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US Moves to Revitalize Human Intelligence

U.S. intelligence agencies came in for sharp criticism for their failure to detect the September 11th, 2001 terrorist plot and the flawed assertions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Much of the focus has been on poor intelligence analysis. But old-fashioned human spying fell into disrepair in this high-tech age.

When releasing a report in March, Judge Lawrence Silberman, co-chair of the commission on intelligence and Iraqi weapons, said intelligence analysts had precious little new information to go on when looking at whether Iraq actually had weapons of mass destruction. "They had very little collection. They had very little evidence collected," he said.

Information can be collected by a wide variety of technical means, such as photography by satellite or aircraft, electronic eavesdropping on phone calls, or interception of computer emails. But intelligence professionals like to say that only what they call human intelligence, or HUMINT -- in other words, highly secret, old-fashioned spying -- can tell them what the intentions of someone like Saddam Hussein might be.

Former officials say human intelligence declined alarmingly in the post Cold war period for a variety of reasons. Retired U.S. Army Colonel Patrick Lang, who at one time headed all HUMINT programs for the Defense Intelligence Agency, says the downturn in human espionage was in part due to a reaction from the Vietnam war.

"I think it has been running downhill steadily ever since the end of the Vietnam war, actually, because the baleful effects of peoples' reaction to the Vietnam war resulted in a whole lot of laws and regulations and directives and things that made it extremely difficult to operate in the world of clandestine HUMINT," he said.

Melissa Mahle, a former CIA field operative, says that intelligence bureaucrats came to prefer intelligence collection by machines over people because technical means, while more expensive, pose less political risk than human espionage operations. "Maybe it was more expensive, but it certainly didn't cause the president any embarrassment for the most part. When you wrap up a spy network and the ambassador gets called in and read the riot act, that causes a diplomatic incident. Usually technical collection doesn't do that. It was easier. So we did a lot more of that when we decided where we were going to spend our dollars and cents in the 1990s in the time of a constricted budget," he said.

Ms. Mahle, a 14-year clandestine operative, was what used to be called a case officer, and is now termed an operations officer at the CIA. For U.S. intelligence agencies, the practice is that officers hardly ever engage in actual espionage. Their job is to persuade people who have access to the information to become spies. A fluent Arabic speaker who operated in the Middle East, Ms. Mahle says the CIA's dominant orientation was to spy on the Soviet bloc, so there was less emphasis on human intelligence after the Cold War ended.

"What happened is that we downsized overseas significantly. We had fewer officers on the ground. And we also stopped recruiting across the broad spectrum of targets that we had done before. So we collected less intelligence, we had fewer agents to do it, and we had fewer case officers doing it," she said.

Alarmed by the recent intelligence lapses, Congress created a new post of National Intelligence Director to oversee the 15 agencies that make up America's intelligence community. President Bush appointed John Negroponte to fill that post. Ms. Mahle says that will not in itself fix the problems surrounding human intelligence. But it is, she says, a start.

"What we have now is a leader at the very top of the pyramid. It does make a difference. But it's not going to solve the problem. We've solved the leadership, the command issue. Now we need to fix the problems at the bottom of the pyramid, the working levels. And how do you integrate an intelligence community that by structure and by definition is so divided it cannot play together nicely, or at all," she said.

Colonel Lang suggests starting over by creating a new elite corps of clandestine operatives in the new intelligence director's office to handle difficult cases. "These national agencies - DIA, CIA, and other people who do HUMINT overseas - are so embedded in their habits of thought and in the structures and people who run them that probably the best way to really get somewhere productive is to start over again. You could let these present structures do what they want and create somewhere a unit under the national intelligence director that would approach the really difficult targets, which have to be approached in an imaginative and risk-taking way," he said.

Colonel Lang adds that what matters in human intelligence is not the size of the bureaucracy, but what he calls the quality of the brains and the souls and the spirits of the people who engage in the messy and sometimes dangerous business of espionage.