Critics have consistently flogged the CIA and FBI for failing to prevent two decades of radical Arab terrorist attacks, particularly the Sept. 11 hijackings of passenger planes used to destroy the World Trade Center and damage the Pentagon.
Now that the invasion and occupation of Iraq have left a California-sized canvas on which to create a new Arab state, some analysts see the United States embedding an intricate network of technological and human spy assets that would function long after U.S. troops have left.
"I think the military victory in Iraq offers significant opportunities for an intelligence windfall," said Steve A. Yetiv, an Old Dominion University political scientist who specializes in U.S. policy and the Middle East.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said that various agencies were interrogating several high-ranking officials that the U.S.-led coalition has captured.
Though Rumsfeld indicated that the officials were providing what he described as useful information, captured leaders of a defeated regime are historically unreliable, said Timothy Naftali, an intelligence historian and a consultant on the declassification of U.S. intelligence documents under the Nazi War Crimes Act of 1999.
Imprisoned functionaries often make up things in order to magnify their importance and perhaps avoid prosecution for war crimes — or even get a CIA job.
"None of the Nazi Party intelligence officers whom we employed were worth the moral cost of that contract," Naftali said. "Most of what they provided was invented. They saw this as a way to survive in an otherwise anarchic world. We could not corroborate what they told us."
The United States has not, for example, been able to confirm reports from one inside source that Saddam buried or destroyed chemical or biological weapons as his regime toppled.
The juicier intelligence could come in the long term, by getting in on the ground floor of a nation being rebuilt. The military is involved in restoring communications and has set up operations at key military installations, perfect places to plant intelligence-gathering technology, Yetiv said.
The United States has enlisted an army of Arab experts from a variety of fields. Several normally loquacious former intelligence agents-turned-analysts refused to even address a highly sensitive idea.
"I don't know what's going on, but I'm not going to go near that one," said former CIA director James Woolsey. "If anybody remotely conceived an idea about developing intelligence sources in a foreign government, they would have to have their head examined if they talked about."
Before the war and the increasingly uneasy U.S. occupation of Iraq, however, the agency made no secret of its search for spies who just happen to speak Arabic. The CIA began placing newspaper advertisements last January in newspapers in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Tampa, Fla., and Detroit — all communities with sizable Arab-American populations.
Aimed at professionals who may be considering a career change, the ads featured a photo of Ellis Island and patriotic, pro-Arab pitch. "For over 100 years Arab-Americans have served the nation. Today we need you more than ever," the advertisement said.
"What we're looking for are second- or third-generation Arab-Americans with area and cultural expertise as well as foreign language skills," CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield said when the recruiting drive kicked off.
The United States seemed to de-emphasize human assets after about 1983, when the U.S. embassy in Beirut was blown up, killing several top intelligence officers holding a regional meeting.
Since then, critics have cited the lack of human intelligence as the reason several anti-U.S. terrorist attacks were successful.
Rand Corp. intelligence analyst Bruce Berkowitz, a former CIA analyst and currently a consultant to Rumsfeld's office, said today's espionage efforts need people primarily to aid technical intelligence.
"Digital, fiber optic, heavily encrypted communications you need to get close enough to touch the thing," he said. "That means you need human intelligence."
But the former CIA employee bristled, too, when asked about the intelligence upside for the United States in a new Iraq. "We're going to have a hard time helping the Iraqis set up their government," he said. "It wouldn't be constructive to talk about this."
Some Iraq experts dismissed the idea that the war would pay an espionage dividend for the United States.
"You are talking about a highly nationalistic country that is not going to be very open," said Anthony H. Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This is a business where people do not share the family jewels."
Other experts think the fact that Shiite clerics have rushed to fill the power vacuum in Iraq makes it unlikely that the United States will be able to use the country as a regional listening post.
"You might have the odd Peter Lorre-type character, offering information (but) I don't think it's the nature of Iraqi society," said William M. Arkin, an analyst the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
Yet Yetiv said even the worst-case scenario — an Iran-style Islamic state — would be easier to penetrate than Saddam's Iraq. Saddam suppressed the myriad rivalries between and within Iraq's various clans and clerical allegiances, he said, while the U.S. could exploit those rivalries.
While it may be politically incorrect in Iraq to be seen as too close to the Americans, historically, many such groups or countries count on back-channel contacts to curry favor with a superpower, Naftali said.
He floated the theory that the Iraqi invasion was, perhaps, "a way of creating an aircraft carrier for our interests."