Michael J. Sulick is the man CIA Director General Michael Hayden has put in charge of gathering HUMINT, i.e., human intelligence, i.e., old fashioned man-on-man, man-on-woman, and woman-on-man espionage.
According to Newsweek, “Sulick learned his tradecraft—the James Bond side of spying—in the old Soviet Union. Like other Western spies, he learned to follow ‘Moscow Rules,’ the rigorous countersurveillance measures used to avoid detection by the ubiquitous KGB.”
Sulick quit the agency in September 2004 in a highly public row with Porter Goss, the CIA director who ended getting chewed up by the agency’s permanent bureaucracy, readily helped along in the chewing by his own staff, one member of whom had an old shoplifting charge on his résumé.
The CIA has been repeatedly castigated for weakness in collecting HUMINT. And one root cause of its perpetual weakness is undoubtedly our national fascination with technology, which has led us to invest in hugely expensive satellite-reconnaissance systems while neglecting the relatively cheap art of recruiting spies in enemy ranks.
In the war on terrorism, HUMINT is essential. Satellites are good for tracking tanks and other masses of mobile metal, but communications-interception aside, they are far less valuable for finding out the whereabouts of an Osama bin Laden or a Genghis Khan.
But at the same time, not all HUMINT targets are the same. Soviet diplomats and KGB agents were one kind of target–many of them liked to drink, have sex, and spend money, and some even admired America—all of which made them susceptible to recruitment. Al-Qaeda cell members are something else. They do not like to drink or to admire America; whatever they might do in private with their multiple wives, they are far more puritanical in their attitude toward sex, and among suicide bombers money is seen as having little value in the world to come.
All of this makes them a hard target. And all of this raises a question: if Sulick cut his teeth playing by the “Moscow Rules,” is he the best man for the job?
To Sulick’s credit, as evidenced by the talk he gave last month at the Harvard Seminar on Intelligence, Command, and Control, he has an acute understanding of what he is up against:
Unlike the Soviet Union—one large land mass—the terrorists operate in very small cells. They cross borders easily. They’re very compartmented. They screen their recruits probably better than the U.S. government does. They can work in a bank, in the real-estate industry, or for an Islamic relief organization. Basically they are less vulnerable as targets to all the other means of intelligence collection the United States has at its disposal. In the cold war, the satellites in the sky could see if Russian missiles were moving between silos or if troops were moving. The NSA was even able to intercept conversations between members of the Politburo as they traveled around Moscow in their cars. You can’t do that with terrorists. You don’t know where to point those eyes and ears in the sky unless you have a human agent—a spy—who tells you where to direct those things.
Unfortunately, though, Sulick didn’t offer much in the way of a solution beyond having the CIA and FBI work more closely with local police departments in tracking suspects in places like New York City. That’s a great idea, but it’s not the same thing as working to recruit operatives in Londonistan or Waziristan.
In part, the CIA, and Sulick himself, might be hamstrung, and traumatized, by our cold-war past. Key counterintelligence officials—Aldrich Ames in the CIA, Robert Hanssen in the FBI—were working for the other side. Could this happen again?
Sulick not only believes it’s a possibility, he’s actively troubled by it, and believes that the implications would be far graver than they were in the cold war:
What if you had somebody like Robert Hanssen working for al Qaeda? Try to imagine that! All the stuff that Hanssen and other spies gave away was in the cold war. Nobody was locked in combat. There was time to compensate, take countermeasures, for what those spies gave away. You’re not going to have that time in the war on terrorism. Imagine that you hire somebody, because you need a speaker of Farsi or Arabic, and that person is a spy. That allows the terrorists to launch attacks a lot more easily when they know what the intelligence community’s capabilities are and who their assets are. That’s my big bugaboo: the terrorist spy.
In short, we’re engaged in an intelligence war and we’re on the defensive, worried about an al-Qaeda mole in our ranks even as we are unable to place a mole in theirs.
This is not exactly an encouraging indicator of our progress in the war on terrorism. But it is difficult, for one simple reason, to be harshly critical of Sulick and the CIA: I know that I don’t know what I don’t know.