Two weeks ago, U.S. Congressman Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, visited the "holy of holies" of U.S. intelligence, the headquarters of the CIA, in Langley, Virginia. Issa, whose father's family immigrated to California from Lebanon, is a member of the House Committee on Intelligence. As a young man he served as an officer in the U.S. Army, but left to enter business.
Issa's positions on Middle Eastern issues will not earn him honorary membership in the "friends of Israel" club. When making a choice between Lebanon - especially between his ethnic group there, the Christians - and Syria, he prefers Lebanon; but between the Arabs and Israel he is for the Arabs. His visit to the CIA, for a discussion with staffers, was intended to emphasize "the importance of having officers of Near Eastern descent serve in the Intelligence Community." "Near East" or "Middle East" - the terms are used interchangeably in Washington, but one way or the other, he was not talking about Israelis.
A dozen groups are now operating within the CIA as part of an effort to color the Anglo-Saxon palefaced-ness of U.S. intelligence in other hues. There are groups for blacks, for gays and lesbians, for Hispanics, for Native Americans, for people of Asian and Pacific descent, for the disabled, for women in the research division and so on. The Jews, who are from time to time suspected of having familial ties with Israel, have no group.
The director of the CIA, General Michael Hayden, has a "special assistant for diversity plans and programs," named Rickey Jasper. His main task is to visit university and college campuses in order to recruit his black brothers, and others, to the ranks of what until September 11, 2001, was the last bastion of the white establishment. Hayden recently stated that 25 percent of new recruits to the CIA this year belong to "ethnic minorities." One of every five speaks a foreign language; Arabic, Chinese and Korean are considered crucial languages for the CIA's missions.
In his CIA visit, Issa was the guest of Jasper and of the Near East Affinity Group, which, according to an official CIA communique, is "an employee group that helps promote cultural awareness and assists in the recruitment and advancement of CIA officers with a Near Eastern background." Jasper thanked Issa, and added: "With our efforts to recruit Americans of Near Eastern descent, the face of our workforce is changing, and that is as it should be. If we are to meet our mission, we need people of all backgrounds and ethnicities in our organization."
This revolution's consequences will be felt in Israel even before the new recruits reach the high ranks of the U.S. intelligence community. Political leaders come and go. The permanent apparatus - military, intelligence, diplomatic - exerts persistent influence. America defined the problem for itself, without beating around the bush - a prolonged war against a Muslim enemy in general and an Arab enemy in particular: Al Qaida, Taliban, Hezbollah, the ayatollahs' Iran, and others. If that is the referential threat, the response must follow and be resolved accordingly, hence Arabs and Persian-speakers are wanted, in this case. Living ones.
Since February, Vice Admiral John Michael McConnell has been the director of national intelligence, and is the person within the U.S. administration in charge of the CIA and another 15 intelligence agencies. According to him, after World War II and during the cold war, the attitude was: "If you're a first-generation American citizen and you have relatives in a foreign country, you're not eligible for this [intelligence] community. The rationale was, well, you could be blackmailed ... We've got to change the way we think if we're going to capture language, cultural understanding, insights and so on ... we need to increase the diversity of the community and we need to have people who speak and look like [those from] areas ... that threats are coming from."
Perhaps it's not the most novel move. After all, in their battle against the mafia, the New York Police Department and the FBI have been recruiting Italian Americans for decades. But for the CIA it's a startling innovation, traumatized as it was from the scars left by the spies - usually of independent initiative and not as moles or recruits - who passed on secrets to the Soviets (and not only to them). McConnell explained that the practice, during the period of the confrontation with the Soviet Union, of disqualifying immigrants from Warsaw Pact countries has been eliminated, because what was then perceived as a disadvantage now looks like an advantage. To understand the adversary's goals, to decipher their secrets and penetrate them, it is best to come from within and integrate into them naturally, not to stand out like a cowboy in a Bedouin encampment.
To grasp the scale of the revolution, we have to go back to the roots of the U.S. intelligence attitude toward the Arabs. The Americans did not have a Lawrence or a Wingate; they rarely encountered Arabs before World War II. At the conflict's height, in June 1943, general George Marshall, the army chief of staff, ordered that a thin pamphlet, written by private Frank Sargent, be distributed to all units. In the midst of the fighting in North Africa, Sargent wrote about training combat soldiers for intelligence roles at the battalion and regimental levels.
The army's most senior officer was impressed by the private's perspicacious analysis, which called for constant suspiciousness. Sargent, referring to "casualties suffered due to Arab espionage," wrote: "Our men trusted the Arabs, made friends with them, tolerated them near [our] positions. Then the bombs and shells came and fell right into those positions where the Arabs had previously been ... Intelligence personnel must be trained not to trust anybody, to suspect lies in firm assurances of friendship. They cannot afford to make fine distinctions between good and bad in native populations... The boys in the foxholes like to live too, and hate to die just because some intelligence men had big hearts and could not understand that spies and agents are ostensibly friendly people."
As secretary of state in the Truman administration, ahead of the November 1947 United Nations decision on partitioning Palestine and the fighting that ensued, Marshall overestimated the strength of the Arab forces arrayed against Israel. Subsequently, and particularly in the wake of the Six-Day War, admiration of the Israel Defense Forces spiraled, together with increasing disdain for the Arabs, who "can't win," in the words of a well-known article by a U.S. colonel.
Highly illuminating testimony about the excessive identification of American experts with Israel - to the point of neglecting their professional obligation - can be found in the memoirs of General Donald Bennett, who headed the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency from 1969 to 1972. In his 1976 oral memoirs, Bennett acknowledged the errors of his successors and subordinates on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. In 1969, at the start of the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt, and still under the influence of the sweeping victory of June 1967, Bennett met with five research officers from the Middle East desk. Toward the end of the conversation, he chastised his interlocutors, because when they talked about Egypt they said "they," but when talking about Israel, they said "we." That's an unconscionable attitude in intelligence, he said. What you do is assess ability or intentions, no matter which side is under discussion.
"These people," Bennett said, "started to tilt toward the Israeli side, and they were failing to question the intelligence which they saw in a completely unbiased fashion. And they were leading us astray. I guess the mistake I made was in not firing these people at that moment. In 1973, two out of those five were fired because they had put out an estimate just before the Egyptian attack, where they assessed that the Egyptians did not have the intent nor the capability to attack." They did not weight the changes in the operational and command capabilities of the Egyptian army, even though they monitored the exercises in which the Egyptians crossed a water obstacle.
"Yet we continued to say that the Egyptian was not a trainable person, that he was not amenable to discipline, and he never could conduct effective combat operations. We said that because we had looked at him so long we began to think of him as 'they' instead of being unbiased."
Knowing or loving
The U.S. military made use of the IDF's performance in the Yom Kippur War to update its air-ground combat doctrine, ahead of a clash, which never came, with the Soviet armed forces in Europe. But Israel gradually lost its crown of expertise about the Arab world. Lebanon I, the intifada, Lebanon II - Israel no longer looked so adept at reading the enemy, and since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the American armed forces, stationed and fighting in Arab states, have gradually acquired knowledge of their own.
What it discovered that it did not know, with the ignorance of one who comes from Boston to Baghdad, is meant to be filled in by Americans of Arab descent. They might be translators of captured documents and interpreters seconded to commanders and units, interrogators of prisoners and tutors of local units, handlers of agents and research officers. Also filtering down from them will be a different outlook, cooler toward Israel, if not the complete reversal of the "they" and "we" syndrome. Though, to know the Arabs, or the Muslims in Afghanistan, is not necessarily to love them.
In an article in the bimonthly Military Review, Mounir Elkhamri, a sergeant in the U.S. Army who was posted to an analysis unit after 18 months in Iraq, warned against corruption and tribalism in the Iraqi security forces. "During my deployment, I witnessed several appointments of Iraqi officials as vice-governors, mayors, and chiefs of police based on family and political affiliations rather than qualifications."
The opponents of the Americans, wrote Elkhamri, who describes himself as an "Arab-American soldier," frequently sabotage the power lines to the areas where they are hiding out, because it is easier to hide in dark places, or in order to signal that U.S. forces are operating there. Another reason for the disruptions is that Iraqi officials demand that the power plant engineers supply unbroken electricity to their neighborhoods. They are indifferent to shortages elsewhere.
The Americans' readiness to learn from all sources, including privates, sergeants and lieutenants, is praiseworthy, but in the final analysis it is the senior personnel, who hold the key posts, who make the decisions. The CIA hails the very controversial contribution of the Saudi intelligence services to the struggle against Al Qaida networks, and after 14 years of American friction, involving the CIA and such generals as William "Kip" Ward and Keith Dayton, with the Palestinians, Israel is also losing its claim to greater expertise in this sphere.
What the CIA's Arab-Americans are writing to their superiors is still classified, but there are open and worrisome examples from related security fields. Maybe above all Sharifa Zuhur, who is described as an expert on the Middle East and Islam at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Zuhur writes sympathetically about Hamas, whose takeover of Gaza did not elicit a word of condemnation from her, laments the "occupation of 1948" and blames the Americans, the Israelis and Tony Blair for the diplomatic stalemate - anyone but the Palestinians, who are organizing to resist Israel as the Americans did to free themselves from the British. Hamas, she wrote last month, must be invited to the Annapolis summit.
And even as the CIA basks in its Near East Affinity Group and in the visit by Congressman Issa, the U.S. intelligence community was embarrassed on Wednesday by the publicizing of the case of Nada Nadim Prouty, a Lebanese-born woman who was until last week a CIA agent, and before that an employee of the FBI. With the assistance of a fake marriage, Prouty became an American citizen and poked around in the agency's computers to find out what it knows about Hezbollah, for the purposes of her family and maybe also for those of the organization.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now