Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009

A Brief History of CIA Assets

There was little surprise among Afghanistan experts and longtime CIA watchers at the New York Times report that claimed Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of the Afghan President and alleged drug kingpin, has been paid by the CIA for eight years. Whether or not Karzai fits the bill — and the allegations against him remain unproven — it would come as a surprise if the CIA did not have any number of shady Afghan politicians on its payroll.

The agency has declined comment on the Times story, but Karzai's CIA connection "has been an open secret in Afghanistan for many years," says Gretchen Peters, author of Seeds of Terror, an authoritative account of Afghanistan's opium-terrorism nexus. In Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold where Karzai is alleged to have helped the agency stand up a local paramilitary, Kandahar Strike Force, that group has long been half-jokingly known by locals as "the CIA's bastards."

Karzai has not been formally charged with any involvement in drugs, but allegations about his connections to the opium trade — which also helps finance the Taliban and al-Qaeda — are legion. Even if true, they would hardly disqualify him from being a CIA asset. "If you want inside information on shady dealings, you have to deal with shady people," says Amy Zegart, a UCLA professor and national-security expert. "Nobody should expect to find Boy Scouts on the agency's payroll."

Over the years, the CIA has recruited many famous (and infamous) figures for information, cooperation and worse. Sometimes, the association has been rooted in moral or political motivations: during the Cold War, anticommunist revolutionaries made common cause with the agency. Others did it for cold cash. "In a situation where principle and loyalty don't work, money is sometimes the only tool the CIA [can use] to get cooperation," says Nick Cullather, a historian of the CIA at Indiana University.

Some CIA assets went on to lead their countries — Vietnamese strongman Ngo Ding Diem, Congolese despot Mobuto Sese Seko and former Chilean President Eduardo Frei. German Chancellor (and Nobel Peace laureate) Willy Brandt and Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai spent the twilight of their careers having to deny allegations that they had been on the agency's payroll.

The CIA never confirms the identity of a covert asset, but herewith a list of some of the more notable figures previously alleged to have been linked to the agency: