Some two years had passed since the man with whom I now shared a tearful embrace had reluctantly accepted my proposal that he turn coat and secretly collaborate with me and the CIA against his terrorist friends and employer. He had found himself at the end of his rope when I caught up with him. Obligated to al-Qaeda, an organization from which one didn’t resign, he was on the run from a variety of security services in whose hands he could expect to meet an unhappy end. With his family in tow, he weighed the Hobson’s choice I presented him between prioritizing them, or a cause which had lost much of its luster.
The whiskers of his prominent beard scratched my cheeks, and we were slow to release one another. We had both thought of bringing gifts for the other’s young children at this, our final meeting, as I introduced him to the CIA colleague who would succeed me. I had met his children on a few occasions, recalling fond memories of him and I on the floor together playing with them. while an intoxicating scent wafted from the kitchen with the promise of his wife’s delightful home-cooked Arabic meal. TV usually followed, after which he would cry with abandon at the end of a sentimental romcom.
All this was quite remarkable. This same man had played a supporting role in terrorist attacks that had killed hundreds before agreeing to a secret relationship with me and the CIA in which he would go on to save thousands.
I’m some years removed from decades working in the shadows stealing secrets from adversaries, leveraging foreign partners, and arbitrating among feuding friends. But the war between Israel and Hamas brings home the devastating consequences when people are dehumanized and truth is poisoned to fuel the hatred that facilitates the moral detachment that allows for the most barbaric acts.
Throughout history, enemies have dehumanized one another to enable them to carry out the carnage and inhumanity that comes with war. Today, cartoons published by the Russian Wagner Group in Africa depict iFrench soldiers in Mali and Ivory Coast as rats, snakes, and zombies. The revolutionary proliferation of news, images, and influencers assiduously manipulated by those who stand to profit from controlling the narrative makes the subjectification of the truth a weapon which grows ever more difficult to counter.
In their recent Foreign Affairs essay “Gaza and the Future of Information Warfare,” P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking observed how “online debates, including those with limited relation to the truth, will continue to shape the course of offline events by altering public perceptions and guiding official decisions.” Singer adds how researchers at China’s National Defense University have taken it further, studying how the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can “capture the mind” of one’s foes by targeting them for emotional manipulation, “shaping an adversary’s thoughts and perceptions and consequently their decisions and actions.”
In my work as a CIA operations officer, I found that people generally viewed right and wrong, good and evil, and truth and lies, through their own cultures and experiences, sometimes quite foreign to me. But a key tool of the espionage practitioner is empathy, particularly when engaging one’s enemies, without which it’s difficult for the mission to succeed.. We have a reasonable expectation that our intelligence community and the political leaders who consume our reports can likewise place themselves above personal sentiments or predisposed opinions. Danger comes when they lose perspective or censor input that contradicts their predisposed views. Our recent history abroad has plenty of examples of that. The Kremlin may be learning it in Ukraine as well.
Linda Weissgold, the CIA’s deputy director for analysis from March 2020 until April 2023, recently cautioned against two analytic pitfalls that appear to be driving U.S. decision-making. One is the danger of analytic mirror imaging—assuming that others see the world the same way that you do. The other is “recency bias,” geek-speak for the tendency of analysts to prioritize the latest information popping up in the in-box. These factors appear to be driving several such questionable judgments: that most Palestinians despise Hamas and want nothing more than to achieve a lasting peace with Israel; that Israeli leaders prefer a political rather than military solution; and that the current crisis is all about October 7th and not more profoundly intertwined with events over a century, if not thousands of years ago.
The reality on the ground is that the scars of this enduring conflict have equipped neither those currently wielding power in Israel, nor most Palestinians, with any faith in peaceful coexistence after the inhuman brutality to which all have been subjected. Moreover, the belligerents appear to be doubling down on delivering more of the same as a means of achieving what they believe are realistic and achievable goals.
Hamas’s leaders not only expected a massive and indiscriminate Israeli response for their October 7th attack, but undoubtedly sought it out. From their perspective, Israel’s predictable blunt-force response would undermine the momentum for normalization of relations between Israel and other Arab nations and make Tel Aviv too toxic a partner for others to collaborate (at least on the surface). Inviting the devastating consequences for Gazans was calculated on the long-term goal to win the war strategically, in the arena of global opinion, not on the battlefield. So Hamas bruised and bled Israel on an unprecedented scale, surpassing anything Hizballah, al-Qaeda or even Iran had, or would likely ever, achieve.
The video images of Hamas fighters deliberately killing and kidnapping unarmed civilians ranging from toddlers to the elderly, their desecration of bodies, and reports of sexual violence against their prisoners, horrify most civilized people, but they significantly enhance Hamas’s fundraising efforts. They resonate among supporters with means, particularly wealthy Arab Sunnis across the Gulf who have long been the source of funding for fellow religious extremist groups like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Taliban, Kashmiri organizations and Sunni liberation groups from Kosovo to Syria. Donations will flow beyond the international financial grid through couriers and a hawala system that operates as an informal and unregulated channel for transferring funds.
Finding a solution, near and long term alike, requires the civilized world’s intelligence services to see the world as the belligerents and stakeholders do, including how they see us. To be sure, that hardly means condoning the inhumane violence of any of the parties nor deflecting accountability for war crimes. But there can be no end to this bloody contest without a safe space for communication beyond the eyes, ears and pressure of politicians and their domestic constituencies.
Mystique and Betrayals
The CIA has been down this road before. Arab governments across the region, namely Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf monarchies, are skeptical of Washington’s objectivity as an honest broker but have consistently sought out, or been receptive to, dialogue with and—often—collaboration with the CIA. The agency still enjoys a mystique in the Middle East, and elsewhere, but more practically, offers a more discreet footprint and track record as a reliable backchannel conduit to our president—and keeps its promises. Indeed, the CIA has historically played an outsized role in bridging differences among the players in the Middle East throughout decades of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is reflected today with CIA Director William Burns’ deep personal involvement with all sides in the region.
There is arguably more common ground among the U.S., Israel and most of the key Arab governments than between Hamas and those would-be Arab benefactors who view Hamas as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. That transnational movement philosophically opposes these monarchies and Egypt’s military- run regime, with its followers often among those who have transitioned into armed insurgency. Notwithstanding close US-Israeli intelligence cooperation, I have heard more criticism from the Israelis than our Arab partners accusing their CIA counterparts, particularly the “Arabists,” as being overly sympathetic with the Palestinians, if not outright naive about their capacity for peaceful self-government. Israeli actions, moreover, show a history of trying to undermine quiet American initiatives toward a peaceful resolution.
In 1979, for example, Israel assassinated a senior Palestinian Liberation Organization security official, Ali Hassan Salameh, who was a backchannel interlocutor with the U.S. via a CIA officer, Robert Ames. According to The Good Spy, a reliable account of his life and career by the prize-winning journalist Kai Bird, the Israelis may have killed Salameh despite—or perhaps due to—the relationship, which they suspected went beyond official discourse. In 1992, likewise, Israel assassinated Atef Bseiso, knowing he was the PLO’s senior intelligence representative to the CIA and several other Western agencies. More recently, according to various press accounts (and the subject of an FBI investigation), Israeli forces are suspected of deliberately killing a Palestinian-American journalist working in the occupied West Bank, Shireen Abu Akleh.
The world is hardly framed in black and white, and as circumstances change ,in the complex Middle East, so do alliances. Take Iran and Hamas. Not only are their Sunni and Shia religious beliefs antithetical, but the history of Persian and Arab relations is replete with conflict and war. During the Arab Spring of 2010-2011, they found themselves on opposite sides in Syria. Today, though, they have a terrorist alliance of convenience in regard to Israel and beyond.
Spies in the Ointment
During the early 2000s, I represented then-CIA DIrector George Tenet in back channel negotiations aimed to secure Libya’s acceptance of accountability for its 1988 sabotage of Pan Am 103 over England, as well as its settlement with the families of the 270 passengers and crew who died in the crash. While future CIA chief Bill Burns, then a senior U.S. diplomat, led the rest of the American delegation in discreet meetings with their Libyan counterparts, I met covertly with one of Muammar Qaddafi’s senior security officials in hotel rooms across Europe.
My counterpart had a well earned reputation for brutality, which he initially made no effort to conceal. Over time, however, as our relationship transitioned into counterterrorism cooperation, he turned affable and gracious, increasingly sharing intimate insights into his own life, family, and views. Then again, while demonstrating warmth and compassion to me and other Americans he connected with, he continued to act without reservation or remorse against the regime’s enemies, and in the most horrific ways.
Lesson learned, once again: Bridges can be built, even with such otherwise odious characters, on foundations of shared interests and humanity. But the path to getting there necessarily starts with our empathy and generating it in others from far different cultures and practices. Few of my foreign agents liked America—and they didn’t have to. What they needed was confidence that I and the CIA would understand and accept what motivated their cooperation—fear, jealousy, revenge, security, aspirations for a better life, whatever—treat them with respect, deliver on our promises, and take risks which mirrored their own.
Likewise, our leaders need to define their goals clearly and dispassionately, rather than broadly pursue popular-sounding but unrealistic objectives. Expecting the existing and arguably broken and discredited Palestinian Authority to be welcomed by either Gazans or Israel in taking responsibility for Gaza only undermines U.S. credibility.. Moving forward requires seeing the world through the eyes, minds, and hearts of those we seek to influence—and conducting our dialogue in the safe space of the shadows. Whatever the mechanics, charting a constructive course necessitates seeing the realities as they are, rather than what we wish they would be, and challenging long-held assumptions and strategies. The good, bad and the ugly of history should be acknowledged and leveraged, rather than resisted or dismissed, to divert the current path to a better and sustainable future.