by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.
Six weeks before the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, FBI Special Agent Richard Kolko found himself posted to Saddam Hussein’s oil-rich neighbor, Kuwait. Kolko’s job was to lead a team that would scour thousands of Iraqi government documents for evidence of espionage in or surveillance of the United States. Once he made it to Baghdad, Kolko said, analysts and special agents on his team sifted through literal truckloads of Iraqi intelligence alongside the American soldiers now responsible for governing and securing the country.
“We dressed army, lived army, and ate army while we were there,” Kolko told me of his stint as an FBI special agent turned soldier.
Kolko and his team uncovered an Iraqi spy ring spanning five states, leading to charges against 12 Iraqi immigrants. But the FBI’s mission in Iraq expanded far beyond counterintelligence, with work ranging from bomb analysis to how to establish some semblance of law and order in a foreign country rife with hostiles forces. In the process, the top domestic law enforcement agency in America emerged as a player in the Middle East, a region where it remains active to some extent even as it faces internal turmoil over the ouster of Director James Comey and the probe into possible collusion between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Moscow.
What the team uncovered amid millions of documents gathered from warehouses, secret government stash houses and the Iraqi intelligence ministry was an extensive network of Iraqi spies operating in the United States. — Donna Leinwand, “FBI Team in Baghdad Uncovered Extensive Iraqi Spy Network in U.S.“, Deseret News, 03.03.2008.
The highest-ranking FBI official in the country at the time was the legal attaché at the American embassy in the Green Zone. “The FBI’s Legal Attaché program was established to facilitate information exchange and the coordination of the FBI’s international activities, provide training and assistance, and enable criminal prosecutions of foreign subjects,” Bureau spokesman Andy Ames said in an email. “The Legal Attaché (LEGAT) is the FBI Director’s personal representative in the host country.”
The Intercept reported that legats may even recruit informants alongside the Central Intelligence Agency on foreign soil, an allegation that the FBI declined to address one way or another.
Many former special agents worked in Iraq as contractors, advising American soldiers and Iraqi policemen on how to establish and observe the rule of law in a country whose government the US Armed Forces had just overthrown and redesigned. Ed Guevara, a now-retired special agent who was under a contract with the Defense and State Departments, recalled advising Iraq’s interior ministry on transitioning its law enforcement agencies from operating under a military dictatorship to a state built on civil authority. “Since the war was ongoing, the assignment called for helping manage crises and their related consequences due to major attacks and bombings, keeping order in coordination with military forces, conducting investigations, and standing up the National Command Center as a functional national entity in intelligence and deployment of resources,” Guevara said.
Over two previous presidential administrations, the FBI, enabled by complacent congressional oversight in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, has transformed itself from a criminal law enforcement organization into an intelligence-gathering operation whose methods are more similar to those of the CIA and NSA. With 35,000 employees and more than 15,000 informants, today’s FBI is an intelligence agency without a historical peer in the United States. […] As further proof of the FBI’s transformation from domestic law enforcement organization to global intelligence agency, the informant policy guide allows the FBI to deploy informants in countries around the globe and mentions no requirement that the agency notify the host country of their presence. FBI legal attaches, or legats, are central to this capacity. Legats are stationed in U.S. embassies and their official duty is to serve as liaisons between the FBI and the law enforcement agencies of other nations. But information from the informant policy guide and news reports in recent years suggests that legats function as the FBI’s version of CIA station chiefs — intelligence agents operating in other countries under nominal State Department cover. — Trevor Aaronson, “The FBI Gives Itself Lots of Rope to Pull in Informants“, The Intercept, 31.01.2017.
For his part, James Fitzsimmons was assigned by the Defense Department to the Commission of Integrity, an Iraqi government watchdog that investigated corruption, which evolved into such a controversial, dangerous enterprise that the Commission’s director and his deputy had to seek asylum in the US. According to Fitzsimmons, other former special agents worked alongside former employees of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the Internal Revenue Service in the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, an American government agency overseeing how the US financed the Iraq War.
“The basic goals of the FBI in Iraq were to reorganize the new government with proper training to re-establish law enforcement and security in the country,” said Ken Riolo, who participated in an FBI task force investigating some of Saddam’s crimes against humanity between July and October 2006, four months before the dictator’s execution. The special agent now heading the FBI’s Miami office, Arabic-speaking Lebanese–American George Piro, became known in the news media as Saddam’s interrogator.
Despite special agents’ individual successes, chronic problems endemic to their operating environment undermined progress on the some of the FBI’s long-term projects. Anti-American, Iranian-backed Shia militias managed to infiltrate the Interior Ministry and its corresponding law enforcement agencies, complicating the FBI’s efforts to shape an Iraqi security agency meant to embody the rule of law. Insurgents, meanwhile, engineered bigger, cheaper, deadlier IEDs capable of crippling expensive military technology, threatening to outpace the CEXC. They even wounded a special agent, leading some in the Justice Department to question the wisdom of the wider program.
When the US Armed Forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, the FBI returned many of its responsibilities there to the Iraqis. In the years since, the rise of ISIS has challenged the longevity of the FBI’s accomplishments in Iraq. The Bureau’s most lasting achievements there may be the ones most connected to its missions of counterintelligence and counterterrorism in the United States. “The number of major crimes committed by Iraqis that had some nexus to US interests was overwhelming,” Fitzsimmons told me. Kolko added that the FBI often triaged documents revealing actionable intelligence related to the US.
Other domestic American law enforcement agencies, such as the New York City Police Department, have their own histories of operating abroad — but few outside the Drug Enforcement Administration have made such major contributions to foreign battlefields.
While most eyes in the United States are on the law enforcement agency’s investigation of the alleged relationship between Trump and Moscow, Trump, who has vowed to crush ISIS, may see fit to send the US’s top special agents back to troubled Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq. Then, it will fall to Trump’s nominee for FBI Director, Christopher A. Wray, a lawyer experienced in criminal law rather than counterterrorism, to lead the Bureau’s charge into one of the US’s longest wars.