The official version is this: Ramzi Yousef, the reputed architect of the World Trade Center bombing now on trial in New York, was captured by authorities in Pakistan acting on an informant's tip. There seems to be more to it than that.
The arrest of Mr. Yousef, US intelligence sources say, was aided by a tip supplied to the Central Intelligence Agency by a source inside one of the cells of Islamic extremists the accused terrorist set up in Pakistan, Thailand, and the Philippines. "We had inside knowledge," says one official who declined to elaborate, citing the cardinal rule of protecting sources and methods.
The capture of Yousef represents what former and present intelligence officials cite as an example of a major CIA success in using information from human sources to fight terrorism.
Others include thwarting Iraqi plots to bomb the US Embassy in Paris and assassinate former President George Bush, and the 1994 arrest in Sudan of the notorious terrorist "Carlos the Jackal."
Nevertheless, last month's truck-bombing of the US military compound in Saudi Arabia and the suspected sabotage of TWA Flight 800 have focused renewed attention on US capabilities in what those in the espionage business call HUMINT, or human intelligence. With the Clinton administration intent on boosting US counterterrorism efforts, HUMINT is regarded as a critical necessity.
High-tech versus infiltration
Yet some intelligence officials, lawmakers, and independent experts say HUMINT has for too long been neglected in favor of the high-tech wizardry that allows the US to peer from space into other countries or intercept their radio and telephone communications. HUMINT, they say, must be greatly improved if the US wants to boost its ability to preempt attacks on its citizens by foreign extremists.
Concedes John Gannon, the CIA's deputy director of intelligence: "Human intelligence will have to be more focused."
Neil Livingstone, a Washington-based antiterrorism expert, is more blunt: "We are doing a lousy job."
Others disagree. They say that the CIA's record is highly commendable given the extreme dangers and difficulties of trying to penetrate extremist groups, the most valuable source of HUMINT.
These groups are more amorphous and loosely knit than before. They operate in small, highly compartmentalized cells that work through hard-to-track, globe-spanning networks that take advantage of advanced communications technologies like the Internet.
"It's a hard problem to the extent that terrorist action has moved to even more shadowy groups, groups we don't know," explains Greg Treverton, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, who is now with the Rand Corp., a think tank.
Another constraint on improving HUMINT, experts say, is public and congressional concern over the types of people the CIA recruits as informants. Those concerns were reignited last year by reports linking Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, a Guatemalan army officer on its payroll, to the murders of a leftist rebel and an American citizen, and to other human rights abuses. As a result, CIA informant recruiting has come under intensified scrutiny and the agency has tightened its guidelines.
But the problem is that terrorist organizations can only be infiltrated by people the extremists accept as one of their own. Because CIA officers are barred by law from committing criminal acts, that means having to use informants unbound by such constraints. "In order to make this work, you have to recruit rotten, unsavory people," says Arthur Hulnick, an ex-CIA official. "Penetrating a terrorist group means you have to recruit a terrorist. He's murdered or killed or hurt in some way. It's not a business that involves nice people."
Says a former CIA field officer, speaking on condition of anonymity: "If you infiltrate an agent, they are going to check his background and also insist that he do something like kill somebody to prove himself."
The agency in the past has helped informants fake such tests, the former officer says, but that is risky business. "If you negate an operation, then they [terrorists] start looking to see what happened, the source is blown, and you have to get him out," he says.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, who as Senate Intelligence Committee chairman led the criticism of the CIA over Colonel Alpirez, says that given the threat of terrorism, "a broader standard" should be adopted for people recruited to penetrate terrorist groups. By comparison, operatives like Alpirez are of highly questionable value, he says.
HUMINT was once the backbone of spying, the source of most information. None was more prized than that provided by agents or informants secreted deep inside rival governments or groups regarded as US enemies. But priorities changed with the explosion of cold-war-fueled advances in computers and spy satellites.
Satellite surveillance and the interception of communications now consume the bulk of the estimated $28 billion annual budget of the CIA and the 12 other agencies making up the US intelligence community. About $3 billion is believed to be spent on HUMINT.
The shift in priorities came in 1977 under former President Carter's CIA director, Stansfield Turner. The former admiral downgraded HUMINT, fired 17 field officers, and transferred others. Resources were poured into spy satellites and communications interception.
Tough to recruit informants
Former CIA officials and other experts claim that the upshot of Mr. Turner's restructuring was the agency's failure to forecast Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979. An effort was begun to revitalize HUMINT, but the damage was so extensive that the CIA is still working to recoup, they say.
In counterterrorism, high-tech espionage is no substitute for a well-placed informant, says the former field officer. "You can photograph all you want. But you have to have somebody under that roof to tell you what's going on in there," he explains.
CIA officials say they're also trying to overcome the constraints of having too many white male officers, who have difficulty "mixing in" in places like the Middle East. The agency is trying to recruit more ethnic minorities. "It's more complicated than in the old days," says the CIA's Gannon. "Expertise on these issues is a much greater challenge. It has implications for the kinds of people we recruit, our development programs, and how we deploy them in the field."