The Future of Intelligence

The Future of Intelligence

Mini Teaser: Within hours of the arrest of CIA officer Aldrich Ames for espionage, unnamed agency officials were telling reporters that Ames was a drunk and a mediocre case officer.

by Author(s): Gary SchmittAbram N. Shulsky

Within hours of the arrest of CIA officer Aldrich Ames for espionage, unnamed agency officials were telling reporters that Ames was a drunk and a mediocre case officer. In the weeks that followed, former superiors and fellow officers described him as inept, dull, unsophisticated and lackadaisical. The comments were not surprising. Agency employees wanted to distance themselves from the alleged traitor in their midst, and so were quick to point out that Ames was neither well regarded nor typical of the caliber of personnel within the CIA component that handled clandestine human intelligence activity, the Directorate of Operations.

What was typical, however, was the nonchalance with which an officer of Ames' low caliber was allowed to proceed from job to job within the operations directorate, without anyone in a managerial position seeming to focus on the fact that the organization had a problem on its hands. As the agency's inspector general subsequently noted, Ames was "not going anywhere and no one cared."

Nevertheless, CIA comments at the time of Ames' arrest are revealing. After all, the officer whom the anonymous agency sources were trashing (and had been judged by the CIA at one point to be the third-worst officer among two hundred at his rank) had been only a few years before entrusted with one of the most sensitive posts within the intelligence community--chief of the counterintelligence branch of the Soviet-East European division of the operations directorate. The damage he could and did do to U.S. and allied intelligence operations in the Soviet Union was immense. That the agency was willing to give Ames this position says as much about how important the CIA considers counterintelligence as any stack of pronouncements to the contrary from a succession of directors of central intelligence.

Of course, this is not news. For twenty years, since the forced retirement in 1974 of James Angleton, long-time chief of the agency's counterintelligence staff, counterintelligence (or ci) has been a subordinate discipline at Langley, occasionally called upon but generally reviled and ignored. A Capitol Hill staffer had an occasion to learn about this view first hand some years ago, in the course of explaining to an operations officer a bit of Machiavellian maneuvering going on in Congress. With a big smile on his face, and with a professional comic's sense of timing, the officer replied, "You know, you have a ci mentality...and where I come from, that is not a compliment."
The cost of this contempt came high. We now know that virtually all East German and Cuban spies recruited by the agency for more than a decade were in fact double agents, controlled by those states' intelligence services. In the absence of an effective, in-house counterintelligence capability to review and challenge these recruitments, the CIA was manipulated by the Cuban and East German services, which fed the agency inconsequential, or perhaps even deliberately deceptive, reports.

Paradoxically, against this background (but only against this background), the handling of the Ames case reflects somewhat more credit on the agency than has been recognized. After a succession of its agents had been "rolled up" by the KGB in the mid-1980s, the leadership of the CIA's operations directorate knew it had a serious problem and began an investigation. But the question was, how, precisely, were its operations being compromised? Was it connected to the treachery and subsequent defection of ex-cia officer Edward Lee Howard, to the lapse of embassy security associated with the Marine Guard scandal in Moscow, to a compromise of a communication channel used by U.S. intelligence, or perhaps a bit of each? Or was it any clandestine service's worst nightmare, a mole?
Investigating the possible causes and eliminating those which do not pan out is the heart of the counterintelligence effort in such instances. A major complication in investigating the mole possibility was the (absurd) fact that initially some two hundred individuals were thought to have had access to the information associated with the failed operations. In addition, the pattern of failures was not continuous. Although, in retrospect, the pattern strongly suggested a mole whose access varied over time--as Ames' did--its significance could only be grasped in retrospect.

That said, the CIA's effort to get to the bottom of its losses was nevertheless, according to the inspector general's review, marked by "almost complete indifference" on the part of the agency's leadership. This indifference, combined with the fact that investigators lacked resources and that their efforts were bureaucratically splintered between the agency's Counterintelligence Center, the Office of Security and the Soviet-East European Division, meant that the molehunt would inevitably turn into the tragic comedy of errors that it became. Ames, by any measure of the clandestine art, was a buffoon. Yet, for nearly a decade, he escaped arrest.

This judgment is not intended to make light of the difficulty of combining aggressive intelligence collection efforts with the skeptical eye of counterintelligence. Too strong a CI hand can have a "chilling effect" on operations. If its hand is weak, however, the collectors are apt to play down signs that they are being deceived and to ignore indications--such as Ames' lifestyle and behavior--that one of their own has betrayed them and their country. Although it is admittedly difficult to do, it appears that the CIA has for some time stopped even trying to find the proper balance between counterintelligence and "positive" intelligence collection.

The Larger Point

With the intelligence community already under pressure to reform and downsize, the Ames case has further fueled post-Cold War skepticism about intelligence in general and espionage in particular. The case seems to prove the essential irrelevance of human intelligence: one service perfectly places a mole inside its enemy's service, but its side loses anyway. As a New York Times editorial put it, "Spy wars are a sideshow of passionate interest to the actors, but of marginal significance for national policy."

Skepticism is not limited to liberals. Angelo Codevilla, former Republican staff member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and conservative critic of American intelligence performance, observes that it is better for a country not to have a clandestine service at all than to have one that has been penetrated. While it is true that a penetrated operation is positively harmful, one can't conclude that if one of its operations is compromised, all of a clandestine service's activities are worthless. Similarly, Edward Jay Epstein, an author generally supportive of Angleton's theories about intelligence and CI, argues that the danger of being misled by moles and double agents outweighs the benefits sought through espionage, especially during times of peace:

In peacetime, the products of espionage tend to be things like reports about policy discussions, which are rarely verifiable...In a protracted peace...espionage data become not only less urgent but also increasingly subject to manipulation."

It is better, according to Epstein, to gather information by "spy satellites" and "other licit" means, such as news stories, diplomatic reports, and the like. Although such collection mechanisms will probably not provide the kind of intelligence on the secret intentions of other nations that policymakers normally want, officials can adjust to this shortfall by routinely basing their national security decisions and policies "on a worst-case analysis, leavened by common sense." At bottom, Epstein's argument is that the U.S. isn't very good at the business of espionage and should, rather than run the risk of being misled, just get out of it.

The record, however, is more mixed than the agency's critics are sometimes willing to admit. Although the KGB, GRU (Soviet/Russian military intelligence) and their Warsaw Pact allies had their successes, the American intelligence effort has not been a total disaster. Oleg Penkovskiy, Dmitri Polyakov, Adolf Tolkachev, and Ryszard Kuklinski are just a few of the more important spies run by U.S. intelligence during the Cold War. The information they provided on Soviet missiles, intelligence operations, military research and development, and battle plans for Europe was extremely valuable. At the end of the day, the human intelligence scorecard may have favored Soviet intelligence, but the U.S. was far from shut out.

In any case, as our failure with respect to the pre-Gulf War Iraqi nuclear program shows, open sources and high-technology means of collection are not sufficient or can themselves be misleading. Despite its massive size, Iraq's program to develop nuclear weapons went largely undetected by American reconnaissance satellites. By using carefully planned denial and deception measures, Saddam Hussein was able to keep the United States thoroughly in the dark about the program until after the war, when an Iraqi defector began to provide key data on Iraq's effort to build a bomb. The general capabilities of U.S. reconnaissance satellites, remarkable as they are, are becoming increasingly known to the world; against clever opponents, they can no longer be expected to make up for a lack of human reporting as they once did in the case of countries behind the Iron Curtain.

Further, with the end of the Soviet empire, the number of "hard targets"--countries whose internal security services and security practices are so extensive as to make human operations especially difficult--has dropped dramatically. While Stalinist regimes like that of North Korea still exist, the fact of the matter is that espionage is likely to be more, rather than less, useful in the post-Cold War period, as we deal not with a "denied area" like the Soviet Union but rather with a series of weak or failed regimes where, one imagines, a moderate amount of hard currency safely tucked away in a Swiss bank account can go a long, long way.

Human intelligence (humint, in intelligence jargon) is not only easier to do, but in many cases is more important. Technical collection allowed us to track Soviet military capabilities with some precision, which was our core concern. But most countries we are interested in cannot threaten us in the same fashion. In states such as Haiti, Serbia or any one of a dozen similar hot-spots, what American policymakers care about are the intentions of a small number of leaders. Those intentions can generally only be obtained through clandestine human collection. Even where we care about capabilities--as in the area of proliferation--human intelligence may be the only effective means of overcoming the target's ability to hide the precise scope of its operations from overhead reconnaissance (for instance, through extensive tunneling, a North Korean specialty) and international inspections.

Epstein's alternative in such instances is to forgo HUMINT and base U.S. national security decisions on "worst-case analysis." Leaving aside the fact that it is not necessarily clear what this means in policy terms with respect to places like Haiti or Somalia, how could one expect the public and Congress to support defense and foreign policies that constantly insisted that the sky was falling and the wolf is at the door? Although it would be foolish to believe that one's espionage operations will never be penetrated by the other side, it is just as impractical to believe the United States actually could conduct its national security affairs on such a basis.

In a time of declining defense expenditures and general uncertainty in key areas of the world, intelligence is not less important than it was in the past and clandestine human collection is probably more so. As the margin of U.S. safety and preeminence slips in the years ahead, there will be an even greater need for the foresight provided by high quality intelligence, not less.

To Centralize or Not?

Given the continuing need to spy, the main issue is how to organize and reform U.S. intelligence for best results. Indeed, this was the concern of both the chairmen of House and Senate intelligence committees in separate bills introduced in 1992. Although neither bill was enacted, Robert Gates, then director of central intelligence, put watered-down versions of some of their ideas into force administratively.
These reforms were put forward as a response to the end of the Cold War, but the proposals actually predate 1989. In fact, they reflect an evolutionary trend within the national security establishment since the beginning of the Cold War, when, in 1947, the Central Intelligence Agency was created, the armed services were subordinated to a unified Department of Defense, and the National Security Council (to which the CIA was to report) was created as a centralized national security policy organization. The main theme of this reform agenda has been increased centralization of the intelligence community in the name of efficiency and objectivity. In this regard, the agenda mirrors the major changes in the Defense Department, from its beginning in 1947 through the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which represent a consistent effort to strengthen the "central" bureaucracies--the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Joint Staff, and the heads of the "unified" commands--at the expense of the services.

While centralization might promote efficiency in public administration textbooks (at least ones of the older kind), it is less obvious that it always does so in practice. Certain types of duplication may indeed be wasteful; but with respect to major issues a certain amount of what goes by the name of "competitive analysis" is probably a good idea. Bringing to bear the differing perspectives of, say, the State and Defense departments is prudent, given that the cost of becoming captive to a particular strain of conventional wisdom can be so high. Again, different parts of government have differing intelligence requirements and the various formal processes for compiling these requirements are often too crude to capture all the nuances. Thus, having some collection capability under the control of policymakers with specific needs, such as the military, is likely to make the resulting intelligence more relevant and useful, even if it is not as bureaucratically tidy. In general, centralization moves the locus of the intelligence effort further and further away from the policymakers who make use of the product. To be useful, the intelligence output has to be produced with the policymakers' needs clearly in mind. Often, the most effective interchange occurs not by means of the written report but in the course of briefings and meetings in which the policymakers can ask questions, distinguish between what is known and what is only surmised, probe analytic assumptions, begin to understand what types of information can be collected and what types are unlikely to be, and gain an appreciation of the timing and credibility of the likely warning that can be expected prior to a major change in the situation. This type of responsiveness is more likely to be forthcoming from an intelligence agency bureaucratically close to its customers than from a distant one.

From this perspective, Senator David Boren's ambition of creating a "world-class think tank" at Langley is misplaced. As suggested above, this drive for centralization has a rather old-fashioned ring to it, as if one wished to create an automobile company on Henry Ford's model of mass production rather than on Toyota's leaner methods. Indeed, current business literature emphasizes that a successful corporate "intelligence" office must be located close to the senior policymakers, rather than isolated from them.

Alongside the argument for efficiency, an additional reason is given for centralization: a "central" intelligence agency would be free of the biases of one that was part of a government department (such as State or Defense) and therefore led to "cook" its results to support its parent organization's policy or budgetary preferences. Historically, much of this debate concerning the objectivity of intelligence derived from the difficult question (especially in the pre-satellite 1950s) of estimating Soviet military capabilities. Major debates centered on this question--the "Bomber Gap" and "Missile Gap" issues--had important consequences for the defense budget; the Central Intelligence Agency saw itself as an important corrective to military intelligence organizations, which might have an institutional motive for overestimating the Soviet threat.

While objectivity is an important goal for any intelligence organization, it is unfortunately much more difficult to attain than the traditional argument for a central intelligence agency suggests. First, the absence of policy or budgetary preferences on the part of an organization does not guarantee the absence of ulterior motives. In the above example, the CIA acquired a bureaucratic interest in portraying military estimates of Soviet military capabilities as excessive: if they weren't, then no corrective to them was needed, and the CIA's role in this area could be constrained. Similarly, strategic arms control, with its major requirement for verification of detailed treaty provisions, enhanced the CIA's role in this area.

Second, and more generally, any bureaucracy can acquire, over time, a set of beliefs about important issues--an institutional "conventional wisdom"--that it then has a bureaucratic interest in preserving and defending, and which distinguishes it from some other bureaucracy. Thus, for many years in the 1960s and early 1970s, the CIA held to the view that the Soviet Union had come to accept many of the American assumptions about strategic nuclear weapons that underlay the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.
Third, the absence of a tie to departmental policymakers does not, and cannot, mean independence: intelligence always works for, and is subordinate to, some policymaker. Consider, for example, the recent debate over the intelligence community's negative assessment of Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide's personality: one angry Democratic lawmaker was quoted as saying that the CIA should remember who won the 1992 election. Insofar as this legislator was saying that the CIA works for the president, he was of course right. But he was wrong not to realize that the CIA serves the president best when it "tells it like it is," not like the president wants it to be. The safeguard for objectivity cannot be sought in independence--backbone will always be necessary.

Finally, the entire issue of independence is often confused because few realize just how speculative are most of the analytic products about which the claims of "cooking the books" tend to swirl. (The issue almost never arises with respect to hard fact or raw data--and, when it does, it relates to questions of delaying or constraining the circulation, not its alteration.) Debate arises around those conclusions of intelligence analysis which are, well, most debatable.

Intelligence analysts will claim that any refusal to accept their conclusions results from the policymaker's stubborn or politically-motivated attachment to his own policies or views, and, in some cases, they may be right. But, in others, the policymaker may be reasonably relying on his or her own knowledge of the area and contacts with foreign diplomats and leaders and other experts. A diplomat who has had extensive dealings with Aristide, for example, may feel that his own judgments have as much validity as those of an intelligence analyst who has never met the man. He may not be right, but he is not being unreasonable if he rejects the observations of others (even if they are labeled "sources") in favor of his own.

Thus, the question of objectivity and bias is much more complicated than it might appear at first glance. A truly open mind is a difficult thing to have and retain under any circumstances, and mere bureaucratic arrangements cannot guarantee it. Nor can they guarantee the backbone necessary to stick to one's guns under pressure. The most that one can hope to do, in terms of bureaucratic arrangements, is to identify the most common or characteristic failings of an organization, and take institutional measures designed to correct or at least ameliorate them.

In the case of the national security bureaucracy, the most characteristic failing seems to be the bowing to the power of "conventional wisdom." To some extent, bureaucracies worldwide are subject to this illness; achieving consensus in a bureaucracy--inducing all the relevant parties to "sign off" on an assessment or judgment--is such a laborious task that it is not surprising that, once such a consensus has been achieved, there is a strong incentive not to revisit an issue unless changed circumstances make it essential. In the United States, however, there is an additional incentive: government service, below the very top levels, is not particularly prestigious. Those engaged in it who have any intellectual pretensions do not wish to be seen as "neanderthal" or "out of it" by those in the much more prestigious realms of academia or the mainstream, national-level media. This tends to reinforce a tendency toward the conventional wisdom; it is distressing how often highly classified assessments of political issues closely resemble op-ed pieces. For this reason, "competitive analysis" (i.e., the existence of different centers of intelligence analysis) is a necessary corrective, regardless of how inefficient it might seem in terms of public administration theory.

New Age Intelligence

Another part of the reform agenda that was taken up in the 1992 bills was an emphasis on "open source" collection--the exploitation of newspaper and magazine articles, radio and television broadcasts, and other publicly available sources of information--as opposed to more traditional "human intelligence collection." Again, this was presented as a reaction to the end of the Cold War, although the same theme was prominent in various reform attempts during the Cold War as well.

In fact, some of the impetus behind this idea came from the difficulty of conducting espionage in the Soviet Union, given the closed nature of its society and its suspicious and all-pervasive counterintelligence culture. Topics such as intra-elite politics, which in other regimes could be learned about by means of espionage, had to be approached indirectly. One of the means of doing this was "Kremlinology," the discipline of deducing the ins and outs of Kremlin politics from the minor hints that surfaced, from time to time, in the open press. Thus, when secret police chief Lavrenti Beria was omitted from list of Politburo members attending the opera, the conclusion to be drawn was not that he didn't like opera; but rather, he was on the way out. Although the clever use of open sources remains an important and cost-effective way of getting at otherwise hidden information, it is arguably of less importance in the post-Cold War world, in which many of our intelligence targets, as noted earlier, are much more vulnerable to traditional espionage than was the old Soviet Union.

Finally, the reform agenda, especially the call for a "world-class think tank," derives in part from the view that, in the post-Cold War world, there will be a whole list of new topics for the intelligence community to concern itself with: environmental concerns, economic competitiveness, demographic issues such as refugee flows and epidemics, and so forth. Thus, there will be a need for experts on a whole range of new topics, aside from the traditional ones, such as military, diplomatic, and political affairs.

No one who has worked in the executive branch of the U.S. government is likely to oppose the notion that it could use better (and more convenient) sources of information on a wide variety of topics. But the question remains: why should this plea for a more effective government information system be addressed to the intelligence community, rather than any other organization or organizations? (For that matter, why not consider the creation of a new organization, an executive branch counterpart to the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress?) In most nations, the notion that the intelligence service should provide information on the climatic and other effects of ozone depletion would seem rather strange.

Part of the reason why it doesn't in this country lies in the historical accident that, during World War II, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the CIA's predecessor and prototype) became the government agency that was most intellectually sophisticated. In what must have seemed, to paraphrase the New Testament, a scandal to the armed forces and foolishness to the State Department, "Wild Bill" Donovan, head of the OSS, recruited large numbers of historians, social scientists and other professors and intellectuals to work in the service's Research and Analysis Branch. These researchers discovered that the answers to a lot of important questions could be found in the Library of Congress; for example, an old travel book might contain a picture of North Africa Beach that planners of an amphibious assault would find useful. Similarly, systematic analysis of German domestic propaganda provided clues to the thinking of the leadership, their assessment of the situation and even, on occasion, their plans for the future. Studies of the pre-war German economy, to say nothing of detailed technical works on its railroad system, all provided hints for those trying to determine the most profitable targets for the strategic bombing campaign. The oss researchers demonstrated that, when subjected to careful and sophisticated analysis, open source information could provide clues to information that, during wartime, at least, was considered secret and withheld from publication.
The Soviet Union, the main post-World War II intelligence target, operated as if it were at war. Information that other states routinely published, such as accurate maps or the size and breakdown of the defense budget, was withheld or distorted. Thus, many of the same techniques developed by OSS analysts during World War II could be carried over to the study of the Soviet Union; additional ones, such as Kremlinology, were invented specifically for the purpose.

Consequently, the CIA became responsible for determining a whole range of information about the Soviet Union with which, under more ordinary circumstances, an intelligence agency might not be involved. For example, one of the biggest and nastiest intra-intelligence community debates of the 1970s focused on the size of the actual Soviet defense budget, and the percentage of Soviet GNP that it represented. In this way the intelligence community in the United States became seen as the government's general information service, rather than as that part of the government that deals specifically with secrets--protecting our own and discovering those of others. The current "new age" agenda that is being proposed for the intelligence community merely builds on that perception. But there are good reasons for thinking that the intelligence community is not the best locus for much of this work.

Because so much of the intelligence community's work will have to remain secret in any case, the reform agenda has the effect of imposing many of the burdens of secrecy--security clearances for personnel, special communications and information handling facilities, physical security of office space, and so forth--on work and workers that have no real need for it. It also hampers the ability of analysts to reach out to those elements of society--academia, other non-profit organizations, business, and the media--that have expertise on a given topic. Aside from security considerations, it remains a reality--unreasonable as it may be--that intelligence still carries something of a stigma, especially in many of these circles. A professor who would expect to be praised for landing a contract with an outside research center, thereby bringing new resources to the campus, may well feel that getting involved with the CIA could have untoward consequences that would be imprudent to risk.

Furthermore, the differing nature of government involvement in these issues, and the different types of expertise required, suggest that the proper structure of an organization for studying them should be determined on a case-by-case basis. If, for example, the United States government decides more work should be done on tracking epidemics on a global basis, it would make sense to assign that task to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta; trying to duplicate that medical expertise in Langley would be wasteful. Again, the appropriate group for analyzing international economic competitiveness might be a planning group in the Department of Commerce or Treasury, which could be close enough to the policymakers to understand what kind of information and analysis would be useful to support the specific policy tools at their disposal; a group of economists operating independently might come up with a brilliant analysis that was irrelevant to the (rather limited) ways in which policymakers could deal with this particular issue.

Less Is More

This broadening of the focus of intelligence work also dilutes the key competitive advantage that the intelligence community enjoys, which is in dealing with secrets. Given the small role likely to be played by secret information, there is, for example, no reason to expect a mid-level intelligence analyst to outperform a Wall Street analyst when the subject is the economics of the world automobile industry. On the contrary, given that a Wall Street firm is likely to pay an analyst from five to ten times the salary the CIA can offer, it should be able--in general--to obtain higher quality results. What is needed is some way for the government (which, after all, is not in competition with the brokerage firm) to obtain and exploit the results of the analysis undertaken for other purposes. This can probably be done more easily if the government representative doesn't bear the burden of somehow representing the Intelligence Community. In any case, the government's point of contact for this work should be as close to the relevant policymakers as possible, i.e., the officials in the Commerce Department who deal with issues concerning the auto industry, rather than analysts in a "world-class think tank" who have to go through multiple levels of bureaucracy in order to transmit a memorandum to those who are able to make use of it.

But perhaps most important, this focus tends to blur the very characteristic that makes intelligence work distinctive from any other kind of intellectual activity. At its core, it is the attempt to get at certain kinds of information--secrets--to which an adversary is deliberately trying to deny access. An intelligence analyst has to be alert to the possibility that the raw data he is relying on may not only be false (that can happen to any researcher) but is being deliberately distorted in order to mislead him. By ignoring the "spy versus spy" aspect of intelligence work--the fact that the intelligence analyst, as well as the spy, is working against a human adversary who is trying to mislead or thwart him--one paves the way for counterintelligence disasters.

Instead of pursuing the Cold War reform agenda of broadening the intelligence community into a universal information service for the government, we should be attempting to restore a more narrowly-focused intelligence agency with a revived human intelligence capability. Such an agency could help us navigate in the confused waters of the post-Cold War world, where a few well-placed agents in the Somali militias or the Haitian military and business worlds could help us avoid embarrassing and potentially costly disasters. The opportunities for useful human intelligence collection have not been greater in half a century.

Will we be able, however, to exploit them?

Essay Types: Essay