Iraqis mesh old, new style of espionage
Move from 'intimidation' to intelligence gathering tricky
By Jim Michaels
BAGHDAD — U.S. efforts to assist Iraq in building intelligence capabilities have often clashed with Iraq's history of government secrecy and deep-rooted suspicions.
Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq had at least five overlapping national intelligence agencies, some of which spied on one another. Security services interrogated, tortured and killed enemies of Saddam's regime and spied on citizens.
"Their intelligence service … has always been a means of intimidation, not a means of collecting information," said Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who worked in the Middle East.
The U.S. military is attempting to guide Iraq toward a modern intelligence service that gathers and analyzes data, said Dan Maguire, the top U.S. intelligence adviser to Iraq. Agents would have limited powers.
In an effort to create a modern agency, the United States initially backed the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, modeling its structure on that of the CIA. It was even set up with CIA assistance, Maguire said.
Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has viewed the organization as a CIA creation and has been wary of relying on it. Al-Maliki established a rival intelligence department under Shirwan al-Waili, the minister of state for national security affairs.
"The tension was in … the prime minister feeling comfortable with a homegrown organization vs. one that he viewed … as a U.S.-grown organization," Maguire said.
Al-Maliki's government also has taken action this year to remove Iraq's special forces, which number more than 3,000 elite troops, from Defense Ministry control. He has placed them under a newly formed counterterrorism command.
That move has raised concerns among Iraqis that al-Maliki is trying to tighten control over the commandos and counterterrorism forces, which go after top insurgent and militia leaders. The Iraqi government is dominated by Shiite Arabs, while Saddam's former regime was dominated by Sunni Arabs.
"This looks and smells very much like a Saddam-era structure, where the prime minister has his hand on the throttle and can use it as he sees fit," Maguire said.
"If he decides he wants to go and hit Sunni targets with these guys, he's got a killing machine to go do that," Maguire said. "So there's a fear there."
Maguire said, however, that there is enough "rigor" and "oversight" built into the target-vetting process to make such abuse difficult.
For the past year, the U.S. military has focused on helping Iraq create intelligence departments in the ministries of Interior and Defense. Thousands of analysts and agents have been hired.
Baer said it is difficult to overcome the culture of mistrust and paranoia that dominated Iraq's intelligence apparatus for decades.
"How do you take that culture and turn it into an effective intelligence agency?" he asked.
Saddam-era spies at work in Iraq
The practice of hiring former intelligence agents seems to conflict with a new law designed to come to terms with people who worked in Saddam's ruling Baath Party. The "Accountability and Justice" law, passed this year, bans members of Saddam-era security services from government work because of their brutal reputation.
In the past, Iraq's government hasn't consistently or fairly applied regulations regarding the hiring of former Baath Party members, said Habib Nassar of the International Center for Transitional Justice, a non-profit group that studies human rights abuses. It's not clear how the law will be applied.
Spokesmen for the Iraqi government could not be reached for comment.
The issue highlights the difficulty of striking a balance between hiring experienced people and making a clean break from the past.
U.S. officials have approved of the practice of bringing back some former agents. Maguire said the hiring of former agents had "a lot of logic to it." He said he did not know how many agents would be affected by the ban on Baath Party members nor how many Saddam-era agents have been brought back.
Iraq's Interior Ministry intelligence department has been seeking "former regime intelligence officers, primarily ones that worked against the Iranian target," Maguire said.
Bringing agents back to work is fraught with risk, said Wayne White, a former deputy director of the State Department's Middle East intelligence office.
Because their "business was human rights violations," White said, those "who functioned in that environment must be to some degree morally warped."
Maguire said Iraq's government carefully vets any former Saddam-era intelligence agents before bringing them back into service. Most were lower-ranking Baath Party members, he said. "You don't want a guy who's got blood on his hands," Maguire said.
Recruiting former agents is a "stopgap measure," said Robert Baer, a former CIA officer with experience in the region. "They don't have any experienced people."
Iraq's intelligence apparatus has had experience in spying on Iran. The two countries have long been rivals and fought an eight-year war in the 1980s that left hundreds of thousands of people dead.
The U.S. military views Iran as a major obstacle to stabilizing Iraq. Washington has accused Iran of supplying armor-piercing roadside bombs and other weapons to Shiite militias who attack American and Iraqi forces.
Iran should stop training and financing militants, said Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, who was the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq for the past year.
Iran has denied supporting militants.