World

An Intelligence Primer

By J Brooks Spector 11 September 2014

After all the fuss over ludicrous charges Public Protector Thuli Madonsela was in the clutches of some nefarious, secret foreign force, J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates the circumstances of intelligence gathering in today’s world.

Secret Agent Man

There’s a man who leads a life of danger
To everyone he meets he stays a stranger
With every move he makes
Another chance he takes
Odds are he won’t live to see tomorrow

Secret Agent Man
Secret Agent Man
They’ve given you a number and taken away your name

Beware of pretty faces that you find
A pretty face can hide an evil mind
Oh, be careful what you say
Or you’ll give yourself away
Odds are you won’t live to see tomorrow

Secret Agent Man
Secret Agent Man
They’ve given you a number and taken away your name

Swinging on the Riviera one day
And then laying in a Bombay alley next day
Oh, don’t you let the wrong words slip
While kissing persuasive lips
Odds are you won’t live to see tomorrow

Secret Agent Man
Secret Agent Man
They’ve given you a number and taken away your name

— music and lyrics by PF Sloan and Steve Barri

A long time ago, back in 1978, while my wife and I were Washington where I was part of a team managing international educational exchange activities with several Southeast Asian nations, and my wife was an instructor in an international school downtown, we made the acquaintances of a husband and wife team of intelligence analysts. Nope, sorry, it’s not what some readers are undoubtedly thinking. No James Bond, no Jason Bourne, no Mr Verloc, no Matahari in this tale. But stay with this anecdote for just a minute. With that couple, the wife sang in a classical concert choir with my wife and they both happened to be in the same soprano section so they sat close together and became friends. We went out to dinner together a few times and attended a concert or two together as well, given the collective appreciation of music. One night, over coffee after dinner, we got to discussing the Shah of Iran and his prospects for staying in power on into the future.

The husband was an experienced Middle East analyst (while the wife largely focused on Greece and Turkey) and he explained to us all how, despite the then-increasing public unrest in Tehran, the Shah’s position was secure – he had the army, the national police, Savak (the state security police) rock-solid on his side, and all that money from the oil wells on his side as well. All would be well there, not to worry. The students would eventually be back in their classes and the clerics would go back to their studies and sermons eventually too. Of course, soon enough, in 1979 all was distinctly not well from the perspective of the Shah-in-shah, a man who, very soon after our conversation, had to go into exile and a lonely death in Egypt, and, ever since, there have been years of political turmoil and other ructions in Iran.

The thing was, this man was an experienced intelligence analyst, well acquainted with that part of the world. But he would never be confused with one of John LeCarre’s espionage anti-heroes. The man was confined to a motorised wheelchair.

In fact, he was an exemplar of a majority of the CIA’s staff complement. Despite the images of action films and spy novels, these folks came to work every day, stayed in their offices much of the time, read vast volumes of US and local language newspapers, magazines, reporting telegrams from the various US embassies on various political and economic developments, perused transcripts of foreign broadcasts from state radio networks, and corresponded with other experts.

Sometimes they went out to conferences around Washington (there are always dozens of them happening, what with all the various foreign area specialists at research centres, foreign embassies and the many international organisations, corporations and government offices there as well). And they wrote frequent analyses of current developments in their or responsibility, profiles of current government leaders and rising stars, as well as evaluations of challenges for the US in their respective geographical area of competence for information consumers throughout the US government. Now, of course, the Internet has added a whole new flood of information – it delivers much of the material that used to be read in hard copy, but it is also adding to that volume simultaneously. Their problem, now, is, even more than before, winnowing out what is crucial for understanding – or at least important – and tossing the rest aside amidst the flood of data.

It is not easy to do this, and it is very easy to get wrong. Sometimes very wrong. Besides missing the collapse of the Shah’s rule in Iran, CIA analysts missed being able to pinpoint the inception of the Sino-Soviet split, and the collapse of the Soviet Union as well as the end of its empire in Eastern Europe. And, of course, that litany does not include the events leading up to 9/11, the sudden, unexpected arrival of the Arab Spring, or the harrowing collapse of order across Syria and Iraq. All of these have taken the intelligence community largely by surprise. But this should not be too surprising. In effect, in its information gathering (by whatever means) and analysis, the CIA – as well as every other intelligence agency throughout the world – is primarily concerned with understanding two crucial variables: the capabilities of a foreign nation’s economy and government and the intentions of that government. And both variables are hard to get right – except, of course, in hindsight.

And so intelligence analysts worldwide often get things wrong. To prevent that, they try to get an edge on things by gaining access to yet more data that can help them refine their insights or increase the odds that their guesses are right (or even help them point towards the “bad guys” – before “bad things” happen). As a result, this has become one of the key goads pushing the US intelligence community to carry out that those increasingly intrusive efforts to harvest cellphone conversations, emails and other electronic sources by the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office. Of course, in a similar vein, American corporations have been finding more and more evidence of Chinese intelligence agency electronic infiltration of the encrypted corporate data bases of US companies involved in defence contracting, among many other examples. All of this is a long way away from pre-World War II Secretary of State Henry Stimson’s famous diktat that gentlemen do not read each others’ mail as he cut back the code breaking offices under his purview in his government department.

Of course, intelligence agencies don’t simply rely on open sources on the Internet for their information gathering. They solicit contributions from people in other governments in informal exchanges of information as well as via more surreptitious versions of information gathering. Sometimes such potential information sources come to you – and sometimes you have to go to them.

For example, within the US, CIA analyst and counterintelligence specialist Aldrich Ames handed over a vast volume of data to his Russian handlers, before he was caught – and some of this almost certainly led to the deaths of US informants inside the then-Soviet Union’s government. But Ames didn’t carry out his activities because of a great, sentimental love for socialism. Rather, in his case he did it out of greed – and the need for the wherewithal to buy the latest Jaguar model. By contrast, regardless of one’s views of their motives, US Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollack gave over important information to the Israelis from secret US data; the husband and wife team of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg helped a yet-larger network of sympathisers hand over US nuclear secrets to the Russians at the beginning of the Cold War; and Colonel Oleg Penkovsky handed over some of the crown jewels of Soviet nuclear weapons data to the US in the early 1960s – almost certainly out of his growing distaste for the Soviet system. And then, most recently, there is the newest wrinkle in such behaviour with Julian Assange’s Wikileaks and Edward Snowden’s wide public distribution of rooms full of classified electronic data to the world.

Of course, intelligence agencies internationally have also attempted to carry out more active activities – espionage and dirty tricks – running from wiretaps, to ‘honeytraps’, to plausibly deniable assassinations or worse. But more and more, the real prize for intelligence is the mother lode of data that can comprehensively allow one government to understand those defence and security capabilities and intentions of another. In contemporary circumstances, increasingly important is a solid knowledge of the internal deliberations inside a government such that it tips off which official supports a particular position and why; this so that maximally effective political or negotiating pressure can be put to use to guide the actions of the other nation’s stance and positions at high-level international economic negotiating conferences.

The popular view – seemingly on view in South Africa in the past week – is that intelligence agencies have vast phalanxes of their agents everywhere, silently subverting and twisting the intentions of honest but vulnerable government civil servants. In fact, however, the more usual problem now is that the fast-changing circumstances of conflicts around the world are increasingly asymmetric conflicts that suddenly – and seemingly without warning erupt. This, in turn, usually means that human intelligence – the so-called “humint” as opposed to “sigint” or signal intelligence – is unusually scarce or even largely non-existent.

It is virtually impossible for the intelligence service of almost any nation to suddenly gear up with a whole corps of operatives who can deal successfully with the circumstances of “the field” – as well as speak those hard-to-learn languages that may have little use once a crisis or conflict is over. There is a very small job market for such people unless they can quickly retool with an entirely different language and part of the world.

As a result, intelligence agencies have become increasingly dependent on electronic information gathering, even as that method can really produce little useful information about the intentions of small, fast-moving guerrilla bands – or even their combat capabilities. Put that together, by contrast, with the relative costs and benefits of trying to winnow out the new designs for the next generation fighter aircraft or the specifications of a new anti-aircraft missile, and one sees how resources in the intelligence community have increasingly become skewed in a certain way – and have let down the capabilities of government to understand developments in the world usefully.

Now, just for fun, let’s play a 100%, totally imaginary thought experiment: If one were a manager in a foreign intelligence service, would one rather have close connections with a non-partisan official charged with discovering and rooting out corruption and malfeasance in government activities (those reports are, after all, usually released to the public eventually) – or, rather, with someone responsible that nation’s military preparedness? This is especially the case where a nation’s military is active in peace-keeping and peace-making around a continent, has an involvement in defence equipment sales, and has a growing list of commitments applied to an already overstretched force. Now would that person be an especially interesting person to foreign intelligence services? And is that something to worry about in future? Hmm. DM

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