CIA Veteran Hulnick Slams Agency’s Critics
CAS prof calls popular image of spy agency nonsense| From BU Today | By Susan Seligson
Arthur Hulnick, a CAS international relations associate professor, says the CIA cannot defend itself, because “the secret of our success is the secret of our success.” Photo by Kalman Zabarsky
In the weeks since the CIA suffered several high-profile setbacks — one of them the tragic deaths of seven operatives — the agency has come under fire from the press, from Congress, even from a top military intelligence official. No CIA or government official can deny that the December 30 suicide bombing by a Jordanian operative that claimed the agents’ lives was a failure of both intelligence-gathering and field procedure. But according to Arthur S. Hulnick, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of international relations, with a long career in the CIA and military intelligence, the ensuing criticism of the agency is unfair, misinformed, and politically motivated. Bostonia spoke with Hulnick about the CIA’s image and the challenge of gathering intelligence in a war against a far-reaching, fanatical, and often elusive enemy.
Bostonia: It seems the CIA’s competence is being questioned like never before. The Afghanistan tragedy and the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner by a known terrorist suspect have badly tarnished the image of an agency people already loved to hate. Are these attacks on the CIA valid?
Hulnick: None of it’s true. It’s all designed to denigrate the system by people who don’t know much about it. The CIA can’t very well defend itself. Our motto is “the secret of our success is the secret of our success,” so it’s only when something like the Afghanistan bombing comes out in public that you see what’s going on. Most of it is well below the surface. Think about it this way: we pay millions of dollars for the Red Sox and they only get a hit three or four times a game. We don’t hold them accountable for that; we expect some failures. But now we’re saying someone dropped the ball at the CIA.
Do you agree with Major General Michael Flynn’s scathing report in early January, accusing U.S. military intelligence of being ignorant of Afghan village culture and poorly equipped to fight the Taliban insurgency?
That’s absolutely wrong. And in my experience CIA people are even better than other intelligence officers at language skills and cultural insights.
What went wrong that allowed the Afghanistan bombing to happen?
The suicide bombing wasn’t bad luck. It was bad practice. Normally when you meet an informant or recruited agent, you do it in a safe house. You set up security to make sure he is clean. I’m sure lots of questions have been asked to make sure it never happens again. A big mistake is trusting people. During the Cold War, when we recruited Russians as spies, they wanted to get back at the system. They weren’t suicide bombers. But now we’re dealing with fanatical jihadi terrorists, and we’re trying very hard to figure out how to deal with this kind of thing. It’s relatively new, so it’s not surprising that it’s taking lots of time and effort. We’re working on the psychology. Intelligence is a tricky business; it means recruiting people to essentially commit treason on behalf of us, betraying those they’re supposed to be loyal to. Some lie, some cheat; it’s dangerous and tricky. Usually they flip for money, but sometimes they have a vendetta, and sometimes they just want the excitement. But double agents — that’s a relatively small part of what we do, involving a small number of people. Most of the CIA’s work is intercepting of communications, poring through open sources, and looking at reconnaissance from drone aircraft.
What would you count among the CIA’s successes since 9/11?
Most of our successes since 9/11 have been under the radar. We don’t know how many terrorist plots have been uncovered and foiled, and it’s the FBI that does the actual foiling. Very little of it has become public. It’s called the protection of sources and methods, so it’s not surprising that the CIA doesn’t want to discuss how we do this stuff. Right after 9/11, when the CIA went to Afghanistan ahead of the military and did a great job, it was called Operation Jawbreaker. The CIA bribed Afghan warlords to fight for us instead of the Taliban. The warlords are loyal to only one thing: money. Was it a mistake? No. These people are evil people. You want to find the evil ones, and use them.
Have we infiltrated the Taliban?
Well, I don’t know. I’d like to think that’s possible.
How much of what ordinary Americans know about the CIA is true? What are the biggest misconceptions?
During the Reagan administration we gathered some polling data, and people said the CIA overthrows governments and kills people. People read spy novels and watch movies; none of them are accurate, even though CIA people sometimes sign on as technical advisors. If they made a movie about the CIA that was accurate, it would be very boring. But that’s how most people form their impression, plus the negative press. One thing I hate is this term “connect the dots.” It is not connect the dots; it’s putting a jigsaw puzzle together. I tell my students, suppose someone gave you a jigsaw puzzle, and some pieces are missing, some don’t belong, and you don’t have the box with the picture. You have to put the puzzle together, and it’s not so easy.
What changes would you like to see at the CIA?
There are things about intelligence that obviously could be better. I think that there needs to be some look at counterterrorism. We’re not establishing the kind of institutional memory that would track down someone like the Jordanian bomber. There needs to be one unit that absorbs all this information and puts the pieces together. But the best way to stop radical Islam and the jihadi movement is to enlist the help of mainstream Islam, and so far mainstream Islam has done very little about what is really a small part of the Muslim world.
The bombing story has given people a rare look inside CIA operations and agents’ varied backgrounds. What proportion of CIA agents are in the field and what kinds of covers do field agents use?
Well, the numbers are classified, so if I knew I wouldn’t tell you. But it’s a relatively small number. It means serving overseas without your family, so you can’t ask people to stay out there for a long time, and that means they don’t get the language skills and expertise that are necessary. This is part of the problem.
Most of the covers are government positions: State Department, Defense, or nonofficial people undercover as businessmen and -women working for large corporations. But cover is not the problem. The problem is getting access to the people who might know what we want to know. For example, we have no presence in Iran, no unofficial presence, no embassy, no people on the ground. You’d have to be insane to go in there. In most normal circumstances CIA people have diplomatic cover, but these days our government likes to string people up by their thumbs if something goes wrong, hold them accountable. That’s what would happen if there were a screwup, so why would people take risks?
Have some of your former students joined the CIA? What qualities make a good CIA agent?
Quite a number of my former students have joined the agency; they have BU reunions from time to time. I can’t tell you how many, but it’s somewhere between 25 and 50. They can’t talk about it, so I don’t hear back from them about what they’re doing.
Someone with good language skills and area knowledge would make a good agent. If I have to fault the CIA it’s because they can’t recruit enough promising young people because of the polygraphs, the screening by the independent gatekeepers. The horror stories are legion of good competent people who don’t get through the system because their parents are in the old country or some other reason. I had a former student who couldn’t get through the polygraph because she had a heart condition, so she showed deception on every question, even her own name. The security people are dangerous, in my opinion. They think the Taliban are everywhere, that everyone is potentially dangerous. The old Cold Warriors think the Taliban have penetrated the system. They never have; it’s all nonsense.
What do you think of Tim Weiner’s popular new book about the CIA, Legacy of Ashes?
That book is the worst, most distorted history, but what sells is to make the CIA look stupid. He was invited to BU, but didn’t come, so we had our discussion without him. He distorted so much of the information. His agenda was to sell books, and you can’t sell a book that says the CIA is terrific. I worked at CIA public affairs, and reporters would tell me that you have to have scandal or failure to get above the fold — success doesn’t sell.