The U.S. is not yet at war with Saddam Hussein. Not officially. But quietly, over the past few months, some of its savviest warriors have sneaked into his country. They have been secretly prowling the Kurdish-controlled enclave in northern Iraq, trying to organize a guerrilla force that could guide American soldiers invading from the north, hunting for targets that U.S. warplanes might bomb, setting up networks to hide U.S. pilots who might be shot down and mapping out escape routes to get them out. And they are doing the same in southern Iraq with dissident Shi'ites.
But the biggest surprise of all is that they are not even soldiers; they are spies, part of the CIA's rough and ready, supersecret Special Operations Group (SOG). Until fairly recently, the CIA, in an effort to clean up a reputation sullied by botched overseas coups and imperial assassination attempts, had shied away from getting its hands dirty. Until about five years ago, it focused instead on gathering intelligence that could be used by other parts of the government. Before that, traditional CIA officers, often working under cover as U.S. diplomats, got most of their secrets from the embassy cocktail circuit or by bribing foreign officials. Most did not even have weapons training, and they looked down on the few SOG commandos who remained out in the field as knuckle draggers, relics of a bygone era. Now the knuckle draggers are not just back; they are the new hard edge of the CIA, at the forefront of the war on terrorism. And, says a U.S. intelligence official, "they know which end the bullet comes out of."
It was George Tenet who began rebuilding the SOG five years ago when he took charge of the CIA, but the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, accelerated his efforts.
Confronted with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, an enemy that has no army, no fixed assets and no clearly defined territory, the Bush Administration needed an unconventional military force. It wanted combatants who could match al-Qaeda for wiliness, adaptability and, up to a point, ruthlessness. It wanted its own army of James Bonds. So in the past year, hundreds of millions of additional dollars have been pumped into the CIA budget by President George W. Bush, a man who may be predisposed to believe strongly in an agency his father once headed. He has ordered SOG operatives to join forces with foreign intelligence services. He has even authorized the CIA to kidnap terrorists in order to break their cells or kill them.
All of which could make for a more agile, effective intelligence agency. Or it could also mean a CIA that once again steps beyond the realm of collecting secrets to intervening forcibly in the affairs of foreign states. In that area, the agency's history has often been one of blunders and worse, from Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s through the Bay of Pigs fiasco under John F. Kennedy to the Nicaraguan war that led to the Iran-contra debacle in the '80s. Some longtime intelligence watchers are wondering whether a reinvigorated paramilitary wing of the CIA could be a mixed blessing for America once again. And the military itself is not too pleased. It believes its special-ops forces are perfectly equipped to handle these jobs. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has reacted in part by planning his own secret unit, which would function much like the SOG but would answer to him rather than Tenet.