Finding someone to spy on terrorists It's not as easy as critics of CIA like to say, and it needs new thinking


A FEW YEARS ago, as a CIA operations officer tasked with recruiting penetrations of terrorist organizations abroad, I often longed for the days when my recruitment targets could be approached and developed in civilized settings like embassy cocktail parties, diplomatic picnics and tennis tournaments. While these venues are appropriate for spotting most intelligence targets, not so with the terrorist.

The profile of today's international bomb-planting terrorist is that of an Arab male between the ages of 17 and 24, raised in the strict Muslim faith in a small rural town (somewhere like the remote Bekaa Valley of Lebanon), and harboring a deep hatred of the United States and a fanatical willingness to martyr himself in the name of Allah. He is not to be found on the diplomatic circuit, nor at any of the other usual spots where CIA case officers would normally troll for prospective agents. The terrorist doesn't hang out in bars, is highly suspicious of foreigners, has few if any foreign language skills, and shuns anyone who is not of his faith, clan and heritage.

The recruitment of new agent sources is the main task of the CIA case officer, and one of the most important courses taught to new operations officers at "The Farm" - the CIA's training facility - is "The Recruitment Cycle." It's a basic "how-to" course describing the steps and techniques required to induce the in-place defection of new sources of intelligence. The recruitment cycle involves four distinct phases: spotting, assessing, developing, and delivering the final recruitment pitch. short, the course teaches new officers how to spot new agent talent (i.e. find people with access to the information desired), how to assess their susceptibility to recruitment, how to use their perceived susceptibilities, vulnerabilities and desires to massage and develop them to the point of recruitment, and then to design and deliver a recruitment pitch based on the personal information obtained. Inducements of money, recognition and revenge are examples of major motivators; most spies accept recruitment to gain one or more of these things.

The problem is that the above doctrine is not entirely germane when dealing with the terrorist target. The terrorist can't be recruited if the case officer is not in a position to spot, assess and develop him first, and the case officer and terrorist simply don't travel in the same circles. So the CIA case officer must step back and work through intermediaries, or access agents, as they are called in the trade. An access agent is one who bridges the gap between the target and the case officer. But finding such an intermediary is a momentous task in and of itself. The gap between the urbane American case officer and the Arab militant is still too great to bridge in one step. So additional links in the chain, additional access agents, must be added, further distancing the CIA case officer from his target, and exponentially compounding the difficulty of the operation. The chain might look something like this: case officer to wealthy Arab businessman, to small Arab shopkeeper in Lebanon, to the shopkeeper's relative in the Bekaa Valley, to the relative's friend on the fringes of the terrorist organization, to the terrorist himself.

Then, assuming the CIA case officer is able to assemble such a daisy-chain, there is the problem of getting accurate and timely information up the chain to the case officer, and requirements down to the terrorist recruit.

But that's not all. Let's assume for a moment that the case officer is successful in recruiting and running a penetration of a terrorist organization. He or she must now struggle with the problem of handling such an unsavory character, a person who is prepared to kill innocent civilians and who may have killed before. The legal and ethical questions that arise from this are mind-boggling. And to take this one step further, what if the operation produces intelligence that warns us of an impending act of terrorism? Clearly we could not permit the act to take place, so the authorities would have to be called in to thwart the act and to arrest the perpetrators. That would blow the entire operation, including our penetration, and we would be left back at ground zero, having to spot, assess, develop and recruit another source who would in turn last only as long as the first bit of critical intelligence he provides.

All this not to say that we should give up trying to penetrate terrorist organizations, or that the CIA has not had some (mostly unheralded) successes in the past against the terrorist target. It is only to say that the task is indeed a gigantic one, and the CIA will require new thinking and unique approaches to be successful.

At the very least, an understanding of the difficulties the CIA faces in this area should encourage those who are constantly attacking it to rally behind it and support the efforts of its case officers. For without a strong intelligence community and solid intelligence on the terrorist target, we will always be on the defensive, responding to individual acts of terrorist violence. It has become abundantly clear that we are no longer safe from terrorism, even on our own shores. Now, more than ever, we need to take the offensive to win.

F.W. Rustmann Jr. worked for the CIA for 24 years and now heads CTC International Group, a provider of business intellignece.

Pub Date: 10/06/96

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad