The attacks on embassies and consulates in the Arab world, and the national command authority’s extremely feeble responses to them, have sunk American prestige in the region to an unprecedented low. Were the weak horse that can’t even keep our sovereign territory from being overrun.
But the disruption of the diplomatic facilities has also had a secondary effect that in the long run may be more important: it has blinded our intelligence collection, because the vast majority of our intelligence officers work under official cover from diplomatic stations. Run the dips out, and you just ran all the spies’ case officers out, too.
Ishmael Jones — pseudonym for an intelligence officer who worked under nonofficial cover for his entire career, which is a very close thing to career suicide in CIA — has some more details in a post at Power Line. Note that his post has been cleared by the Agency. In his post, he explains why embassies are hard to defend from those who are not impressed by their diplomatic status, and how they would be better defended if we had more NOCs and fewer officers pushing papers in embassies and HQ.
Embassies are fixed targets in a world where victory in almost any endeavor – from warfare to football – depends on speed, flexibility, and maneuverability. Saddam Hussein’s vast tank armies, dug in and unmoving, were sitting ducks for American air power. In pro football, those 300 pound players are not monoliths, they’re stunningly fast and agile.
A hostile intelligence service can shut down an embassy just by keeping track of who walks in and out. A hostile enemy can obliterate an embassy using obsolete military weapons. Once an embassy is neutralized, it can no longer gather information to protect itself, much less serve the needs of Americans and our allies.
The solution is to have people operating outside of those embassies. I did this continuously in foreign countries – including Libya – for more than 15 of my 18 years in the CIA. I had no security, no Marine guards, not even an alarm system in my house. Except for brief tours in war zones, I never carried a weapon. The enemy did not disrupt or attack me because they couldn’t identify and locate me. The enemy would never have been able to locate the safe houses I used because they were unconnected to any embassy. I never had diplomatic immunity, and it didn’t bother me a bit. Diplomatic immunity didn’t protect our ambassador in Libya.
A thinking, learning, evolving service would take Jones’s criticisms on board and act on them. The CIA, on the other hand, will do absolutely nothing. It’s mammoth bureaucracy is unshakeable, not by the calamities produced by our enemies, nor by the calamities produced by its own incompetence.
Being a bureaucracy, the responsibility for every calamity is so thoroughly diffused that none of the many hands involved in enabling or even authoring the calamity leave behind a readable fingerprint. No one has been held responsible. No one will be held responsible. That’s just how they roll.
Not every service is like this, Jones says:
The Israelis, facing acute threats, figured out the disadvantages of embassies and in the 1990’s moved their information and intelligence gathering outside of embassies. According to Michael Ross, a former Mossad officer, an additional benefit of the Mossad’s work outside embassies is that it removes the stasis, the bureaucracy, of the diplomatic system. The Mossad can move quickly from country to country and carry out its missions without first clearing operations with layers of bureaucrats.
Of course, the Israelis have been in the region long enough to lose their illusions about how well loved they are. The US is no more so, but the key decision makers at CIA are bureaucrats who came up through the usual processes of in-headquarters knob polishing, and have either never been to the region, or have been only in a bubble that was sealed, isolated, and of short duration — as much so as the conditions at the point in a cyclotron under scientific observation.