WASHINGTON — CIA officers in Iraq have been largely hunkered down in their heavily fortified Baghdad compound since U.S. troops left the country in 2011, current and former officials say, allowing a once-rich network of intelligence sources to wither.
That's a big reason, they say, that the United States was caught flat-footed by the recent offensive by a Sunni-backed, al-Qaida-inspired group that has seized a large swath of Iraq.
"This is a glaring example of the erosion of our street craft and our trade craft and our capability to operate in a hard place," said John Maguire, who helped run CIA operations in Iraq in 2004. "The U.S. taxpayer is not getting their money's worth."
Maguire was a CIA officer in Beirut, Lebanon, in the late 1980s during that country's bloody civil war. He spent weeks living in safe houses far from the U.S. Embassy, dodging militants who wanted to kidnap and kill Americans. In Iraq, where Maguire also served, the CIA's station in Baghdad remains one of the world's largest. But the agency has been unwilling to risk sending Americans out regularly to recruit and meet with informants.
Iraq is emblematic of how a security-conscious CIA is finding it difficult to spy aggressively in dangerous environments without military protection, Maguire and other current and former U.S. officials say. Intelligence blind spots have left the United States behind the curve on fast-moving world events, they say, whether it's disintegration in Iraq, Russia's move into Crimea or the collapse of several governments during the Arab Spring.
Without directly addressing the CIA's posture in Iraq, agency spokesman Dean Boyd noted that 40 officers have died in the line of duty since September 2001. He called "offensive" any suggestion that "CIA officers are sitting behind desks, hiding out in green zones or otherwise taking it easy back at the embassy."
Boyd said the intelligence community provided plenty of warning to the Obama administration that the insurgent Islamic State of Iraq and Syria could move on Iraqi cities.
"Anyone who has had access to and actually read the full extent of CIA intelligence products on ISIS and Iraq should not have been surprised by the current situation," he said.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House intelligence committee, agreed, saying, "This was not an intelligence failure; this was a policy failure."