Vexing Vetting

Jeff Stein’s recent Newsweek article, Inside the CIA’s Syrian Rebels Vetting Machine saves the best for last it seems. He closes out his vexing vetting info with a quote by former Agency Operations Officer Charles Faddis who explains in part, “You can’t run covert action without getting your hands dirty.”

The whole quote could be the entire pretext for Stein’s stance that the Central Intelligence Agency has issues with vetting recipients of material support in Syria. Except that it’s more used in a dismissive manner, without any understanding of what Faddis is truly saying. When he is quoted as saying, “We need to have people on the ground. We need to give them serious money and weaponry,” he is laying the very foundation for the type of Covert Action the Agency is likely being asked to conduct in Syria. And as Faddis says, you can’t do this without wading in to the mix.

I think most within the CIA would be the first to point out that executing any Covert Action program that includes the arming and training of a foreign fighting force is a sketchy endeavor. Its also at the core of what the Agency was enacted to do, and takes its queues from its predecessor, in the OSS arming and training of resistance fighters during WWII. In short, this is not a new problem.

At issue for me with Stein’s approach is not the belaboring over the administrations use of “moderate” to describe the desired recruits. After all, what would you expect? Not so extreme? Super duper nice? Moderate actually seems like an accurate term for who is needed.

No, the real issue I have is with the thought process around describing what our Intelligence service and DoD would be doing with the term “vetting”. I find it inaccurate and misleading. A vetting process is a one-time act. A background or once over to ensure due diligence is taken. This is not what the Agency does, and I’d be surprised if any of Stein’s “anonymous” sources were not aware of the distinction, given the professed years of experience they have.

What really is at work here would be a term called “asset validation”, which rather than a one-time process like vetting, is actually a continuous process with multiple layers.  Portraying assets as being recruited simply from a list of names given to the Agency from another source who are then run by fresh out of college contractors reads almost like willful or deliberate inaccuracy. During my time working at the Agency I can’t think of meeting more than a small handful of Officers who were freshly out of college. And those were in specific recruiting programs designed to bring young officers in and train them over a longer period of time. Yes, they ran traces, they were also damn smart and received the same thorough training on running traces of “Middle Eastern” names as the rest of us. Not to mention it seems Stein’s source has been out a while, because I recall using tools to get around the non standard names (gotta love technology!).

Stein details some Cold Warrior reminiscing in the Agency’s use of vetting systems during four decades of cold conflict, and then a paragraph later claims the Agency in Syria has now fallen back on the very same system it used in Afghanistan to aid in pushing the Soviets out in the 1980s. In truth, none of this is really new. As I said before, the OSS provided foreign resistance support in WWII, the Agency provided the same behind the iron curtain, in Vietnam (which I’d assume Stein would be well aware of), and elsewhere. Why would they keep doing such a thing? Mostly because its directed by the President via a Covert Action finding, and these operations generally require people to be on the ground giving aid and training, collecting human intelligence and assessing as part of asset validation (are they doing what we expect, what we ask, what we need?) This doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Former CIA officer and “operative” experiences aside, I can’t see anyone arguing that a country in the midst of civil war, with untold outside and internal influences would be an especially easy place to recruit agents and fighters. This isn’t a vetting issue as much as the reality of recruiting in a war zone. In a sense, same as it ever was.

Stein also attempts to draw a correlation between the CIA’s “vetting” process (his word) and apparent Officer unease about meeting recruited agents in Iraq. Taking things further off course he throws in the Camp Chapman suicide attack of December 30, 2009 by triple agent Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi. First al-Balawi had claimed to have access to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Second, using al-Balawi to support the claim that the Agency cannot properly vet potential assets (recruited by them or another service) is inaccurate. Balawi would have been continually validated; the operational risk was assessed and accepted. The case is far too complicated to relate to validation alone, as well as none of the facts can be shared publicly.

True the Agency used a source recruited and handled by a liaison partner, [deleted]. It should also be noted that relying on the Jordanians alone to validate al-Balawi is also inaccurate. I don’t know of any Agency manager that would sit back and ‘coord’ on that operational cable. Trust but verify, with much more emphasis on the latter.

At issue here is how the Agency will successfully recruit assets to then fund, arm and train. It is scary that they may turn against our interests. It is scary that they may actually be bad people, and they may lie. This is not new either. It is the reality that our intelligence professionals work in every day. Remember, a Covert Action finding for material support takes more into consideration than assumptions and “good enough for government work” mentalities, as Stein’s anonymous “operative” sources would have you believe. That sort of plan just would not make it past the first line of coordination with legal, yet alone a good group chief.

The Obama administration does not pick and vet or validate the recipients of foreign aid exactly. This is another assumption. Very plainly, the administration requests the Agency to find groups to provide assistance to and takes their recommendation. That would include pro/con of giving aid to one group or another and any means of other more detailed information. In short, the decisions don’t happen in a vacuum.

So we are left with the quote from Charles Faddis and his urging that now is the time to act. This reminded me of that famous Abe Lincoln quote, “Things come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”

Time to hustle!

I end this article with something Jeff Stein left out of his use of the Khost bombing to try and prove his point. The names, titles and age of those killed by the suicide attack at Camp Chapman on December 30, 2009:

  • Jennifer Lynne Matthews, CIA officer, Chief of Base - 45
  • Harold Brown Jr, CIA officer - 37
  • Elizabeth Hanson, CIA officer - 30
  • Darren LaBonte, CIA officer - 35
  • Scott Michael Roberson, CIA officer - 39
  • Dane Clark Paresi, Blackwater Worldwide (Xe) - 46
  • Jeremy Wise, Blackwater Worldwide (Xe) - 35
  • Al Shareef Ali bin Zeid, Jordanian intelligence official - Undisclosed
  • Arghawan, Security director at the base – Undisclosed