Commentary Magazine


Topic: Robert Baer

The Deprofessionalization of Spying

I don’t agree with everything former CIA officer Robert Baer writes, but his GQ article about the suicide bombing that killed seven CIA officers and contractors in Afghanistan is an interesting and compelling read. According to Baer, the essential problem was that the CIA station chief in Khost did not have much field experience. She was a reports officer who spent most of her time in Washington. Given the opportunity to run a purported al-Qaeda mole, she disregarded basic security procedures and allowed a Jordanian double agent to blow up herself and her entire team. Baer, who spent 21 years in the Clandestine Service, claims that basic tradecraft was violated, “the most inexplicable error” being to have the double agent met by a committee — “informants should always be met one-on-one. Always.” He concludes that there is an institutional failure here — one that traces back to the 1990s, when John Deutch was director of CIA and devalued covert operators at the expense of analysts and other bookish types.  He concludes:

If we take Khost as a metaphor for what has happened to the CIA, the deprofessionalization of spying, it’s tempting to consider that the agency’s time has passed. “Khost was an indictment of an utterly failed system,” a former senior CIA officer told me. “It’s time to close Langley.”

I’m not prepared to go quite that far. The United States still needs a civilian intelligence agency. (The military cannot be trusted to oversee all intelligence-gathering on its own.) But the CIA—and especially the directorate of operations—must be stripped down to its studs and rebuilt with a renewed sense of mission and purpose. It should start by getting the amateurs out of the field. And then it should impose professional standards of training and experience—the kind it upheld with great success in the past. If it doesn’t, we’re going to see a lot more Khosts.

That sounds right to me. Since 9/11, the CIA has been greatly expanded, but has it been greatly improved? The evidence, of which the Khost bombing is the last example, suggests serious deficiencies that the agency, as currently constituted, may be incapable of addressing. For my part, I’ve suggested in the past that we revive the OSS — a civil-military outfit with a gung-ho spirit, little bureaucracy, and few rules that can focus on the war against terror while leaving lesser priorities (e.g., conducting economic espionage to help our trade negotiators) to someone else.

I don’t agree with everything former CIA officer Robert Baer writes, but his GQ article about the suicide bombing that killed seven CIA officers and contractors in Afghanistan is an interesting and compelling read. According to Baer, the essential problem was that the CIA station chief in Khost did not have much field experience. She was a reports officer who spent most of her time in Washington. Given the opportunity to run a purported al-Qaeda mole, she disregarded basic security procedures and allowed a Jordanian double agent to blow up herself and her entire team. Baer, who spent 21 years in the Clandestine Service, claims that basic tradecraft was violated, “the most inexplicable error” being to have the double agent met by a committee — “informants should always be met one-on-one. Always.” He concludes that there is an institutional failure here — one that traces back to the 1990s, when John Deutch was director of CIA and devalued covert operators at the expense of analysts and other bookish types.  He concludes:

If we take Khost as a metaphor for what has happened to the CIA, the deprofessionalization of spying, it’s tempting to consider that the agency’s time has passed. “Khost was an indictment of an utterly failed system,” a former senior CIA officer told me. “It’s time to close Langley.”

I’m not prepared to go quite that far. The United States still needs a civilian intelligence agency. (The military cannot be trusted to oversee all intelligence-gathering on its own.) But the CIA—and especially the directorate of operations—must be stripped down to its studs and rebuilt with a renewed sense of mission and purpose. It should start by getting the amateurs out of the field. And then it should impose professional standards of training and experience—the kind it upheld with great success in the past. If it doesn’t, we’re going to see a lot more Khosts.

That sounds right to me. Since 9/11, the CIA has been greatly expanded, but has it been greatly improved? The evidence, of which the Khost bombing is the last example, suggests serious deficiencies that the agency, as currently constituted, may be incapable of addressing. For my part, I’ve suggested in the past that we revive the OSS — a civil-military outfit with a gung-ho spirit, little bureaucracy, and few rules that can focus on the war against terror while leaving lesser priorities (e.g., conducting economic espionage to help our trade negotiators) to someone else.

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