The resignation of George Tenet as CIA director, following a string of disastrous failures at the agency, underscores the greater failure of the U.S. intelligence community to understand a Middle East where allegiances constantly shift, duplicity is considered an honorable political necessity and America is regarded with mixed and extreme emotions of love and loathing.
A change at the top will be of little consequence at the CIA as long as the same “white bread” brand of espionage based on Western assumptions is practiced in a part of the world where America has staked its global reputation. The CIA, as well as its better-funded, lesser-known counterparts that function mostly under the Pentagon’s command, should go far beyond hiring more Arabic and Farsi linguists and begin to learn the Middle East’s secret language.
It makes sense from a Western viewpoint—and jibes with a stereotypical image of a Middle East where bakshish (bribe money, to the West) opens all doors—to buy with cold, hard cash “human assets,” an intelligence term for living, breathing spies. Yet, as clearly demonstrated in the case of Ahmad Chalabi, who received millions from Washington over the years, money only buys the slyest, sleaziest and ostensibly least useful of agents.
The West’s arch-nemeses, the radical, militant organizations that continue to proliferate throughout the region, clearly understand the limitations of money. They know they must appeal mainly to seething religious and national sentiments to recruit agents of such dedication that they would think little of giving their lives for their cause.
In Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward describes a CIA operation dubbed ROCKSTARS for its perceived spectacular success during the months that led up to the invasion of Iraq. American agents in the northern Kurdish region paid tens of millions of dollars to two Kurdish brothers and their father, who created a network of high-echelon informants within Saddam’s military and civilian ranks. Information, considered to be extremely sensitive, poured in on CD-ROMs and via satellite phones.
Only today, as Iraq remains an unsettled cauldron, does it seem clear that many of these informants sold for top dollar information they knew to be useless about a regime that had already disengaged itself from Saddam, decided to put up a pro forma resistance to the invasion and was gearing up for protracted guerrilla warfare.
Also disingenuous was Tenet himself, as he reported to the White House that finding WMDs in Iraq was a “slam-dunk case,” offering Bush and Cheney what they wanted to hear in their monomaniacal march to a war that they thought would secure America’s vested corporate interests in an oil-rich, strategically important country.
Tenet, the definitive good ol’ boy who served the agency for seven years (the longest term since Allen Dulles, who served for eight) may consider Afghanistan a success story during a tumultuous tenure that also saw America’s costliest intelligence failure with 9/11. In truth, Afghanistan constitutes a case of misspent millions and a bungled message as well. The warlords who were the recipients of Langley’s largesse (“It’s easier to pay them off than to kill them,” one agent reasoned) continue to undermine Kabul’s authority, making Afghanistan a haven for a thriving drug trade and militants of many stripes.
Ironically, it was in the Middle East that the CIA began to gain its once-storied and notorious reputation, when it overthrew the government of Iran’s Mohamad Mossadegh and restored the Shah to power in 1953. Yet the Iranian coup d’etat also planted the seeds of anti-Americanism in the region, while a politicized Islam began to present itself as a viable alternative to haphazard Westernization. Fundamentalist Islam has failed as a panacea; at the same time, an America whose worst face was bared at Abu Ghraib remains far from attractive.
Paramount among the lessons learned from half a century of CIA misadventures in the region is that American money and might can no longer buy true friends or intimidate even some of the weakest of foes in the Middle East. Americans, however, are admired for their ingenuity and enterprise, and for the prosperity and liberty they enjoy within their own borders. It will take an administration appreciably more competent and articulate, and appreciably less tainted than present one, to convince Middle Easterners that America has the good faith and the ability to help them achieve the best of America’s values while holding on to their own religious and national traditions.
A native of Iran, Behrouz Saba writes on American and Middle Eastern political, social and cultural issues. He is a graduate of USC with a Ph.D. in communications.