Writing in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence,
former Central Intelligence Agency historian Benjamin B. Fischer contends that the agency was penetrated by scores of double agents who, while pretending to favor the U.S. intelligence community, were actually serving their masters in communist countries during the Cold War years and the aftermath. “During the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency bucked the law of averages by recruiting double agents on an industrial scale; it was hoodwinked not a few but many times,” wrote Fischer in the respected publication. “The result was a massive but largely ignored intelligence failure,” he declared. According to Fischer, the failure on the part of the U.S. to recognize double agents and they disinformation they dispensed “wreaked havoc” on the CIA.
The agency was duped by scores of double agents when it recruited 100 recruits in Cuba, East Germany, and the Soviet Union. These agents regularly provided false intelligence that influenced U.S. foreign policy for decades. While the CIA dismissed the failure to detect the deception, Congress was derelict in that it did not seek to reform the agency.
A career CIA man, Fischer joined the spy agency in 1973 where he worked on Soviet issues during the Cold War. In 1996, Fischer sued the CIA over alleged mistreatment when he blew the whistle on the agency for alleged mishandling of CIA officer Aldrich Ames. In 1994, Ames was unmasked as a Soviet plant after working for years in counterintelligence.
In the 1970s, CIA culture regarded counterintelligence – which is the counteracting of foreign spies and oversight of agents and career officers – in Orwellian terms: “sickthink.” The disregard of counterintelligence would prove fatal, for instance, in the case of a Jordanian who – though he was recruited by the CIA – killed seven CIA officers and contractors in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan.
Critics have charged the agency with harboring an aversion to counterintelligence—the practice of countering foreign spies and the vetting of the legitimacy of both agents and career officers. Beginning in the 1970s, many in the CIA criticized counter-spying, which often involved questioning the loyalties of intelligence personnel, as “sickthink.”
The agency’s ability to discern false agents turned deadly in 2009 when a Jordanian recruit pretending to work for CIA killed a group of seven CIA officers and contractors in a suicide bombing at a camp in Afghanistan. In the shadowy world of espionage, double agents are foreigners recruiting by a spy agency who are actually loyal to another spy service. Their purpose is to provide disinformation and obtain information while posing as loyal agents. In the jargon of espionage, “moles” – foreign penetration agents – who pose as career intelligence officers and spy within agencies.
It was Florentino Aspillaga – a Cuban intelligence officer – who drew back the curtain on the CIA first major double agent failure. Aspillaga defected in 1987 and showed that at least four dozen CIA recruits over a period of 40 years had been working secretly for the communist government in Cuba while feeding false information to the CIA. Following the revelation, government-controlled television in Cuba confirmed that it had 27 agents working within the CIA. According to Fischer, Congress covered up the CIA’s failure.
A KGB operation that involved Aldrich Ames commenced in 1986 and continued over the next seven years, when the KGB’s successor in the espionage business took over following the fall of the Soviet system. Ames provided information to the Soviets that resulted in the arrest of agents working within the Soviet system for the United States. The U.S. realized it had a problem in 1985 when the agents began to disappear. The CIA moved slowly in its investigation but eventually arrested Ames in February 1994.
Later, the agency admitted that since 1986 it had provided false information to three presidents - Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton – that was based on bogus, tainted sources. These included 60 reports using sources suspected of Soviet control, and 35 more that were based on reports from double agents.
Fischer blamed the careerism of bureaucrats at CIA for the agency’s failure to prevent the disaster. He said, “The case of the KGB-SVR double agents from 1986 to 1994 is egregious,” adding, “not the least because it revealed that deceptive practices transcended the Cold War.”
Fischer concluded that the CIA continued to handle agents that it knew were frauds, allowing the Soviet affairs division to cover up the loss of loyal agents. “Yet none of these revelations resulted in a serious inquiry into the troubles that doubles cause,” Fischer said. “To paraphrase Lord Acton, secret power corrupts secretly.” The inspector general of the CIA demanded reprimands for William H. Webster, Robert M. Gates, and R. James Woolsey, as well as other senior officials. They all argued that they did not know of the affair. All three advanced to ever higher levels of government.
No answer has been forthcoming from the CIA.
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