Another high-tech CIA screwup

Once again it looks like the CIA’s reliance on electronic gadgetry
has done far more harm than good. Just the fact that a number of women
and children were killed in an effort to take out al Qaeda’s
second-in-command is enough to negate any gains even if the exercise
had been successful.

Someone in the agency had to know that
firing missiles from an unmanned drone into a village was more than
likely to bring collateral damage that would stir up a new hornet’s
nest of protest in an area where the image of a brutal, uncaring
America is becoming increasingly cemented in the minds of many, even
those who also have suffered from Muslim radicalism. From that aspect
alone, the mission had failure written all over it.

If, as has
been reported, the CIA had Ayman al-Zawahiri in its sights for several
days waiting for the proper time to nail him with firepower from the
Predator drone, then why did it miss? The answer seems simple enough.
The actual on-the-ground tracking of his movements was faulty or
non-existent, a condition that has plagued U.S. intelligence since the
days when a misguided Sen. Frank Church, hoping to boost his
presidential aspirations, nearly ruined the agency’s effectiveness by
emasculating its covert operations.

This, of course, leads one
to ask: Whatever happened to the old commando concept of doing
business? Despite not knowing all the facts of the “classified” debacle
and the political requirements imposed by the Pakistan government, it
would be reasonable to assume that a quick strike force could have hit
the village hideout of al-Zawahiri far more surgically and effectively
than an indiscriminate missile that takes out everything and everyone
but the right person. Obviously some militants went down in the raid
and that is a plus, but it is hardly enough to offset the damage done
by the death of children.

This should not be read as a
bleeding-heart defense of the murderous thugs and fanatics along the
Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Al-Zawahiri is an important cog in the
terrorist machine that needs to be eliminated and that often requires
measures that strain the national dedication to civilized warfare, if
there is such a thing. Collateral damage is a fact of life in these
matters, but one looks for ways to lessen its scope. With that
objective, the launching of missiles into village compounds is not a
prudent way to proceed.

Every investigation of the activities
leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has emphasized the need for
the improvement of on-ground intelligence by the CIA. That requires
rebuilding the vast foreign, in-country networks that the agency began
dismantling during the 1970s in favor of spy satellites, which were
supposed to be more efficient. The real reason, of course, was the
political dust kicked up in a series of sensational revelations in
committee hearings led by Church about Cold War CIA operations,
including assassination plots. But the satellites proved highly
inefficient when it came to finding hostages and receiving information
in advance of anti-U.S. projects, especially in the Middle East.

The CIA has developed the kind of commando teams that the British know
how to operate better than anyone else. There also are Delta Force and
other special-ops teams available from the U.S. Army. Why not use one
of them? During World War II, Robert S. Allen, a key U.S. Army officer
assigned as chief of intelligence for Gen. George Patton, was blown out
of his jeep and captured by the Germans. His identity was initially
unknown and he was taken to a German hospital, where his shattered arm
was amputated. The Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the
CIA, knew instantly where he was located from its network of
informants. If the Germans identified him, he would have been tortured
for his vast knowledge of U.S. plans.

For two days, U.S. planes
skip-bombed on either side of the hospital. On the third day a group of
British commandos went in under the most perilous circumstances and
rescued him. There are lessons to be learned from this. All the James
Bond gadgetry in the world, including drones, frequently can’t match
the effectiveness of human endeavor. Certainly there is risk of failure
and the potential loss of American lives in such an operation. But it
is far more acceptable than what occurred, which actually is little
better than the bombs launched by terrorists on innocent populations.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)