Jewish World Review March 2, 2004 / 9 Adar, 5764
Once Upon a Spymaster, Part II: Returning to a conversation
After the usual initial failures, he came through.
JJA: Thanks, I wanted to add a few things myself.
ML: I thought so. First of all, the language thing.
JJA: It's a copout.
ML: Huh? But everybody says it.
JJA: Sure they do. Saves them lots of hard work. They can say, well, Congress wouldn't give us the money for linguists so we couldn't recruit anyone.
ML: But doesn't recruitment depend on trust? I mean, if somebody's going to risk his life by betraying his comrades to us, he'd better trust us. And it's easier to establish trust if you speak his language.
JJA: That's one of those easy generalizations that don't correspond to the way spies actually do their work. First of all, the whole business of "recruitment" is a bit of a scam. CIA case officers get a little manual on the subject, and they go out in the field and try to find people who will accept money from us in exchange for "information." Once that relationship is established, the case officers can claim to have recruited the "asset" and then they "run" him. And that happens all the time, there are lots of people willing to take our money and tell us what they think is going on.
ML: And that hinges on trust, doesn't it?
JJA: Well, it's easy to imagine cases in which it would be very dangerous if it were known that they were taking money. Which is one of the reasons that the manual requires payment, because it gives the case officer a blackmail threat against the asset not exactly a relationship of mutual trust. Machiavelli would have a better word for that relationship.
Don't forget that the most important spies in history were in the overwhelming majority of cases walk-ins. They weren't ever recruited, they approached us. And for the most part they acted out of political or personal passion, not for the money (although they needed money to provide for their family or, after relocating to the West, for themselves). They were driven people, and while they hoped we were reliable professionals, they weren't lured into spying for us because of a warm relationship with some case officer, for whom they had great trust. If anything, the trust developed over time. That certainly does happen. But you don't have to be fluent in the guy's language to work with him. That's why the Almighty created interpreters.
ML: Well, I must say I'm surprised. I expected you to say that language is really important.
JJA: Oh, language is important, but you know, it's probably better to have a great interpreter than to have a case officer who's had a few years of language training. The interpreter's more likely to catch the nuances. The same goes for ambassadors, by the way. Some of our best ambassadors were utterly hopeless in the language of the country, and some of our worst were guys who figured they spoke the language just fine, and didn't need an interpreter, and wanted privacy with their counterparts. My goodness, I could tell you stories about diplomats.
ML: No, no, that's ok. I take your point. What else did we miss last time?
JJA: Well, I think we slid over a couple of Tenet's remarks about Iran that I found surprising and instructive at the same time.
ML: That whole bit about the regime being secure?
JJA: Well, let's take it systematically. He starts by saying that the last elections were a serious blow to "governmental led reform." He continues by saying that "with the waning of top-down reform efforts, reformers will probably turn to the grassroots working with NGOs and labor groups to rebuild popular support." And then he says that since authoritarian rule has been strengthened, the regime will be less likely to break out of "old foreign policy patterns."
Let's deconstruct that. First of all, there has been virtually no reform in the last several years. If anything there has been greater repression, certainly in the press and the streets. Thus, his second point claiming that the elections will weaken top-down reform efforts is built on sand, since there were no such efforts. Moreover, the "reformers" never fought very hard or very effectively for reform, and there is every reason to think that they are totally discredited among the people. That's why there was such a low electoral turnout, wasn't it?"
ML: Absolutely right. And I guess you're gonna say that, once power has been formally concentrated entirely in the hands of the hard-liners, they will be freer to play with foreign policy.
JJA: Yes. In fact they will be freer to play with domestic policy too, because there won't be any annoying dissonance from the parliament. Notice that they've already extended the curfew in the cities from midnight to 3 A.M., and they released a couple of Bahais who had been in jail for about fifteen years.
ML: And this regime is the sort that some of our diplomats prefer to work with, because there's no democratic process, no need to mobilize public opinion, just an iron fist.
JJA: Yes, like Arafat at the time of Oslo. Remember how Rabin and Peres went around saying that this was a great thing because Arafat was going to "take care of" the terrorists, and he wasn't bound by Western standards of decency?
ML: I used to remind my students that Mussolini was extremely popular among Western democratic leaders, in no small part because he was viewed as having enormous power, he could just tell the people what to do, and it was done.
JJA: But Tenet did point out that "the prospect of internal violence remains." A bit of an understatement, since there were demonstrations in several Iranian cities at the very moment he was testifying. And just before saying that, Tenet made one of those amazing statements that somehow creep into public testimony: "as has so often happened in Iran's history, Iran's leaders appear likely to respond to challenges in rigid and unimaginative ways."
ML: Cultural determinism?
JJA: I wonder what he's thinking of, maybe the shah. But the shah actually eased up on internal controls when he was challenged, and forbade his generals to crack down. Probably some frustrated historian wanted to show off, and got this line into the DCI's testimony. Historically, Persian leaders have often been very flexible and very imaginative. Whatever the source, it's a mistake. And anyway, we want our spymasters to tell us about the intentions of the current leaders, not pretend to be masters of psychohistory or national character. The question is not, what are the characteristics of Iranian culture, but what do Khamenei and Rafsanjani intend to do now?
ML: What do you think?
JJA: I think they intend to trick us some more. It's worked so far, and every year they gain means lots of money for themselves, lots of new weapons, including atomic ones, and therefore more regional power, and of course the great pleasure of ruling 70 million people. So they will keep pretending that they are willing to help us in Iraq and Afghanistan all the while supporting those who are hell-bent to kill us in both places and that they will very soon now turn over the al Qaeda leaders that they have "in custody," who in reality are getting luxury suites and plenty of help from the mullahs.
ML: And the political future of the country?
JJA: Oh, that's the worst part. He looks at the current situation, and he says that "the Iranian public does not appear eager to take a challenge to the streets," even though, as I said, there were demonstrations at that very moment, and there have been enormous demonstrations for several years now. He says, underlining the words, that in Tehran the prevailing mood is apathy, and that intimidation has kept the people in line. Ergo, "This mix keeps the regime secure for now."
ML: What's wrong with that? Lots of experts say that, in fact lots of Iranians say the same thing.
JJA: They certainly do. But the DCI should go beyond just taking a snapshot, even a controversial one. He might just as well have said that the country is in a classic revolutionary condition: an unpopular and discredited regime, a young and explosive population, widespread social misery, evident discontent, and the total collapse of the ideology on which the regime is based. But if he had said that, it would have pointed to a policy different from the one that CIA, State, and apparently the national-security adviser want. They don't want to give active support to the Iranian people, so it would have been incautious of Tenet to provide a snapshot that might have implied that sort of policy. Instead, he gave one that permits the policy makers to do nothing.
ML: It occurs to me that this is the same sort of thing that economists do, when they calculate the consequences of a new policy without factoring in the changes that the new policy will generate. What do they call that?
JJA: I think it's static analysis, when dynamic analysis works better. Yes, think we got static analysis from the DCI instead of the dynamic analysis he might have provided. But again, he had good reasons.
ML: Yeah, good political reasons. But the head of the CIA is supposed to provide a clear-eyed vision of the world, isn't he? Even when it's not what the president wants to hear?
JJA: It's what he's supposed to do according to the textbooks and the movies, but in real life he wants to keep his job too and courage crackle
I'd lost him again.
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02/24/04: The Great Iranian Election Fiasco: What actually happened; what we must do