The Challenge of Liaison Operations in Autocratic Regimes

The Challenge of Liaison Operations in Autocratic Regimes

| Steven L. Hall

Steven L. Hall
Former Member, CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service

As Turkish officials continue to release details that draw a gruesome picture of the apparent murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the level of information they say they have collected suggests a robust espionage capability against the Saudis in Turkey.

While the rightful diplomatic question of how the United States should respond to what is looking like a horrific violation of human rights, is being raised, there are more nuanced, and complicated aspects of relationships that the U.S. has with autocratic regimes that should also be considered.  It’s a long-game, short-game approach and sometimes understanding the appropriate balance between condemning horrific acts and continuing to work together is the hardest to achieve.  It is also likely, the most important balance.

Cipher Brief Expert and former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, Steven Hall served as a CIA station chief in countries that do not necessarily share the U.S.’ views of human rights and shares what his experiences taught him about working with autocratic regimes.

“Don’t worry about that… it’s an internal matter and we’ll take care of it.  Our people know how to handle that kind of situation.”

Under normal circumstances, that kind of an assurance can be precisely that: reassuring.  But I learned, as a CIA station chief in a country where rule of law has yet to take hold and the government more closely resembles an autocracy than a democracy, that such a statement should set off alarm bells – especially when uttered by your local intelligence counterparts.

It is naïve to believe that the United States cannot have any official dealings with countries that are run as autocracies.  It is an unfortunate fact that sometimes, countries with less than democratic governments and problems observing basic human rights, have information of value.  On occasion – not necessarily often – such information is of vital national security interest to the U.S.  This can be a difficult position for not just the CIA, but also for the State Department, the Department of Defense, the FBI, and others who deal with our foreign partners.

I was a station chief in several such countries, and I was fortunate to have a team of professionals serving with me in the field, and supporting me from Headquarters.  Getting advice (including from a few excellent CIA lawyers) and context is critical when working with partners that do not share your values.  I learned that while the U.S. government must deal with autocratic governments, there are guardrails to keeping the relationship on track.  The U.S. must take the driver’s seat.  It’s not all simply transactional.  You cannot abide by the rules of autocracies, just to ensure their cooperation on security and intelligence matters.  It may sound quaint (especially in the Trump era), but the United States is an important advocate in the world for democracy and decency, and it’s important to our national security that we remain so.

Those are a few of the lessons I learned while I was responsible for managing some of America’s intelligence relationships abroad.  And I learned those lessons not while serving in places like Paris or London; these were lessons learned while representing the United States in countries where autocratic tendencies in local governments were strong, such as the Balkans and the countries of the former Warsaw Pact.  In many of those locations, the local intelligence and security services saw human rights and the rule of law as obstacles to getting the job done.

Those not well acquainted with how the CIA really works may believe that CIA embraces working with, and fully tolerating autocratic regimes.  This mistaken notion is occasionally enhanced by Hollywood portrayals of CIA officers who skirt the rules, flirt with the dark side, and even end up assassinating people.  Often, the uninformed view is that once overseas, unencumbered by the American legal system, CIA and perhaps other representatives of the U.S. government go rogue, embracing the worst tendencies of their non-democratic host governments.  The ends justify the means, this theory goes, and we need our foreign partners’ help, even if they violate Western standards along the way, killing the occasional journalist or other innocent.  Usually there’s an excuse:  it was an accidental death, they shot at us first, it was an interrogation gone wrong.  After all, if they are not Americans, who really cares?  It’s an internal problem, right?

This is flat out wrong.  What I learned as a station chief in several countries that cannot fairly be described as Jeffersonian democracies, is that the further we stray from American core values in our relationships with foreign governments, the less effective we become.  Setting aside for the moment the quite valid argument that representatives of the U.S. government should be acting morally simply because it’s the right thing to do, that behavior is also in the long-term interest of the United States.  We are militarily the strongest country in the world.  We lead the strongest military alliance in existence (NATO).  Perhaps most importantly, we have the strongest economy in the world.  But it is America’s position as the oldest and most developed democracy in the world that, in my experience, counts the most when dealing with foreign interlocutors.

I found during my time at CIA, that when dealing with foreign intelligence officials and foreign leaders, the greatest clout I exerted had its roots in the fact that the United States was the world’s leading democracy.  When the going got rough abroad, some foreign leaders would choose not to cross the U.S. for fear of blowback in the form of less U.S. foreign aid or trade.  Some feared the CIA itself.  Or American military might.  But many of my foreign counterparts were most impressed when I told them, quite truthfully, without a wink and a nod, “Sorry, we’re not going to be involved with that.  It’s just not the way we do things.”  This was often met initially with incredulity, and was often followed (usually later, during a quiet, informal conversation) with begrudging respect.  “I wish that’s how it was in our country, but it’s not” was a line I heard often.  Interestingly, a good number of foreigners who agreed to work clandestinely with CIA also alluded to American values as their primary motivation for cooperating, and many lamented that their own governments – unlike the United States – were riddled with corruption.

Don’t get me wrong: there are many times when U.S. intelligence officers abroad, as well as other U.S. officials, need to understand the local dynamics in order to carry out our core mission of protecting U.S. national security.  It’s just a cold, hard reality that American-style rule of law has not developed in many places around the globe and often U.S. officials stationed abroad are reticent to criticize the host government.  Some argue that being ‘preachy’ is ineffective.  Sometimes, the local government will question the American assumption that our democracy is morally superior, pointing to some ethically questionable chapters in American history.

Concentrated raw power, unchecked by local judiciaries or executive leadership can be intoxicating for Americans working abroad.  The operations of foreign intelligence and security services – probably like the ones that appear to have murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi – are highly effective when not impeded by local judges or law enforcement, their operations carried out under a cloak of secrecy.

The U.S. government would be foolish not to engage with autocrats and countries with weak rule of law.  But there must be red lines.  Foreign governments must understand that the United States will not look the other way when journalists are detained, attacked, and killed, or when innocents are persecuted and sometimes murdered.  Foreign governments must understand this type of behavior could result in a significant downgrading of relations, or in a full diplomatic break with the United States.  Many foreign autocrats take great umbrage with this, and often reply that America will rue the day, that the U.S. will dash itself on the rocks of morality and naivete, and that as a result, the United States will suffer terrible, unforeseen terrorist attacks, or not reap the financial and economic benefits of maintaining a good bilateral relationship.  Saudi Arabia is probably making those arguments forcefully behind the scenes with the U.S. government right now.

But it simply isn’t true.  The United States, with its massive and thriving economy, can survive any but the most methodical, coordinated economic attack.  Some American businesses (in the case of Saudi Arabia, large defense contractors and energy conglomerates) may incur short-term losses, but most middle class Americans would not suffer (unless of course the richest one percent of Americans who control such companies, pass along losses to the working class).  Indeed, that which in the long run would most benefit American workers, is having more democratic nations in the world, with true rule of law, with whom to trade and do business.  Allies who will truly be on our side, and on the side of open societies worldwide.  That’s an actual, tangible national security benefit for the United States.

It is also simply the right thing to do.  Since when did America agree to look the other way when someone is murdered by a foreign government, simply because we have a relationship with that government?  Since when did the argument, “Well, the victim was not an American citizen” become valid?  Should we no longer seek the release of American clergymen like Andrew Brunson because they were imprisoned by our NATO ally Turkey?  Would we stop searching for Bob Levinson, either captured or killed by the ayatollahs, if Iran suddenly promised to act as a responsible member of the international community?  Would we stop trying, together with our allies, to hold Russia accountable for poisonings and killings abroad, in the name of “better relations” with Putin?

Put another way, what message does it send to the despots of the world when the United States backs away from upholding Western values?  Is it not possible that by agreeing to look the other way “because of our close relationship” with an autocracy like Saudi Arabia, we actually encourage greater calamity?  If the U.S. publicly accepts questionable stories such as “it was a rogue operation” from a country where power is highly centralized, aren’t we encouraging greater lawlessness down the road?  Fewer truly democratic societies?  Is it not incumbent upon us and our democratic allies to push back in the face of atrocity?

It is indeed incumbent upon the United States to push back.  Not only is it in the interests of liberal democracies worldwide, it’s also the right thing to do.

Source: Cipher Brief


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