Hmmmm: Why are CIA informants suddenly going missing?

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

So much for “over the horizon” capabilities, eh? This looks like a bad sign indeed, especially after the disgraceful rout out of Afghanistan. The New York Times report doesn’t give a specific timeframe for this trend, but it’s gotten bad enough of late for the CIA to go semi-public with it (via The Bongino Report):

Top American counterintelligence officials warned every C.I.A. station and base around the world last week about troubling numbers of informants recruited from other countries to spy for the United States being captured or killed, people familiar with the matter said.

The message, in an unusual top secret cable, said that the C.I.A.’s counterintelligence mission center had looked at dozens of cases in the last several years involving foreign informants who had been killed, arrested or most likely compromised. Although brief, the cable laid out the specific number of agents executed by rival intelligence agencies — a closely held detail that counterintelligence officials typically do not share in such cables.

The cable highlighted the struggle the spy agency is having as it works to recruit spies around the world in difficult operating environments. In recent years, adversarial intelligence services in countries such as Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan have been hunting down the C.I.A.’s sources and in some cases turning them into double agents.

The cable may have been top secret, but Langley had to know its gist would leak out. That’s why such cables are “unusual,” even classified to that level. One has to wonder, therefore, why they would risk making this public now as opposed to, oh, a couple of months ago.

One answer could be that the intelligence community wants to push back against Joe Biden over his retreat from Afghanistan. Biden insisted at the time and ever since that no one advised him that his plan could lead to a rapid collapse of the Afghan government and armed forces, and that no one advised him to keep troops in place. The latter has already been exposed as a lie, and leaks from within the intel corps began almost immediately to contradict Biden on the former.

This revelation does, after all, erode Biden’s reliability on his claim that the US can conduct effective “over the horizon” operations against terror threats without boots on the ground. That’s ridiculous on its face, but it’s even more patently absurd in an environment where the CIA and other intel groups can’t protect their human-intel (HUMINT) resources. That only leaves signal intel (SIGINT), which terror networks have avoided through adaptation decades ago. By making this known now, the CIA can focus attention on just how much Biden blinded our counter-terror ops with his abrupt and complete retreat.

That’s one explanation, but not the only one. It’s worth noting that the cable also exposed concerns over basic tradecraft in the agency:

Acknowledging that recruiting spies is a high-risk business, the cable raised issues that have plagued the agency in recent years, including poor tradecraft; being too trusting of sources; underestimating foreign intelligence agencies, and moving too quickly to recruit informants while not paying enough attention to potential counterintelligence risks — a problem the cable called placing “mission over security.”

Would the CIA risk exposing such poor practices merely to score some political points against Biden? Perhaps, perhaps not — but the timing of these revelations is certainly curious. Equally so is the vagueness of the timeframe in which it has manifested itself:

The loss of informants, former officials said, is not a new problem. But the cable demonstrated the issue is more urgent than is publicly understood.

Sending the cable makes it seem more acute at the moment. If that’s the case, it’s not tough to figure out why our HUMINT sources are either disappearing or getting flipped. We just abandoned tens of thousands of our HUMINT partners in Afghanistan, not to mention our own citizens to the Taliban. If you’re an informant for the CIA in Pakistan, the Philippines, Yemen, or even in Russia and China, would you assume the US would protect you after watching that disgrace play out over the last two months? Or would you look for a better deal and reduce your risk?

Regardless of when this trend started, it’s clear that our over-the-horizon capabilities are eroding, and in more places in Afghanistan. It’s equally clear that Biden’s disgrace in Afghanistan is at least an accelerant to that trend, if not a driving cause. Until we begin to reverse the grave errors made by American leadership and demonstrate real accountability for them, good luck in recruiting reliable HUMINT in the future.