Saudi friendship hinders U.S. intelligence gathering Task force to scrutinize activity in the kingdom

December 01, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The bombing in Saudi Arabia last June that %% killed 19 Americans not only confirmed that the United States had woefully inadequate intelligence about the aggressive opposition within Saudi Arabia. %%

%% It also underlined how U.S. ties to the Saudi royal family are inhibiting Washington from solving the intelligence problem.

After the bombing, the CIA organized for the first time a task force of analysts throughout the government to study Saudi Arabia under the same rigorous process used to assess the most serious threats to U.S. national security, senior intelligence officials said.

One of the reasons for subjecting Saudi Arabia to the CIA's "hard target strategy" -- which it uses for countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Iraq and North Korea -- was concern that the United States could lose its closest ally in the Persian Gulf the way it lost Iran when a religious-based revolution overthrew the monarchy there in 1979, the officials said.

The task force concluded that Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil-producer, remains politically stable and is unlikely to become another Iran, despite King Fahd's poor health and uncertainties about the succession.

But it warned that the information void about the threats facing the Saudis requires the United States to find new ways and resources to penetrate one of the most closed societies in the world.

The threats confront both countries: There are 6,000 U.S. soldiers and 50,000 U.S. civilians in Saudi Arabia.

And the intelligence shortcomings come at a crucial time.

The Saudis have suggested Iranian and Syrian involvement in a conspiracy behind the June bombing, which occurred at a military housing complex. U.S. officials are skeptical of this theory but have few independent insights into the conspirators.

The importance of improving joint intelligence efforts was underlined last week by Defense Secretary William J. Perry, who said the two countries believed they recently prevented further terrorist attacks in the kingdom by sharing intelligence information.

Perry met yesterday with King Fahd in Riyadh.

Developing sources

Immediately, the U.S. intelligence community plans to step up the use of visitors to the kingdom as information gatherers and to develop more Saudi sources among travelers and residents outside the country, intelligence officials said.

"Saudi Arabia is a black hole," said a senior administration official. "We have enormous gaps in understanding what is going on there."

The challenge of understanding the opposition to a friendly government is made much more difficult because of the limitations of U.S. intelligence-gathering techniques in Saudi Arabia, a closed society, where the United States has allowed itself to depend largely on the king and the top princes for information.

The information vacuum is reflected in the exhaustive report produced in September for the Pentagon after the bombing of the housing complex.

The report concluded that the ability of the intelligence community "to conduct in-depth, long-term analysis of trends, intentions and capabilities of terrorists is deficient."

The report continued: "Human intelligence is probably the only source of information that can provide tactical details of a terrorist attack.

"The U.S. intelligence community must have the requisite authorities and invest more time, people and funds."

That is just what Congress did five years ago when it gave the intelligence community $150 million to understand foreign cultures better, especially in the Middle East, to train experts and to create better "human intelligence."

Hardware instead of people

However, it is not working. Intelligence agencies prefer spending money on more hardware, such as satellites.

"It's frustrating that we still haven't done enough with all this lead time," said former Sen. David Boren, the Oklahoma Democrat who as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee sponsored the legislation.

"There's a built-in group of contractors pushing to upgrade technological capabilities, but there's no one arguing to upgrade human resources."

Although the CIA task force concluded that Saudi Arabia was not another Iran, facets of the relationship between the United States and the kingdom mirror Washington's relationship with the Iranian government of the late Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi.

Like the shah, King Fahd and his senior princes are extraordinarily sensitive to efforts by a friend, the United States, to penetrate their society and have tried to discourage U.S. officials from making contact with opposition figures.

And the United States relies heavily on the royal family for information, as it did during the reign of the shah in Iran.

The shah's last ambassador, Ardeshir Zahedi, knew Washington and charmed policy-makers, lawmakers and journalists, making sure that those opinion makers accepted the best interpretation of the shah and his troubles.

As a result, Washington was one of the last capitals to understand the depths of the shah's problems.

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