Former CIA director on the Agency's role in the new Middle East
April 18th, 2011
12:50 PM ET

Former CIA director on the Agency's role in the new Middle East

John McLaughlin, former Deputy Director and Acting Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, says that the CIA has an important role to play in the new Middle East, transforming the repressive national security apparatus of countries like Egypt into more accountable and transparent organizations.

McLaughlin draws on his experience in Eastern Europe during the dissolution of the Soviet Union to explain how "national security states" can become more transparent, pluralistic and democratic.

Amar C. Bakshi: First, does Gadhafi have potent chemical or biological weapons we need to be concerned about in this civil war?

John McLaughlin: I would be very surprised if he had biological weapons, the components of any nuclear material or any serious chemical weapons. He reportedly has some  mustard gas that was not fully destroyed, but I believe it would be hard for him to use effectively because of its age, location, and the absence of delivery systems

Do you worry he might be trying to sponsor some sort of asymmetrical response through supporting terrorism once again?

If he survives this and manages to reorganize a regime in some part of Libya or in all of Libya, I would be seriously concerned. I would expect him to organize a terrorist-based response to what he has experienced from the West during this period.

Does the CIA have a good handle on Libya?

First, a disclaimer: I’m not reading all of the CIA traffic anymore. But based on my experience there, I would say that prior to the events we’re witnessing now, the CIA probably had a pretty good understanding of the tribal structure in Libya and of the relative power equations within that structure….In the period since the onset of hostilities, I’d be very surprised if we had not gained a pretty good insight into who these rebel leaders are and what they represent.

Should we be actively arming the rebels?

Talking about covert action is difficult for a former CIA Officer. My personal opinion is it’s probably a little too soon to be arming them because my guess is that we are still gathering information about their identity and orientation and their existing capabilities….

The other thing about covert action is it must be closely aligned with a clear and overt U.S.policy. It cannot be the policy. Covert action such as arming rebels and so forth has to be the thumb on the scale and not the hammer on the nail. It’s the thing that helps you tip a situation in one direction or another; it’s not the thing that substitutes for policy.

You worked extensively on European, Russian, and Eurasian issues before, during, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. What lessons do you draw from that experience in analyzing the Middle East today?

One way in which the situations are very similar is this: Just as the East European countries were in essence “national security states,” so many of these Middle East countries are in essence “national security states.” This means that the intelligence services, the police and others are one of the pillars and props of the regime. In some cases, they are the dominant feature of the regime.

Just as in Eastern Europe these countries had to make sharp transitions away from a model in which the populations were closely watched - with little privacy, a lot of intrusiveness into private life, abuses by national security officials, resentments and so forth - all of that is true in many parts of the Middle East as well.

So as we approach this period in the Middle East and as the U.S. seeks to design a policy, it has to be aware of the fact that that is one of the hurdles these countries have to get over. They have to move from being “national security states” to pluralistic societies with democratic institutions and accountability and responsiveness to elected officials.

One of the things that we sought to do (we being the CIA) with Eastern Europe was to help those new countries as they sought to either transform or develop their security services with a Western model in mind – the kind of model we have here of accountability to elected officials, respect for privacy and operating within a legal structure that has been approved by the population.

The U.S. had close security collaborations with Saleh in Yemen and with Mubarak in Egypt. Given instability - say Saleh were to leave - does that significantly undermine the counter-terrorism work that the U.S. is doing or does that work continue regardless?

I think it’s different in every country. I would be seriously worried about chaos inYemen.

If you look at terrorism these days, it comes in basically three flavors - Al Qaeda Central, which is holed up in the mountains somewhere in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These are the classic leaders of Al Qaeda.

Then there are the affiliates who are in places like Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and places like Somalia.

Then the third flavor is the one-off, “leaderless jihad” as one scholar calls it - those people who are inspired on their own or in small groups to attempt terrorist acts.

It’s the affiliates - that middle group - that are particularly worrisome right now because they’re not under the same kind of acute pressure that Al Qaeda Central is.  The affiliates have been the most dangerous to us.

Look at the role that Anwar al-Awlaki played in both stimulating the Christmas Bomber in 2009 and also in his witting or unwitting inspiration of major Nidal Hasan who killed 13 soldiers at Fort Hood.  That’s basically the part of the affiliate movement that is most robust in its determination to attack theUnited States.

Yemen was always a difficult country to work with. When 9/11 occurred and we made a decision then about where Al Qaeda would go once we had driven them out of Afghanistan, our calculation at the time was they would go principally to the settled areas of Pakistan or to Yemen and we were right.

Even in the best of times Yemen has never been a tightly controlled, entirely governed society. So add a little chaos and governmental uncertainty into that mixture and you’ve got an opportunity for bad guys to exploit that and to hide and to strengthen their capacity to plan and plot.  That’s a bad situation.

I would think that in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, however, our mutual interest in combating terrorism would come to the fore in most scenarios that I can imagine. And I think we would find a basis for cooperation. It may not be on the same intimate scale in Egypt as it was before, but even in the worst of times we’ve been able to find a basis for cooperation on terrorism with countries with whom we have often a strained political relationship in other ways.

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Topics: CIA • Diplomacy • Egypt • Global • Libya • Middle East • Military

soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. Onesmallvoice

    This will change nothing. The C.I.A. will continue to run things as before in most of these countries anyway. They will manage to set up more pseudo-democracies,thus creating more client states for the right-wing thugs in Washington!

    April 18, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Reply
    • Bobpit

      Funny to read this thugs talking about democracy, these thugs are the same ones that put Pinochet in Chile, and started the dirty war in argentina where thousands of inocents were thrown out of airplanes to their dead over the Plata River,

      Sick puppies..

      April 19, 2011 at 11:03 am | Reply
      • Admonition

        Why do you think we need to abolish the bush center for indignation and end all private defense contracting for the united states. there are too many private defense contractors MFG companies. shut them all down and make it all government non profit!.

        April 20, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • boom

      Hundreds of Taliban in tunnel jail escape
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      Last Modified: 25 Apr 2011 03:06 GMT

      April 25, 2011 at 12:25 am | Reply
  2. Kevin Coxen

    i i have yet to watch the article. Richard santos, charles santos , bush, masons, aq they did it with help of others, possibly my family also

    April 18, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    "Just as the East European countries were in essence “national security states,” so many of these Middle East countries are in essence “national security states.” It is true that the intelligence services, the police etc. prop the regime in "national security states". Yet in those former communist, socialist countries, there were no extremisms. The people there had in the past shared the same history and culture with the west, which made the democratic transition easier. The Middle East is a totally different story with complex social, religious and anthropological structures across the region.

    April 18, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Reply
    • Onesmallvoice

      Well put,j. von hettlingen.

      April 18, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Reply
    • think a little harder...

      he wasn't equating them, he was drawing a comparison... as in, just as socialism was a threat to US security from the end of WWII to the fall of the Berlin wall, Islamic extremism remains a threat to US national security. you have a very valid point about the two regions being completely different, but you're arguing the wrong point.

      April 19, 2011 at 2:26 am | Reply
      • Ed47

        I'm a little unclear when was socialism a threat to the U.S. Was Sweden poised to attack?

        April 19, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Sweden is not a socialist country. Countries like the former Czechoslowakia and East Germany called themselves socialist countries, In the eyes of the Americans, the regimes were communist ones.

      April 20, 2011 at 3:27 am | Reply
  4. BamBam

    For US to rely on the CIA in another country working on something. Good luck with that. I would rather hire a private security company to do it for me at least I know that the Moral Compass might be working a lil bit to think out side of the boxes of scenarios in which they really & Truely are. Set of Parameters for focused intent for A plus outcome.. Most have no conceptual Idea of how these groups of People & interest group conform. I reality CIA is a huge waste of Tax payers money & should be reformed.... Interest Asset.... Next their remote view program of setting up multi dimonsional sonic disruption devices in cities... Hummmmmm.......

    April 18, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Reply
    • do you even have a high school diploma?

      the CIA is a huge waste of taxpayer dollars? false. Obamacare is a huge waste of taxpayer dollars. you sleep soundly at night because the CIA does their job well... if you didn't hear about it on the news, rest assured your tax dollars are well at work.

      April 19, 2011 at 2:22 am | Reply
    • Uffdah

      sounds like you read Legacy of Ashes also......

      April 19, 2011 at 5:59 am | Reply
    • ranger

      wow this guy is smart. he thinks some private contractor is going to have some sort of moral compass. all they want is their he said u sleep well at night because of the cia.

      April 19, 2011 at 9:16 am | Reply
  5. guest

    I'm more concerned with whats closer to home like Mexico.... organized drug cartels which are really terrorists moving whatever and whoever walking, driving, tunneling across the border but *yawn* at my comment should be American safety first(with border concerns) not shaping some distant countries in an image we seem to have lost.

    April 19, 2011 at 12:13 am | Reply
  6. Moe NY

    My opinion to the CIA...either get in there and do something constructive in ending this farce, or get the he LL out, and end this farce for once and all. American soldiers are dying every day, while your type are playing games.

    April 19, 2011 at 12:24 am | Reply
    • really?

      last time i checked there are no US soldiers dying in Libya... Unless you want to count US soldiers killed during Gadhafi's little state-sponsored terror spree in the 80's, when we should've put a bullet between his eyes the first time, and then we wouldn't be dealing with this in first place.

      April 19, 2011 at 2:20 am | Reply
    • ranger

      the CIA is everywhere...

      April 19, 2011 at 9:13 am | Reply
  7. tim hortons

    Wow this looks more and more like Latin America during the cold war...and we know what the CIA did there...

    April 19, 2011 at 3:15 am | Reply
  8. salimsh2010

    The best solution for Middle East countries is to account an pressure those ( from municipal guard to the president "external, internal security and etc ) who have no law, democracy by unanimity of most or all countries or UN. This solution willn't make them react to all countries cause they are wrong and all countries are right. Regarding to Libya, national army must arm and trusted rebels must join national army with great attention to avoid some of pro-Gaddafi and his groups and some groups of organizations involve them. the people were silent since many years because there is no one account (municipal guard to the president "external, internal security and etc) who were wrong and they cann't do anything to stop them. By silent years ago, government's organization persist in law and human rights. So, to avoid crisis there must be law, human rights, democracy and freedom in which they must be establish according to the real and complete religion which God gave to all world. The God created human, so he know what are rules and things useful for them, as human created machines or devices. so he know what are rules and things useful for them. And thanks

    April 19, 2011 at 3:16 am | Reply
  9. Maurice

    CIA, Mossad, KGB, Al Qaeda. What is the difference? Insidious minds plotting mass death and destruction so that a few rich and powerful people can stay on top. Nationalism, patriotism, democracy, freedom, peace – GARBAGE – mere control words to mask the truth about what is really going on. But you know, It is important to keep the billions of human commodities in the world in line, enough to keep the machine running..

    April 19, 2011 at 8:11 am | Reply
  10. coder

    as in the mid 80's - the CIA's lack of vision - will cause the USA some un-godly holy terror from a nation of terrorists
    The CIA has never operated out of its own self interests – between the CIA's pursuit of spy nirvana and the US Congress continually degrading the value of a human being in the united states – this country has little chance of making to the 22nd century - especially if some of prophet comes down to earth and collects all the dead, again

    April 19, 2011 at 8:44 am | Reply
  11. Agnim

    This latest criminal invasion by the european pack animals, is just another indicator why nothing good, profound & lasting have ever come out of Europe: Too much time on hand and too little virtue, & too little imagination of how human societies mature by sinking 'deep roots' within the nation, and then build something lasting and grand, as have been with civilizations that lasts for thousands of years. After all, there is only so much on the planet for europeans to invade, steal & destroy; but reason is never going to be the strong point of the violence-loving & wicked warmongers, who are hell bent on making the entire planet a constant, polluted & unlivable war zone.

    April 19, 2011 at 9:41 am | Reply
  12. Byrd

    CIA Insight? Surely you jest. CIA's analysis is always tainted with the stain of capitalism and blood. That is one truly evil institution.

    April 19, 2011 at 9:51 am | Reply
  13. rb3x7

    kiLL the head of the snake
    and the body wiLL DIE soon

    kiLL the Lybia Peoples
    and the WAR never stops...

    so now
    Gaddafi"s Clan must DIE
    or Surrender...

    thts the only way

    greetings from middle of europe


    April 19, 2011 at 11:32 pm | Reply
  14. Wagner

    That guy will swallow his cr#$@p in not distant futuire when some low dust would have settled but very high ones will rise. Biggest mistake of his judgement typical of them anyway, is complete myopic display of the comparison with Eastern Europe. There they were all of European civilization,culture and religion which despite local specifics changes are easily accepted and adopted becvause the general popular aim was the same: Progression. So first comparing them to North Africans and Arabs is almost an insult. Second religion and tribal aspects of the latter is not something erased in a dumb generation of ipod users simply because the old and newly bred religious fundamentalists are preparing themselves as we speak to conquer what the West fought for: free transformation and application of Islam doctrine to suit them and the West. But history teaches us that violent fundamentalists always rule at the end namely see: Afganistan,Iran,Somalia, Pakistan etc etc with soon to be implemented in the 'freed" countries of the Middle East. They are patient and resilient because they have time,religion and local cultural affiliations to sort things out as time goes by. Consequences: all moderate administrations will eventually fall and sharia law and associated doctrines WILL be adopted. They don't need overt war with shrapnel effect to chase us out of their midst. Their final aim will accomplish itself:Regression. They will sell oil to us at their prices. By then all their so-called moderates would have emigrated to us because they would be sorted out locally if they would resist the changes, check the attitude of the actual ones in Bahrain,Yemen,Libya,Syria and so on. If these are the future pillars of their society then we must be reading in clouds.

    April 20, 2011 at 12:06 am | Reply
  15. Stone

    The USA needs a total change of government. Most people think the US is a democracy, but voting for two people who are controlled by the money manipulators is not democracy, it is plastic, and soon the plastic will melt and you will see what you really have.
    Every Arab country under attack is planned ! It is being done to countries independent of the BIG Money boys who control the worlds economy. They control your government and they want control of ever independent state. Libys has done more for its people than practically any country. This is a planned attack with the media speaking as if of course the US , France , UN are right. WHO says they are right. Who has guts to speak out the truth and not lay down for these lies. Did we not learn from the atrocities done to Iraqi people all in the name of "? sadaam is evil. As usual people believe their programmers and don't stand up until it is YOU who are the next meal.

    April 21, 2011 at 12:49 am | Reply
  16. MCR

    There is nothing transparent about the CIA. They should mind there business. If the Middle East becomes more pro-western, then so be it. If not, that's cool by me. The Middle East should do what is best for them, not for us. FYI – That CIA agent that killed those people on Pakistan belongs in jail.

    April 21, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  17. RA

    They all become experienced witnesses to write books, they did no benifits to the USA with all the money they spend on homeland security,not a SINGLE one of them forcasted what is hapenning in the Middle East now!!!!!!!I thought they get paid to do that?????????

    April 21, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  18. C.Cantu

    The long term solution to the Middle East problems is Muslims conversion to any other religion except Islam. Around the world, the same problems arise in places with Muslim communities. I believe the key to make it happen could be all the Middle Eastern Christian churches that share the same language and culture than Muslims except ethical and moral values. If these churches try more aggressively to convert their Muslim brethren, many conflicts could be drastically diminished.

    April 24, 2011 at 11:26 am | Reply
  19. bananarep07

    Moammar Gadhafi is a despot, demented moron, and murderer - an international shame for the 21st century - and should be executed quickly by Libya’s, or foreign, armed forces even for the sake of saving their skins if not solely to save Libyan lives, while at the same time taking over and installing a temporary military government that over a period of 2 years could bring things back to normal, including oil flows. Needless to say, in the process, the armed forces there should be purged of any of Gadhafi´s cronies so that the "revolution" continues to the benefit of the Libyan population.

    The only political system that will last forever, so to speak, will be a western style-type democracy. In this effort, both the CIA, the UN, as well as the multilateral development banking community have a role to play in establishing the right institutional base for this effort to prosper. Apparently this truth has been realized by a whole new generation of Libyans educated within and outside of that country. The internet has helped bridge the technological gap and to come to full realization that their young lives were meaningless and had no future with corrupt animals like Gadhafi, and his family, in power.

    However, Libyans will not have freedom and dignity for a long time. They have to work at it, together with their armed forces that must see their role as only temporary - 2 years - until the country´s new institutional basis is set up so that political parties can prosper in peace and without fear. Once this is achieved, elections must be convened so that regional-party political representatives can be elected nationwide with a view to integrating a National Assembly to draft a new Constitution for the country. This would be the beginning of a new future for the Libyan population.

    Meanwhile, if captured alive, the military government should prosecute Gadhafi so that the death penalty can be brought to bear on this god forsaken animal, and his family. His own and family assets, in general, should be confiscated in Libya as well as outside of the country. Those monies belong to the people of Libya.

    But more than anything, the world must congratulate the Libyan population for acting with great courage, with their hearts and minds, to try to topple a ruthless and corrupt regime from the face of the earth.

    Needless to say many more countries will follow, not only in the Middle East – mainly, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria, Iran, etc. - but also in Latin America, especially in the case of those with presidential lunatics trying to emulate the Cuban political system which under the noses of the USA and the rest of the Americas has failed miserably, i.e., Venezuela and his gorilla Chavez.

    In general, the combination of authoritarian rule, high unemployment, poor opportunities for social advancement, demographic youth bulges, low public investment in education and health and other public services, and anger at high levels of corruption, and outright thievery, in the Middle East and North Africa, and in Latin America, will prompt public uprisings that will topple their leaders. Chavez, Saleh, Bashar are definitely in this list after their close friend Gadhafi moves on to better pastures! Needless to say, the Cuban government also needs to be overthrown!

    Instead, Presidents from these poor, backward economies, that have not even approached the take-off stage in economic development should instead concentrate their public administration efforts in fighting corruption, reducing the size of their inefficient and corrupt public sectors, and increasing public/private investments with the help of the multilateral financial community - including in the strategic social sectors; i.e., education, health, and basic services – to increase employment.

    The UN Security Council´s mandate for NATO to intervene in Libya and/or declare a well enforced no-fly zone will stop the slaughter of innocent people and thousands of Libyans will not be assassinated without reason - except to want to live in democracy and in peace - by Gadhafi and his obedient and unscrupulous followers.


    By having provided military support, the West has started to make peace with the people of Libya!
    While recognizing that imposing a no-fly zone is an act of war because it has required attacking Gaddafi's air defense systems, not just anti-aircraft guns and missile batteries, but also radar and communications systems.

    Nevertheless, this resolute and timely action must last for as long as it takes to overthrow him, even if rebel forces themselves fail to do so. Afterwards, Libya could be invaded with ground troops from Arab League Nations, mainly, and topple a weak, murderous, and corrupt regime that has only brought shame, blood, and tears to the Libyan people.

    Western allies should not look for asylum for Gadhafi. He should either be killed or captured to stand trial for crimes against humanity.

    April 24, 2011 at 7:55 pm | Reply
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  22. Spamizbad

    This guy talked smack the last time and didn't even show up to the party.. I think it's time the United States sends a very clear message to Muammar Gaddafi .. I don't think we tested the MOB in the theater have we?

    May 30, 2011 at 10:02 pm | Reply
  23. Steward Jones

    Michael Scheurer exCIA officer has talked about the problem in Midd East. The only reason is getting involved in conflict with Iran ,and thats why USA and Bahrain officials are mentiong Iran so much.
    CIA role is very dirty in this part of world. Many people know about Zoran Veljovich and his design for the "finall solution" or taking care of Iran. WE think everything is happening in the name of democracy or so called Arab awaking but peiople like Mr. Veljovich are those who know it is everything very well predicted and planed .

    July 9, 2011 at 3:27 am | Reply
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