CIA 'holding the hands' of the Mideast Antagonists

Barbara Slavin - USA TODAY - August 26, 1997

They go by other names, depending on the country. Some are called things like the "political officer in charge of regional security affairs."

But almost everyone in diplomatic communities knows the title is just a cover for the CIA station chief, whose identity is fiercely protected. The station chief acts as a liaison with host governments on intelligence matters.

The chief also oversees U.S. agents in that country.

Discretion is at the heart of the job.

But suicide bombings last month in Israel have thrust the station chief there into an unusually public and sensitive role. U.S. officials recently announced that as part of a deal brokered by Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, the station chief in Tel Aviv is participating in meeting with Israeli and Palestinian intelligence officials to get to the bottom of the still unsolved bombings and to shore up frayed cooperation between the two sides.

CIA officials, in keeping with longstanding practice, would not name the station chief or comment on his activities.

But former agency officials say that while the sharing of intelligence is routine, the triangular nature of the meetings and the high-profile U.S. participation are not.

"It is unusual for a station chief to do it, and announcing it is unprecedented," says former CIA director Robert Gates.

Intelligence cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians is crucial. The basis for their fragile peace is supposed to be a trade-off of security for Israel for political concessions to the Palestinians. But a spasm of Palestinian suicide attacks in Israel last year laid the basis for the election of hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Peace talks have stalled, and on July 30, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in a Jerusalem market, killing 14 Israelis.

Israel has demanded that the Palestinians arrest a list of 200 people who Israel suspects are terrorists. But Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, furious at punitive Israeli economic measures, has refused and held highly publicized meetings with leaders of organizations responsible for past terrorism.

In this context, high-profile CIA participation is both risky and a sign of desperation.

"Normally, you wouldn't need the CIA at the table," says Richard Haass, director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. "But you have antagonists who are compelled to cooperate and they need the CIA to hold hands."

The use of U.S. intelligence in crisis diplomacy is actually common.

Gates noted that in 1990, he, Haass and assistant secretary of state John Kelly visited India and Pakistan when the Asian neighbors seemed to be stumbling toward war.

They gave intelligence briefings that helped convince both countries that all-out conflict would be both fruitless and bloody. The Pakistanis were told that the U.S. military had war-gamed every scenario and concluded that there was not one that Pakistan could win.

During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, U.S. intelligence was selectively shared with each side to keep either from gaining an advantage.

Before the 1991 Gulf War to expel Iraqi invaders from Kuwait, intelligence was used to persuade the Security Council to approve military action. CIA photos of the Iraqis releasing Kuwaiti oil into the Persian Gulf and setting fire to Kuwaiti oil wells were shown to U.N. diplomats, with the markings "no foreign dissemination" still on he photos, Gates recalls.

*(see J4JP note below)

But the CIA role between Israel and the Palestinians has so far led to no revelations about who was responsible for the July 30 bombings. Even the identities of the two bombers, whose lower torsos were blown off by the bombs, remain unknown.

The Islamic resistance movement Hamas initially claimed responsibility but has since denied involvement. No local Palestinians have come forward to claim the mutilated bodies.

"The evidence has gotten steadily more confused," says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Terrorist cells are increasingly small and scattered and the training given to suicide recruits is cursory and quick.

They just walk into an area and push a button," Cordesman says. "It makes it virtually impossible to follow the kinds of trains of evidence that have existed in the past."

*Justice4JP Note

This just further proves the point that the purported sensitivity of satellite photography is not so much a technical or "sources and methods" issue as much as it is a matter of politics. From this, one could plausibly argue that the decision of Admiral Inman and Casper Weinberger to stop the transfer of critically important SATINT to Israel was really an illegal usurpation of President Reagan's constitutional authority to set U.S. Foreign policy. However, given the incredibly dysfunctional nature of the Reagan administration, this particular incident was apparently just par for the course.