If it seems as if the United States possesses little to no leverage over the deteriorating situation in Egypt, a contributing factor might be the evident cluelessness of policymakers in Washington. That might reasonably be attributed to the inability on the part of the intelligence community and diplomatic service to obtain the kind of information and exploit the type of personal contacts that pay off when a crisis develops. But as in the breakdown in Benghazi one year ago, developments that have a certain transparency in hindsight are very often opaque while they are unfolding. Why, asks Congress, does a country that receives $1.5 billion in aid annually blowing us off and why do we know so little about what is happening in Cairo?
The simple answer is that in a multipolar world empowered by the internet, even impoverished third world countries are quite savvy about what is going on around them, allowing them to have many options to play as they pit one foreign interest against another. For the generals in Cairo, if Washington blocks funding, Riyadh will step in, or friends in Israel will force the U.S. Congress to come to its senses. And, quite frankly, at the end of the day no one considers Washington to be a reliable friend. Based on what they have seen and experienced, few trust the United States either to serve as an honest broker or to stay the course when things get tough.
Egypt might appear to be an American client, but it is nevertheless particularly sensitive to United States interference in its affairs, which is in part why the information vacuum has developed. American diplomats operate out of a huge embassy in Cairo, but it is a given that their phones are tapped and they will be surveilled when they leave the building. The Mubarak government long ago made clear that meetings with opposition politicians were inadvisable, so the embassy chose discretion and was unable to develop any independent channel to the parties that sprang up after the revolution.
In Egypt anyone tagged as an intelligence officer, often because he or she does not behave like a normal diplomat and is particularly active on the cocktail party circuit (referred to as “working a room”), will be subject to around-the-clock scrutiny involving entire teams of surveillants. If the American walks into a shop, an undercover policeman will enter after he or she departs to demand a detailed account of what occurred and will likely search the premises to see if anything was left behind as a signal or a dead drop message. When the intelligence officer is actually detected doing something suspicious, the surveillance will step up a notch and become harassing.
In such a working environment, the ability of CIA and Foreign Service officers to obtain information on what is actually occurring is often nil. And don’t rely on the embassy’s NSA station. Many governments now assume that their diplomatic codes have been broken and are fully aware of what NSA can do, so they have adopted the al-Qaeda model. They no longer distribute truly sensitive information electronically or by phone. Back to basics, reports of important meetings are typed out and distributed manually in a numbered series with deliberate mistakes worked into the separate copies so if a breach in security does occur it can be traced back to the individual leaker.
CIA does know how to securely meet agents in places where surveillance is constant, but the procedures are extremely time and labor intensive and would not work well in a situation like Cairo where the surveillance would be swarming. For those who are interested in how the CIA operates in what the it refers to as “denied areas,” I would highly recommend Red Sparrow a recent work of fiction by former CIA officer Jason Matthews. The first fifty pages are virtually a textbook description of running agent meetings in Moscow, an eye-opening narrative for the New York Times reviewer, who enthused “A primer in 21st-century spying. Matthews’ former foes in Moscow will be choking on their blinis when they read how much has been revealed about their tradecraft…terrifically good.”
But Moscow is not Cairo, where middle-American looking CIA officers would stand out in any crowd, even if they don a galabiya. Particularly if they don a galabiya. CIA has tried to solve the problem of a dearth of reporting sources by attempting to recruit Egyptian intelligence officers and senior diplomats when they are overseas, expecting them to provide information when they return home. They have proven to be an extremely hard target to convince. In my own experience, a senior Egyptian intelligence officer with whom I had become quite close, obviously expecting a pitch from me to work with the CIA, preempted my inquiry by telling me why he would never do it. He explained that when he returned to Egypt he would carefully be “debriefed” by counter-intelligence officers on his time overseas to determine if he had not reported any foreign contacts. His luggage and household effects would be carefully searched, with furniture taken apart and every electronic device and kitchen appliance dismantled to check for possible communications devices or other intelligence paraphernalia. For his first six months back in Cairo, he and his family would be followed all day every day. If he were to drop a letter into a postbox, the entire box would be emptied and his mail would be found and examined. Any mail he receives at home or in the office would be opened and all his phones would be tapped. He would not be allowed to travel outside Egypt until he had undergone a sanitation period of six months to a year, ensuring that he was not meeting anyone and passing on information. Getting caught would mean summary execution, he concluded, so thanks for thinking of me but no thanks, the game just isn’t worth it.
He added that Egyptian diplomats are subjected to a version of the same scrutiny based on the assumption that an American or European intelligence officer would have approached them to obtain cooperation while they were on assignment overseas. And for what it’s worth, the Egyptian diplomatic and intelligence services are highly professional, probably the best in the Arab world after Jordan. In the country where we were stationed my Egyptian intelligence officer friend ran a senior military officer agent right under the noses of the local counter-intelligence service, which was aware that he was up to something but could never catch him even when they doubled and tripled his surveillance coverage. They did catch me, however, photographing us a number of times while my friend and I had lunch together.
So did intelligence fail in Egypt? It depends on whether one believes that no intelligence target is impossible should you throw enough resources at it. But that kind of Gatsbyesque “run a little faster, try a little harder” thinking is very often the cause of American failure, as it leads to analyzing the problem in purely material terms – e.g. if we launch enough drones and kill enough people on the ground, terrorism will go away. Or if we give CIA more money and tell it to concentrate on Egypt, there will of necessity be a good result even if we don’t have very many Arabic speaking case officers and the Egyptians themselves don’t like us very much. As the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated, it is becoming particularly hard to obtain critical information even in countries where there is a massive American footprint, much less in places like Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt where the regimes and their opponents alike question American intentions and have no particular reason to want to be cooperative.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.