This is Why U.S. Intelligence Can’t Have Nice Things

It’s happened again.

Another 101-level counterintelligence failure has put Washington, DC, in the headlines in an unflattering way. For the umpteenth time.

I’ve been a consistent defender of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) against scurrilous charges, particularly when these are emitted by uninformed commentators or people who are collaborating with foreign intelligence services. But I won’t defend the indefensible.

The Associated Press has a new story that details a truly hare-brained American scheme to foment anti-regime sentiments in Cuba. According to the report, the U.S. Government, with (unstated) IC support, in late 2009 began dispatching Venezuelan, Costa Rican, and Peruvian young people to Cuba to stir up trouble for Castro. Some posed as tourists, others as health care personnel, some of whom used an HIV prevention program as cover. But their mission, to “identify potential social-change actors,” never stood any chance of success.

Because Cuban counterintelligence is legendarily effective, especially on their own turf, and rooting out yanqui spies is their Job Number One. It’s what they get out of bed for in Havana, frankly. This reality is known to literally everybody in the IC who deals with Cuban affairs. It was a shock in 1987, when the highest-ranking Cuban intelligence defector to ever jump ship revealed to the Americans that every single human source that CIA had run in Cuba since the revolution had actually been a double agent reporting to Havana — but experienced counterintelligence (CI) hands weren’t all that surprised. Cuba has a highly accomplished intelligence apparatus that generally runs rings around American opponents, as I’ve explained in detail.

What tough and realistic training did our operatives receive to fend off hard-charging Cuban CI before they were sent into the lion’s den? None. As the AP explains, “One said he got a paltry, 30-minute seminar on how to evade Cuban intelligence, and there appeared to be no safety net for the inexperienced workers if they were caught.” In other words: sayonara, sucker.

The AP found USAID and its contractor, Creative Associates International, continued the program even as U.S. officials privately told their government contractors to consider suspending travel to Cuba after the arrest of contractor Alan Gross, who remains imprisoned after smuggling in sensitive technology.

This is unconscionable, not to mention profoundly stupid. Despite U.S. assurances that “We value your safety,” that clearly was not the case. Worse, some of these operatives were paid barely more than five dollars an hour, below minimum wage, to put themselves into the sights of Cuban counterspies. Moreover, was no thought given to how using HIV programs as cover might expose genuine health care workers to unnecessary risk? 

I ought to be surprised, but I no longer am. The dismal performance of U.S. counterintelligence has reached such unprecedented depths, lower even than in the lamentable days of the Cold War when the KGB and its partners usually beat Americans in the SpyWar handily, that I wonder if reform is even possible now. I’ve been firing off flares for years, as have others, no effect.

A decade ago, I thought that the CURVEBALL fiasco, in which an Iraqi defector fooled U.S. intelligence with false information about his country’s WMD programs, with disastrous consequences, might spark reform, because it was a flagrant case of what can happen when CI vetting of sources is inadequate (particularly when it’s being done through partners, here Germany’s BND).

Nothing happened.

More recently, I thought that the disaster at Afghanistan’s Forward Operating Base Chapman at the end of 2009, which killed seven CIA officers and contractors, plus two foreign partners, when an al-Qai’da operative blew himself up, might bring change, since that tragic incident was a clear case of basic counterintelligence failure, illustrating the lethal consequences of poor vetting of sources (again including poor CI liaison work with a partner service, here Jordan’s).

Nothing happened.

Then, over the last year, we’ve had the Snowden disaster, the biggest counterintelligence failure in the history of U.S. intelligence, and probably anybody’s. For want of decent vetting, on more than one occasion, the U.S. IC let Edward Snowden into the inner sanctum of secrets, and he stole them — more than 1.5 million documents — and gave them to self-styled journalists, then fled to Russia, where he remains. The consequences of this epic failure will be felt for a generation in America’s spy services.

If this doesn’t spur real counterintelligence reform, nothing ever will. Yet I continue to wonder. Evidence to date indicates that fundamental changes, long overdue in CI and security, have yet to be implemented across the IC. In customary fashion, we should expect overreaction in certain areas, which will uncover a bunch of false moles and traitors, while critical areas will go unaddressed.

CI professionals are seldom popular. They are spooky by nature, prone to complex explanations to seemingly unconnected events (to an extent this is a job requirement), and they seldom bring good news. Who, after all, wants to be told by the hush-hush guys down the hall that your premier operation—the one that you’ve been working on for months if not years, the one that was supposed to make your career—is actually just a mirage? Moreover, developing a cadre of effective CI officers takes time and talent, as a good counterintelligence officer must be a genuine expert in his or her particular region of interest, and he or she must have a detailed, and preferably encyclopedic, knowledge of the opposing service’s operations and tactics going back years or decades. Yet the United States must get serious about counterintelligence if it wants to protect its interests in a dangerous world. During my time in the intelligence community, I worked with CI officers from many agencies, including the talented staff of the CIA’s Counterintelligence Center. These people sometimes find it difficult to make CI work because of the pervasive bias against counterintelligence at Langley. Let it be hoped that this latest counterspy debacle will force the CIA, and all of our intelligence agencies, to finally get serious about counterintelligence. This is the real world, not merely a thriller spy movie.

I stick by all that, and I hereby issue another plea to the IC get serious, at last, about counterintelligence. The costs of failure are embarrassing headlines in newspapers, and far worse. If we can’t get counterintelligence right — meaning we can’t protect our secrets and prevent needless setbacks in operations due to a lack of CI vigilance, or even common sense — I have to wonder what the purpose of our vastly expensive Intelligence Community actually is.


14 comments on “This is Why U.S. Intelligence Can’t Have Nice Things”
  1. Samuel Burke says:

    Interesting. So was the problem with the cuban young latin american spy operation that they were not trained enough? How about the idea of regime change, might trying to foment revolution not be such a great idea. It’s a good thing we have the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other and we have Canada to our north and Mexico to our south.

    The fear mongering over Russia is ridiculous. They are not expanding territory…NATO is.
    How is it that the intel community falls for so many ruses that try to get the U.S to bomb other countries? The Syrian Assad gas thingy almost turned into a debacle like Lybia and yet seemingly intelligent guys were all over it like a duck on a june bug.

    Our foreign policy is what has run-amuck.
    Cuba is childs play compared to Israel with their infiltration and spying.
    I have seen how difficult it is for Americans to raise their voices about this most menacing enemy/friend, careers have been ended due to it.

    I would love to learn from you what you what you can say about how ruthless the Izzies are and how untrustworthy they have been against the country they practically use as a pinata through their power over congress by their Lobby, AIPAC. Steve Rosen once bragged “A half smile appeared on his face, and he pushed a napkin across the table,” wrote Goldberg about the interview. “’You see this napkin?’ [the official] said. In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.”

    They almost got Jonathan Pollard released a bunch of times which in and of itself is a sign of how much influence they have, if not for some honorable members of the IC and Military brass.

    1. miguel cervantes says:

      As opposed to the Saudis, the Voldemort lobby, because one dares not speak it’s name, they get a hearing on Syria, Libya, et al, they don’t need spies, they have agents of influence, all through out
      the bureaucracy at State, at the CIA, in academia,

  2. Phineas Fahrquar says:

    Reblogged this on Public Secrets and commented:
    The story itself is of a fiasco with farcical aspects (the US “spies” were paid less than minimum wage by the Obama administration!), but Schindler uses this to make a needed point about the poor state of US intelligence and counterintelligence. If things are as bad as he describes, then serious reform is needed — yesterday.

    1. Real Change says:

      The trend of governmental failures is growing. The IC is a reflection of all the federal government. At some point we must get serious and start firing inept government employees regardless of agency. Unionization of the federal workforce should never been allowed. Instead of firing poor performers it’s easier to “promote” them into someone else’s problem.

  3. E. Poletto says:

    Perhaps they might talk to Kalugin for pointers on how to run a CI group against a KGB trained organization.

    But I doubt he would talk to them.

  4. miguel cervantes says:

    these reporters in particular, have shown contempt for civil society and obeissance to the regime

  5. Bob says:

    Care to comment?

    Current USAID program partners are:

    Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba

    $3.4 million from September 2011 to September 2014

    Grupo de Apoyo a la Democracia

    $3 million from September 2012 to September 2015

    International Relief and Development

    $3.5 million from September 2011 to September 2014

    International Republican Institute

    $3 million from September 2012 to September 2015

    National Democratic Institute

    $2.3 million from September 2011 to September 2014

    New America Foundation

    $4.3 million from September 2012 to September 2015

    Pan-American Development Foundation

    $3.9 million from September 2011 to September 2014

    1. 20committee says:

      It’s overt action

  6. djb says:

    There is no US CI anymore. There’s Obama CI, there’s Biden CI, Clinton CI, Bush CI, SIS CYA CI, Congressional CI, Contractor CI, and my favorite USCIS CI, etc., The US Intelligence and CI community is totally splintered because it simply became too big, too bloated after 9/11.

    The only individuals in the Intel community who truly matter now to political appointees and senior managers are the PA officers, everyone else is expendable. Despite what the President said after Benghazi the Intelligence Community does not protect its people, at least not the ones who faithfully and honorably do their jobs.

    We are in a very similar environment in which the Russians found themselves following the collapse of the USSR. There are so many points of failure and entry into the US Intelligence Community right now that foreign, domestic hostile actors come and go at will. I’m saying that as an observation right now not as condemnation, though it would be safe to say I find it a damning situation, nevertheless one has to understand the environment in which one operates and exist.

    Perhaps one of the most telling insights about the current status of the Intel and CI Community comes from Hollywood’s treatment of the IC. The irony of a movie like Argo winning Best Picture and then also having movie crews daily traisping thru the Intelligence Community in search of exploitable material, Opsec and sources and methods be damned, makes the notion of a serious US Intel & CI community a fiction of a time, and country past.

  7. Ihor Molodecky says:

    It’s not as if there has not been enough time to get things right! More than a half century ago, Igor Gouzenko, a cypher specialist at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa had to work real hard to be accepted as a defector even though he was bringing with him documentation showing how serious Soviet espionage penetration really was in North America. He was finally taken in by the RCMP, given protection, a new name and then brushed aside. In the end he died a bitter man, feeling totally underutilized,spending his time painting landscapes……one of which hangs on my office wall.
    Maybe there is just something in our western psyche that does not suit CI that well. Could it be that we think everyone out there is just like us, shares our values, mores and world view?
    More time by itself will do nothing. A serious shake up of the system is necessary. It won’t be easy and may even be politically impossible…but that’s what it will take.
    Otherwise, it’s just banging your head against a wall, and walls can be very hard.

    p.s. I enjoy your articles very much. All the best.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks for the feedback!

  8. Sean Phillips says:

    One wonders if after all this time we should just acknowledge reality and call it the CYA…

  9. Rodney says:

    It is becoming more and more obvious to me the USA does not want good intelligence. Good sound intelligence that comes up with the facts. From what I can see in 90% of cases the facts would be the opposite of what most of the US Public, Media and Politicians want. Did Hitler or Stalin want to hear the facts? Not often. That is the USA to day from what I can see. Most Politicians and most of the Public have been influenced by there own disinformation and propaganda . Lies they now believe themselves. Like Low Esteem people they then accuse others of there own very worst faults. Clever people know not to believe there own propaganda. In the long term it is facts that matter and logic. People of good esteem like facts. People of low esteem hate facts and only want to hear what they believe. Good intelligence is all about facts. Good intelligence often means you have to accept you have got it wrong. Since when did the USA as a nation ever get anything wrong?
    Since when has the USA had a pragmatic President guided by the facts and not image. Kennedy in my mind. With that popularity comes.
    Today the two world leaders who meet this criteria best in my mind are Angela Merkel and Putin.
    Two very pragmatic and two long serving and popular leaders who always base there decisions on the facts.

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