While US intelligence officials predicted that ISIL would attempt to seize territory in Iraq this year, they did not appear to anticipate ISIL’s offensive on June 10 to seize Mosul.
US intelligence gap in Iraq preceded ISIL’s lightning assault
WASHINGTON // CIA officers in Iraq have been largely hunkered down in their heavily fortified Baghdad compound since US troops left the country in 2011, allowing a once-rich network of intelligence sources to wither.
According to current and former officials, that is a big reason why the US was caught flat-footed by the recent offensive by a Sunni-backed Al Qaeda-inspired group that has seized a large swathe of Iraq.
“This is a glaring example of the erosion of our street craft and our tradecraft and our capability to operate in a hard place,” said John Maguire, who helped run CIA operations in Iraq in 2004.
Mr Maguire was a CIA officer in Beirut in the late 1980s during that country’s bloody civil war. He spent weeks living in safe houses far from the US embassy, dodging militants who wanted to kidnap and kill Americans. In Iraq, where Mr Maguire also served, the CIA’s Baghdad station remains one of the world’s largest. But the agency has been unwilling to risk sending Americans out regularly to recruit and meet informants.
Iraq is emblematic of how a security-conscious CIA is finding it difficult to spy aggressively in dangerous environments without military protection, said Mr Maguire and other US officials. Intelligence blind spots have left the US behind the curve on fast-moving world events, they say, whether it’s disintegration in Iraq, Russia’s move into Crimea or the collapse of several governments during the Arab Spring.
Without directly addressing the CIA’s posture in Iraq, agency spokesman Dean Boyd noted that 40 officers have died in the line of duty since September 2001. He called “offensive” any suggestion that “CIA officers are sitting behind desks, hiding out in green zones, or otherwise taking it easy back at the embassy”.
Mr Boyd said the intelligence community provided plenty of warning to the Obama administration that the insurgent Islamic State in Iraq and Levant – known as ISIL – could move on Iraqi cities.
“Anyone who has had access to and actually read the full extent of CIA intelligence products on ISIL and Iraq should not have been surprised by the current situation,” he said.
Rep Mike Rogers,the chairman of the House intelligence committee, agreed saying, “This was not an intelligence failure – this was a policy failure.”
However, while US intelligence officials predicted that ISIL would attempt to seize territory in Iraq this year, they did not appear to anticipate ISIL’s offensive on June 10 to seize Mosul, which created a momentum that led to other successes.
Officials also expressed surprise at how quickly the Iraqi army collapsed. And military leaders contemplating quick airstrikes said there was not enough intelligence to know what to target.
A senior US intelligence official this week acknowledged that “a lot of the [intelligence] collection that we were receiving diminished significantly following the U.S. withdrawal in Iraq in 2011, when we lost some of the ‘boots on the ground’ view of what was going on”.
The official also disclosed that US intelligence did not know who controlled Iraq’s largest oil refinery. She suggested that one of the biggest sources of intelligence for American analysts is Facebook and Twitter postings.
The US spent nearly $72 billion on intelligence gathering in 2013.
It was telling that President Barack Obama sent 300 special operations troops “to help us gain more intelligence and more information about what ISIL is doing and how they’re doing it”, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said – an implicit admission that American intelligence-gathering about ISIL has been insufficient.
No one suggests that the CIA carries all the blame. After American troops left Iraq, the State Department abandoned plans for a huge diplomatic staff at a network of facilities.
Kevin Carroll, a former CIA operations officer with Middle East experience, said it’s unreasonable to expect the agency to collect “from a fortified war zone embassy the breadth and depth of information collected when US military bases and troops throughout Iraq helped support CIA operations”.
But for Mr Maguire and other former intelligence officials, it’s clear the CIA has allowed its espionage muscles to atrophy.
CIA officers lived in well-guarded bases all over Iraq during the US occupation, and met frequently with Iraqis. But even then, it wasn’t traditional spying. Often, agency operatives would travel to meet sources in highly visible armed convoys. They knew that the US military was somewhere over the horizon if things went wrong. And security concerns often left officers confined to their bases, several former CIA officers said.
The CIA’s approach is designed, say current and former officials, to prevent what happened in Beirut in 1984, when station chief William Buckley was kidnapped from his apartment by Hezbollah and tortured to death. But bases can also be attacked – as in 2012 in Benghazi, Libya – when two CIA contractors were among four dead Americans.