Ishmael Jones: After Benghazi

Ishmael Jones is the pseudonymous former Central Intelligence Agency case officer who focused on human sources with access to intelligence on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. His assignments included more than 15 years of continuous overseas service under deep cover.

Mr. Jones is also the author of The Human Factor: Inside the CIA’s Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture, published by Encounter Books. When it was issued in paperback he contributed the post “CIA spies and Dartmouth deans,” exploring a theme of his book.

The New York Times reports today on our intelligence detriment in Libya following the murder of our ambassador and the other Americans killed in the attack on our consulate. Mr. Jones takes up the issue from the perspective of one who served there:

The terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi calls for an aggressive response. Diplomatic installations have been considered inviolable since antiquity, and the murder of Americans must be avenged.

But the aftermath of the attack also brings up practical questions on the use of diplomatic installations for information and intelligence gathering because it is easy for hostile intelligence services to locate, identify and monitor embassy employees. 

Embassies are fixed targets in a world where victory in almost any endeavor – from warfare to football – depends on speed, flexibility, and maneuverability. Saddam Hussein’s vast tank armies, dug in and unmoving, were sitting ducks for American air power. In pro football, those 300 pound players are not monoliths, they’re stunningly fast and agile.  

A hostile intelligence service can shut down an embassy just by keeping track of who walks in and out. A hostile enemy can obliterate an embassy using obsolete military weapons. Once an embassy is neutralized, it can no longer gather information to protect itself, much less serve the needs of Americans and our allies.

The solution is to have people operating outside of those embassies. I did this continuously in foreign countries – including Libya – for more than 15 of my 18 years in the CIA. I had no security, no Marine guards, not even an alarm system in my house. Except for brief tours in war zones, I never carried a weapon. The enemy did not disrupt or attack me because they couldn’t identify and locate me. The enemy would never have been able to locate the safe houses I used because they were unconnected to any embassy. I never had diplomatic immunity, and it didn’t bother me a bit. Diplomatic immunity didn’t protect our ambassador in Libya.  

The Israelis, facing acute threats, figured out the disadvantages of embassies and in the 1990’s moved their information and intelligence gathering outside of embassies. According to Michael Ross, a former Mossad officer, an additional benefit of the Mossad’s work outside embassies is that it removes the stasis, the bureaucracy, of the diplomatic system. The Mossad can move quickly from country to country and carry out its missions without first clearing operations with layers of bureaucrats. 

In fact there is widespread agreement on the need to get out of embassies in order to do intelligence gathering and to protect the embassies themselves. But the forces of bureaucracy thrive in the system of offices, desks, and layers of managers. It is the very lifeblood of bureaucracy, and difficult to change. 

Resistance to getting our intelligence officers on the streets of foreign countries is fierce. We have no more than a handful of effective officers operating outside embassies. Our intelligence-gathering challenges as a nation stem from the fact that more than 90 percent of CIA officers are living and working entirely in the United States, and the rest are within official facilities overseas. 

Embassies are to espionage as the Chicago teachers’ union is to education. Everyone knows it’s not working, but it’s quite difficult to change.

With decisive leadership – which David Petraeus at the CIA may be able to provide – and proper training, we can get our information and intelligence gathering services outside the embassies, where they can do what is necessary to protect Americans and our allies.

NOTE: Mr. Jones advises that this post has been cleared by CIA censors.

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