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American Pie: As Clean As A Whistle - Make That As A Spy

...Potatoes, celery, beetroot and turnip that everyone knows are grown in the fields, don’t betray the slightest evidence, when they are on the supermarket shelves, that they were once happily buried in dirt. When was the last time you found a caterpillar in a cabbage?...

The US is accustomed to an aseptic lifestyle, but John Merchant thinks that agents whose job it is to root out information on those who would do America harm should have a little more dirt under their fingernails.

To read more of John's insightful columns please click on
http://www.openwriting.com/archives/american_pie/

I have written in past columns about my aversion to how life in the modern, western world is becoming progressively more sanitized. Probably nowhere in the world is this more true than in the USA, where a household cleanser is not just a “cleaner,” but also kills “99% of all known germs,” so you only have to worry about the 1% of unknown germs. It seems that almost all toiletry products contain “Powerful anti-bacteriological agents.”

Heating and air conditioner units incorporate filters that remove the most microscopic specs of dust. Foodstuffs are vacuum packed, triple wrapped, flash frozen and refrigerated until they are practically unrecognizable as natural substances. Wonderful salamis, cheeses, hams and sausages from Europe are banned from importation by the Federal Food and Drug Administration because they don’t meet US hygiene standards.

Potatoes, celery, beetroot and turnip that everyone knows are grown in the fields, don’t betray the slightest evidence, when they are on the supermarket shelves, that they were once happily buried in dirt. When was the last time you found a caterpillar in a cabbage? Not that I’m longing to come face to face with a junior Monarch butterfly in my lettuce, but it would be a comforting reassurance that the produce hadn’t been sprayed with some chemical that is lethal enough to kill everything except the lettuce.

I had thought that the pursuit of an aseptic lifestyle in the US had gone about as far as it could go, until I read with amazement that an undercover CIA agent had been recalled to Washington from Algeria for allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting two women. According to the article, written by Mark Mazzetti and David Johnston for the New York Times, Andrew Warren, the CIA’s senior officer in Algeria had invited the women to his apartment, where the incident took place.

The article went on to say that earlier in the day, officials had declined to identify the officer involved, saying his name was classified, but in the affidavit, Mr. Warren is referred to by name. Former intelligence officials described him as a convert to Islam who joined the agency before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and who had served in multiple overseas posts. Robert A. Wood, the acting State Department spokesman, said Wednesday that “The U.S. takes very seriously any accusations of misconduct involving any U.S. personnel abroad.”

Well now, moral judgments aside, it seems to me that if an agent is charged with the responsibility of immersing himself in a foreign culture to the extent that he converts to Islam, continuing to behave like a squeaky clean civil servant is going to be a dead give-away. Robert Wood’s statement that the “U.S. takes very seriously any accusations of misconduct involving any U.S. personnel abroad,” is at best cynical and at worst ludicrous. What does he think undercover agents do for heavens sakes?

Meanwhile, CIA operatives are living by their wits in Afghanistan and Pakistan, doing whatever they need to do to stay alive and one step ahead of the Taliban. They are surviving in a society where rape, murder and pillage are a way of life. Boy scouts they ain’t, nor would they last if they were.

I had to wonder what John Le Carré’s character George Smiley would have to say about Agent Warren’s recall. And what about those real-life spies of yesteryear, Burgess and McClean, Kim Philby and Mata Hari? Their sexual proclivities were part of their stock-in- trade. How would they have managed in today’s well-scrubbed world of espionage? Probably they wouldn’t even have signed on.

After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, the FBI and the CIA did a lot of hand wringing over whether the attacks could have been prevented, and investigative reporters pored over the fine details of what was known about the perpetrators before September 2001. It emerged that quite a lot was known about these terrorists, and at least the possibility exists that the attacks could have been averted.

At the time, the CIA’s excuse for being blind sided was that modern electronic satellite and drone surveillance had been judged to be more effective than the “old fashioned” under-cover spying methods, and that the CIA’s hiring practices were changed accordingly. As a result, there were few, if any, agents in the field who had the cover and capability to infiltrate terrorist cells.

This deficiency was forcefully demonstrated later, when the USA went to war with Iraq, based on faulty intelligence derived from satellites that “proved” Saddam Hussein was amassing “Weapons of mass destruction.” Just as I miss the caterpillars in my cabbage, given these costly and tragic gaffs, I think a little less morality and a little more dirt under the fingernails of the guardians of our security would encourage me to sleep more soundly.

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