Espionage versus Intelligence: How the United States Goes About Spying
Before discussing in detail why spies choose to spy, we ought to figure out what espionage is and how the United States goes about it. Spying has a long history, stretching back to biblical times. Tribes, ethnicities, and other authorities have always wanted to know what their enemies or rivals were planning to do to them or how they might act to protect a perceived vital interest. If the rival power refused to share the information, it had to be stolen or suborned. The High Priest's minions sought to bribe Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus' followers, into revealing the prophet's whereabouts so they could eliminate him before Rome interfered to bring Jerusalem to heel.
In medieval and renaissance times, spies infiltrated the courts of rival kingdoms and principalities to acquire the secrets that might undermine them or keep them at a safe distance-and they were called ambassadors.
George Washington believed strongly in the value of intelligence. He arrived at an understanding with the Continental Congress in 1775 that it would create a separate secret committee, the Committee of Secret Correspondence, whose mission it would be to furnish General Washington with unvouchered, unaccountable funds that he could spend to hire spies to protect the Continental Army. One of those spies, an untutored but enthusiastic young schoolmaster, Nathan Hale, volunteered to go behind the British lines on Long Island in 1776 to spy, but he was so green that he was immediately captured and hanged. Although he was clearly temperamentally unsuited for espionage, Hale had been willing to try it because his country and fellow soldiers so desperately needed intelligence about the British Army's plans and whereabouts in New York.
I once heard Reagan administration director of Central Intelligence WilliamJ. Casey remark, as he walked past the statue of Nathan Hale implanted beside the main entrance to the original CIA headquarters building in Langley, Virginia., that he'd like to replace Hale with a statue of Hercules Mulligan. Unlike Hale, Casey noted, Mulligan was a successful spy throughout the American Revolution. Like Hale, a Yale graduate, Mulligan was a member of Washington's Committee of Secret Correspondence from 1775 until the end of the Revolutionary War. He successfully spied for Washington in New York City, once crossing through enemy lines carrying a letter from AlexanderHamilton outlining the best way to evacuate outgunned American troops from Long Island. Mulligan's clothing business and his brother's export-import firm permitted close contact with senior officers in the British Army occupying New York, and Mulligan took full advantage of these relationships to gather tidbits concerning British troop movements and plans. He successfully warned of a British plan to capture General Washington in 1779, and a later plan to interdict his passage to New England in 1781. Mulligan lived until 1825, having known many of the principal figures from New York on the American side during the revolution. He was a champion of the cause of American freedom spurred by a principled distaste for British rule, owing in no small part to his Irish heritage. That is doubtless what appealed to Director Casey.
More recently, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Britain and other colonial powers used espionage to defend empire. "The Great Game," as Kipling called it, was employed to prevent the czarist Russians and their French allies from interfering with Britain's economic and political domination of the Indian subcontinent. Britain sought to train natives, or white sahibs who could pass for natives, to hang out in the bazaars or go on surveying missions in the outback to keep track of hostile efforts to undermine its influence.
In World War I, Britain used its skill in breaking foreign diplomatic codes to intercept German radio messages threatening interference with neutral shipping in the North Atlantic, or planning an alliance with Mexico to return territory "stolen" from it by the United States during the Mexican-American War. These messages, including the famous ZimmermannTelegram, were secretly shared with President Wilson to lay the groundwork for his decision to enter the war on the allied side in 1917. Here was modern technology employed to enhance the espionage effort against hostile communications of enemy states that the collector then used very effectively to get help for its cause.
The period between the wars saw a lot of espionage for hire, as varied newly enfranchised states in central Europe and the Middle East sought to establish themselves and protect their independence but did not have the experience or money to pay for an intelligence service of their own. The rise of fascism led to efforts by the Axis powers to infiltrate the West, including the United States, where J. Edgar Hoover was finally instructed by President Roosevelt in 1940 to go after Nazi plans to sabotage U.S. cargo bound for European ports. This was the first recognition that the United States was disadvantaged by not having a peacetime civilian intelligence service, and led to the chartering of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) under General William "Wild Bill" Donovan during World War II, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 1947. In between, of course, the United States had suffered the shocking disaster of the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, about which we had had no intelligence warning. In the postwar postmortems about the event it was hotly debated as to whether this was a failure of collection or analysis, but in the end, an otherwise skeptical President Truman was convinced that the United States needed a civilian spy service, and the CIA was created.
This brings us to the era of modern espionage. The charter of the fledgling CIA in 1947 was to become the action element in the U.S. government to respond to George Kennan's clarion call to oppose the westward drive of the postwar Soviet empire, the policy of containment. The CIA was empowered to do this by spying and by covert political operations ("covert action"), which ran the gamut from black propaganda (where the source of the propaganda is hidden) to funding democratic political parties in Italy and elsewhere; to sending in sabotage teams behind the Iron Curtain to roll back communism. It was a mammoth assignment and a gigantic project, which neither the State nor Defense departments wanted to take on, so it fell to the new kid on the block. After a very slow start in the late forties it began to succeed, turning into a meaningful effort to penetrate and infiltrate Soviet agent networks in the West, in the mid-sixties. The Soviets, of course, had been quite successful in launching espionage operations against its future allies in the West beginning in the mid-1930s, before the war, and continuing with the successful effort to steal U.S. atomic secrets, which led to the testing of a Soviet nuclear bomb in 1948, five years in advance of most intelligence predictions.
We shall concentrate on the legacy of espionage operations mounted by Western intelligence agencies against the Soviet Union during the cold war period that ran from 1946 to 1991, to establish the baseline of knowledge about espionage for comparison with the current challenges posed by Islamist terrorism. The reason for this is clear. For forty-five years, thiswas the principal mission of U.S. intelligence agencies. This is what we had to learn to do after the CIA was chartered in 1947 at the outset of the cold war, and how we learned it.
Covert action (political operations where the hand of the United States is intended not to show) will also be considered, because this was also a critical part of the CIA's mission. Yet it is my view, after observing the extent to which it has become impossible under current circumstances of around-the-clock worldwide media coverage, the Internet, and expanded congressional oversight to mount these operations in secrecy, that they are likely to play but a small part in the intelligence war on terrorism. In sum, we shall be looking principally at what the United States knows about human spy operations.
Nonetheless, we shall not restrict our inquiry to cloak-and-dagger operations, dead drops, and microdots alone. America has made many contributions to universal spycraft,1 but its greatest over the years are perhaps in the realm of sophisticated communications technology, i.e., satellite reconnaissance and eavesdropping, and electronic surveillance. We shall want to see how these technical aids will help the West follow international money transfers and Internet communications among terrorist cells. We shall need to understand better the possibilities of using modern computers to capture and analyze reams of data, i.e., data mining.
Nonetheless, the principal focus of our inquiry is a question of human behavior and motivation. Why do spies spy?
To begin, we have to define what spies do. I have borrowed in the past from Kim Philby's definition of espionageas the collection of "secret information from foreign countries by illegal means."2 I am no longer sure that this epigrammatic formulation gets it all. For example, calling information "secret" suggests that there is a requirement that it be formally adjudged to be so, and be so stamped. In reality, we don't care about definitions. We are concerned with information that the spy wants to obtain and that the owner of it wants to protect, regardless of its intrinsic sensitivity.
Second, the spy universe is no longer adequately defined by "foreign countries." It includes Al Qaeda or the Taliban or the Iraqi insurgents or the Kosovar Serbs or the rebels of Darfur--whatever transnational group is engaged in hostile action against Western interests.
Finally, "illegal means" is too polite, too marquis of Queensbury. We are talking about stealing secrets. This is no parlor game but a down and dirty effort, electronic or human, to get at the intentions of the enemy, to strip his cupboard bare.
That is what makes the core question of why spies spy so compelling. However the spy may dress it up or the good spy runner may sugarcoat it, a spy is betraying a trust. He or she is revealing to a third party information that he or she, his friends, family, and professional associates are prohibited from sharing. It is an act that has consequences, as we shall note. And herein lies the essential conundrum of the present time. If spying is an enterprise so fraught with fundamental risk, can we be confident that simply hiring more case officers and teaching them hard languages will accomplish the task? Aren't there additional parts to the equation? If so, what might they be? What are the motivations for espionage thatcan be learned and that might be exploited to give some hope of success against the practitioners of martyrdom operations?
Espionage is distinguished from other forms of intelligence gathering by its clandestinity and its "illegal means" of acquisition. Spies are traitors who can be shot for their transgressions, as can the case officers who run them if they are not diplomats. Not all intelligence reports provided daily to the president are derived from stolen secret information provided by spies. Much of it is open source information acquired by experts in the course of perusing Web sites, media outlets, academic monographs, and conversations with other experts who know the region or subject being explicated. It is derived from ambassadorial and foreign service officer reports from American embassies abroad and military attaches serving in them. In fact, about 95 percent of most intelligence reports that reach the president's desk are largely derived from sources that, if you knew what you were looking for, would be openly available. It becomes intelligence by virtue of the expertise of the analyst who pulls all source information together in a way that explains the meaning and implications of an event to the president and his top policy makers. No espionage may be involved.
During World War II, the CIA's predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), was given credit for having invented something called "all-source intelligence analysis" that combined fragments of information from newspapers, academic journals, legal travelers, and spies to present to the nation's top decision makers as complete a picture of ball-bearing production in Nazi Germany, let's say, as was available anywhere.Note that even at that time, these analysts did not have access to intercepted wire or radio communications, more commonly known in the trade as sigint. That was reserved for military intelligence agencies. The OSS analysts were often postdoctorates or young faculty from distinguished universities, and they were putting in their daily dozen or fourteen hours a day to track the efforts of the Axis powers to feed their war machine. Even from these hoary beginnings the lion's share of basic intelligence collection and analysis was derived from ingenious, dogged research in open source materials enriched by the occasional clandestine report that clarified some aspect of what the analyst was looking for or at.
To be sure, the clandestinely acquired 5 percent of intelligence information is often the nugget or key fact that gives the report salience or authenticity. But it does not necessarily dominate the interpretation, meaning, or significance of the piece.
The second aspect of the secret 5 percent is that it might not be (and usually isn't) derived from humint--human spies. It can be sigint or overhead satellite photography. It could also be the report of a cooperating foreign intelligence liaison service.
Therefore, human spying and intelligence gathering and analysis are not synonymous. Most good intelligence is a pastiche of various bits of information put together authoritatively by analysts with deep knowledge of the subject area where the clandestinely acquired pieces are but a part, perhaps the most important part, but only a part of the whole. Humint is unlikely to be a high volume or comfortably predictablepart of the entire intelligence collection enterprise. In the past I have called espionage "pick and shovel" work: tedious, slow, unpredictable, but vitally important, because it can often lead the analyst to information he may not be able to acquire elsewhere, information about a subject's intentions.3
Next we need to know who in the U.S. government does the spying. Of the sixteen separate intelligence agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community noted earlier, only two are supposed to have spy runners on the ground collecting human source intelligence overseas.4 They are the CIA and the Defense Humint Service. CIA's directorate of operations (DO) has been in charge of spying since the agency was created in 1947, and before that as OSS during World War II. Its targets have traditionally been political and economic intelligence of national interest to the president and his chief policy makers. The DO is also responsible for covert action (CA) as directed by the president and the National Security Council.
The Defense Humint Service is a relatively new entrant in the field of foreign espionage, having been created in 1993 after the 1991 Gulf War to organize the military's effort to gather tactical intelligence around the battlefield for purposes of aiding and protecting U.S. forces fighting abroad. It replaced the individual efforts of the military services and the defense attaché's offices. The CIA remains the manager of national humint collection, meaning Defense Humint Service officers are supposed to coordinate their collection efforts with the senior CIA representative in the field. With the proliferation of antiterrorist intelligence collection efforts abroad, however, this coordination has been harder to come by.
A word must be said about the FBI in this connection. Except for a short period during World War II, the FBI has largely confined its spying efforts to the domestic scene. With the growing importance of antiterrorist activity, and the disappearance of a distinction between foreign and domestic terrorist planning and operations, the FBI has built up its presence in legal attaché offices in U.S. embassies abroad from which it is not supposed to run espionage operations; but FBI agents do involve themselves with friendly foreign intelligence liaison services in antiterrorist issues of common concern.
Finally, why do we need to do this at all? How much information essential to the protection of the West from future suicide bombings is actually secret and cannot be acquired by studious data mining of the Internet or good investigative police work? This has traditionally been a tough question to answer, but may be less so given the offensive posture most Western leaders want their intelligence and domestic security agencies to assume. The goal now is to prevent another 9/11, Madrid train bombing, or 7/7 London Underground attack from occurring, not just finding out who did it after the fact. If intelligence and domestic security are in a preemptive and preventive mode, they will need accurate and timely intelligence about future attacks before they occur, which means penetrating the terrorist cells while they are still planning the attacks.
Obviously, today's is a new world for espionage, but coldwar successes include several instances where timely intelligence about a then current state of mind helped Western leaders avoid a disaster. A clear example is the intelligence information provided to President John F. Kennedy in October 1962 by U.S./U.K. spy Colonel Oleg Penkovsky during the Cuban missile crisis. Penkovsky reported that Soviet general secretary Nikita Khrushchev had not been fully supported in the Politburo and the General Staff in his decision to introduce intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) into Cuba. That nugget, confirmed by former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union Llewelyn Thompson, sitting at Kennedy's side, gave the president the room he needed to attempt a different strategy from that being urged on him by the U.S. military. Instead of bombing Cuba into the stone age to take advantage of the fact that our U-2 spy planes had provided us with clear evidence of Soviet missile installations on the island, and that the Soviets did not yet know that we knew, President Kennedy decided to give Khrushchev an opportunity to step back from a confrontation that might have led to the beginning of World War III. He gave away the advantage of a surprise bombing in favor of a strategy of "quarantine," or embargo, to give Khrushchev an opportunity to reverse an impulsive decision not supported by his own military and political leaders.
The successful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis is an example of timely intelligence information permitting a Western political leader to act carefully before he might have been forced to embark upon a radical course of action that might lead to war, or accept a fait accompli. This is what the politicalleaders of Western democracies expect their intelligence and domestic security services to provide every day against potential terrorist attack. As former director of central intelligence George Tenet observed after September 11, in the intelligence business, a .350 batting average won't do; you've got to bat 1.000. Unfortunately, this rate of success is infrequent, if not impossible.
Furthermore, access to this kind of intelligence will be far more difficult in an era of Islamist terrorism. The groups that have formed to mount suicide attacks against the West are not nation-states yet. They are not subject to pressure from their peers if they go over the line. Their actions cannot be condemned before the community of nations in the UN as Ambassador Stevenson did with the Soviets in 1962, showing the world the U-2 photographic evidence of the Soviet IRBM installations on Cuba. Instead, Al Qaeda looks to many observers like a terrorist franchising operation, providing money and know-how to local bands who plan to attack local targets. Its ranks appear to be continually replenished by like-minded radical Islamists throughout the Muslim world. In this way, the terrorists are operating worldwide more like individual cells, taking advantage of targets of opportunity, and susceptible perhaps to penetration by local law enforcement more than by national intelligence entities.
In any event, if the West is to be successful against this new wave of holy terror, it will have to penetrate the terrorists' inner sanctum and steal their plans, and it will have to make use of every sophisticated surveillance capability in its arsenal to detect the perpetrators.
This will, of course, bring other ramifications. Civil libertarians may be shocked at the changes called for to gather preemptive intelligence against terrorists: longer periods of administrative detention for terrorist suspects; more intrusive surveillance techniques used against suspects; and elimination of privacy protections. This has certainly been the reaction in some quarters of the U.S. to passage of the USA Patriot Act, particularly in light of the fact that we have had the good fortune to escape further large-scale attacks since September 11, 2001.
That, however, is not the subject of this work. Recognizing the enormity of today's challenge, what we want to know is how well our past experience during the cold war has prepared us to penetrate the inner councils of the jihadists. Which of the vulnerabilities described as the seven motivations for espionage in the following pages can be exploited to gain the intelligence information we need to protect us against a suicide bomber? Why have spies worked for us in the past, and why might they spy for us now? And what might be our chances of success in an era of Islamist terror?
WHY SPY? Copyright © 2008 by Frederick P. Hitz. All rights reserved.