CIA's Secret Anti-Terrorist
Weapon: Disruption
By John Diamond
Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - Frustrated by restrictions on using military force against terrorists, the United States is turning to a lower-profile tactic. The CIA calls it "disruption'' - working with foreign law-enforcement services to harass and hamper terrorists around the world before they can pull off major attacks.
Least well known of counter-terrorist weapons, disruption involves using new or long-established clandestine alliances with foreign intelligence and law-enforcement services in the tracking down, breaking up and knocking over of international terrorist cells.
There are no headlines when the job is done - and no fingerprints.
The CIA keeps its role secret, and the foreign countries that actually crack down on the suspects carefully hide the U.S. role, lest they stir up political trouble for themselves. Moreover, the CIA sends no formal notice to Congress once a foreign law-enforcement agency, acting on CIA information, swoops in and breaks up a suspected terrorist cell.
The key to disruption is that it takes place before terrorists strike, amounting to a pre-emptive, offensive form of counterterrorism, Richard Clarke, President Clinton's counterterrorism coordinator, said.
"If we have an opportunity to disrupt a terrorist cell that could potentially threaten us, we do it,'' Clarke said in a recent interview. "We are no longer going to wait for the attack. We are going to pre-empt, we are going to disrupt, and we have done that a very great deal.''
Paul Pillar, deputy chief of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, said in a recent speech that disruption focuses on impeding "the recruitment, the cell-building, the moving of men, money and materiel and the mere maintaining of a (terrorist) presence in a foreign country.''
Disruption has the advantage of utmost secrecy, hiding the hand of the United States and avoiding the cumbersome congressional reporting requirements that go with CIA-directed covert operations. If foreign law enforcers get rough in smashing a suspected terrorist cell, the CIA would have no direct control, and human rights organizations would have no way of identifying a CIA role.
"If it's something major, a significant development, then Congress is informed,'' said a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But there's nothing formal, there's no monthly `disruption report.'''
U.S. counterterrorism officials increasingly use disruption because other options are so few.
Only occasionally, and with great difficulty, do U.S. authorities succeed in arresting suspects after a terror act occurs. The United States is still trying to find perpetrators of the 1996 Khobar Towers attack on U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. And Osama bin Laden, alleged mastermind of last summer's U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa, remains at large.
Though U.S. officials often threaten military reprisal against terrorists, the option has been used only three times: the 1986 bombing of two Libyan cities, the 1993 cruise missile strike on Iraq and last year's attack on suspected terrorist strongholds in Sudan and Afghanistan.
By contrast, disruption of terrorist cells represents the nearly daily business of the CIA's new Global Response Center, a high-tech, Tom Clanceyesque command center on the sixth floor of the agency's headquarters in suburban Virginia.
A senior Clinton administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. intelligence has conducted successful disruption operations in as many as 10 countries in the last six months, mostly in the Middle East.
The recent arrest by Turkish forces in Kenya of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan is one of the rare examples where the disruption tactic gained public notice. The CIA and other intelligence agencies refuse to comment on whether they played a role in assisting Turkey. But other U.S. officials say the United States provided Turkey with critical information about Ocalan's whereabouts.
Disruption entails tedious hours poring over lists of names and photographs of suspects. Typically, a disruption operation begins with a scrap of information " an intercepted cell phone call, word that a known terrorist has crossed into another country, a report from a field surveillance team.
The CIA might provide a cooperative foreign intelligence or law-enforcement service with evidence that could provide the legal pretext for an arrest, such as information that a terrorist cell crossed a border with false papers or illegal arms.
The idea is early intervention.
"It's rare that we foil a plot that is advanced enough to be clearly identified as a plot,'' said a senior intelligence official involved in counterterrorism. The aim is "making professional life difficult for a terrorist group or cell.''