Monday, January 16, 2006

Zawahiri vs. Wiretaps

Juliette Hayyam raises an interesting point:

It seems to me that the intelligence that the government has been confirming, even heralding, regarding what we knew about Al Zawahiri has got to be more clandestine and dangerous (coming from internal sources or Pakistanis) than anything that the mere existece of wiretapping of U.S. communications would. The Zawahiri stuff is serious intelligence agianst a specific target in the most dangerous of circumstances.
No one wants a pissing contest over whose intelligence leak is worse, but I think her point here is well taken. That we knew where Zawahiri was supposed to be is almost certainly based on heavily classified sources. When administration sources leaked it, what damage did they do?

And yes, the fact that the missile hit the house was probably also a tip-off. But we could have been targeting someone else. Revealing that Zawahiri was the target before we knew we got him will make it harder to get him next time.

These sorts of operations are tricky, and I don't want to be overly critical of the CIA for acting with some level of zeal. They have a history of caution in going after al Qaeda, as documented by Richard Clarke's frustration in the '90s, or the missteps James Bamford describes in A Pretext for War.

Bamford's major point is relevant here. The CIA has never shown any initiative in sending agents undercover inside al Qaeda. Recruitment of existing al Qaeda agents appears to be small to nonexistent as well, and this reflects a persistent Cold War mentality. Al Qaeda operative probably don't show up at embassy parties to be chatted up, and identifying targets from the air is hard to do accurately.

So the CIA (and therefore the military more broadly) lacks the manpower needed for an on the ground operation (a wet team crashing Zawahiri's dinner party), and the detailed information needed to accurately call in a standoff attack (as we saw).

The problem is not that the CIA screwed up, that happens. The problem is only peripherally that they invaded Pakistani airspace. The problem is that they have resisted all attempts to modernize their approach and act like they are on the front lines of a transnational war with enemies who operate without fixed assets.

The CIA should be the best asset in such a war. And they aren't, not yet.