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US intelligence? It’s enough to spook out the best of us

LAST week, it was revealed that an alleged Taliban commander negotiating with coalition forces in Afghanistan was an imposter.

Claiming to be Mullah Mansour, he duped British and United States intelligence agents, as well as US General David Petraeus and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

He was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain the talks, which Petraeus said could lead to the war ending.

Instead, the conman fled with the dough and the carnage continues.

As Maureen Dowd wrote in The New York Times: “Though we’re pouring billions into intelligence in Afghanistan, we can’t even tell the difference between a no-name faker and a senior member of the Taliban.”

It would be funny, if it were not so serious.

More than 40 percent of Southeast Asia’s population is Muslim and the majority are tolerant believers who have no truck with the mad mullahs in Afghanistan.

But this latest cockup bolsters a perception that the war is being waged by people who do not understand Islam and whose crass behaviour causes a seemingly endless toll of civilian deaths.

And that alienates and radicalises Muslims in this region as elsewhere, so that the battle for hearts and minds is lost.

How can “intelligence” agents be so imperceptive and stupid? Well, perhaps it is not so surprising.

Of the Central Intelligence Agency, Derek Leebaert, a foreign policy professor at Washington’s Georgetown University, wrote: “No other single government body has blundered so often in so many ways.”

Considering its actions in this region – propping up dictators like Lon Nol, Ferdinand Marcos, Ne Win and Ngo Dinh Diem, blundered is putting it mildly.

As an illustration, let me take you back to a reception some years ago in Kuala Lumpur where I met a US embassy guy called Harold Nicholson.

After a friendly chat, we agreed to have lunch, but before a date was fixed, he was called back to Washington to become an instructor at the CIA’s training centre in Virginia.

There, at “The Farm”, he taught recruits how to spy. And then he fed their names to the Russians. For Nicholson was a double agent.

Two years later, I was shocked to open my morning newspaper and see his face next to the headline: “CIA Man Held over Sale of Secrets”.

As the deputy station chief in Malaysia – having earlier served in Bangkok, Tokyo and Manila – Nicholson had been nabbed as he was about to fly to Switzerland to meet his Moscow handlers, who had already paid him US$180,000.

A year earlier, after meeting his Russian contact in Singapore, he had flown to Bangkok, picked up “an unidentified female companion” and left for Hawaii.

There, this top US spy cavorted with the Thai hooker on Waikiki Beach, dropped hundred-dollar bills left and right, and sent colourful postcards to his Russian masters in Moscow.

Yet he was still not suspected by his CIA bosses in Virginia.

So the Kabul imposter’s success did not shock me.

It did, however, make me recall the time in Washington when I met another American foreign service officer, Ambassador Joe Wilson, whose wife, Valerie Plame, was also a CIA agent.

And this memory was sharpened last week when I went to see the new movie “Fair Game”, which recounts how Plame was exposed by White House officials in order to discredit Wilson.

He had written a newspaper story revealing that the White House had twisted intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Afterwards, of course, It was found that Wilson was right. The weapons did not exist and no one at the CIA has yet explained how they got it so wrong.

But we need look no further than the Kabul imposter and the likes of Nicholson and other stumblebum spooks whose actions reinforce the view that a clash of civilisations is likely if the Afghan nightmare drags on.

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