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Book review: A fascinating look at 'Intel Wars' by Matthew M. Aid

Former intelligence analyst Aid delves into recent successes, failures and contradictions of the covert war against Al Qaeda, including how operations play out on the ground.

January 02, 2012|By Ken Dilanian, Los Angeles Times
(Bloomsbury Press )

In June 2008, major news organizations that cover the U.S. intelligence community, including the Los Angeles Times, reported on a secret trip to Pakistan by the CIA's then-deputy director, Stephen Kappes.

Kappes, the stories said, confronted Pakistani officials about ties between their country's spy service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, and tribal militants sympathetic to Al Qaeda, including a notorious group called the Haqqani network that had attacked American troops.

What the stories didn't say, and what historian Matthew M. Aid tells us in his fascinating book, "Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror," is that earlier that month, the Haqqanis had been tipped by Pakistani officials that the CIA intended to launch drone strikes against a Haqqani compound in Pakistan's North Waziristan.

After the CIA notified the government of Pakistan of the impending strikes, the ISI "worked feverishly to delay the drone attack until they could get their clients out of the way," Aid writes. Pakistani air force officers cited "technical difficulties" in delaying the drones from taking off at Shamsi Air Base, a remote facility 200 miles southwest of Quetta in western Pakistan that had been used by the U.S. until recently, when all Americans were ordered out amid worsening relations between the two countries. By the time the drones reached their target, the Haqqani officials had fled. Cellphone intercepts revealed that the terrorists had been warned, Aid's sources tell him.

Aid's book is full of these sorts of revelatory anecdotes. It's one thing to say that the ISI has helped America's enemies; it's another thing to show precisely how.

Weaving together information from once-secret State Department cables disclosed by Wikileaks, little-noticed military documents and the author's own interviews with current and former officials, "Intel Wars" delves into some of the recent successes, failures and contradictions of the covert war against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The book also examines counter-terrorism efforts at home, including what many consider to be domestic spying by the FBI.

A former intelligence analyst who in 2009 published a highly regarded history of the National Security Agency, Aid proves himself deeply sourced among the midlevel officials who run the nation's spy services. While Bob Woodward is unmatched at delivering fly-on-the-wall accounts of Oval Office meetings about top secret initiatives, "Intel Wars" explores how those operations play out on the ground, a feat that makes for interesting reading.

But the journey won't be easy for readers who aren't already familiar with the subject matter. There are few recurring characters to follow in "Intel Wars." Aid's sources, even when named, are not the people who appear on Sunday morning talk shows.

Aid might have done more to knit his fabulous reporting together thematically; the book can be a bit disjointed in spots. But "Intel Wars" will leave readers vastly better informed about the U.S. government's secret intelligence operations.

For example, while it is well known that U.S. military and intelligence activity increased in Yemen after an Al Qaeda figure who trained there tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit in December 2009, Aid gives us new details. Within 72 hours of the attempted attack, he writes, two dozen U.S. intelligence operatives were sent to Yemen, the NSA began intercepting every call going in and out of the country, and the CIA began daily drone surveillance missions. In September, those efforts paid off when a CIA drone strike killed Anwar Awlaki, the Yemeni-born U.S. citizen accused of helping plan the attempted airline bombing and other attacks.

On Afghanistan, others have written convincingly that the war is not going well. Aid shows us that after a decade of fighting, the U.S. intelligence community has a startlingly incomplete picture of the enemy. "We did not know how many Taliban we were fighting, where they came from or why they were against us," the late Richard Holbrooke, who was President Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told Aid in 2010. "Intel did not even have a good bio for Mullah Omar," the Taliban's spiritual leader, Holbrooke lamented.

Indeed, a good bit of "Intel Wars" is unflattering to America's $80-billion-a-year spying bureaucracy. Echoing the sentiments of many retired CIA case officers, Aid writes that the CIA these days is run by professional managers "who had been kicked upstairs because they could handle paperwork and manage personnel and resources." Mediocrity gets rewarded and unconventional thinkers are viewed as heretics, he says.

The CIA has huge gaps in its coverage of Iran and North Korea, Aid's sources tell him. The attempt to place a director of national intelligence in charge of the country's 16 intelligence agencies has largely failed.

Still, after a decade of improvements in technology and information sharing, the success rate has improved. The intelligence community and the military have captured or killed much of Al Qaeda's core leadership. Senior Obama aides are talking about a "strategic defeat" of Al Qaeda.

Aid isn't so sure. The CIA's drone strike program in Pakistan has killed hundreds of militants and decimated Al Qaeda's leadership ranks, but many officials — including, Aid writes, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — believe the militants simply replace their losses with new recruits enraged by the drone attacks.

Ultimately, Aid concludes, despite the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, when it comes to what used to be known as the war on terror, we just don't know whether or not we're winning.

ken.dilanian@latimes.com

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