Spokane knows Keith Johnson as a political activist and former candidate for the Washington State Senate, but before retiring here he served in the Central Intelligence Agency in places like India, Yugoslavia and Spain, where he helped the Spanish government prevent terrorism in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
As a kid, Johnson lived in Pakistan, when his dad was part of an exchange program between Washington State University and that nation, which borders Afghanistan, now ground zero in the United States' hunt for the criminals behind the September 11 attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York City. As a CIA agent, Johnson returned to Pakistan for a three-year tour between 1982-84, a time when terrorism raged across the Middle East, including the deadly attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1982. When Johnson arrived in Islamabad, the U.S. Embassy had just been burned by an angry mob in 1980 and was being rebuilt.
Johnson's experiences there, and as a counterterrorist agent in other tours during his career, give him special insight to the events of the past few weeks. Inlander columnist Robert Herold caught up with Johnson last week.
RH First of all, let's talk about the state of affairs at the CIA. The CIA has come under some criticism of late; one writer recently observed that since the Gulf War, intelligence coming out of places like Iraq has been, quote, "a black hole," that there aren't people on the ground who are doing it. What's your take?
KJ It's difficult to know if that's a bum rap or not. I know for several years, counterterrorism has been a high priority in the CIA. And there is a counterterrorist center in the CIA that attempts to pull together intelligence from all kinds of sources. It is something of an action arm, although the CIA has been pretty tightly restricted on what it does with intelligence.
There were all the criticisms -- justifiable criticisms, I think -- of actions that they took in Central America in the years of Ollie North and so forth. So they've been a little bit gun-shy following that. You don't go to the alleys and backwaters and infiltrate organizations, terrorist organizations, with American case officers. What it requires is the recruitment of people who are native to an area, who are acceptable to those organizations and who are willing to go in and gather information and report to you. Because terrorist organizations at present have the kind of fanatic idealism and zeal that go along with religious conviction, it is very difficult to find people to report on these things in the country involved, and certainly in Afghanistan.
Now what seems to be emerging is that there has been a certain amount of linking between organizations from Iraq to well-known organizations in Egypt, and there is intelligence on these. It's difficult to know whether the CIA should be blamed for not having intelligence on this recent specific act because those organizations learned a long time ago to avoid using e-mail and telephone calls and things like that. Once there is a small group of people who are tightly knit and who agree that communication should only be person-to-person, it is very, very difficult to penetrate that.
RH One can extrapolate from what you've just said that there remains a mystery and guesswork as to who did this and under what circumstances and which, if any, states were involved. Is it fair to say that we may never get an answer to that question?
KJ It's fair to say at least that we'll never get all the answers.
RH Do you think our political leaders have now turned Osama bin Laden into, at the very least, someone of such symbolic importance that regardless of where this goes, that this country is now on a course of action that is going to lead us to whatever military force is necessary to, quote, "smoke him out?" And what form would that take, since the Russians were in Afghanistan for 10 years and didn't accomplish much of anything except ruining their country?
KJ And the British before them in the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century consistently tried to take over and were unsuccessful. That was where the great game was played between Russia and Great Britain. Yeah, [political leaders] have made promises in advance that may be very difficult to fulfill.
There's another thing; it's that a lot of the rhetoric seems to be still fighting the last war, even though they have been talking about how there are no armies and there is no land to take, there are no valuable things to destroy in Afghanistan in order to declare a victory and so forth. In another way, they're still talking as if this is a conventional kind of war. President Bush started off saying that [the terrorists] decided the time and the terms of the attack, but we'll decide on the hour to bring it to a close, or something like that. But really, this needs to be looked at as layers. There is a relatively small group now that is actively involved in terrorist organizations, whether in Egypt or Iraq or Iran or Algeria or Syria or Afghanistan. And if we somehow strike hard against those, with the assistance of Arab and other governments, the fact is that there is a very large number of people who will be so aggrieved by this behavior that we run the risk of turning whole countries against us and against their own governments. The unintended consequences of these acts could be really disastrous.
RH That leads to the next question, and that is, what do you do to answer these attacks, and does what you do involve the use of the military? And how?
KJ Some of the first actions may be so small as to be unseen or unreported, and I think that might be a goal worth going for. One thing I look for as a former intelligence officer is a mammoth effort to recruit sources of information in all these things, which should be a top priority and should be in place well before any talk of military action or strikes. I think politically, the leadership of the United States has to refocus attention away from retribution and toward understanding. There also has to be an understanding of why is it that large numbers of Pakistanis support Osama bin Laden. What is it about American policy...
RH Can you answer that question?
KJ In terms of Pakistan, it's several things. One is that Pakistan has been a failure as a country. It is a theocracy, it has never had democracy, it has never had capable leadership for any amount of time. It is faced with overpopulation that is expanding very, very rapidly, along with the drying up of natural resources and agricultural land. And there is immense corruption. The focus of their foreign policy has almost always been entirely on India, and leaders have used the contentious issue of Kashmir over and over again to retain a following. You know, a foreign enemy is very useful to build and retain a following.
And the United States is seen as an unreliable ally. We sold them at bargain basement prices something like 40 F-16s when I was there because we wanted their help in fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. But as soon as the Soviets left, we not only didn't help Afghanistan with anything like a Marshall Plan, we then began turning against Pakistan because of their nuclear weapons development. The Pakistanis see this as fickle behavior on our part, rightly or wrongly. They have no trouble justifying their nuclear weapons because they see India as a mortal enemy.
So over time, Pakistanis whose lives are getting increasingly difficult for lots of reasons see the United States as a country that's in and out to serve its own purposes but not to serve their purposes. And of course we consistently remain more or less impartial in the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir. So in Pakistan we don't have anything like a country full of people who are on our side on questions like Osama bin Laden, because he is seen as a kind of David against a Goliath.
RH If Pakistan is a base of operations, do you see the strong likelihood of a real public reaction, beyond what we've seen already, which is people burning flags in the street? Do you see civil unrest to the point of lots of violence?
KJ If we're able to do what everybody wants us to do, some kind of quick strike that's successful against Osama bin Laden, and we're able to be in and out in a relatively short time frame, this government could probably withstand that. It does have the army, but the army is by no means the unified force for a military dictator that it once was. There are plenty of supporters of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban [in the army], more so the Taliban.
RH Talk to me about the Taliban. My understanding is that these are people who are not liked by the Iranians, they're not liked by Iraq, they're not liked by most Muslims in Pakistan, and yet there they are.
KJ I think there are a number of Muslims in Pakistan who like the Taliban. It's kind of an anti-intellectual, fundamentalist group that easily slipped into the vacuum of massive destruction in Afghanistan as a result of the war with the Soviets. To many Afghans, initially they were a voice of a kind of pure resolution of these internecine wars among these other groups. They have set up training camps in many places in Pakistan. Again, it kind of squares with a general movement toward fundamentalist purification or reformation. But they are anathema to traditional Muslim scholars because they are kind of simple-minded, anti-intellectual hoodlums.
RH So why was it that the CIA didn't appear to know what these people were up to in the United States, but former CIA Director James Woolsley actually said on one of the news networks that you have to understand, when they get here, they're the FBI's problem, and he added that the CIA would have gotten in trouble if they had continued surveillance after they got here. So there appear to be these turf wars between the FBI and the CIA. And it might be that these interorganizational dynamics are where the ball game's won or lost. Don't you think?
KJ Yes, but it's the same for the opposition. The interorganizational dynamics are where they're vulnerable. When you can identify differences and rivalries and animosities between whatever, Palestinians and Arabs, look at what you know and then look at people who are somehow connected to that. You don't necessarily put out a call for disaffected terrorists, but as you just keep getting to know people, you find out who is related to somebody, what clan somebody is from and so forth. The process of spotting, assessing, developing and recruiting someone is kind of an art form.
RH Were there rules made in the mid-'90s making it against policy for the CIA to recruit agents who had had previous experiences that might qualify as unsavory when you applied human rights criteria? And once that happened, did the prospect for gaining the kind of human intelligence needed drop precipitously?
KJ That's a generally true statement, and that whole thing arose from our, I think, misguided policy in Latin America, where we became obsessed with funding counter-revolutionary groups. Some of those [people] were unsavory, and unsavory enough that they were untrustworthy. Noriega's a good example. It goes way back to President Roosevelt, when told that Samoza [then president of Nicaragua] was a son of a bitch, and his rejoinder was that, yes he was, but he was our son of a bitch. There was a lot of that kind of mentality for many, many years. And of course it really got clouded when people passed a litmus test: if they were anti-Communist, then they were okay.
RH Then you've got this sad chapter following World War II where we were out recruiting Nazis and SS officers who were okay because they were anti-Communist.
KJ Well, this gets beyond intelligence and into foreign policy, but how do you square our support for the king of Morocco and our opposition to Fidel Castro? The human rights violations in Morocco are unbelievable, even though they're unknown to most Americans. They're well-known among Europeans, especially in Spain.
But to get back to this other thing, the agency was sort of brought up short in the aftermath of Nicaragua and El Salvador, and it may be that there was a prohibition [on some kinds of intelligence gathering] that was really too broad brushed.
RH One of your former colleagues, Bob Baer, who spent 17 years in the CIA in the Middle East, was recently quoted saying Osama bin Laden couldn't have been behind this alone, that we should be looking at the real pros over in Lebanon. What's your speculation?
KJ I think that Bob may well be right. I think that Osama bin Laden is possibly more accurately seen as an inspirational figure, again the David character. He's the person who has successfully defied the establishment, like maybe Castro did in the 1950s. I have no doubt that he has supplied resources -- money -- to something like this, and there's pretty good intelligence that he was kept abreast of things. I think that he's highly involved, but as far as the actual logistical planning and reporting back, it probably is elsewhere, or it might be somebody that he has put elsewhere. I think there's more to it than just a mastermind.