Commentary Magazine


Who is Michael J. Sulick? #2

That is the question I posed here a few days back. And of course, as readers of Connecting the Dots now know, Michael J. Sulick is the man in charge of the CIA’s worldwide efforts to gather human intelligence, or Humint as it is called in the trade.

Mr. Sulick’s background, which consists largely of conducting espionage against Soviet and East bloc countries, made me wonder if he is the right man for the job, given that our principal intelligence target these days — al Qaeda and affiliated Islamic terrorists — is located in a different quadrant of the world and, more significantly, is of an entirely different character than the sovereign states against which Mr. Sulick was operating in the past.

I also was left wondering if Sulick’s appointment telegraphed the fact that the CIA has not yet managed to assemble a staff of officers competent in conducting operations in the countries comprising the Islamic world.

A friend who is quite conversant with such things and whose judgment I trust, has responded by writing to me that, despite my impressions about Sulick’s off-kilter background, he is “very capable, experienced, and open-minded,” and also familiar with the Islamic world from his years as the agency’s associate deputy director for operations and also as CIA counterintelligence chief. Sulick is thus the “best bet” the agency has.

But my friend’s comments also confirm my assessment that Sulick’s appointment reflects an overall weakness in our intelligence efforts. None of the agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community appears to have “an Arabic expert capable of leading the clandestine service.” But this is not an insuperable gap. Sulick “has the ability and expertise to find/groom such a person, who can direct collection and operations in the Islamic world.” My friend acknowledged that “the agency needs [to build] an expert cadre of such intelligence officers and that takes time.”

This also involves overcoming certain delicate obstacles. One such, as my friend pointed out, is the “reliability” of CIA applicants who are natives or former natives of target countries. In other words, it is proving difficult to find recruits who are both knowledgeable and who can make it through the agency’s stringent security-clearance process. Fear of an al Qaeda mole making his way into the CIA remains high.

A terrorist sympathizer inside the CIA would be a terrifying prospect. It is bad enough that agency has had its share of pathological misfits, and it is bad enough that in the last few years the CIA has made a number of disastrous blunders even without an enemy mole to help it along.