The overrunning of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the murder of the American ambassador to Libya are disastrous for U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities in the Middle East. The resultant siege mentality in Washington creates an imperative to pull American spies and diplomats back into fortresses, heavily defended U.S. sanctuaries from which it’s almost impossible to collect good human intelligence.Baer's op-ed was followed later that day with Ken Dilanian's report for the Los Angeles Times, CIA's exit from Benghazi, Libya, draws criticism from ex-officers:
The incidents of the past two weeks suggest it may be time to admit that large parts of the Middle East have fallen off the cliff for the U.S., and large parts of it will be beyond the ken of intelligence for the foreseeable future. Something terrible is going on in Syria, but because it’s too risky to put American intelligence officers on the ground there, it’s unclear just how terrible it is and how it could be ended. There’s simply no way for Americans to tell whether the armed rebellion is dominated by militant Islamists or Jeffersonian democrats. Nor can Americans get a picture of how the men leading the fighting forces on which Bashar Assad is most reliant might be turned.
This problem isn’t unique to Syria. A number of countries in the Middle East, from Lebanon to Yemen and from Jordan to Egypt, appear poised to fall into the political abyss. Consider Egypt: since the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, my sources tell me the army there is being purged of officers considered pro-American. I’ve been told that up to 4,000 officers have been let go, although I have no way to confirm that claim. But it would be surprising if the Muslim Brotherhood were not trying to cut Americans off from their traditional influence over the Egyptian military, just as the tragedy in Benghazi will likely cut off Americans’ access to ordinary Libyans.
Ambassador Stevens died a hero. Whether or not he took an unnecessary risk, he knew he couldn’t do his job while isolating himself from Libyans. The same holds true for American spies.
If the contagion in the Middle East continues to spread, the one thing Americans can count on is going blind — and it won’t be the fault of U.S. intelligence or anyone in Washington but just another sign of Americans’ declining position in the region.
WASHINGTON —- About a dozen CIA personnel were evacuated from eastern Libya after heavily armed men stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and killed four Americans, setting back an important intelligence operation and prompting a debate about how much risk CIA officers should assume in dangerous overseas posts.See also U.S. post in Benghazi had less than standard security before attack, by Suzanne Kelly, Elise Labott, and Mike Mount; CNN; September 24, 2012 ("Someone made the decision that the mission in Benghazi was so critical that they waived the standard security requirements...")
The decision to withdraw the team from Benghazi drew criticism from former CIA officers, who called it an overly cautious response to the Sept. 11 attack, which killed two security officers, an information technology officer and the U.S. ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens.
The critics drew analogies to Syria, where the U.S. closed its diplomatic mission. The CIA has sent few if any operatives there despite policymakers wanting clarity on the conflict. The agency has relied on local informants, other foreign intelligence services and technical systems to collect intelligence in Syria.
In Benghazi, CIA operatives were working from a diplomatic compound. Their mission included identifying and tracking extremist militants and searching for surface-to-air missiles missing since Libyan ruler Moammar Kadafi was toppled and killed last year.
For now, those efforts have been curtailed.
"This is really disgraceful," said a former CIA station chief with three decades of Middle East experience. "Why spend billions of dollars a year on the intelligence service and then run away right at the moment when you most need intelligence?"
The CIA declined to comment. A U.S. official, speaking about intelligence matters on condition of anonymity, described spying since the attack as "challenging" but said U.S. agencies have "not lost the bead on key targets that might threaten U.S. and Libyan security interests."
Others said the CIA is already planning to reestablish an operation in Benghazi.
"Benghazi has played a key role in the emergence of the new Libya, and it will continue to do so," a U.S. intelligence official said. "It makes complete sense that U.S. officials would return to continue to build relationships and help the Libyans secure their future."
Former officials said the evacuation was justified given the dangers in Benghazi, traditionally home to Islamist militants, including some affiliated with Al Qaeda. The former officials said the CIA may have left operatives behind under deep cover or, more likely, Libyan agents who can operate more easily without detection.
"If you've got 10 or 12 guys living in a house in eastern Libya somewhere, that's a target, and there's no way 10 or 12 guys are going to hold off a militia," a former CIA manager said. "Our tendency has been, if there is a problem, we pull out. Yes, we have stay-behind plans, but we rarely execute those kinds of plans because of the risks" that an American could be captured.
FBI agents are in Libya investigating the attack, and the U.S. intelligence community can listen to phone calls, hack into email traffic, conduct overhead surveillance and otherwise spy in Libya. But face-to-face meetings usually provide the best information, former CIA officers say.
A former CIA officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan said it should be possible for agents to operate relatively safely in Libya by traveling in small teams with Arabic-speaking officers.
"Look, the risks are somebody could get killed. Somebody could get grabbed. There could be terrible videos on the Internet," he said.
"This is the job. This is what we do. If we are going be relevant in a place like Libya, we're going have to take the risk," he said.