Obama says U.S. troops are leaving Iraq, but the future of secret counterterrorism and intelligence programs inside the country is still being hashed out. Eli Lake reports on how big a footprint the CIA will leave behind.
As the U.S. military departs Iraq, the CIA is looking at how it can absorb and continue secret counterterrorism and intelligence programs run inside that country for years by the Joint Special Operations Command and other military organizations, officials tell The Daily Beast.
The programs involve everything from the deployment of remote sensors that scan the wireless spectrum of terrorist safe havens to stealth U.S.-Iraqi counterterrorism commando teams, and their status is uncertain as a U.S. diplomatic team negotiates with Iraqi leaders, according to officials, who made clear the CIA intends to keep a footprint inside the country even as troops leave by Dec. 31.
“There are of course parts of the counterterrorism mission that the intelligence community, including CIA, will be able to take on from other organizations—and there are parts of that mission that it won’t,” said one U.S. counterterrorism official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of secret negotiations with the Iraqis.
But the official added: “This idea that the U.S. military and CIA are somehow interchangeable is misinformed—they work together closely on some counterterrorism issues, but their missions, expertise, and authorities are fundamentally different. When the U.S. military leaves Iraq, some things just won’t happen anymore.”
In the last months of the Bush administration, the United States negotiated a plan to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. While the Pentagon pressed to keep between 5,000 and 15,000 troops in Iraq past that date, U.S.-Iraq negotiations broke down this month when Iraqi leaders refused to grant soldiers and military contractors immunity from Iraqi domestic law.
A picture taken by the Iraqi air force Caravan (Cessna 280) Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft is seen on July 30, 2008 at the New Al Muthana Air Base in Baghdad, Iraq., Wathiq Khuzaie / Getty Images
On Friday, many in the U.S. national-security bureaucracy were shocked when President Obama announced the end of the military mission in Iraq by Jan. 1. U.S. military planners had assumed that some intelligence missions would still be run from U.S. bases in Iraq into 2012. The new White House policy throws that plan into jeopardy.
Nonetheless, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Monday that the United States was negotiating over the future elements of the U.S.-Iraqi military relationship. “As we complete the drawdown, we will continue to have discussions with Iraqi leaders about how best to meet their security needs in a manner that meets our mutual interests,” he said. “Possibilities could include training, exchange programs, tactical exercises, and regular coordination. But they will not include U.S. forces being permanently based in Iraq.”
Other U.S. officials say the CIA is examining how it can continue many of these secret programs once the U.S. military leaves. Many of these programs were developed in 2007 and 2008, when CIA Director David Petraeus, then a four-star Army general, assumed command of the multinational forces in Iraq.
The CIA, with its drones and paramilitary forces, has a far smaller, more stealth footprint than brigades of soldiers, meaning most Americans won’t see much of its continuing activity.
“My sense is that there will be some discussions about what can be given the CIA and whether some of the counterterrorism arrangements that exist today can be negotiated through a separate and secret channel,” said Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, managing director of the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank with close ties to Petraeus and the military’s new generation of counterinsurgency specialists.
While the CIA can pick up some of the slack for the departing military, another possibility is U.S. allies in the region. The United States is in talks with Kuwait about moving some equipment and troops there, said U.S. diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Jasem al-Budaiwi, the deputy chief of mission for Kuwait’s embassy in Washington, declined to comment directly on the substance of the negotiations. “There is always continuous cooperation from both the Kuwaiti and U.S. side on military, political, and economic issues,” he said. “We have a great bilateral relationship. All issues are always discussed through many channels.”
The United States is also in discussions with Turkey about pre-positioning sensitive sensors, drones, and other equipment used in Iraq at the Incirlik airbase, which hosted a U.S. Air Force mission in the 1990s to monitor northern Iraq.
A Turkish Embassy spokesman in Washington said the United States would continue to assist Turkey in targeting Kurdish radical separatists, known as the PKK. “Moreover, the intelligence support provided by the United States will be continued on a bilateral basis,” he added. “We attach importance to this support. That said, we are not able to provide details on the content, equipment, or the methods of the cooperation between the two sides in this area.”
For now, a major issue for the military and U.S. intelligence community is retaining some of the capabilities of the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) programs run out of Iraq when these cannot be launched from bases inside the country. These programs, in combination with a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy, are widely credited within the military with stopping al Qaeda’s efforts to turn Iraq into a Sunni Islamic republic. The programs included detailed full-motion video monitoring of known terrorist enclaves as well as the lightning-quick interception of temporary cellphone calls and text messages from suspected terrorists.
“We could run ISR collection activities out of Turkey and Kuwait, but the real problem is we have a lot of collection targets in Iraq,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with the details of negotiations over the programs. “We need to know what is going on all over Iraq, or at least in critical nodes.”
“As we complete the drawdown, we will continue to have discussions with Iraqi leaders about how best to meet their security needs in a manner that meets our mutual interests.”
Such areas, the official said, include Anbar, the western Iraqi desert that produced al Qaeda in Iraq; Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, which remains a hub for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard corps and other Shiite militias; and Najaf, the Muslim holy city that hosts the most prestigious seminary for Shiite theologians, known as the Hawza.
“We especially need to establish deep collection on the Najaf Hawza if and when [Grand Ayatollah Ali] Sistani goes belly up. We need to know who is going to replace him,” the official said.
Often through military channels to local militias and other groups, U.S. forces in Iraq also ran intelligence programs against Iran and Syria. In some cases, U.S. operations in those countries went beyond intelligence collection. In October 2008, U.S. special forces raided a compound in Sukkariyeh, Syria, a town just over the border from Iraq, to target an al Qaeda in Iraq planner named Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidih, also known as Abu Ghadiya.
The United States also provides the Iraqi military with key capabilities, such as maintenance of its aircraft, logistics for the military’s supply lines, and “intelligence fusion.” One House staffer who follows the U.S.-Iraqi negotiations closely explained the latter term as “putting everyone on the same network,” or creating a system for intelligence sharing for Iraq’s national-security agencies.
At the moment, many of the programs for counterterrorism and intelligence collection are “in jeopardy,” the staffer said. “But they are saying they are still in ongoing negotiations on the training and security missions. It is entirely possible that this is touch and go. Everyone gets a political win on Jan. 1, but personnel will trickle in after the new year starts.”
Vietor said Monday that the post-2011 diplomatic presence in Iraq would include “a robust Office of Security Cooperation, which will serve as the primary mechanism for our continued security support to Iraq.” He added, “Among other training and support functions, it will manage the Foreign Military Sales program, through which Iraq has already committed billions of dollars.” Iraq has spent $7.5 billion on U.S. equipment since 2005 and committed another $4.8 billion for pending sales, including an agreement earlier this year to buy U.S.-made F-16 aircraft, according to Vietor.
The United States will need to find a way to remain in Iraq in 2012 just to keep the Iraqi military functional, said Cochrane Sullivan. “Right now we still provide important capabilities—for example, medical evacuation; we provide intelligence; we provide logistical support,” she said. “The Iraqis have some helicopters, but they are still reliant on the United States there as well.”
One possibility would be to “rotate forces in and out of Iraq for a set of exercises,” she said. “You bring them in to do an exercise or a training course, and then you pull them out. That’s the not the same as stationing troops in Iraq past 2011.”
Eli Lake is the senior national-security correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast. He previously covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times. Lake has also been a contributing editor at The New Republic since 2008 and covered diplomacy, intelligence, and the military for the late New York Sun. He has lived in Cairo, Egypt, and traveled to war zones in Sudan, Iraq, and Gaza. He is one of the few journalists to report from all three members of President Bush’s axis of evil: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.