in Afghanistan is to establish some kind of security framework, and alluded to the fact that in Iraq, successful U.S. tactics included using unorthodox, or even dubious methods to buy, or at least rent, the loyalty of some local leaders. "In Iraq, we mobilized some pretty tough customers to help turn the tide against Al Qaeda. It made all the difference. People in this country shouldn't forget that lesson. If they want to build a pure, pristine state, they shouldn't choose spots like Iraq or Afghanistan for their social experiments," the official said.

Baer noted that, chastened by a U.S. law restricting the publication of the names of CIA staff officers working undercover, American media organizations routinely refrain from publishing such identifying information, even though it is sometimes not difficult to discover and might even be in wide circulation. "Shouldn't we do the same thing for [CIA] sources?" Baer wondered.

Paul Gimigliano, a spokesman for the CIA, told Declassified, "This agency acts aggressively, and in strict accord with American law, to advance U.S. policy objectives in Afghanistan. It's utterly reckless to make public allegations as to who may be helping us in a war zone. And it's utterly sad that such a reminder should ever be necessary in the United States."