John Walker, the 20-year-old American who was found earlier this month fighting alongside the Taliban is presenting a challenge to the American intelligence establishment in more ways than one.
While he is said to be cooperating, Walker's very existence appears to be a blow to those already under pressure over the failure to detect the Sept. 11 plot that left 3,000 dead.
Critics explained the failure by pointing to an increasing reliance on SIGINT — expensive, satellite-gathered, signals intelligence — instead of HUMINT — old-fashioned tiptoeing-in-the-shadows human intelligence.
But the U.S. community of spies said such access was nearly impossible, considering the exclusive world that Muslim fundamentalists operate in.
In the week after the attacks, Cliff Van Zandt, a former FBI agent, expressed an opinion common to those in the intelligence community: "The CIA isn't really geared to develop a lot of assets to infiltrate groups like this," he told National Public Radio.
He said the alleged attackers came from "mostly [a] blood-tied family organization, clan organization that have known each other's families for generations."
"Somebody graduating from Yale and spending a couple years studying Urdu or something is not going to be very capable of infiltrating an organization like that."
A middle-class white kid who didn't have a college degree and — at first — spoke only a smattering of Arabic, shows that U.S. intelligence may actually have been aiming too high.
John Walker even claims to have been in the presence of Osama bin Laden.
Unusual, But Not Unexpected
Most intelligence experts acknowledged that it was unusual to see a white, English-speaking U.S. native among the Taliban, but also easily identified conditions which might have allowed him to join.
One of those bona fides, or proof of his sincerity, would probably have been his youth, they said.
At 20 years old, Walker's innocent confidence in Islamic fundamentalism could be credible, said Loch Johnson, author of Secret Agencies: U.S. Intelligence in a Hostile World.
"He was obviously naïve and they decided it was the real thing," he said.
Johnson added that U.S. officials have "never hired any American that young to work for the U.S. intelligence agencies. It's possible al Qaeda understood that."
Most intelligence operatives, especially those in the field, have some military experience, he said. For example, Mike Spann, the CIA interrogator who was killed in the same prison where Walker was discovered, was 32 years old and had served in the Marines before joining the agency.
Taliban officials might also ask Walker to do things that an American agent would be unable to do — like kill someone, experts said.
Other insular, hard-to-infiltrate organizations like the mafia and the Ku Klux Klan have in the past used similar tests, they said.
On the other hand, experts also raised the possibility that Walker, despite his support for the Sept. 11 attacks, and his claims of knowledge about future attacks, may have been an inconsequential part of the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Dr. Tom Badey, of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., speculated that Walker "won't exactly be a gold mine in terms of info" — and U.S. officials have similarly dismissed what he has had to say about future attacks.
Throughout its seven-year history, the Taliban has been known to have press-ganged men into service — and it's possible that Walker had taken no more active role in becoming a member of the Taliban than having a rifle thrust into his hands and being ordered to fight.
No Walkers Necessary
In fact, U.S. intelligence has a "pull rather than push" recruitment strategy, which means that building spies in the form of Walker is rare to begin with, said Tim Brown, senior analyst at Washington thinktank globalsecurity.org.
"To recreate a Walker in terms of what we would do would be pretty difficult," said Badey.
There are basically two types of intelligence officers, explained Johnson: case officers who work out of U.S. embassies, and "NOC"s — or "non-official cover," who operate undercover, unprotected by diplomatic immunity.
As much as 85 or 90 percent of intelligence officers are case workers, he said — which means they get their information not by infiltration and betrayal, but by recruiting natives to give them information.
Ironically, Walker might have been one of these people case workers would have aimed to recruit, five or six years down the line, Badey said.
Other intelligence agencies do place NOCs, experts said, but that just hasn't been the style of the CIA. American intelligence spends seven times more on other forms of intelligence gathering than HUMINT, Johnson said.
"It's part of the mindset [of the decision makers]" said Abraham Miller, an intelligence expert at the University of Cincinnati.
While human sources can lie, make up information, or even double-cross you, many decision makers think SIGINT "can't be defeated, can't be doubled, can't be deceived," he said — while noting how plywood mock-ups of tanks had managed to bait satellite-guided missiles during the Kosovo war.
Experts also noted that getting HUMINT case workers, much less NOCs, was difficult enough. Not only could life be dangerous as an NOC, but there was little job security in HUMINT altogether, they said — after previous administrations set about eliminating what they considered ineffective bureaucracies.
With the events of Sept. 11 though, experts were confident such attitudes would change. But it still wouldn't be easy though, John Walker notwithstanding.
Brown, the analyst, said it was easier to obtain HUMINT during the Cold War because the enemy was contending with corruption and disillusionment — but the motivations in the current war on terror are a little less palpable.
"In the Islamic world, access to money isn't as interesting or important," he said. "[But] it's not as if there no greed in the Islamic world."