Friday, December 26, 2008

Beating the Bad Guys With Little Blue Pills

There may be hope for the CIA's operations directorate, after all.

Today's Washington Post recounts an example of creative field work in Afghanistan. CIA officers, anxious to win the cooperation of a local chieftain, hit upon a novel idea. Noting that the tribal patriarch was at least 60--with four young wives--the case officer offered something that was better than cash or guns, the standard inducements in that part of the world.

Instead, the operative gave the chieftain four blue pills. "Take one of these. You'll love it," the officer said. Compliments of Uncle Sam.

The Post's Joby Warrick reports that the Viagra "gift" achieved its desired results.

The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes -- followed by a request for more pills.

For U.S. intelligence officials, this is how some crucial battles in Afghanistan are fought and won. While the CIA has a long history of buying information with cash, the growing Taliban insurgency has prompted the use of novel incentives and creative bargaining to gain support in some of the country's roughest neighborhoods, according to officials directly involved in such operations.

The key, according to a former CIA officer, is to "find a way to keep an informant firmly on your side but leaves little or no visible trace." The Viagra bribe is an excellent case-in-point; an agent who participated in the operation recalls that the offer of little blue pills came after extended conversations with the elder. A discussion of his family and the four wives (the most allowed by the Koran) provided the inspiration--and a breakthrough for the agency:

Four days later, when the Americans returned, the gift had worked its magic, the operative recalled.

"He came up to us beaming," the official said. "He said, 'You are a great man.' "

"And after that we could do whatever we wanted in his area."

For obvious reasons, the article doesn't identify the operatives responsible for the Viagra mission. But it would be interesting to know if these officers were agency veterans--perhaps with experience from Afghan operations in the 1980s--or more recent hires, who've come on board since 9-11.

In either case, the agents deserve credit for a job well done. In an era when the CIA is often criticized for sloppy and ineffective operations, it's reassuring to know that some officers still know how to assess a delicate situation, and come up with innovative solutions.

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