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Henry Crumpton spent twenty-four years in the CIA’s clandestine service. His work put him at the forefront of the agency’s counterterrorism efforts, and on the front lines as America took on the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan following 9/11. His recently published recollections offer an exceptionally deep glimpse into the CIA’s counterterrorism operations in the last decade of the twentieth century. I put six questions to Crumpton about his bestselling book The Art of Intelligence:
1. The 9/11 Commission and investigations developed in its wake turned up information suggesting that the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) had acquired specific information on Khalid Al-Mihdhar, one of the 9/11 plotters—including that he had obtained a U.S. visa and had been tracked into the United States—but failed to share it with the FBI or other domestic law-enforcement agencies. Is it fair to say this was a major mistake by CTC personnel? Were procedures later put in place to help avoid similar problems?
The CIA’s CTC did share this information with the FBI, including several FBI Special Agents detailed full-time to CTC, specifically working in the branch dedicated to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. This included a special agent from the FBI’s New York field office. They all had both electronic and hard-copy access, in real-time, to official CIA correspondence from the field that included this specific information. Moreover, there were conversations about this issue between the CIA and the FBI.
I was not in CTC during the summer of 2001, having been assigned abroad, but I learned of this after my return to CIA headquarters. Having been detailed to the FBI in 1998 and 1999, I understood firsthand the need to have an exchange of personnel between intelligence and law enforcement as a means to share skills, promote transparency, and shore up institutional weakness, especially the “wall” between evidence for criminal prosecutions and intelligence. For a resource-strapped CTC, the FBI special agents served as experienced, skilled reinforcements, so I strongly encouraged this exchange program. I understand that progress has been made addressing the wall and other issues, but I cannot comment with any authority on the current situation; I retired from government service in 2007.
2. In the past couple of weeks a debate has grown in Washington of a sort we’ve witnessed many times in the past—first, classified information is leaked to the media in a way designed to put the current administration in a positive light just at the start of an election campaign. Then the party out of power cries foul and insists that the leaks have compromised national security. You talk about a “secrecy paradox”—the fact that while official Washington craves secrecy, a democratic state needs a population with a sufficient body of information about national-security concerns to enable sensible choices at election time. Other than by allowing career intelligence officers to write books, what can America do to strike a better balance on issues of secrecy versus the people’s right to know enough to vote as responsible citizens?
First, the government needs to set a higher bar for what is secret. There is a bureaucracy and, in some cases, a private-sector industry made up of vested interests who promote classification. Information is power, and that plays into these vested interests. Not only would requiring a higher standard for classifying information allow greater citizen access and understanding to a broader and deeper range of issues, it would save money and promote effective governance, including greater collaboration with foreign allies.
In the 2001 Afghanistan war, I could not get approval to release highly classified satellite imagery of the battlefield to our Afghan non-state allies, so I directed a draftsman to reproduce key aspects of the imagery in the form of sketches. I then “reclassified” this intelligence at a lower level and passed the maps to our brothers-in-arms—with whom we shared daily, deadly risk.
Second, the government needs to clamp down on what is truly secret via better accountability. Secrecy provides us a huge advantage. When our real secrets are lost, the enemy is empowered. The latest example of leaks related to Iran is a travesty, providing a very sophisticated counterintelligence enemy with apparent confirmation of game-changing sources and methods. Those in the government who are responsible for these leaks should face the full force of law.
Third, we need greater discourse between the intelligence/special-ops community, which is isolated by mission and culture, and U.S. society at large. The nature of war is changing. America needs to understand that, and especially to understand the growing roles and responsibilities of our spies and warriors. In turn, these professionals need to understand our great, dynamic, and diverse country. It is a long way from the battlefields of Asia and Africa to Wall Street and Main Street.
3. As you note, the Taliban and Al Qaeda were brought to capitulation in Afghanistan by a scant 410 Americans on the ground, assisted by local allies and powerful support from the air. While the failure to deploy a larger ground force had some adverse consequences—most of the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership slipped away, and local strongmen flush with U.S. cash and arms proved a large obstacle in efforts to create a viable state based in Kabul. Looking back, would it have been better in the longer run for the Afghan operation to have fielded a large American ground force and relied less on the Northern Alliance and other local leaders?
No. A large U.S. force would have been an invading force in the eyes of allies and prospective allies. Witness the fiasco in Iraq. A large U.S. force would have taken too much time to organize and deploy. Bear in mind that we did not know if or when the next 9/11 would happen. We had to move quickly. A large U.S. force would have been cumbersome, and we needed agility, we needed to be inside the turning radius of the enemy. As I stress in my book, speed, agility, and precision were the paramount elements of our strategy. And it worked, with only a handful of U.S. casualties and many enemy dead—breaking up Al Qaeda–Taliban alliances across the country and helping free a nation from brutal rule.
Moreover, the key to enduring victory is empowering people. In 2001 and 2002 we empowered the Afghans to win back their country from the Taliban and Al Qaeda, whom we portrayed as the foreign invaders. The U.S. should have reinforced that initial success, especially during the huge window of opportunity from 2002 to 2005, with the projection of non-military power: the rule of law, infrastructure—especially energy in the villages and telecommunications, health care, education, and the emancipation of women. It would have been much more effective than the current expenditures of blood (more than 3,000 coalition forces and many more Afghans dead) and treasure (currently $2 billion a week).
4. Your book makes some impressive arguments for the flexible use of drones as a new technology both in intelligence gathering and combat. Under President Obama, the military and intelligence communities have relied far more heavily on drones—with strong results in the battle against Al Qaeda and its allies in the Pakistani tribal areas. Did Obama make the right tactical decision? If so, was Bush wrong not to have used drones more heavily?
Yes, President Obama is correct to deploy drones both as intelligence-collection platforms and weapon systems. Note, however, that President Bush greatly expanded drones as collection vehicles, and that this included a greater diversity of drones, from the large Reaper to the man-portable tactical models. Regarding President Obama’s dramatic increase of lethal strikes, several things may contribute to this. First, there are now more armed drones available. In the 2001–2002 Afghanistan campaign we had only two in theater, and only one of those was armed. It took time to produce, deploy, and coordinate the use of armed drones during the last decade.
Second, I would assume that the technology for both optical targeting and precision missile launch have improved, making an effective weapon even more effective and, therefore, more likely to be employed.
Third, remembering that an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is a complement to other intelligence-collection efforts, I believe that our overall collection abilities, including human intelligence, have improved, so there are more target opportunities.
Fourth, President Obama entered office with an apparent hostility toward the CIA, but he has grown to understand and embrace the CIA as an effective intelligence service and foreign-policy instrument. Finally, a warning: we must resist the sterile attraction of death by remote control, particularly if this serves as a substitute for prisoner capture and debriefing. We should not allow UAV warfare or any other technology to undermine our human-intelligence efforts, which includes building trusted networks in these hostile environments, networks that can serve as the building blocks for diplomacy and development.
5. Robert Grenier, the former CIA chief of station in Islamabad, recently criticized the heavy use of drones in Yemen and Pakistan, saying that the drone program “needs to be targeted much more finely. We have been seduced by [drones] and the unintended consequences of our actions are going to outweigh the intended consequences.” He focused on the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Islamabad as an “unintended consequence,” and warned that the changing political attitudes might lead to the creation of larger safe havens for terrorists, rather than eliminating them. This suggests that the heavy reliance on drones may be tactically astute, but strategically unsound. How do you view this criticism?
The immediate and paramount operational imperative to stop the enemy from attacking us in the homeland and elsewhere justifies these drone attacks. However, we also need to set and achieve three strategic goals in South Asia. First, nullify enemy leadership—we are doing a good job of that, and it requires the robust use of drones. Second, deny the enemy safe haven. This is a sovereign responsibility that Pakistan has failed to address; Islamabad cannot speak about their sovereign rights and ignore their sovereign responsibility. The United States, therefore, has not only the right but the obligation to protect our homeland and our citizens by seeking reduction of these enemy safe havens through unilateral measures, if necessary. Nevertheless, we should continue to engage with the Pakistanis, but in a more forceful, accountable, bilateral way.
Third, we must attack those conditions that the enemy exploits, such as the illiberal, dogmatic, violent ideology promulgated in some of the Pakistani religious schools that serve as breeding grounds for Taliban and Al Qaeda recruits. In fact, liberal institutions throughout Pakistan are under assault. We should help our Pakistani allies wage a counterattack, including those local tribal allies who are fighting Al Qaeda and their cohorts in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
So, in sum, drones play only one part of a much larger, more complex plan that we need to pursue. The risk is not with the use of drones, an exceptionally precise and effective weapons system, but about defining and tackling interlocking strategic issues in complementary ways.
6. The CIA’s Publications Review Board has been accused of censoring memoirs and accounts of former CIA employees whenever they reflect critically or negatively on the agency. You just went through this process. Did they strike anything you wrote? If so, does the censorship seem warranted, in retrospect, on national-security terms, or was it more of an effort to deflect criticism from the agency as an institution?
I wrote the book with an acute sense of responsibility. I did not want to expose secrets, especially sources and methods. The PRB redacted less than five percent of my original draft and, after various discussions, restored more than half of that. This process was pain-free. The PRB always responded to every draft submitted within thirty days, per their policy. When I offered explanations, they listened and in some cases relented. I also listened to and agreed with many of their decisions. In the end there were only a couple of specific items, and one that was potentially politically embarrassing, that I thought should have been kept in the text. Not bad after 100,000 words. And, the PRB had no apparent problem with my direct criticism of the CIA and specific CIA leaders.
Finally, I signed an agreement when I joined the CIA in January 1981 that bound me to this condition of employment, a formal review of manuscripts, for the rest of my life. I gladly signed that document. I have zero regrets. On the contrary, I would not change anything related to that agreement. I am proud to have complied with my oath and I will continue to do so.
More from Scott Horton:
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Conversation — March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm
Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
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A Spanish design student created a speech-recognition pillow into which the restive confide their worries, which are then printed out in the morning.
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"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."