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Last August, Philip Mudd, deputy director of the Counterterrorist Center at the CIA, looked through a copy of the 9/11 Commission Report during the Senate hearing on America's counterterrorism capabilities.
Last August, Philip Mudd, deputy director of the Counterterrorist Center at the CIA, looked through a copy of the 9/11 Commission Report during the Senate hearing on America's counterterrorism capabilities. (Photo / Brooks Kraft)

Spy world

What happens when you get a bunch of spooks, lawmakers, gadget geeks, and military interrogators together in a hotel conference room and ask them to talk - on the record?

ARLINGTON, Va. -- ''If I'm leaning a little to my left side, it's because I left my right mind at home,'' Bill Tierney told listeners gathered in a basement conference room of a Pentagon-area hotel earlier this week. He had just returned from eight months working as an interrogator for US forces in Baghdad, and had come to talk, on the record, about torture.

''The Brits came up with an expression - wog,'' Tierney said. ''That stands for Wily Oriental Gentleman. There's a lot of wiliness in that part of the world.'' And when it comes to interrogating wily insurgents, Tierney explained, he favors ''smarts over smack.''

''It's the amateur who resorts to violence,'' he said. ''There's always a mental lever to get them to do what you want them to do.''

While onlookers from federal agencies and state and local law enforcement took notes, Tierney outlined what he described as some of his ''tailored'' psychological techniques. (He asked that they not be printed, suggesting that if they appear in a newspaper they might make their way to the handbooks of insurgents in Baghdad, tipping off future interrogation subjects.)

Tierney was one of the first speakers at the National Intelligence Conference, or INTELCON, a novel assembly of representatives from all 15 American intelligence agencies, Congress, the 9/11 Commission, private technology companies-and the press.

In fact, that journalists were admitted to the room at all was one hallmark of this unprecedented gathering. With 600 people registered, roughly half from American intelligence and half from private industry, the conference was a trial balloon of sorts: an effort to create open dialogue within an intelligence community riven by years of compartmentalization, inter-agency competition, and secrecy. William Saxton, a former intelligence officer who conceived of the conference three years ago, said that he wanted to create the first-ever ''nonpartisan informal get-together'' for all those involved in American intelligence ''to share ideas on a level playing field.''

''Intelcon is not about blame or pointing the finger,'' said John Loftus, a former Justice Department prosecutor and another organizer of the conference. ''It's about 'How do we fix things?''' To that end Saxton, Loftus, and others convened 100 speakers, including two former CIA directors, current officials from the FBI and National Security Agency (NSA), congressmen, defense contractors, and intelligence experts from think tanks. (Given the low profile favored by many attendees, it was occasionally difficult to ascertain just what line of work some individuals were in, and under the ground rules of the conference speakers could only be quoted anonymously, unless they agreed otherwise.) Heeding the 9/11 Commission's suggestion that public discourse is ''democracy's best oversight mechanism'' and that too much secrecy has hampered the intelligence community, the organizers took the bold step of making the proceedings unclassified.

The result was three days of intense discussion on every issue confronting American intelligence, from the efficacy and legality of torture to the shortage of trained Arabic linguists to Iraq-related intelligence and the impending structural overhaul of the intelligence community. Presentations and panels included ''Improving the Interpretive Value of Demographic Data,'' ''Terrorism Task Forces: Band-aid or Solution?,'' and, intriguingly, ''Academia: Terrorist Battleground?'' Intelligence practitioners, from on-the-ground covert operatives to the heads of agencies, engaged in the kind of frank and probing conversation to which those without security clearance are rarely privy.

To the extent that the point of the conference was to demonstrate that various elements of the intelligence community could gather in one room, talk openly about the challenges they face, and exchange business cards and ideas, Intelcon was a success. On the other hand, the open forum showcased enduring, intractable divisions among intelligence professionals on fundamental issues like the war in Iraq and a prevailing cynicism about the current capabilities of American intelligence to keep the country safe.

In a trade show adjacent to the conference, high-tech companies hawked pattern-recognition and data mining software. But few present were optimistic about any kind of a quick fix for American espionage, whether in the form of new technology or a new National Director of Intelligence.

The greatest frustration was evident in rank and file intelligence and law enforcement officers. After explaining his various psychological tactics to the audience, interrogator Bill Tierney (a private contractor working with the Army) said, ''I tried to be nuanced and culturally aware. But the suspects didn't break.''

Suddenly Tierney's temper rose. ''They did not break!'' he shouted. ''I'm here to win. I'm here so our civilization beats theirs! Now what are you willing to do to win?'' he asked, pointing to a woman in the front row. ''You are the interrogators, you are the ones who have to get the information from the Iraqis. What do you do? That word 'torture'. You immediately think, 'That's not me.' But are we litigating this war or fighting it?''

Some listeners murmured in assent; others sat in rapt attention. In all the recent debates about the Bush administration's stance on torture, this voice, the voice of the interrogators themselves, has been almost entirely absent.

Asked about Abu Ghraib, Tierney said that for an interrogator, ''sadism is always right over the hill. You have to admit it. Don't fool yourself - there is a part of you that will say, 'This is fun.'''

It is that part, he continued, that a successful interrogator has to learn to identify and control. ''Right now the Army wants to get interrogators right out of high school,'' he said. ''A high school grad does not have the maturity to handle this job. There was a 19-year-old with me in Baghdad. What's going on in her head is what kind of fingernail polish she's going to wear. And she's sitting across from a guy from Yemen....'' His voice trailed off.

Indeed, a certain bitterness pervaded the conference, a palpable feeling that America's spies are being hobbled by the civil libertarian protests of precisely those people they are trying to protect. In a lunch talk, James Woolsey, CIA director in the first Clinton administration, invoked Justice Robert Jackson's famous suggestion that ''the Constitution is not a suicide pact.''

This notion was given starker expression by a former Marine Corps officer on a panel about military intelligence collection within the United States. When queried about interrogation techniques, he replied simply, ''I'm a fan of 220 volts,'' and was greeted with scattered applause.

The Marine Corps officer was joined on that panel by a barrel-chested former CIA operative, whose conference bio says he ''ate, slept, and drank with narco-terrorists and smugglers.'' This man said that earlier in his career he had been ''called on to do things that are pretty nasty in some instances, things we don't want anyone to know we do.'' By way of elaboration he said, ''If my job was to take you down and I showed up on your doorstep, it was gonna be a bad day. Now, does that mean I break the American laws? No.''

He paused, then added, ''I hope not.''

Even more lamented than legal restraints on interrogating suspects or spying on American citizens was the dire shortage of linguists qualified in the Arabic dialects that are now of greatest importance to US intelligence. On one panel, Rebecca Givner-Forbes, a recent graduate of Georgetown who studied Arabic in college, explained that the Arabic taught in most American universities is a little like Latin or Shakespearean English. ''You can't learn Modern Standard Arabic and just drop into a country and know what people are saying,'' she said.

For example, Givner-Forbes said, many terrorists speak in local dialects, or in a patois rich with historical and religious allusion. Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, the self-appointed head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, ''tends to use a lot of classical references and complicated constructions,'' she said. ''His stuff takes me forever.''

Givner-Forbes did not pursue a job at the NSA or CIA, preferring instead to work for a private company specializing in intelligence. She explained that the agencies often scare away precisely the linguists they should be attracting. She mentioned a friend who wanted to work for NSA but had smoked pot in the past year, and was therefore ineligible, and pointed to the 20 Arabic linguists who have been fired by defense and intelligence agencies since Sept. 11 for being gay: ''You're not going to find the perfect translator who fits all your lifestyle requirements.''

On the same panel, Robert Baer, an Arabic-speaker who worked for the CIA in the Middle East and went on to write the books ''See No Evil'' and ''Sleeping with the Devil,'' concluded that successful spies ''are the ones who speak the language.''

''I was assigned to a Central Asian country for a while, and I didn't speak any Russian,'' said Baer. ''I got nowhere with the Russians. Except drunk.''

While those present could agree about the major challenges the intelligence community confronts, they were sharply divided and often skeptical about institutional responses to Sept. 11.

At a panel on intelligence reform, Michael Scheuer-the formerly anonymous author of ''Imperial Hubris,'' a blistering critique of US policy on terrorism, and until several months ago a CIA counterterrorism officer-questioned the conclusion, put forward by the 9/11 Commission and others, that the Al Qaeda attacks were the result of institutional failures.

''I had the unfortunate experience to have been educated by Jesuits,'' Scheuer said. ''So I'm reluctant to blame anything on our organizations or structures.'' The 9/11 Commission hearings, he said, were ''Potemkin-like sessions'' designed to reassure the public while deflecting blame from the irresponsible policies and policy makers from both political parties.

''When you have the intelligence but fail to act, you can't call it an intelligence failure,'' Scheuer said. ''There is nothing in the intelligence reform bill that has the chance to stop the kinds of personal failures that led to 9/11.''

Scheuer may be a hero in some circles, but in this crowd he's something of an iconoclast, and as he spoke audience members snickered and shifted uncomfortably in their seats. At a certain point he reiterated the central thesis of his book: that by going into Iraq the United States ignored the more pressing danger of Osama bin Laden and militant Islam.

''Don't you see a connection?'' someone in the audience asked.

''There is no connection,'' Scheuer shot back, apparently incredulous that in a room full of chastened intelligence practitioners there was still support for the supposed Iraq-Al Qaeda link. ''There is now, but there wasn't then.''

A retired general interrupted, ''There is only one war. In Afghanistan, in Iraq. It's all one war.''

''That's wrong!'' Scheuer said.

''You're wrong, Michael,'' the general replied.

''I've lived it for 22 years,'' Scheuer said.

''I've lived it more than you have,'' said the general.

It was a dispiriting spectacle. Three and a half years after Sept. 11 our spies cannot even agree on such fundamental issues as what kind of a war the United States is engaged in, what kind of threats its enemies pose, and whether those enemies are now or have ever been connected.

Others on the panel sought to find some common ground with Scheuer, yet the only common ground available was the bankruptcy of the 9/11 Commission and the new intelligence act. Circling the wagons, everyone in the room seemed to concur that they had succeeded in preventing another attack in spite of and not because of political efforts to redress intelligence problems in the intervening years.

Scheuer contended that 9/11 commissioners and politicians were driven by the families of the dead to pass a hasty piece of legislation that will not make Americans safer. ''With all due respect to the widows,'' he said, ''they don't know jack about running intelligence.''

The other panelists hastened to agree.

Patrick Radden Keefe is the author of ''Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping'' (Random House). 

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