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Old-fashioned spying is a hard thing to find

U.S. spy agencies, though still enamored with high-tech gadgetry, are putting renewed emphasis on human intelligence or HUMINT — the old-fashioned art of using spies on the ground to collect valuable information.

Published May 20, 2006

If it didn’t actually make some sense, the idea of four Americans renting a house in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province to hunt for Osama bin Laden could be fodder for Comedy Central.

According to the New York Times, the four ­— purportedly from the CIA or FBI — showed up with an exercise machine, furniture and a satellite dish to check out persistent rumors the al-Qaida leader is hiding in the rugged area near the Afghan border.

Their arrival was met with both outrage and bemusement by local residents, who insist bin Laden is nowhere around. But it’s a sign that U.S. spy agencies, though still enamored with high-tech gadgetry, are putting renewed emphasis on human intelligence or HUMINT — the old-fashioned art of using spies on the ground to collect valuable information.

“It’s expensive and not easily done,’’ says Loch Johnson, a University of Georgia professor and author of America’s Secret Power: The CIA in a Democratic Society. “The upside is that you really get to know better what’s going on.’’

Most American spies today serve under “official cover,’’ meaning they are assigned to U.S. embassies as diplomats, military attaches or even computer technicians. One problem is that they usually stick close to the office and, as Johnson puts it, “how many al-Qaida members attend embassy cocktail parties?’’

Another problem: The United States doesn’t even have embassies in some of the countries perceived as posing the greatest threat to American security. One argument for restoring diplomatic relations with Iran is that it would at least put U.S. spooks in a better physical position to assess Iranian nuclear ambitions.

Likewise, the United States might have had a better handle on al-Qaida’s growth and Saddam Hussein’s military capabilities had it not severed relations with Afghanistan and Iraq. (Diplomatic ties were restored after the fall of the Taliban and the old Iraqi regime.)

Among the rarest spies are those working under “nonofficial cover,’’ meaning they aren’t assigned to an embassy, they don’t have diplomatic immunity and they are essentially on their own. They may be actual professors or archaeologists, but they are also clandestinely gathering intelligence for the CIA and other agencies.

Few want to do it, and not only because it can be a dangerous job. Johnson recalls cases in which the CIA trained spies to pose as investment bankers, “and pretty soon they figured out they could make more money in investment banking so they left.’’

A major goal of any spy is to recruit natives of the target country, either people inside or expatriates who have valuable local contacts.

“It’s a serious challenge and in some respects it may be an impossible challenge,’’ says Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert at the Federation of American Scientists. “When it succeeds, it is the result of carefully cultivated relationships with a source who is both a person of integrity and a traitor to his country.’’

One of the most famous HUMINT operations was the case of Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet colonel who initially approached American students in Moscow. He passed military secrets to the United States from the late ’50s through the Cuban Missile Crisis before being executed in 1963.

“That kind of highly placed, well-sourced individual who volunteers to assist is the prize you hope for,’’ Aftergood says.

“The idea you can simply bribe your way into the planning of al-Qaida or the inner circle of the Iranian government is silly, and if we had 10 times the intelligence budget we still couldn’t do it. You can’t simply buy your way to better human intelligence — as much as anything else it’s a matter of luck.’’

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the United States slashed the number of case agents and shifted more of its $44-billion annual intelligence budget to spy satellites and other technological tools.

The two most recent CIA directors, George Tenet and Porter Goss, both pushed to increase human intelligence capabilities, and Goss’ designated successor, Gen. Michael Hayden, says that is his No. 1 priority. The CIA reportedly plans to triple the number of spies around the world.

It is easier said than done, most experts agree.

In a world where Islamic extremism looms as a global threat, “an ideal candidate’’ for the CIA is an Arab-American fluent in both English and Arabic, Johnson notes.

But the CIA is often wary of such individuals for fear they may be al-Qaida sympathizers.

“The second problem is that these people are much in demand in the private sector by American businesses that want to make inroads in the Mideast market,’’ Johnson says.

Thus the alternative — agents like “Paul’’ and his three fellow Americans setting up shop in Pakistan in apparent hope of finding locals willing to spill the beans on Laden.

Says Aftergood: “It’s either absurd or maybe it’s far-sighted.’’

Susan Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified May 20, 2006, 20:19:20]

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