CIA Problems in Iraq

L.A. Times: CIA Struggles to Spy in Iraq, Afghanistan [otbblog/jamesotb]

Confronting problems on critical fronts, the CIA recently removed its top officer in Baghdad because of questions about his ability to lead the massive station there, and has closed a number of satellite bases in Afghanistan amid concerns about that country’s deteriorating security situation, according to U.S. intelligence sources.


The CIA’s Baghdad station has become the largest in agency history, eclipsing the size of its post in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War, a U.S. official said. But sources said the agency has struggled to fill a number of key overseas posts.

Many of those who do take sensitive overseas assignments are willing to serve only 30- to 90-day rotations, a revolving-door approach that has undercut the agency’s ability to cultivate ties to warlords in Afghanistan or collect intelligence on the Iraqi insurgency, sources said.

There is such a shortage of Arabic speakers and qualified case officers willing to take dangerous assignments that the agency has been forced to hire dozens — if not hundreds — of CIA retirees, and to lean heavily on translators, sources said. The agency has also had to use soldiers for tasks that CIA officers normally perform, sources said.

Even without the personnel challenges, Iraq and Afghanistan are seen as so dangerous that it is difficult for agency officers to venture outside guarded districts and compounds without security details, making covert meetings with informants extremely difficult, sources said.

Very interesting indeed. On the one hand, it’s amazing to me that the people who volunteer for and make the cut to be CIA operations officers seem to be less willing to endure hardship than we’ve routinely expected from the lowliest National Guard private. Still, if this is the nature of the type of people we can recruit for that type of duty, then we certainly need to adjust.

It does rather surprise me that the CIA has an inadequate supply of Arab linguists at this point in the game. It was rather obvious by the time of Desert Storm, and certainly by the time that the Soviet Union collapsed a few months later, that the Middle East was the most likely hot spot and would be for some time. And, surely, 9/11 would have seemed a rather urgent reminder of that.

Hat tip: Kevin Drum

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Iraq War, Middle East, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. chris says:

    I agree with this point, “On the one hand, it’s amazing to me that the people who volunteer for and make the cut to be CIA operations officers seem to be less willing to endure hardship than we’ve routinely expected from the lowliest National Guard private.”

    But remember, this is not an isolated deployment; they have been 24/7 since 9/12/01. And, many of the most qualified have families as well. The stations in the sandbox are big time dangerous. Many of the folks who have gone over have rotated in and out of the sandbox several times. The stress has been incredible. I guess they need to staff up.

  2. James Joyner says:


    Agreed that they need to staff up. And I understand the stress factor–five months in theater was more than plenty for me in 1990-1. But we’ve got soldiers that have been on near-constant deployment for the better part of 15 years now.

  3. Jalal Abu Jarhead says:

    Addressing a different part of this post, it’s damned hard to adequately train native English speakers in Arabic. It’s one of the four hardest major languages for us to learn. Compounding that is the difficulty in practicing and reinforcing Arabic language training. I can’t think of somewhere I might, for instance, go on vacation so I can practice my Arabic skills.

    When the military trains Arabic linguists, they spend 63 weeks at the Defense Language Institute. In practical terms, that translates into about 16 or 17 months. On top of that, once they emerge from this extensive, intensive training, they’re not even truly competent at the language yet.

    As background, I took Arabic at DLI back in the 70s (when it was only 47 weeks, or roughly a year — don’t ask, it’s just weird military math), which is where my instructors named me “Jalal,” and my son (the Jarhead) is approaching graduation from his Arabic course there.

    He’s much better trained than I was, but he’s really not that much better in Arabic than I was in Spanish after 2 1/2 years of study in high school. Arabic is a really, really tough language to learn.

  4. James Joyner says:


    Fair point. You’d think the CIA would be able to recruit Americans with Middle East backgrounds, but it’s certainly easier said than done.

  5. Fred Boness says:

    Congress sets the parameters under which the CIA operates. That’s where the problems begin. Carping at the CIA ignores that fact.

  6. James Joyner says:


    I’m not sure that has anything to do with the post. Who’s carping at parameters?

  7. 42nd SSD says:

    I recall attending a CIA recruitment “thingy” when I was in college back in the mid 80s… and the #1 thing they stressed was “we’re really, really,really truly looking for Arabic speakers”.

    I suspect the problem is as much a sheer lack of applicants with the proper skills as it is anything else.

  8. Jon H says:

    I wonder if those fired gay army arabic interpreters were picked up by the CIA, or if they wound up in the private sector.