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John McLaughlin, CIA

John E. McLaughlin
John E. McLaughlin
John Edward McLaughlin, born June 15, 1942, is the former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence and former Acting Director of Central Intelligence. | Photo: | John E. Mclaughlin, Cia, Deputy Director, Leader,

Reflection: Former CIA director on the new Middle East

John McLaughlin, former Deputy Director and Acting Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, says that the CIA has an important role to play in the new Middle East, transforming the repressive national security apparatus of countries like Egypt into more accountable and transparent organizations.

McLaughlin draws on his experience in Eastern Europe during the dissolution of the Soviet Union to explain how "national security states" can become more transparent, pluralistic and democratic.

Amar C. Bakshi: First, does Gadhafi have potent chemical or biological weapons we need to be concerned about in this civil war?
John McLaughlin: I would be very surprised if he had biological weapons, the components of any nuclear material or any serious chemical weapons. He reportedly has some mustard gas that was not fully destroyed, but I believe it would be hard for him to use effectively because of its age, location, and the absence of delivery systems

AB: Do you worry he might be trying to sponsor some sort of asymmetrical response through supporting terrorism once again?
If he survives this and manages to reorganize a regime in some part of Libya or in all of Libya, I would be seriously concerned. I would expect him to organize a terrorist-based response to what he has experienced from the West during this period.

Does the CIA have a good handle on Libya?

First, a disclaimer: I'm not reading all of the CIA traffic anymore. But based on my experience there, I would say that prior to the events we're witnessing now, the CIA probably had a pretty good understanding of the tribal structure in Libya and of the relative power equations within that structure' In the period since the onset of hostilities, I'd be very surprised if we had not gained a pretty good insight into who these rebel leaders are and what they represent.

AB: Should we be actively arming the rebels?
Talking about covert action is difficult for a former CIA Officer. My personal opinion is it's probably a little too soon to be arming them because my guess is that we are still gathering information about their identity and orientation and their existing capabilities'

The other thing about covert action is it must be closely aligned with a clear and overt U.S. policy. It cannot be the policy. Covert action such as arming rebels and so forth has to be the thumb on the scale and not the hammer on the nail. It's the thing that helps you tip a situation in one direction or another; it's not the thing that substitutes for policy.

AB: You worked extensively on European, Russian, and Eurasian issues before, during, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. What lessons do you draw from that experience in analyzing the Middle East today?
One way in which the situations are very similar is this: Just as the East European countries were in essence "national security states," so many of these Middle East countries are in essence "national security states." This means that the intelligence services, the police and others are one of the pillars and props of the regime. In some cases, they are the dominant feature of the regime.

Just as in Eastern Europe these countries had to make sharp transitions away from a model in which the populations were closely watched -- with little privacy, a lot of intrusiveness into private life, abuses by national security officials, resentments and so forth -- all of that is true in many parts of the Middle East as well.

So as we approach this period in the Middle East and as the U.S. seeks to design a policy, it has to be aware of the fact that that is one of the hurdles these countries have to get over. They have to move from being "national security states" to pluralistic societies with democratic institutions and accountability and responsiveness to elected officials.

One of the things that we sought to do (we being the CIA) with Eastern Europe was to help those new countries as they sought to either transform or develop their security services with a Western model in mind -- the kind of model we have here of accountability to elected officials, respect for privacy and operating within a legal structure that has been approved by the population.

AB: The U.S. had close security collaborations with Saleh in Yemen and with Mubarak in Egypt. Given instability -- say Saleh were to leave -- does that significantly undermine the counter-terrorism work that the U.S. is doing or does that work continue regardless?
I think it's different in every country. I would be seriously worried about chaos in Yemen.

If you look at terrorism these days, it comes in basically three flavors - Al Qaeda Central, which is holed up in the mountains somewhere in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These are the classic leaders of Al Qaeda.

Then there are the affiliates who are in places like Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and places like Somalia.

Then the third flavor is the one-off, "leaderless jihad" as one scholar calls it - those people who are inspired on their own or in small groups to attempt terrorist acts.

It's the affiliates -- that middle group -- that are particularly worrisome right now because they're not under the same kind of acute pressure that Al Qaeda Central is. The affiliates have been the most dangerous to us.

Look at the role that Anwar al-Awlaki played in both stimulating the Christmas Bomber in 2009 and also in his witting or unwitting inspiration of major Nidal Hasan who killed 13 soldiers at Fort Hood. That's basically the part of the affiliate movement that is most robust in its determination to attack theUnited States.

Yemen was always a difficult country to work with. When 9/11 occurred and we made a decision then about where Al Qaeda would go once we had driven them out of Afghanistan, our calculation at the time was they would go principally to the settled areas of Pakistan or to Yemen and we were right.

Even in the best of times Yemen has never been a tightly controlled, entirely governed society. So add a little chaos and governmental uncertainty into that mixture and you've got an opportunity for bad guys to exploit that and to hide and to strengthen their capacity to plan and plot. That's a bad situation.

I would think that in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, however, our mutual interest in combating terrorism would come to the fore in most scenarios that I can imagine. And I think we would find a basis for cooperation. It may not be on the same intimate scale in Egypt as it was before, but even in the worst of times we've been able to find a basis for cooperation on terrorism with countries with whom we have often a strained political relationship in other ways.



On Amar C. Bakshi:
Amar most recently served as Special Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations where he worked on global health, Muslim outreach, and development. Prior to this position, Amar created "How the World Sees America," an online report for The Washington Post and Newsweek, consisting of over a hundred text and video pieces about how America affects ordinary lives in a dozen countries. The project was featured on international media outlets. Amar also reported on race and local politics for The Washington Post during the 2008 U.S. Presidential Campaign.

Before launching "How the World Sees America," Amar worked with David Ignatius and Fareed Zakaria as the first editor of PostGlobal, an international affairs forum. Amar is also the founder of Aina Arts, a nonprofit organization connecting local artisans with schools in the developing world, and was the associate managing editor of the Oxford International Review. He graduated from Harvard as the first joint concentrator in Social Studies (political theory) and Visual & Environmental Studies (documentary video), writing his thesis on media propaganda in Zimbabwe.

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Updated Apr 22, 2017 9:07 AM EDT | More details

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