Mission impossible

In the Middle East, the CIA has hurt its friends and helped its own enemies.

By Gareth Smyth Beirut

Success has many fathers, goes the old saying, but failure is always an orphan. Since September 11th, both politicians and former CIA operators have been pointing the finger of blame for the apparent intelligence lapse that failed to detect such a colossal attack.

On Capitol Hill, congressmen are whispering against George Tenet, the CIA director. Bob Baer, an agent who resigned in 1997, has argued that the United States has failed to appreciate the importance of work on the ground. “The CIA branch chiefs have never set foot in the Middle East,” said Baer. “They didn’t speak Arabic, didn’t speak Persian. The Beirut office has basically been closed since 1990-1991.”

Second thoughts. Within the Middle East, people are more likely to see such intelligence failures as rooted in a lack of understanding of the Arab world and the distortion of US policy by its support for Israel. “America can never really be the impartial arbiter if it always leans one way,” said a leading Lebanese businessman who regularly visits the United States. “But September 11th can be good for the Arabs if it means that the Americans really reconsider their approach to the region.”

A history of twists and turns, with the CIA often as a blunt axe, have made it very difficult for the United States to be seen as a reliable, or even honest, presence in the Middle East. The resentment is not confined to Arabs. Nine years ago, Massoud Barzani, who has rarely ever traveled away from Kurdistan, agreed to visit Washington with a deputation of the opposition Iraqi National Congress (INC). Massoud, used to the traditional baggy trousers and cummerbund, looked uncomfortable in an Armani suit at receptions, but the INC was keen to create the right impression with senators and opinion-formers. Nonetheless, Massoud refused an invitation to visit Henry Kissinger.

Despite all the compromises of Kurdish politics, Massoud had never forgiven the former secretary of state for engineering the 1975 Algiers agreement between Iraq and Iran, when the two sides suddenly settled long-standing differences and felt free to deal with their “internal problems,” including the Kurds. Algiers came just two years after Massoud went to Washington to meet Richard Helms, the CIA director, and Al Haig, the White House chief of staff – a meeting that led to both CIA and Israeli advisers moving into northern Iraq to help the Kurds. Algiers left the Kurds high and dry, ending a generation of Kurdish revolt led by Massoud’s father, Mulla Mustafa, whose broken heart sent him into exile and an early death. Even if those in Washington forgot quickly, Massoud did not.

The relationship between the CIA and Saddam Hussein is a long one. In 1963, the Americans plotted with the Ba’ath against Abdel Karim Kassem, a man who, in the words of the writer Said Aburish, “retains more of the affection of the Iraqi people than any leader this century.” The CIA supplied lists for the Ba’ath to kill leftists and communists, and Washington flew arms to Kirkuk to use against the Kurds.

In Aburish’s biography of the Iraqi leader, the author quotes many anti-Saddam Iraqis – including Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the INC – on CIA cooperation with the second Ba’ath coup in 1968. Later, in the 1980s, the United States and Britain helped arm Saddam in his confrontation with Iran – only to turn against him over the 1990 Kuwait crisis. When in 1991 the Iraqi people rose against Saddam, the United States was fearful that change would put its majority Shi’ites – and thus Iran – in power, and US forces stood by as the Republican Guard crushed the rebellion. The CIA then worked on sponsoring a coup in Baghdad, a strategy that crumbled in 1996 when Iraqi intelligence infiltrated a conspiracy led by the ex-Ba’athist Iyad Alawi. Having rounded up hundreds of officers, the mukhabarat sent a message to the CIA team in Amman: “We have arrested all your people. You might as well pack up and go home.”

The CIA’s half-hearted support for the INC also ended in 1996, when Saddam exploited Kurdish in-fighting to crush an INC presence in the Kurdish-controlled zone in the north. As Iraqi tanks moved in, the CIA fled and left the INC people to their fate. Washington washed its hands of the affair, and Chalabi noted that CIA officials “are not known for their veracity.”

Disasters. Of all the disasters to befall the agency in the Middle East, the kidnapping and death in captivity of its Beirut bureau chief, William Buckley, was one of the most painful. Buckley’s kidnapping in 1984 came less than a year after a pickup truck loaded with a ton of TNT destroyed the American embassy in West Beirut, killing 17 Americans including Robert Ames, the CIA’s senior Mideast analyst.

No one in Lebanon was surprised, then, when the United States recently included three Lebanese on its list of “most wanted” terrorists. Best known among them was Imad Mughniyeh, allegedly the mastermind behind the 1983 attack on the US embassy, the bombing the same year of the US Marine base in Beirut and the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight to Lebanon.

In the United States, Mughniyeh is a terrorist, but many in his home village of Tair Debba in south Lebanon see him as a hero. “He defended his land. He raised our heads high,” said Rajah Faqih, a cousin. “Why do they want to punish him for it?”

The Lebanese government, which has tried to draw a line under the war of 1975-1990, has not wanted to extend the current debate over the difference between “resistance” and “terrorism.” But few in the Muslim or leftist camps have ever viewed as neutral a history of US intervention that goes back to 1958 – in the midst of revolution in Iraq – when 10,000 troops arrived to support the Christian president, Camille Chamoun, against leftist forces.

The belief today that improved intelligence can overcome “terrorism” may be an attractive one to some in Washington, but it carries little weight in the Middle East. “Terrorism searches for a cover,” President Bashar al-Assad told Tony Blair on his visit to Damascus. “This cover may be political, social or economic. What is important is to strip the terrorists of their cover, and this can only be done by dousing the flash points of tension.”

The occupied Golan remains at the heart of Syrian policy – just as support for Israel remains at the heart of US policy towards the Middle East. Many analysts seem to believe that Washington needs Israeli intelligence, but for Israel to take this opportunity to move against Palestinian “terrorists” will heighten opposition to the United States in the Muslim and Arab world.

It didn’t take long for the press corps accompanying the British prime minister to realize that Blair and Assad were talking at cross purposes. This is a matter of policy and practice, not espionage and counter-espionage. Moving beyond a dialogue of the deaf requires a different kind of intelligence.