How Technology is Used to Spy on us

The electronic revolution of the latter part of the 20th century ushered impressive advances in communications and information gathering technology.  News that used to take weeks, if not months, to travel the world is now shared almost instantaneously.  Likewise, tools such as the Internet and other social media have given the masses nearly inexhaustible resources to amass knowledge.  However, such advances have not been without a cost, and that cost is our privacy.  These technological leaps have allowed governments, corporations, and other entities to gather substantial information on practically anyone they please.

What used to be a time consuming effort by police states with an army of informants (as seen by the former Soviet Union where 1 in 7 of its population were informers) to discover significant details on individuals, is now a quick gleaning by organizations such as the American NSA and the British GCHQ, as well as social media like Facebook and Twitter.  Besides the traditional methods of physical surveillance and human intelligence employed by intelligence organizations, there are now countless means of spying on people electronically.  These means can be used to monitor, track, or gather information on individuals.  The first two means relate to observing subjects and determining their routine and habits, while the last one relates to discovering their personal information.

While Hollywood and CNN have illustrated the power of satellites and predator drones to track down terrorists and other malcontents, in reality satellites and predator drones are limited in number and used almost exclusively on high profile targets rather than spying on the masses.  The real boon for governments to monitor their people is CCTV (closed circuit television).  For example, in Britain there are more CCTVs per person than any other country in the world and it has been said the average Brit is caught on 300 CCTVs per day.  The power of CCTV was amply shown by the documentary entitled “the girl in the suitcase” aired by the Fifth Estate on CBC where a man who murdered a woman and put her in a suitcase was caught on multiple cameras with the suitcase between his hotel and an airport in England. Though it is obvious how such technology could be useful for national security and law enforcement purposes, it is easy to see how it could be turned against the populace as in such movies as “1984” and “V for Vendetta.”

CCTVs can also be used to read license plates by using Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technology.  Just as in tracking individuals, the ability to track automobiles has important security implications but could just as easily be used for cynical political ends as well.  Either way, CCTVs, like any other piece of technology, is not infallible.  With rudimentary means of disguise, simple evasion tactics, or being constantly on the move, it is not hard to beat the system.  Similarly, a fake license plate, a bit of dirt, or partially obscuring one’s license plate can easily defeat ANPR cameras.  It goes without saying that the easiest people to track are innocent people who follow the rules, rather than organized criminals or terrorists who inevitably find simple solutions to thwart advanced technology.

GPS can also be used to track people, especially via their phones, or if such a device is planted in a vehicle they use.  To defeat the spooks one can simply deactivate the GPS function (if it is an option), turn off one’s phone or buy a pre-paid phone.  Or if you wanted to throw the spooks off your scent, you could do what the protagonist did in Henry Porter’s “The Dying Light” when she sent her cell phone in the mail and the spooks followed it around all day.  The same counter-measures can be used in a vehicle installed with a GPS device, although it may simply be easier to use a different car altogether.

Phones are another electric means that can be used to spy on people.  Unless one has a secure or a prepaid phone, it is are easily tracked (especially if one’s GPS setting is active).    Organizations like the NSA and the GCHQ have the means to listen in on almost any phone call, along with computer programs that look for keywords or voiceprints.  While this seems omnipotent, these means can easily be beaten by talking in code, scrambling one’s voice, getting someone to use the phone who does not have a pre-existing voice print in their database, or simply not communicating via telephone at all!  Very few high-ranking terrorists have been eliminated by being careless with their cell phone such as when Chechen rebel Dzhokar Dudayev was killed by a Russian missile that homed onto his satellite phone’s signal.  Texting generally has the same pitfalls as communicating by phone, but can also be secured by the same means.

Electronic cards can be used to spy on the masses.  While people generally understand that governments and law enforcement agencies can use credit and debit cards to track their finances, most other electronic cards can be used to gather people’s information and track their movements as well.  Even seemingly innocuous things like library cards or grocery store club cards will leave an electronic imprint.  However, once again, simple solutions can hide what one is doing.  People who would rather have their purchases hidden from prying eyes can buy things in cash rather than with plastic.  Terrorists and criminals also have no qualms about stealing people’s credit cards, or making counterfeit ones.

The Internet is a significant security breach when it comes to privacy.  Organizations such as the NSA and the GCHQ can read any e-mail, hackers can steal private data en mass (as seen lately by Sony and the IMF), and Google records everything we search while using their website.  This does not include social networks like Facebook (which the CIA partly owns) and Twitter where millions of people give up personal details voluntarily, often to the benefit of corporations doing market research.  It is no surprise that intelligence agencies in despotic nations such as China and Iran use such tools to track, and sometimes encourage, dissent to identify trouble makers and arrest them.  One of the reasons the so called “Arab Spring” was successful in Egypt and Tunisia is that, unlike most other dictatorships, the ruling elite in those countries did not put much effort into controlling the Internet.  The NSA, the GCHQ and other organizations also monitor Internet traffic to specific websites (mostly terrorist or criminal related) and key words during searches (such as “bomb making” and “Al-Qaeda”) to weed out potential troublemakers and malcontents.

Fooling the spooks online is often simple enough.  Just like phone conversations or texting, talking in code or simply refusing to communicate via technology will leave them in the dark.  One could also have several e-mail accounts and use Internet cafes or scramble one’s IP address to hide one’s identity online.  A novel stratagem was used by Don Cheadle in the movie “Traitor” where he typed e-mails but saved, rather than sent them, and then gave his contacts the e-mail addresses and passwords allowing them to see the messages.  As for social networking, it should be common sense not to give out important information to sites such as Facebook or Twitter.  In the case of online banking and other supposedly secure means, one must simply accept the potential risk that some government entity or criminal organization may inevitably hack one’s private information.

CCTVs, GPS, cell phones, electronic cards and the Internet provide powerful organizations the means to track the public and gather vital information on them.  Unlike traditional means such as physical surveillance and human intelligence, technological means of intelligence gathering do not require as much time and effort to find relevant data.  Fortunately, technological means are arguably easier to counter.  By simply refusing to communicate via technology or taking simple countermeasures, one can significantly eliminate the chances of being tracked or spied on.  This is precisely how unsophisticated terrorist or criminal elements with limited resources have been able, often with considerable success, to evade powerful organizations like the CIA, the NSA and the Pentagon.

For every sophisticated innovation, there inevitably exists a simple solution.  For example, after the “Six Day War,” the Israelis built massive sand ramparts on the east bank of the Suez Canal to protect their soldiers.  Soldiers, security analysts and armchair generals all concluded that only nuclear weapons could breach them.  Yet when the Egyptians retook the east bank of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur war, they simply washed away the ramparts with high pressures hoses!

Those who advocate that we are on the brink of becoming a technological police state are probably exaggerating, but there is no question that powerful organizations have the ability to glean a ridiculous number of our personal details with relative ease.  However, a simple understanding of those organization’s capabilities, combined with basic countermeasures and common sense is often enough to safeguard against their worst excesses.

Share article on

The Art of Intelligence

Sun Tzu wrote in the “Art of War” that foreknowledge is “the reason the enlightened prince and the wise general conquer the enemy whenever they move.”  Another word for foreknowledge is intelligence.

The art of intelligence refers to the collecting, analyzing, and packaging of useful information for policy makers.  These actions are typically performed by intelligence agencies for the benefit of governments and militaries.  However, other organizations, such as corporations, police departments, criminal networks, insurgencies, and/or other interested parties can also have their own intelligence networks, or enlist the services of private ones.

The focus on what information is being gathered can be varied, but usually depends upon the nature of the organization itself.  Typically governments have foreign intelligence agencies that seek information on other countries, specifically their political and diplomatic outlooks, and economic and industrial capabilities.  Governments also have domestic intelligence agencies to protect against terrorism, criminal elements, potentially dangerous separatists, and in the case of oppressive countries, to watch and control its own populace.

Militaries naturally focus their attention on hostile, and potentially threatening, enemy armed forces.

Corporations tend to spy on other corporations and business leaders, and in the case of multinational companies, on political elites in other countries who can help them increase business.

These are simple illustrations; in reality any of these organizations, and countless others, engage in many other forms of information gathering and other dark methods.

Intelligence can be divided roughly into four categories.  These include:
1)      Intelligence Gathering
2)      Analysis
3)      Covert Operations
4)      Counter-Intelligence
Intelligence gathering is the process of collecting information.  The three chief methods of intelligence gathering are:  A) Human Intelligence.  B) Technical Intelligence.  C) Open Source Intelligence.

Human intelligence refers to any information obtained via human sources.  The means and sources can include moles infiltrating targeted organizations, deserters from other countries, interrogation, or interviewing of knowledgeable suspects, military, and diplomatic attaches, etc.  In the case of recruiting assets, everything from bribery, blackmail, threats, and exploiting human weaknesses are used.

Technical intelligence is information gathered by technical means.  Some examples would be satellite and video camera feed, spy planes such as the American U-2 during the Cold War, interception of radio waves, phone calls, emails, the gathering of telemetric data, etc.

Open sources are information that is publicly available.  These include the Internet, libraries, newspapers, magazines, government records, and other publications.

The general worth of these methods depend on the circumstances.  While technical intelligence tends to be more useful for defeating armies and for corporate espionage, human intelligence is better at projecting long-term goals and defeating insurgencies.  This is true because of the following reason:  Whereas armies are heavily dependent upon technology (which can be tracked easily by technology), insurgents, at least the smart ones, tend to limit their use of electronics and are much more susceptible to moles and infiltrators.  Open sources are generally underrated; while classified information is seldom found by digging through such sources, patient research can reap considerable benefits.  Some intelligence officers admit that the majority of information they obtain is from open sources.

Analysis is the process of turning raw data into the final intelligence product that is presented to policy makers.  This can be very tedious and time consuming.  Much information, especially that taken via radio intercepts, has to be decoded or decrypted.  In the case of satellite and camera feed and spy planes, thorough photo analysis is necessary.  Also, irrelevant, or outdated, information has to be sorted from useful data.  Perhaps even more daunting is the prospect of weeding out false information (or if you prefer, disinformation) purposely planted by hostile elements.

After the raw intelligence has been processed, what is left is typically reduced to a relatively small intelligence report, or update, for the interested policymaker(s) in question.  All of this has to be done in a timely fashion before the intelligence becomes out of date.  To top it off, intelligence officers often have to deal with pressures from policymakers.

Typically such pressure involves encouraging intelligence officers to find information that reinforces the policymaker(s) preconceptions, rather than the objective truth per se.  History is not short of examples; while it cannot be proven that President George Bush Junior told the C.I.A. to lie about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, it is not unrealistic to suggest that he encouraged them to exaggerate Iraq’s capabilities.  Even worse was Stalin’s refusal to see the obvious preparations the German Army was making to attack Russia in 1941.  Undoubtedly, his analysts had more interest in staying alive, than in telling the truth.

Covert operations are acts committed by intelligence agencies to further the interests of their respective masters.  These operations are typically organized in a way to reduce, as much as possible, any direct links between the policy makers (including the intelligence agency itself) and the act in question.  This is what is referred to as “plausible deniability.”

Most of the time policy makers will give the agency general goals, and ask it to work out the details.  As such, it is rare that a policymaker will know about specific operations in advance.  Therefore, in the event that an operation is foiled, or produces links to the government, the policy maker can realistically say he/she knew nothing about it.  Needless to say, plausible deniability is necessary given the inherently illegal, and often immoral, aspects of covert operations.  Politics does not get any more cynical than this.

Covert operations are varied and can be as sedate as spreading propaganda, and as sinister as overthrowing foreign governments.  They can include trying to influence other countries or peoples, actively supporting foreign armies and insurgents, assassinations, sabotage, etc.

In the case of influencing other countries or peoples, journalists can be bribed, pamphlets can be distributed, radio programs (like Radio Free Europe during the Cold War) can be encouraged, and increasingly, electronic assets like Facebook, and Twitter, can be manipulated.  Just to show what is possible, one should remember how effectively the C.I.A. influenced the Italian election in the late 1940s to prevent a communist victory, and its success at overthrowing Arbenz in Guatemala in the early 1950s.

Supporting foreign armies or insurgencies is also quite typical.  Leading up to the Six Day War, the Syrians supported Palestinians launching terrorist attacks against Israel, which were mounted mostly through Jordan so Syria could claim “plausible deniability.”  The Russians and Chinese gave more obvious aid to Ho Chi Minh to fight the French, and later the Americans, in Vietnam.  Perhaps the best-known example of the later 20th century would be the massive aid given to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan by the C.I.A. to help them fight the Soviets.

Assassinations are used mostly during wars or counter-insurgency to kill important targets, or in the case of oppressive governments, notable dissidents.  As a rule for assassinations, a suicide looks better than a murder; and an accident looks better than a suicide.

Examples of assassinations include the British operation that almost killed Rommel in Libya during World War 2.  Also, the Israelis have used targeted killings extensively, notably to avenge the massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972, and to weaken the Palestinian Intifadas.  The effects of these methods are debatable.

One could argue that the weakening of the P.L.O. has allowed more dangerous organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas to gain more influence.  Certainly, in the case of counter-terrorism, some have argued it is more effective to take out middle tier operatives, rather than high profile targets or low foot soldiers.  The higher profile targets tend to be relatively removed from operations, and the terrorists on the ground are dependent upon the middle tier that supplies bombs, finances, and other logistical support for operations.  This approach has been used to good effect by the U.S. army in Iraq.

Regarding oppressive governments, Stalin’s assassination of Trotsky in Mexico, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Saldam Rushdie, are examples of what dictators are willing to do to silence critics.

As for sabotage, there is no lack of examples, but interesting ones would include the Norwegian resistance efforts to delay the German atomic program, the Siberian Pipeline explosion engineered by a C.I.A. logic bomb in 1982, and the recent havoc the Stuxnet worm has reaped on the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr.

Counter-intelligence refers to the practices used by intelligence agencies, the government, and the military to protect the nation and its interests from infiltration and exploitation by hostile entities.  The role of counter-intelligence is essentially security whether by passive, or active means.

Passive means include physical security, communications and electronic security, and personnel security.

Physical security refers to means that physically deny access to information or other sensitive assets.  These means include locks, safes, alarm systems, fences, cameras, guards, etc., and they are typically employed to guard vital installations like military bases, intelligence complexes, governmental and corporate buildings, industrial areas, etc.  Border areas are another example:  Usually to keep people out, although in the case of oppressive regimes mostly to keep people in (for example, the Berlin Wall).

Communications and electronic security is a relatively new phenomenon.  In the case of sending radio transmissions, the obvious solution for protecting information would be to encode it.  However, given the resources rival intelligence agencies put into decoding, and the risk of agents or codebooks falling into the wrong hands, it is wise to make the codes as hard to break as possible, and to change them as often as is realistic.  Having faith in technology is likewise foolish; the German Army’s misplaced faith in its Enigma machines is sufficient proof.

Phone calls are another potential security risk.  Secure phones are a rarity, and unless landlines are made from fiber optic cables, they are relatively easy to tap (provided someone has access to them, like the Americans did to tap into the Soviet Army H.Q. in Berlin by tunnelling under the ground).  As for cell phones, unless they are pre-paid or stolen, they are easily tracked, and when they are not, institutions like the NSA or GCHQ can often find someone if they have enough information to make a voice print.

However, if the priority is not to prevent detection, but to pass on information, then once again speaking in code, and changing the code when necessary, is often enough.  If one is overly paranoid, one can simply use the more time-consuming methods of sending messages via a trusted courier or diplomatic pouch, or talking face to face (though obviously this is not always realistic).

Electronic security refers to computers mostly.  E-mails generally have the same risks and benefits as phone calls, though in some ways e-mail maybe more secure.  Certainly the tactic used by Don Cheadle in “Traitor” where he typed e-mails but saved, rather than sent them, and then gave his contacts the e-mail addresses and passwords, is a noteworthy example.

The biggest threats to computers are hackers, viruses, and sabotage.  Here, a combined effort on many fronts is necessary to succeed.  Multiple firewalls are a must, passwords, finger and retinal scans can be introduced, as little information as possible should be put on any computer, and no one without proper clearance should have access to any console.  Additionally, as many hackers get access to computers by (or malware is installed through) USB sticks, or CD’s, all of these should be checked beforehand.  Often an unwitting employee has had his USB stick switched with a malware one.

Needless to say, the loss of information via electronic means is not the only risk.  Given the rise of cyber-warfare during the last decade, much more is at stake, including government services, military systems, nations’ power grids, traffic systems, banking, etc.  A team of technical security advisors is necessary in the modern age.  Those who do not take the threat of cyber warfare seriously should note the Russian uses of it in Estonia in 2007 and in Georgia in 2008, the likely use of it against the Syrians by the Israelis when they bombed a suspected nuclear facility in Syria in 2007, and the Stuxnet worm that recently affected Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr.

Other electronic assets like telemetric data (that is used between ground stations and things like missiles and predator drones) can be safeguarded by encryption, jamming the enemy, switching frequencies, or ceasing operations when in range of enemy collection capabilities.

Personnel security involves screening employees, allies, and potential associates for security risks.  Given the greatest intelligence coups are generally facilitated by double agents, it is wise to assume that “there is always a mole.”  Trust is an overrated luxury in the intelligence world.  The damage one double agent can do to the entire intelligence establishment in any country is terrifying.  Kim Philby compromised operations against the Soviet Bloc for ten years, and Aldrich Almes and Robert Hanssen by themselves nearly crippled the C.I.A.’s and F.B.I.’s efforts against the Soviet Union, and later, Russia.

There are several ways to identify moles, or at least minimize the potential damage they can cause.  The obvious first steps are THOROUGH background checks, periodic polygraph tests (though these are not foolproof, as Aldrich Almes easily passed them), and constantly checking personnel’s performances.  If there is a pattern of failures, or information is constantly going missing, this could be a clue (or incompetence).  A more effective method, though bordering on police state mentality, method would be surveillance of prime suspects, and monitoring their spending habits, people with whom they engage, and communications.  For example, Aldrich Almes was clearly found to be living way beyond his means.

However, it is obvious that intelligence personnel are trained to be careful, and it can be extremely difficult to catch a mole, as the case with Robert Hanssen shows.  Unlike Almes, Hanssen did not request a lot of money from the Russians, and did not spend it extravagantly.  The major break to find him was not any mistake he made, but when the F.B.I. bribed a former member of the K.G.B. for information.

Often all an organization can do is to limit the potential damage a mole can create.  The first rule here is the compartmentalization of information.  This is the so-called “need to know” basis; people should know only what is necessary to do their jobs, not what other people in other departments are doing, and often not even what people in their own department are doing.  A policy that severely discourages work-related gossip is probably necessary, as friends at work may feel they can trust each other enough to talk about their jobs.  Physical security also has a place; people should not be allowed into areas that do not concern them, and there should be multiple layers of security (locks, passwords, retinal scans, etc.) to access important rooms, safes, computers, etc.  Finally, as far as is realistically possible, objects taken from the outside world should be checked on the way in, and the same should apply when objects are taken out.

Also, at least in the case of foreign embassies, trade missions, vital installations, etc., all personnel should be staffed by people from your own country, not by locals.  Additionally, if people are contracted to do work inside these buildings, including mundane tasks like installing cable or plumbing, they should be constantly monitored.  The Soviets often took advantage of this when the Americans staffed much of their personnel in oversees missions with locals.  These people are typically easier to bribe (especially in poorer countries) or threaten, as they do not have diplomatic immunity, and also have no real loyalty to the country of the mission where they are working.

There are also active measures for safeguarding the nation’s interests.  The most obvious option is to mount surveillance and other operations against hostile intelligence elements.  The first step is identifying actual agents.  As they are usually trained to evade detection, this can prove difficult.  Agents working under official cover at Embassies, trade missions, or other governmental institutions are easier to find and track than agents using non-official cover.

Some typical examples of non-official cover agents include journalists, businessmen, tourists, and students.  For example, Eli Cohen was a Mossad agent, posing as a businessman, who gained much valuable information from the Syrian hierarchy before he was caught and executed.  Also, China has made notable use of students, sending perhaps thousands of them en masse to other countries to collect information.

Needless to say, much manpower and a great deal of discipline are needed to track, let alone find out what these agents are doing.  Typically they are meeting contacts, passing on information, going to and from safe houses, mounting surveillance operations of their own, etc.

It is also necessary to spy on rival intelligence agencies themselves.  As seen by the damage inflicted by Kim Philby, Aldrich Almes, and Robert Hanssen, planting a mole or hiring an insider as a double agent is probably the most effective means.  However, it is arguably the most difficult.  Identifying and enlisting intelligence assets used by rival intelligence agencies can also be helpful.  While the assets will not be able to give much information regarding the agencies themselves, they will help determine its goals, as well as helping you to pass on disinformation.

Technical means can also be invaluable if you are lucky enough to discover potential meeting places, or if the agents under observation are careless in their use of electronics.
Disinformation is a vital part in limiting the influence of rival intelligence agencies.  Usually this involves either telling them what they want to know, or drowning them in false information to waste their time.

Deception and disinformation go hand in hand.  Deception is more effective in wartime, under conditions of great secrecy and control.  Deception involves fabricating fake signals to show the enemy what they want to know and hiding real signals you want to keep secret.

For example, one could look at what was arguably the greatest deception plan in modern history: the ruse developed to fool the Nazis into believing the allies would invade the Pas de Calais region of France, rather than Normandy, in 1944.

The allies kept radio traffic in south-west England, where the invasion was launched from, to a minimum, while they sent out much fake traffic originating from south-east England.  Also, military assets such as tanks, trucks, barracks, etc, were camouflaged and hidden in the former area, while the Germans were allowed to see fake equivalents in the latter area.  Also, the British used German spies captured early on in the war to feed disinformation to the German army to suggest the Allies would invade around Calais.

How successful a deception plan will be depends on the relative amount of fake signals versus real signals the enemy receives, the faith they put in the different sources, and the extent to which they are willing to believe what they are seeing.

Needless to say, there are more ruthless methods such as killing or kidnapping intelligence officers or assets, using honey traps to seduce and then blackmail operatives, or planting false information to encourage suspicion among their ranks.  However, much of this is typically done in warfare, or desperate situations, and is not always the norm (it should be noted that intelligence officers who work in official government capacities have diplomatic immunity, while ones working under non-official cover are either executed or traded for other captured personnel).  Also, at least in the case of democratic countries, there is the potential for domestic outrage if such foul practices are uncovered.

The foregoing are only some ideas and methods; needless to say, in the real word security is always contingent on circumstances.

While intelligence agencies are often seen as omnipotent organizations, there are several factors that can limit their effectiveness.

As stated earlier, political interference can limit objective analysis, which can be relatively harmless in peacetime, but potentially dangerous in wartime.  Besides the usual tendency of policy makers to pressure analysts into producing intelligence that reinforces their preconceptions, policy makers can also mess things up by demanding immediate results in intelligence collection, or by authorizing covert operations that are ambitious but impractical.  The former is more forgivable (at least during crises, as politicians are expected to act quickly), but generally produces the same effects as when politicians push analysts to find information that reinforces what they already want to know.

Again we can cite the countdown to war against Iraq in 2002-2003 as an example.  In the rush to war, President Bush Junior clearly wanted the C.I.A. to produce quick results regarding Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.  Whether or not the Americans would have confirmed, or even believed, that Iraq possessed no such weapons is debatable, but certainly they would have lost less credibility in world opinion had they waited.

As for examples of ill-advised covert operations, recent history is not short on them.  The Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, the abortive attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980, and the Israeli attempt to assassinate Khaled Mashal in 1997 were all mounted under considerable political pressure and were sloppily planned and poorly executed.

Another common flaw is when allies, or even intelligence agencies in the same country, fail to properly communicate, or coordinate, with each other.  This is typically the result of professional pride, petty rivalries, or even a lack of trust among differing agencies.  It usually takes a disaster to see how small these concerns are compared to the greater good of the nation.  The lack of cooperation between the C.I.A. and F.B.I. before September 11, 2001 is an obvious example.  Unfortunately such institutional squabbles are relatively normal.  Even in Canada (which has a mostly undeserved reputation of being less close-minded than America), CSIS and the RCMP have had a generally unimpressive working history.  Needless to say, relations among allied intelligence agencies are even more suspect, considering nations’ differing interests.  It is quite normal for allies to spy on each other, with corporate espionage being particularly common.

The predominant focus on one method of intelligence gathering, at the expense of others, is also a common error.  The typical example is a country that focuses too much effort on technical intelligence at the expense of human intelligence.  Usually rich countries, such as the United States, which has the indisputably best technical intelligence gathering capabilities in the world, do this.  As mentioned earlier, this gives these nations advantages in conventional and electronic warfare, but leaves them relatively vulnerable to insurgents or other elements that do not rely heavily on technology.

Besides the previously mentioned examples of Afghanistan and Iraq, there is an interesting story about a conversation between the head of the C.I.A. and the Mossad.  The C.I.A. chief had impressive footage of a meeting between Arafat and some of his P.L.O. cronies, obtained via technical means, and showed it to the head of the Mossad.  When the Mossad chief asked what was being discussed, the head of the C.I.A. admitted he had no idea.  Thereupon the Mossad chief produced a report of the conversation that he had obtained via a human source.

The cultural bias of intelligence analysts can also have negative consequences.  Quite simply, even if an analyst has found accurate data, he can still draw wrong conclusions on the enemy’s likely behaviour if he does not take into account the enemy’s background.  Two people from the same society and background can easily have different values and do things differently, so it is plausible that someone from a completely different society or background will be even more likely to.

The above was the case regarding the Israeli intelligence failure to predict the Egyptian attack in 1973.  The Israeli analysts, realizing the Egyptians were not fully prepared for war, did not believe they would attack.  However, they underestimated the extent to which the Egyptians were under pressure from the Arab world, and the extent to which Egyptian pride demanded they go to war, despite the risks.  Saddam Hussein’s actions in the early 1990s and before the “Iraq War” are similar instances.  In both cases, many believed Saddam would give in rather than fight a hopeless war against the Americans.  However, they did not calculate the importance that pride and not losing face have in the Arab world.

A culture of caution, lack of funding, and bureaucratic interference are also potential pitfalls.  Caution is often necessary as intelligence operations may take a long time to cultivate, but can fall apart rather quickly.  However, calculated risks are needed to recruit potential informants, mount effective intelligence gathering, or enact covert operations.  This is another reason why some agencies prefer technical means; it limits the risk to their agents, and relies less on potentially untrustworthy assets.  One reason the Americans’ information on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction program was so abysmal was their reluctance to send agents into the country.

Lack of funding and bureaucratic interference is self-explanatory, as most people have dealt with these effects in their workplaces at one point or another.  Intelligence operations are expensive; assets are generally “gold diggers” and surveillance equipment is anything but cheap.  Bureaucratic procedure and rules are also inherently damaging to intelligence operations that rely on innovation and adaptation.

Lastly, we have the effects of duplication of effort.  This is where different intelligence operations produce the same data or results.  This is common when a country has too many intelligence agencies (for example the U.S. has something like 17), there is lack of communication among the agencies, or when individual agencies themselves have similar components that compete towards the same results.  Of course it is necessary to state that usually it is wise to have several sources confirm many pieces of information.  Duplication of effort is bad when it is clearly wasting limited resources.  Sometimes the fault is with policy makers, who are either vague on goals, or ask several agencies to do exactly the same thing.  As well, a similar situation usually exists regarding allied countries with the same interests.

Duplication of effort is common in warfare.  For example, a military intelligence agency and a country’s foreign intelligence service will likely duplicate efforts to gauge the composition of enemy forces, especially elusive ones such as insurgents.  Duplication of effort is also typical of technical intelligence gathering, given how easy it is to track people with technology.  In the case of a cunning adversary, it is probably necessary to pull out all the stops, but in the case of a relatively careless target, a few means are usually sufficient.

Undoubtedly there are many other factors that potentially limit the effective use of intelligence.

One of the great dilemmas regarding intelligence, at least in a democracy, is finding the right balance between oversight and security.  On one extreme, some worry about the potential abuses of unrestrained intelligence organizations, while others are concerned about placing intelligence agencies under too much scrutiny.  Both of these views have some merit.  The lack of effective oversight almost always leads to dark places, even in democracies.  The C.I.A.’s considerable surveillance of American citizens during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as some of its sinister projects like MKULTRA, are chilling examples.

However, too much openness is also a liability.  As a rule in intelligence, the more people who know about something, the more likely it is to be compromised.  There are many examples in modern democracies where after a meeting between intelligence personnel and policy makers, and only a few officials have received classified information, they make several copies and pass it to their subordinates, who in turn make copies for their respective departments.  If during these many exchanges there is at least one person (and inevitably there is) who either talks too much, or feels motivated to leak the information, it becomes compromised.

Needless to say, because of the haphazard means of distributing the information, and the fact that no one wants to be blamed for the resulting security breach, it is often hard to find out whose fault it is.  To show the damage that even someone in a low position can do, one can cite the information passed on to the founders of Wikileaks by Private Bradley Manning of the U.S. Army.  Despite his low rank, Manning had access to the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network that allowed him to view sensitive military and diplomatic information.  This is one of the prices the U.S. Army pays for giving its soldiers so much access to information.  While it certainly gives the army an unparallel advantage in military operations, it comes with significant security risks.

This is why the classification of information, illustrated by the “need to know” basis, is so important.  The only people who should know about sensitive information are the policymakers, the intelligence personnel who are supposed to act on it, and for the sake of oversight, some public representatives not linked to the country’s executive branch.  To facilitate the latter’s involvement, the most common approach is to set up a committee of representatives, from the government’s legislative body, that receives access to classified information and knowledge of covert operations.  For example, the U.S. congress has access via the “House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence” and the “Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.”  These are descended from the various oversight committees that were set up by the Church Committee that probed into alleged abuses committed by the C.I.A. from the 1940s to the 1970s.

These committees see classified information, and are informed in advance of every covert operation.  While they serve mostly in an observer role, they can bring issues to the attention of Congress if they find anything extremely unsavoury.  While it could be suggested that bringing classified information to the attention of a public body such as congress is an obvious security breach, it should be pointed out that this is typically only done in the cases of potentially immoral actions that do nothing to serve national security.  Whether or not the members of these committees are likely to condemn immoral actions that serve national interest is debatable.

But to prove that these committees are not just toothless organizations designed to appease public opinion there is the precedent where the American Congress voted to limit aid to the notorious Contras in Nicaragua.  While the U.S. administration found a way around that restriction that resulted in the Iran-Contra affair, which finally sealed the operation’s fate, it still shows that the spooks, and eventually even the executive, cannot always do whatever they want.

Whatever potential risk intelligence agencies could pose to democratic nations is generally removed by the practice of not allowing them police powers.  While critics could argue that organizations like the F.B.I. and the Canadian R.C.M.P. have police powers, it should be pointed out that these are predominantly law enforcement agencies.  They have intelligence gathering capabilities, but these are primarily used to collect information to solve crimes, uncover external espionage, or pre-empt terrorist attacks.  In any case, these organizations are easier to restrain given their considerable exposure to the public and the media, considering they interact with society on a vastly greater scale than foreign intelligence organizations do.

Ultimately, even though there is no way to tell how effective these checks and balances are, it is not too much to say that for the most part, intelligence agencies in stable democracies are not a significant threat to liberty, and generally do not impact the daily lives of the vast majority of citizens.  Any restrictions of freedom due to foreign espionage or terrorist threats, as well as questionable methods such as rendition, holding terrorist suspects indefinitely without trial and harsh interrogation practices, were all sanctioned by democratic governments, not by rogue elements of intelligence.

Finally there is the question as to the necessity of intelligence agencies at all.  Undoubtedly there are naïve idealists who typically believe their governments are inherently evil and either downplay the threat of terrorism and other countries (whose governments are seemingly never as wicked as theirs are), or are completely oblivious to any threat at all.  These people think that no information should be classified, that all covert operations are immoral, and that with the rise of open sources and information technology, including the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter, that intelligence agencies have become obsolete.

Such delusions are dangerous.  Whatever the flaws of intelligence agencies, they are critical to the nations’ interests, and the safety of their people.  Bad intelligence management has led to some of the worse disasters in history, including the German invasion of Russia in 1941, the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour, the Egyptian and Syrian attack against Israel in 1973, and September 11th, 2001.  While none of these surprises resulted in the collapse of its intended victim, something like a nuclear bomb going off in London, or a pre-emptive full scale cyber attack against American infrastructure, potentially could.

It is absurd to suggest that no information should be classified.  Would it really be wise to publish military secrets, vital economic or infrastructure data, or the location of, and detonation codes of, nuclear weapons for the benefit of terrorists, separatists, or foreign elements?  Hypocritically, it is likely that people who do not believe in the classification of knowledge would not be happy if all their personal secrets were common knowledge.

Likewise, covert operations are not always stupid exercises in bravado.  Some are necessary to gather vital information, or pre-empt potential threats.  For example, during the Cold War, the Americans and Israelis bribed several Russian MiG pilots to defect, along with their fighter aircraft, which gave them a decisive superiority over Russian- made planes.  Also, the Israeli raid on Osirak in 1981 denied Saddam Hussein the potential to make nuclear weapons, and the Stuxnet worm was most likely designed by the Americans or the Israelis to delay Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program.  Finally, with hindsight, no rational person would have disapproved of assassinating Hitler to prevent the Second World War.

These three points – that there are real threats to society, that critical information should be classified, that covert operations are often necessary – all dismiss the final silly suggestion that increased access to open sources and the rise of information technology has made intelligence agencies obsolete.  A relatively secret organization, which advises, and is answerable to, the government, is necessary to address these concerns.  Information gathering, analysis, covert operations, and security, should be left to an organization of professionals, not a mob of amateurs.  They have the resources, the experience, and the necessary structures in place, to do a relatively good job.  Intelligence operations are simply too complex to be run in a disorganised fashion.

Intelligence operations are necessary to further nations’ interests, and at least in the case of democracies, protect their societies.  This is done by the collecting and analysing of information for the benefit of policymakers so they can make informed decisions.  Covert operations are useful to pre-empt threats without going to war, and counter-intelligence is necessary to safeguard critical information.  Several factors, such as political interference and the lack of cooperation among rival agencies, can limit the effects of intelligence operations.  A key dilemma in intelligence is the balance between oversight and security.  Intelligence operations are too complicated to be left to amateurs.

However, if intelligence agencies are necessary, they need not be necessarily evil.  Like military power, intelligence operations are vital to safeguard liberty, but can also be used to subvert it.  It is no coincidence that every wicked regime in history has used both military power and intelligence operations to consolidate, and then hold on to, power.  As with all power, there need to be checks and balances.  It is up to the people, the media, and even government employees who are not connected to the executive branch, to provide the checks and balances.

At the end of the movie “The Good Shepherd,” the newly appointed Director of the C.I.A. tells the protagonist about a conversation he had with a U.S. Senator:

“I remember a senator once asked me. ‘When we talk about “C.I.A.” why do we never use the word “the” in front of it?’  And I asked him, ‘do you put the word “the” in front of “God”?’”

Such sentiment was probably the norm in Stalin’s NKVD and Hitler’s Gestapo.

Andrew, Christopher.  The Defence of the Realm:  The Authorized History of MI5.  London:  Penguin Group, 2009.
Crowdy, Terry. The Enemy Within:  A History of Espionage.  Oxford:  Osprey Publishing, 2006.
Kilcullen, David.  Counterinsurgency.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010.
Shulsky Abram, and Gary Schmitt. Understanding the World of Intelligence.  Washington D.C:  Potomac Books, 2002.
Thomas, Gordon.  Gideon’s Spies:  The Secret History of the Mossad.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2007.
Wikipedia Article on Intelligence Assessment: [Online] [2011, February]

Share article on