“The best of times, the worst of times…”
Although Dickens was describing Revolutionary France, he could have been describing the modern world of intelligence.
Although most concepts of intelligence remain firm, the march of technology and evolution of a global society has placed under strain tried-and-true practices of the "Second Oldest Profession" — such as the use of cover.
Ironically, at the same time that the challenges to an intel officer’s cover and 24-hour digital surveillance have made Humint collection more difficult, the Information Age has also opened new potentials for spying undreamed of in history. Intelligence officers must be mindful, however, that technology is a dual edged sword — bringing opportunity, as well as vulnerability.
As our technology advances, our activities become more efficient, but the underlying system fragility increases. For the Intelligence Services, data use has unsurprisingly exploded — intel services, after all, deal in information, and rapid data collation has allowed us to thwart terrorist plots and spot early threats that would have been impossible in the rolodex, analog world of Ian Fleming.
We no longer have to rely on a nondescript Intel Analyst in the basement (according to Hollywood) who is the collective memory of a certain operation or lifetime expert on a given culture (Thank God we still have some of them at CIA!). We can instantly communicate with most overseas posts and with spy satellites can obtain virtually live footage of many activities.
The strength of our technology however, brings unique vulnerabilities. A traitor such as Edward Snowden or Bradley Manning can exfiltrate more classified data to an enemy in a few minutes than could have been dreamed of by a Julius Rosenburg or Klaus Fuchs in an entire career. Remote hacking, not reliant on human agents, allowed Chinese intel to extract enormous amounts of U.S. defense data.
These technical espionage feats are a marked contrast to celebrated defector Vasiliy Mitrokhin, who showed up in Riga literally carrying a steamer trunk full of purloined KGB files in 1991, detailing the KGB’s war against the West.
In addition to unparalleled possibilities of cyber espionage, we also have the more “Active Measure” tactics of hacking and cyberwarfare meant to degrade or destroy our ability to collect intel, wage war, or even sustain our power grid.
These threats are so pressing, both to our government and to our civil society that the United States has set up a Cyber Command to address the threat.
It's pretty safe to say that right now the United States is the leakiest it has ever been in its history, due to these tech trends. We can only hope that our global rivals, dealing with the same dynamics, are having similar problems. There are signs, for example, that the digital revolution is slowly eroding underpinnings of the North Korean regime.
But the Kim Regime, along with other non-democratic nations, fight back against such encroachment; China’s “Great Firewall” being a stellar example.
The United States, as a republic, is less empowered to erect such a Wall. Unfortunately, this alarming U.S. intel outflow shows no sign of slowing down, and in fact the political agitation of the Progressive left actively encourages leaks (small scale) and espionage (large scale) against our National Security infrastructure as a way of subverting the Trump Administration.
What technology has given us in areas of the intel world is the curse of too much information. We now have an intelligence bureaucracy awash in a sea of data — yet data alone does not impart wisdom.
Institutional wisdom (particularly amongst analysts) is acquired by the type of research and study that their now fast-paced profession seldom allows any more. The Institutional demands to “career manage” analysts, and a bureaucratic focus on the intel process, rather than the pursuit of expertise in a given area (non-proliferation, Iran, etc.) often leaves analysts challenged to separate the critical data from the trivial in understanding the intentions of our enemies.
Overreliance on information can also breed inaction; a bureaucratic tendency to wait for “just a little more data” has hobbled more than one operation I have seen. Data can never be a substitute for leadership.
Lastly, not only do we have a more “distracted” intelligence community, we have a more pressured, fast-paced society at large and this includes our policymakers — the people for whom all this intelligence is actually prepared for. Once the intel is prepared, the next challenge in our fast-paced world is for an Administration to actually use the intel.
I experienced great frustration in watching the Obama Administration continually disregard the intelligence provided it — leadership ignoring intelligence is, unfortunately, an age-old problem, not confined to the modern world.
That our Intelligence Community has had so much success, particularly with the challenges of our high tech age imposed upon it, is a tribute to the resourcefulness and work ethic of the average officer.
We must continue to be mindful of any technology’s impact on intelligence tradecraft, understanding that there will be pro’s and cons to any magic bullet.
To read Part 1 of this series, click here now.
To read Part 2 of this series, click here now.
Scott Uehlinger is a retired CIA Station Chief and Naval Officer. A Russian speaker, he spent 12 years of his career abroad in the former Soviet Union. In addition to teaching at NYU, he is a frequent Newsmax TV and Fox Business TV commentator, and has a weekly podcast, "the Station Chief," that can be found on iTunes or at www.thestationchief.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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