Maintaining direct contact with the locals is the lifeblood of a spy seeking to understand a country. Most of what those local sources say is of little or no interest to Washington, but such contact helps orient our intelligence officers, and helps them learn to find their own way to real secrets. After Benghazi, that will be almost impossible to do. And keep in mind, sending out intelligence collectors disguised as students and businessmen is just as risky, and no more palatable to Washington.

The incidents of the past two weeks suggest it may be time to admit that large parts of the Middle East have fallen off the cliff for the U.S., and large parts of it will be beyond the ken of intelligence for the foreseeable future. Something terrible is going on in Syria, but because it’s too risky to put American intelligence officers on the ground there, it’s unclear just how terrible it is and how it could be ended. There’s simply no way for us to tell whether the armed rebellion on the ground is dominated by militant Islamists or by Jeffersonian democrats. Nor can we get a picture of how the men leading the fighting forces on which Assad is most reliant might be turned.

Nor is that problem unique to Syria: a number of countries in the Middle East, from Lebanon to Yemen, Jordan to Egypt, appear poised to fall into the political abyss. Consider Egypt: Since the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, my sources tell me the army there is being purged of officers considered pro-American. I’ve been told that up to 4,000 officers have been let go, although I have no way to confirm that claim. But it would be surprising if the Muslim Brotherhood were not trying to cut us off from our traditional influence over the Egyptian military, just as the tragedy in Benghazi will likely cut off our access to ordinary Libyans.