Mahle Shares an Insider's View of the CIA and Why the Agency Failed on
...this was part of the politicization of the intelligence process.
What happened was that the politicians, and also the Pentagon, were
able to frame the intelligence debate, and they did that by asking the
20 questions a day. And so analysts spent their time chasing down factoids,
individual data points, and feeding them back to answer these questions,
rather than actually painting the picture, giving the whole fabric of
analysis and telling the policymakers "this is what you need to
know as a person answering the questions." So this process allowed
the policymakers to frame the debate and skew it...
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW | Part 1 | Part 2
A new book by a former CIA spy assigned to the Middle East offers insight
into the CIAís failure to recognize the emerging threat of Osama bin Laden
and Al Qaeda, and so much more. Melissa Boyle Mahle, author of Denial
and Deception: An Insiderís View of the CIA from Iran-Contra to 9/11,
chronicles the history and culture of the CIA and the turmoil at
headquarters in Langley, but also what it was like to be a woman spy on
the ground. The result is an intriguing tale of how the successive directors
of the agency Ė five directors in six years before the confirmation of
George Tenet in 1997 Ė managed the CIA amidst growing terrorism and extremism
in the Middle East.
But Melissa Boyle Mahle also tells a personal story of what it was like
to be a woman spy in the boys' club of covert intelligence and being a
mom in a volatile region. She had to brief the secret service on security
measures for President Clintonís visit to the Middle East--while she was
in labor. And when her nanny had a day off, she had to bring her baby
to an urgent meeting with Yasser Arafat.
As a former clandestine operative, she has a unique vantage point from
which to view the political and operational culture of the agency in the
post-Cold War climate, and to reveal how the CIA failed to anticipate
the 9/11 attacks.
Melissa Boyle Mahle is a counterterrorism expert who was the top-ranked
female Arabist in the CIA when she retired as a covert officer in 2002.
She received a letter of appreciation from the President for her work
on the Middle East peace process. Since leaving the government, Ms. Mahle
has worked as a private consultant on Middle Eastern political and security
affairs. She lives in Virginia.
In this, Part 1 of our two-part interview with Melissa Boyle Mahle, we
asked her why the CIA failed to anticipate the 9/11 attacks, how the CIA
became risk averse in the 1990s, and what the impact of the Iraq war might
be on the fight against terrorism.
* * *
BuzzFlash: As an undercover CIA field
operative stationed in the Middle East, why do you think the CIA was unable
to adequately recognize the emerging threat of Osama bin Laden and Al
Qaeda in the mid-1990s?
Melissa Boyle Mahle: Well, the short answer to that was
that the Agency did not have enough human reporting sources on the threat
to get a good idea of what it was. The longer and more complicated answer
is that we had a conceptual framework that we were working within, and
history has proven that framework wrong.
But at the time, in the early 1990s, when we were looking at the rise
of Al Qaeda, we were looking at it from within what I would call a Sudanese
frame. By that I mean we saw it as state-sponsored terrorism related to
Sudan. The threat was being driven by Sudanese official policy. And so
within that object, we were focusing upon other extremist groups like
the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Gama'at
We were looking at these groups that had a large presence in the Sudan
that were conducting terrorist operations against Egypt and elsewhere.
So we were looking at it through this optic, and Osama bin Laden doesn't
really fit into our conceptual framework as being a big fish. We thought
of him really as the terrorist financier. But we were not seeing--because
we didnít have the sources on the ground to tell us this Ė that bin Laden
was playing already a very major game in Africa, and building infrastructure.
So when bin Laden went to Afghanistan, we took our conceptual framework
with us--that heís a financier in some part of a support structure. We
never put the pieces together on what I would call a horizontal plane
of the kinds of activities that he was involved in. So as a consequence,
we viewed him as a terrorist financier, and eventually we promoted him
to actually a terrorist. But what we never saw until after 9/11, and we
never recognized, is that he is really a leader of an ideological movement.
And unfortunately this movement is gaining a lot of steam.
BuzzFlash: One of the people you criticize is former
Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet. Part of your criticism
of Tenet was for his ongoing denial about the CIAís failures with respect
to 9/11. What do you think George Tenet and the CIA should have done before
and after the terrorist attacks?
Melissa Boyle Mahle: I think one of the failures was
that Tenet didnít provide enough resources to focus on the threat. When
I say resources, I mean people Ė not just money. And so that was one major
problem. What we had was a very small office in the Agency that was working
the threat. The other thing he didnít do was he didnít bring the intelligence
community into the game to focus on it. He never requested a national
intelligence estimate. This is critical because this is the tool by which
we focus the intelligence community on a threat and we build a consensus.
And then once you have your consensus, then you can take decisions outside
and ďoperationalizeĒ your strategy. We never did that. He never did that.
He is the man who has to do that. And as a consequence of not doing that,
he was never able to articulate to the President the extent of the threat.
And it was never identified as a strategic threat to the U.S. We didnít
do the kinds of things we should hav, such as laying down trip wires to
say, okay, if this happens, weíre moving to a new threat environment.
We didnít do any of this, and it was Tenetís job to do that.
BuzzFlash: Yet we know now, after the 9/11 Commissionís
Report, that National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was receiving
reports in August of 2001 and with subject headlines such as ďBin Laden
Determined to Strike in U.S.Ē So even without a national intelligence
estimate, there were still some warnings getting up to higher channels.
Melissa Boyle Mahle: Iím not saying that the political
leadership was completely blinded. But rather than see the whole fabric,
what they saw were little bits and pieces. And so in doing that, you donít
have the context.
After the attacks, I think the Agency has responded very well. You know,
itís pretty much the problem of closing the barn door after the horse
is out. All of a sudden in one day the Agency transferred 500 people to
the counterterrorism center, elevated the counterterrorism center to a
division so it makes that line of command a lot closer up to the Director
of Central Intelligence, and then empowered them to take the kinds of
operational activities in the field that they needed to do. So all of
a sudden, we moved from passively active to aggressive.
BuzzFlash: One of things that has always shocked me was
that George Tenet allowed the Bush administration to lay the blame squarely
on the CIA when, clearly, at least in my estimate, the White House wasnít
interested in the facts. We now know that there were people who urged
caution and even felt that there werenít weapons of mass destruction in
Iraq. As a former CIA employee, do you feel that George Tenet allowed
the CIA to be the fall guy for the administration for what happened in
Iraq with respect to weapons of mass destruction?
Melissa Boyle Mahle: Iím not so sure I agree with that.
First of all, George Tenet is a political animal, and people donít really
realize this, but he was a politician long before he came to the CIA.
And he played the political game the whole time he was there. And one
of the reasons that the CIA is in such turmoil in the eyes of America
right now is that the Agency got caught up in a political game. And thatís
not the position the Agency ever likes to be in.
This issue comes up repeatedly through history but the average CIA officer
is apolitical. They do their work without context of bipartisan politics.
I think, in the run up to the Iraq War, it wasnít a political issue for
the upper Agency officers. It was that they felt that their intelligence
work, their nonpartisan work, was being completely ignored or skewed for
political uses. And I think thatís the reason why you started seeing the
leaks. And I have to say the CIA does not leak. CIA officers are afraid
of the press. They donít talk to the press. What you have for the most
part are things come out of Capitol Hill Ė people who are talking to the
CIA. But the end result is the same.
BuzzFlash: In that respect, it doesnít upset you or anger
you that the Bush Administration and the political arm in the Administration
was able to shift almost the entire responsibility for no weapons of mass
destruction to be found to the CIA?
Melissa Boyle Mahle: Well, I think you need to be also
intellectually honest about this. The CIA made the wrong call. And the
consequence of making the wrong call is that you get held accountable
for that in some degree. But the whole idea of going to war Ė you have
to press those issues a little bit more. The concept of weíre going to
war because the CIA says we found this or that or because the CIA says
we need to go to war is not what happens. The politicians made those decisions
about whether to go to war.
BuzzFlash: I know that you were working in the Middle
East for most of your career with the CIA. But with respect to the Vice
President visiting CIA headquarters in Langley multiple times, was that
unprecedented for someone on that senior level to visit the CIA itself
to repeatedly review the intelligence? The implication has always been
that that was part of the political pressure and how caution was ignored
and some of the intelligence was distorted or looked over.
Melissa Boyle Mahle: Well, I think that youíre right
about this, because this was part of the politicization of the intelligence
process. What happened was that the politicians, and also the Pentagon,
were able to frame the intelligence debate, and they did that by asking
the 20 questions a day. And so analysts spent their time chasing down
factoids, individual data points, and feeding them back to answer these
questions, rather than actually painting the picture, giving the whole
fabric of analysis and telling the policymakers "this is what you
need to know as a person answering the questions." So this process
allowed the policymakers to frame the debate and skew it so that nobody
talked about the portions that they didnít want to talk about.
BuzzFlash: At one point in the book, you mentioned that
the CIA and also the White House in the nineties became averse to risk.
If you could explain what that means, because someone like myself Ė I
would identify myself as a progressive -- Iím skeptical or critical of
CIA interventions from past experiences and past history. What does that
mean that the CIA was averse to risk?
Melissa Boyle Mahle: Letís talk about the Directorate
of Operations, which is the overseas part of the Agency. Traditionally
power has rested in the field with the officers on the ground making the
decisions about what kinds of operations were worth running, in other
words, deciding if the gains were worth the risks. And that decision had
traditionally been made in the field.
In the 1990s, there was a change and power shifted from the field to Washington,
actually headquarters at Langley, for a variety of reasons. But in the
process of doing that, the definition of the equation, risk versus gain,
changed dramatically, because there was a general feeling within the Washington
environment that many efforts were not worth the gains in general. Intelligence
kind of fell to a low point on the ladder of what was worth it.
The fallout of all of this is that Agency officers in the field were being
told that they could not do their jobs in their traditional ways of doing
it. You couldnít associate with dirty assets Ė assets that were involved
in activities that had moral implications to them. Then the decision-making
was reactive, in a sense, because you would do something, and two years
later all of a sudden somebody would decide, ďOh no, that is not acceptable
by todayís standards.Ē And so this cycle was created in which officers
increasingly took less and less risks because of the problems. Maybe they
took less and less risks because they were afraid of being held accountable
for new and emerging standards. Can I give you an example?
Melissa Boyle Mahle: If you go out, and you recruit an
agent, and by even the standards of the day, that agent is providing or
reporting on drug materials Ė narcotics transfers and all of this. And
then two years later it comes back around that, well, that that same person
was also involved in human rights abuses, and that therefore you were
undermining U.S. policy and you were going to be held accountable for
that. Not only will you be held accountable for that, you might be demoted
or you might be fired, but then youíll be open or subject to having legal
action taken against you. But at the time when you did it, the standards
that were employed and the accepted processes and all of that, it was
okay. Two years later, itís not okay. So this led to officers being a
lot more careful about what they did.
BuzzFlash: I guess itís a dirty business.
Melissa Boyle Mahle: It is a dirty business. And there
was this idea that, in the 1990s, that all of a sudden, we could do clean
BuzzFlash: In my view, the Iraq invasion has been categorically
the worst possible decision in protecting America from the threat of terrorism.
As an expert on the Middle East, how has the war impacted both the Agency
and shutting down Al Qaeda, or at least preventing another terrorist attack?
Melissa Boyle Mahle: Well, I agree with the overall assessment
that the war in Iraq has had a negative impact on our global war on terrorism.
One of the things that happened when we went into Iraq was that we removed
a large number of our forces from Afghanistan, and we did that before
our job was completed in Afghanistan. We took our eye off the ball, and
the ball was Al Qaeda. And weíre going to pay the consequences of that
for a long time. We moved to Iraq and we had this policy that weíre going
to liberate Iraq, which is all well and good. But after we liberated Iraq,
we forgot to leave. And now we have this insurgency in Iraq. And the consequence
of the insurgency is that itís drawing in foreign nationals to fight a
jihad war against the American and British forces.
We have now provided a new breeding ground for terrorism. Not only are
they motivated to come to Iraq to fight us, but weíre giving them an opportunity
to train, to learn a whole new skill set, and practice that skill set.
And then when they leave Iraq, after we will some day, they will go back
to their communities and they will establish new cells. So thatís the
third generational challenge that we will face because of Iraq.
BuzzFlash: One of the consequences of the Iraq war is
that itís hard to tell where to draw the line between nationalist insurgents
wanting to get the United States out versus foreign fighters and perhaps
Al Qaeda elements. How do you even separate them? How do you draw the
distinctions between those elements? The Bush Administration would have
us believe that this is all lumped together in the war on terrorism, which
I frankly find ridiculous.
Melissa Boyle Mahle: I think you have an excellent point
there, because you do have distinct groups. They happen to have a commonality
amongst them, and they want the United States out, and they want to defeat
the United States in the process of getting the U.S. out. But beyond that,
they have different agendas, and we will see the different agendas emerge
much more distinctly once they get past the first step, and thatís driving
the United States out, which sooner or later the United States is going
to leave. And I think that it will probably be while thereís still an
insurgency, at least I suspect it may.
I agree with you on the point. But I donít think the problem that the
Administration has is that these groups kind of all look the same right
now. Theyíre lethal, and this is an international and a global insurgency.
There are going to be nationalist elements to it that will feed into it,
and weíre seeing that in Iraq. But if the United States won Iraq, itís
not going to end the international and global insurgency.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW | Part 1 | Part 2
* * *
Denial and Deception: An Insiderís View of the CIA From Iran-Contra
to 9/11, by Melissa Boyle Mahle
BuzzFlash Interview with Michael Scheuer, ex-CIA bin Laden Unit Chief,
on Why Insurgents Are Willing To Die Fighting American Soldiers, Jan.
Intelligence Matters: The CIA, the FBI, Saudi Arabia, and the Failure
of America's War on Terror by Senator Bob Graham, Jeff Nussbaum