The Secret Intelligence Wars

The first task of any intelligence organization is to establish where danger lies. In the Arab world it is traditionally considered to lie within, where revolutionaries, religious zealots, and ambitious military officers plotting to seize power are watched and periodically arrested by the local security service, the mukhabarat. In Egypt and Iraq, in Jordan and Saudi Arabia it is always the same: the real interest and expertise of the secret police are concentrated on the home-grown opposition. The United States may speculate obsessively on the military programs of Saddam Hussein or on Iranian ambitions in western Afghanistan, but the Arab countries worry less about neighbors, including Israel, than they do about the contacts and travels of their own radical university students, the commanders of armored divisions in urban centers, and impassioned mullahs preaching a return to fundamental Islam. Arab secret services hold tight to what they know, and are sphinxes about the things they don’t know—a source of deep frustration to American intelligence officers trying to sort out the background and contacts of the aircraft hijackers of September 11.

For a brief period last fall pained noises of discontent with the level of Saudi cooperation could be heard in Congress after the CIA and the FBI explained the difficulty of prying open Arab doors. Nothing came of it. The White House insisted all was well and American intelligence officers had nowhere else to turn. CIA officers and the FBI’s legal attachés assigned to American embassies could do very little on the ground in most Arab countries before September 11; there was no knocking on doors or flashing of badges, and even now they must ask the locals. The normal drill has been to send a liaison officer stationed in Cairo or Riyadh to pay a visit to the office of his counterpart, submit his questions, and then listen to the air conditioning while the counterpart goes through a folder on the desk in front of him, choosing what to share. In this way the CIA or the FBI may learn who went to high school with Mohamed Atta, or when the former Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal, last spoke with Osama bin Laden, or whether the Saudi Istakhbarat had found earlier reason to open files on the hijackers who arrived in the United States during the year 2001 to fly commercial airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania mountainside.

In high-profile cases in the past, leading officials or even the director of the FBI or the CIA might fly in to ask for help, in which case large bustling groups might gather to process the request and its answer, but otherwise the drill was the same. Americans can’t order the locals to pony up; they must ask, and it is the temperature of relations with the United States that determines whether local intelligence chiefs will be forthcoming, or instead close the folder and say they are sorry, they can find nothing …

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