Spooked Agencies

By Yossi Alpher

Published December 10, 2004, issue of December 10, 2004.
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The nature of a country’s intelligence gathering and military or paramilitary operations has to change in accordance with changing threats to its security. This seems to be a fairly sound national security principle. But as we have seen in recent months and years in both Israel and the United States, the conceptualization and actual implementation of these changes can damage the very intelligence agencies where change is desired.

Two years ago in Israel, Prime Minister Sharon removed Ephraim Halevy as head of the Mossad and replaced him with Meir Dagan, a retired Israeli army major general. Halevy’s specialty had been cooperation with friendly intelligence agencies abroad, coupled with secret diplomacy. Allegedly an intimate of Saudi princes, it was Halevy who brokered the peace agreement with Jordan’s King Hussein. Dagan’s military and government background was in anti-terrorist operations, including covert assassinations in places like Lebanon. Dagan was also an unabashed Sharon loyalist and political activist. Halevy was compensated with the post of national security adviser, but within a year he resigned, citing lack of access to the prime minister.

When Dagan took over the Mossad he told a closed gathering that his mandate from Sharon was to fight international Islamic radical terrorism and prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Sadly, he added bluntly, his predecessor, Halevi — who was seated in the audience — had failed in both endeavors, most recently ignoring the nascent Libyan nuclear weapons program. Dagan then set about reorganizing the “Institution for Intelligence and Special Missions,” as the Mossad is officially known, so radically that some 120 senior officials felt obliged to take early retirement.

It’s too early to assess Dagan’s overall performance; and of course it is in the nature of clandestine activity that we may never know when and where he succeeded or failed. The booby-trapped SUV that killed a senior Hamas operative in Damascus a few months ago appeared to many observers to be vintage Dagan, but it was small potatoes against the broad strategic challenges implied by Dagan’s mission.

What has happened in recent months between President Bush and the CIA has followed a similar pattern, but seemingly with a greater degree of politicization. Against a backdrop of the September 11 attacks and assorted fiascos in Iraq in which the CIA appeared to have failed in its collection and assessment roles, the administration accused senior CIA officials of indirect involvement in the presidential election campaign — and on the wrong side, yet — through embarrassing leaks and revelations. Senator John McCain, a straight shooter who has not hesitated to criticize senior administration officials like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, termed the CIA “almost a rogue” institution.

CIA Director George “slam dunk” Tenet stepped down before he could be fired, and was replaced with Rep. Porter Goss, the head of the House Intelligence Committee and a Bush stalwart. Goss brought in his own people, some of them apparently pretty abrasive. And the guiding principle, to make the CIA more efficient and less political, was not well served when Goss told his new underlings that they had to support administration policies. Senior CIA officials resigned in protest.

Radical restructuring of major intelligence agencies is not new to either Israel or the United States. Back in the early 1960s, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion brought Major General Meir Amit to give structure to the Mossad after it had been run like a mom-and-pop store, albeit with some spectacular successes like capturing Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, by Israel Harel. Admiral Stansfield Turner installed trusted fellow navy officers when he took over the CIA in 1977.

But the changes were never before preceded by such a universal sense of intelligence failure as that precipitated in the United States by the September 11 attacks. And in neither the Israeli nor the American case has the new boss ever been such a political figure as Dagan and Goss are perceived to be. In Great Britain, by contrast, Prime Minister Tony Blair and MI6 — the British equivalent of the CIA and the Mossad — appear to have weathered their own messy post-September 11 scandals with less damage.

Intelligence agencies are not the only security arm that requires radical change in the age of terrorism. American forces appear to have been sent to Iraq unequipped to suppress a terrorist insurgency in an occupied Arab land. And in Israel, after years of relegating counterterrorism to third place on Israel’s strategic threat assessment list, behind conventional attacks and the threat of weapons of mass destruction, the Israeli security establishment and its research and development arm, Rafael, now treat it as a major strategic threat. This means everything from redesigning armored vehicles so they’ll be narrow enough to negotiate the alleyways of a hostile Palestinian refugee camp without shaving the walls off buildings, to developing a rifle-launched missile, code-named “slide projector,” that can send back video footage of that same camp to soldiers’ palm computers.

While intelligence and operations reforms are related, it is only in the intelligence agencies that the changes seem to be so political, so personal and so destructive in terms of organizational morale. It remains to be seen whether the next round of reforms — restructuring the entire American intelligence community — will be… intelligent.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org.

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