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The World | MIDDLE EAST

CIA Comes Into Open, for Good

November 08, 1998|Milt Bearden | Milt Bearden, who spent 30 years in the CIA's Directorate of Operations, is the author of "The Black Tulip," a novel set in Afghanistan and the Soviet Union

RESTON, VA. — The proposal to make the Central Intelligence Agency responsible for monitoring compliance with the latest Middle East peace accord drew fire even before the agency's role was fully understood. The idea is central to the U.S.-brokered land-for-security deal Israelis and Palestinians agreed to last month at Wye Plantation.

Critics opposed to any CIA role in policy matters expressed grave doubts about blurring old lines separating intelligence from policy. Others dismissed the proposed monitoring role as yet another example of a spy agency overtaken by history and in search of a new mission. Intelligence purists, still nostalgic for the more predictable days of the highly secretive East-West spy contests, fretted over the public nature of the new CIA role, viewing it as a corruption of the traditions of secrecy. Most of the critics seem to agree that the State Department should be the security monitor in the Middle East.

They are wrong.

The immutable reality of the delicate deal struck at Wye is that without U.S. acquiescence to Israeli and Palestinian demands for a CIA monitoring role, there would not have been an agreement. There are sound reasons and a historical basis for Israelis' and the Palestinians' trust in the CIA.

Shortly after the Oslo accords were signed in September 1993, the CIA dispatched its Middle East operations chief, Frank Anderson, to resurrect a long-dormant contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization and explore prospects for cooperation. These early contacts marked the beginning of a relationship that eventually led to improvements in the security capabilities of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza and the West Bank.

That same fall, Anderson met with Israeli officials to broker direct Israeli contacts with the Palestinians. It was at these meetings between the PLO and the Israelis five years ago that the CIA's involvement in the Middle East peace process actually began. Anderson called it "low-intensity statecraft," and his description has stuck.

These direct contacts evolved rapidly under Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and with only minimal CIA "minding." But after Rabin was assassinated in 1995 and Benjamin Netanyahu gained power in 1996, the new Israeli government fumbled, and political dialogue with the Palestinian Authority broke down. Some contacts on security matters continued, but the larger process foundered.

The CIA once again assumed the vital role of honest broker.

Over the next two years, respect for the CIA's competence and neutrality as an intermediary grew in both camps. Now, that role has been formalized in the Wye agreement. Israel insisted on CIA involvement to maintain effective and independent pressure on the Palestinian Authority; the Palestinians insisted on the CIA's presence to keep from constantly being rolled by the Israelis.

It is against this historical backdrop that the pluses and minuses of the proposed CIA role in the Mideast peace process should be discussed.

On the plus side, the agency's role is not really new, it is simply overt. It is an evolution, albeit a dramatic one, of an intelligence activity that has been underway for at least five years. A level of trust in the CIA has been established, one that has been sorely tested. Such tests are indispensable to the tougher ones to come.

The CIA, furthermore, had a hand in drafting its own mission based on an intimate understanding of the problems involved. Suggestions that the agency is seeking a replacement mission to bolster its relevance in the post-Cold War era are frivolous, as are claims that the monitoring task is being dumped on a resisting CIA out of political desperation.

The CIA's peace-monitoring role is only one part of a more complex set of goals accepted as just and reasonable by all but Israel's most intractable enemies. All elements of the U.S. government have a stake in the agency's success, as do the responsible parties in the Middle East.

Finally, even though the CIA role is public knowledge, the agency will be able to maintain much-needed discretion, as it did when its brokering role was secret.

The downside to CIA involvement is real, but the highest risks are to the intelligence agency as an institution, rather than to the peace process itself. High on the list is the question of open-endedness: How long will the CIA be a monitor?

The answer depends on the intransigence of organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad and on the ability of the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government to build confidence in their dealings with one another. Judging by the state of affairs, it would appear that the CIA may be in for the long haul.

Will Hamas or Islamic Jihad, or any other Palestinian group that generally has not targeted U.S. officials in the past, turn on the CIA monitors? Possibly. But the dangers of the task cannot dictate whether or not it is to be undertaken.

Will its role as monitor put the CIA in the untenable middle when the first car bomb blows? Possibly. But if the CIA sticks to collecting and disseminating ground-level intelligence, U.S. policymakers can, and should, deal with the politics of finger pointing.

Will the Israelis or the Palestinians try to manipulate the CIA into validating their respective positions? Sure. But what's new about that?

The Wye agreement is neither a great deal nor a particularly bad one. It is the first time that Palestinian President Yasser Arafat has put his signature to a document on key security issues, and that precedent must be viewed positively. If the parties directly involved feel they need a middleman, and if the one they have chosen is the CIA, that must be viewed with equal enthusiasm. In the Middle East, there may be no other option.

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