When ‘the wire’ becomes the problem

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON — As the CIA mourns the officers who died in Khost, Afghanistan, last month, there’s an understandable desire not to second-guess the procedures that allowed a Jordanian suicide bomber to enter the agency’s base. But this practice of meeting with agents “inside the wire” has a controversial history within the CIA, and it offers some useful background as the agency considers changes.

The debate about how to handle agents in war zones surfaced in Iraq in 2003. The question was how to balance the safety of CIA personnel with the needs of intelligence gathering. Headquarters argued for meeting agents inside the Green Zone; case officers in the field countered that this would actually put them and their agents at greater risk — and choke the flow of information.

The tradecraft dispute went on for more than a year, but in the end, the headquarters view prevailed. By 2005, CIA officers had generally stopped meeting agents in the “red zones” of Iraq, outside secured areas. Agent-handling procedures in Afghanistan also evolved toward “inside the wire” meetings.

Some CIA veterans continued to argue privately, however, that the new approach was potentially risky. This account is based on their comments.

CIA officers in the field began to develop their Iraq tradecraft in the months after the March 2003 invasion. The dangers were highlighted by a shootout in Baghdad in midsummer of that year when insurgents attacked three case officers riding in military Humvees. The Baghdad station developed new procedures to operate more stealthily, using ordinary civilian vehicles.

The biggest danger, CIA officers concluded, was crossing the checkpoints to enter the Green Zone in Baghdad and other secured locations. The insurgents maintained surveillance outside the gates. And on several occasions, jittery soldiers shot at agency vehicles. In the spring of 2004, for example, Kurdish guards opened fire on CIA officers at a checkpoint in Sulaymaniyah, and a CIA security officer was killed.

In the spring of 2004, the chief of the agency’s Near East division, worried about such incidents, ordered a halt to most meetings in red zones. The CIA station in Baghdad protested, arguing: “If you pull people inside the wire, it’s unsafe.”

The field officers warned that some of their best agents would refuse to come inside the Green Zone because they thought it would put them at risk. “They didn’t want their faces known,” recalls one agency veteran.

The Baghdad station argued instead for using its fleet of cars, which could be repainted and retagged repeatedly, to avoid detection. When headquarters proposed using only armored vehicles, the station again balked, arguing that these behemoths would be giveaways. Instead, the Baghdad tech shop devised homemade armor for some of its beat-up civilian cars.

To enhance security outside the Green Zone, the Baghdad station also developed procedures in 2004 for monitoring Iraqi agents who might be hostile. Surveillance teams of Iraqis and other Arabs would precede agency officers on their way to meetings to look for insurgent activity. The Arab surveillance teams would also track the agency’s contacts, checking for signs they might be carrying suicide bombs.

The Baghdad station felt so strongly that it would be a mistake to bring agents inside the wire that its leaders in mid-2004 proposed moving case officers to safe houses outside the Green Zone. That way, the officers and agents wouldn’t have to worry about running the gantlet at checkpoints. Headquarters refused.

Through 2004, a standoff developed between headquarters and the Baghdad station over which approach — inside or outside — was safer. The field officers continued to operate relatively safely with the war-zone tradecraft they had evolved, even as violence increased. But the dangers were obvious.

The leadership of the Baghdad station changed in 2005, and the new bosses are said to have opted for the approach that headquarters preferred. Meetings out in the hostile red zones declined. In Afghanistan, too, agency officers reduced their movements in high-threat areas. Since their bases were generally at forward military outposts, CIA officers were already more visible to the enemy. This argued for avoiding meetings outside the wire.

CIA Director Leon Panetta is now conducting a high-level review of the Khost tragedy, in part to explore what tradecraft procedures make sense, going forward. Agency veterans argue that the Iraq experience — like the agency’s tradecraft in Lebanon during the 1980s — shows it may be safer to operate out in the field, away from “protected zones” that, in reality, have become targets for the enemy.

David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.