Searching for Hostages Isn’t CIA’s Top Priority, Insiders Say

The hunt for al Qaeda leaders takes precedence when it comes to intelligence collection.


On April 23, White House spokesman Josh Earnest looked out at a sea of reporters and insisted that the United States had taken great pains to find missing American hostage Warren Weinstein before he and Italian hostage Giovanni Lo Porto were killed in an errant American drone strike inside Pakistan. The intelligence community, he said, had been “devoting significant resources to trying to find and rescue” Weinstein. “The U.S. government went to great lengths to try to rescue Dr. Weinstein,” he added a few minutes later. “There were significant resources dedicated to trying to determine his whereabouts.”

Yet interviews with more than a half dozen current and former U.S. intelligence, defense, and counterterrorism officials raise serious questions about Earnest’s assertions. Almost all the officials interviewed by Foreign Policy — including several who formerly worked at the CIA — said the agency routinely prioritized the hunt for al Qaeda leaders over the search for American hostages.

And that, most added, is just how it should be.

The CIA’s highest priority for intelligence collection in the region straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has been information leading to the killing or capture of al Qaeda’s top leaders, so-called high-value targets (HVTs), said a former senior intelligence official. Next on the priority list has been collecting information to help disrupt plots threatening the United States, the former official said, with hostages coming third or fourth.

The former senior intelligence official declined to discuss whether CIA spies have penetrated the tribal areas and spoke on condition of anonymity — as did nearly all intelligence officials quoted in this article.

“The hostages were certainly a priority,” the former senior official said. “They were not the top priority. Stopping attacks against the United States was, and that’s why HVTs and the plot disruption were No. 1 and No. 2.”

Asked whether this means the CIA places a higher priority on killing al Qaeda leaders than saving the lives of missing Americans, a former counterterrorism official from President Barack Obama’s administration said “that was one way of looking at it.” Another way, he said, is that the CIA is “emphasizing the protection of the larger population of American citizens and facilities over the one life of that hostage, or the handful of lives.”

“It becomes a point of friction only when the families start complaining and the senior [government] leadership has to give answers,” he said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some CIA defenders take a different view. “The U.S. intelligence community, including the CIA, brings every possible resource to bear when it comes to the hostage issue, and anyone suggesting otherwise is badly misinformed,” said a U.S. intelligence official.

There is no question that the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community devote considerable resources toward hunting militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along Pakistan’s porous border with Afghanistan. The run-up to a typical drone strike involves a whole variety of intelligence collection. In a best-case scenario, the former counterterrorism official said, that would include human intelligence from spies on the ground, satellite imagery, and drones providing full-motion video of the target “for an extended period of time.”

The attack that accidentally killed Weinstein and Lo Porto followed hundreds of hours of surveillance of the compound in which they were held, Earnest told reporters on April 23, “including near-continuous surveillance of that compound in the days leading up to the mission.”

But when intelligence assets — particularly spies — are focused on tracking militant leaders, they are not available to search for hostages, said several current and former officials. That’s particularly true when they are already working in difficult environments in which to recruit agents, like the FATA, Syria, and rural Yemen.

“If you’ve got limited assets, you’re going to focus on your highest priority, which is killing al Qaeda senior leadership,” said the former Obama administration counterterrorism official. “You don’t want your assets getting sidetracked on hostage affairs.”

Some of the high-tech collection systems used at the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA), which eavesdrops on radio and telephone conversations and monitors computer networks, are capable of simultaneously gathering intelligence for the hunt for militant leaders and for the search for hostages, said the former senior intelligence official. “But in some cases there is a trade-off, particularly when you’re talking about human intelligence,” he said.

It is that trade-off, along with a perception that the CIA was not fully committed to the search for the hostages, that has created friction with some of the agency’s partners.

The former senior intelligence official cited “frustration” in other U.S. intelligence agencies about the CIA’s willingness to pursue leads. The former official said other agencies occasionally would obtain intelligence and ask the CIA to check it out — only to be disappointed because Langley was seen as slow to respond. He said such problems were usually solved by coordination and conversation among senior leaders across the government. The dynamic was not unique to the hostage problem, he said: “It happens every day, across a whole range of issues.”

Prioritizing the hunt for high-value terrorist targets over searching for hostages is a practice that predates the Obama administration and has led to the decimation of what had been al Qaeda’s top leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “While efforts are made to look for people that have been kidnapped … much more of the effort went into finding al Qaeda high-value targets,” said a former senior CIA official familiar with the agency’s collection policies during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Not only does that reduce the chance of bringing hostages home alive, but it also means giving up on a propaganda battle that the United States could have won, according to the former Obama administration counterterrorism official.

“I was frustrated because I felt that actually rescuing the hostages is a much more public blow against [al Qaeda] than killing some of these senior leadership guys,” he said.

The former senior intelligence official agreed. He said rescuing a hostage so publicly would be a blow to the image of al Qaeda. But in the meantime, he said, the United States has little option but to fight terrorists who already pose a threat. “You’ve got guys that are trying to kill you, and you have to do something about it, so that goes to the top of your inbox,” he said.

Although the sophisticated eavesdropping gear of the CIA and the NSA can do double duty in the hunts both for high-value targets and for hostages, it’s of very limited use for the latter in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, where al Qaeda leaders have “been very disciplined in not talking about any hostages,” said the former Obama administration counterterrorism official.

That’s why it’s so important to have spies on the ground instead of solely relying on eavesdropping technology, said Duane “Dewey” Clarridge, a former senior CIA officer who for several years ran a private spying operation in the border region.

“You can only do so much with signals intelligence when dealing with hostages and kidnappings,” Clarridge said. But he said CIA human intelligence resources were strapped in the tribal region: “They had nothing.”

(Clarridge was indicted for lying to Congress about his role in the Iran-Contra affair, but was pardoned mid-trial by President George H.W. Bush.)

Even if all available assets are dedicated to the effort, “finding hostages is very hard,” said John McLaughlin, who retired as the CIA’s deputy director in November 2004.

“Finding terrorists is hard too, but they leave more of a trail,” said McLaughlin, who cast doubt on the claim that intelligence has had little luck locating hostages — “as far as we know.”

“Everyone assumes we are not trying hard enough,” McLaughlin said. “Just because you really, really want to know something doesn’t always mean you can collect it.”

Photo: Weinstein family

Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Twitter: @seandnaylor

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