On a visit to Washington a year ago, Palestinian security chief Jibril Rajoub proudly showed off an armor-plated limousine that he said the Central Intelligence Agency “always provides me when I am here.” Last week on the West Bank, Rajoub was running for his life from Israeli troops seeking to eliminate the territory’s “terrorist infrastructure.”

The CIA helped Rajoub make his way out of his fire-gutted compound in Beitunia and arrange the surrender of dozens of his operatives as Ariel Sharon’s siege intensified. The American agents were doing what comes naturally in their profession — protecting assets, however troublesome those assets may become for others.

Rajoub’s plight points up the exposed position into which U.S. intelligence officers — and U.S. policy — have been dragged in the new Israeli-Palestinian war. The Palestinian militias that the CIA has been building up under presidential order are the primary recipients of Sharon’s wrath and firepower. Sharon intends to conquer, or destroy, what the CIA hath wrought on the West Bank.

The Bush administration now faces an acute dilemma in unraveling the confusion and complexities created by U.S. intelligence taking on responsibilities that are deeply operational and political. Operating under an intelligence “finding” signed by President Clinton, the CIA has helped train and equip Yasser Arafat’s security forces.

And the CIA in one form or another became publicly involved in the grooming of Rajoub and other security commanders as potential leaders in the post-Arafat era. Instead of objectively sorting through and analyzing the looming succession struggle for Washington, agents on the ground have horses in the race.

Mixing espionage and political duties is always dangerous. It tends to produce short-term successes (providing intelligence to Saddam Hussein, obtaining funding for the contras) and long-term liabilities for U.S. foreign policy (ditto). CIA Director George Tenet presumably recognized the dangers when he initially resisted this role for his agency. Sharon’s assault on the militias shows why Tenet should have stood his ground.

The Israeli prime minister twists the knife in the corpse of a failed U.S. policy that began in late 1998, worked well in 1999 and then died in 2001 when the Palestinian Preventive Security force abandoned meaningful cooperation with the Israelis. When Sharon, or President Bush, speaks of Arafat’s failure to “control terrorism,” it is this default of the security services and police that they have in mind.

Sharon’s message to Rajoub, Mohammed Dahlan, Marwan Barghouti and Arafat’s other lieutenants is clear: Take on the suicide bombers and leaders of Hamas or face destruction for being useless, complicit or both. You are the “infrastructure” that must be uprooted.

So far the Palestinians continue to hesitate, presumably out of the same fear or ambition that caused them, as Arafat’s intifada intensified, to stop halting would-be suicide bombers and other terrorists or tipping off the Israelis. When Rajoub agreed on Tuesday through the CIA to give up his compound at Beitunia after running out of food and ammunition, he immediately came under attack from Hamas for allowing a half-dozen of its “warriors” to fall into Israeli hands and for being “an American agent.”

There is a giant Catch-22 at the heart of the Faustian bargain that Israel, the United States and the Palestinian Authority struck as part of the Wye Plantation accords of 1998. While CIA support brings resources and power to the recipient, the agency’s visible embrace can also be used to discredit both a person and a cause in the eyes of many Arabs, not just the killers of Hamas.

U.S. interests can also be compromised by arrangements dominated by the agency’s covert skills of finding “assets” that can be bought, manipulated or coerced into doing the agency’s bidding. This is hardly the definition of reliable allies who are likely to promote American democratic principles in the political arena.

Ironically, it was Binyamin Netanyahu, then Israel’s prime minister, who insisted at the Wye meeting that the CIA deepen its engagement with the Palestinian security forces, which became more heavily armed through the deal. This was to ensure that they carried out the unspoken responsibility Arafat accepted in the 1993 Oslo accords: The Palestinians would eliminate the terrorist threat in the areas the Israelis agreed to leave, without much concern by Washington or Jerusalem over methods.

But means do influence ends. The security arrangements were contaminated by the corruption, authoritarianism and weakness that Arafat and his lieutenants practiced on their own people — who end up paying a terrible price for the failures of the CIA’s friends in their midst.

This piece ran in the Washington Post on April 7, 2002