Even in an age of miniaturized drones and powerful technologies that can vacuum up and analyze astonishing amounts of personal data, human spying remains the coin of the realm in the intelligence world. “If you know your enemy,” the ancient Chinese warrior Sun Tzu taught, “you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”
And knowing your enemy means you have talk to them—up close, says CIA historian and journalist Tim Weiner. “You can’t do that from geo-spatial monitoring.” There is no substitute for an operative’s ability to penetrate a cell planning a terrorist attack, or a double agent providing the precise location of an enemy target on a government hit list.
That lesson was driven home when al Qaeda attacked America on September 11, 2001. The intelligence community was caught flat-footed. The 9/11 Commission would later establish that the CIA had utterly failed to penetrate Osama bin Laden’s organization. In the wake of the attacks, American spymasters realized that, facing a nihilistic enemy bent on mass-casualty attacks on the homeland, infiltrating terrorist organizations was a necessity.
But how would they get inside a highly disciplined organization whose sworn members were fanatically committed to their cause? This week the Associated Press revealed how the CIA took advantage of one unique opportunity for recruiting double agents in the early years of the war on terror. As hundreds of suspected militants began filling up the detention facility at Guantanamo, CIA recruiters went to work looking for detainees who were willing to switch sides. Releasing known al Qaeda members and sending them home as spies was a risky proposition; much could go wrong, including what spies call “blowback”—the possibility that once released they would again turn against America. But the potential gains would also be great—perhaps even leading to the killing or capturing of Osama bin Laden or foiling gathering plots.
The CIA used standard spy vs spy techniques to recruit their moles. According to the AP story, the agency assured them that they and their families would be safely resettled. In other instances, CIA recruiters used thinly veiled threats to coerce their cooperation. And their acquiescence was also bought with cash. How much is unclear. The Gitmo double agents were rewarded for their cooperation before even leaving for their missions. Separated from the rest of the prison population, which was housed in grim cells, the would-be agents were given cushy quarters hundreds of yards away from the main facility. Dubbed “Penny Lane,” the small compound was made up of about eight cottages with spacious bedrooms and living areas, kitchenettes, TVs and front porches. The greatest luxury, according to the AP, was having real beds, instead of the prison-issue cots the rest of the detainees slept on. One source who saw the living quarters told The Daily Beast they reminded him of “very nice graduate school housing.” But he hastened to add that there were some amenities offered unique to the recruits’ “eclectic” set of tastes. Among them, pornography if they asked for it.
How successful was the program? Not terribly, according to one former intelligence official who was familiar with its workings. To begin with, the agency was only able to turn a small handful of detainees—seven or eight, in the source’s recollection. “It was thin gruel, and it didn’t yield much,” says the former official, who declined to be identified discussing a sensitive intelligence matter. According to the AP, the spies were sent back home to help the Americans find high-value terrorists so they could take them out with drones. But there’s no evidence that the operation led to the killing or capturing of a single bad guy. Nor has any evidence surfaced that program went awry in any significant way.
In a way, the operation was no different from what American spymasters have done since the Revolutionary war. Recruiting agents from amidst our rivals is the “the Alpha and Beta of espionage,” says Weiner. But the the CIA and its predecessor organization, the OSI, has had a long and uneven history of running elaborate recruitment programs like the one at Guantanamo. After World War II, U.S. intelligence ran a number of secret prisons inside occupied Germany. Populated with displaced persons, Russian defectors and some ex-Nazis, the camps were seen as fertile ground for cultivating U.S. spies. The program was an early instance of the CIA experimenting with mind control to dictate the behavior of recruits as potential double agents to run against the Soviet Union. The operation was largely a failure.
During the Vietnam war, the CIA, along with the American military, ran a massive recruitment and assassination operation known as the Phoenix program. They assassinated tens of thousands of Viet Cong, but they failed spectacularly at turning North Vietnamese prisoners into American spies. Such large-scale counter-espionage programs are inherently difficult because ideologically committed operatives aren’t prone to defect en-masse. More often than not, turncoat spies are successfully recruited as one-offs, through serendipity and dumb luck. Sometimes it happens when an enemy spy walks into an embassy offering to come over to the other side because of an ideological conversion, or more likely, to seek revenge. In other instances, double agents make themselves vulnerable to recruitment by engaging in personal peccadilloes or finding themselves in desperate need of money.
In the annals of intelligence recruitment operations, the efforts at Gitmo aren’t likely to earn more than a footnote. Still, espionage experts say the agency really had no choice but try. “This is a requirement of the CIA,” says Weiner. “They would be derelict if they didn’t go back to the well and try and try again.”