The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight



December 22, 2007

In the post- 9-11, post Iraq world of Intelligence and policy, the great hue and cry has been that the US needs better Human Intelligence. To that end, the Intelligence Reform act created the National Clandestine Service out of the CIA’s old Directorate of Operations, in an attempt to beef up our human intelligence capability.

Joseph Weisberg, writing in the Washington Post, raises an interesting and provocative argument:

Although we dedicate enormous resources to recruiting “human sources,” there just aren’t many good ones available. The central problem is that the people who actually know the secrets we’d be interested in aren’t recruitable. Officials at the highest reaches of foreign governments have wealth and power and usually no compelling reason to put those at risk. The most knowledgeable members of terrorist groups are ideologically committed and aren’t going to work for the CIA or anyone else.

Those ‘assets’ that the CIA (or other agencies) do manage to recruit, he asserts, are essentially useless:

Intelligence from almost all CIA assets is unreliable for the simple reason that so many of them are double agents, meaning that the CIA recruited them but that they are being controlled by their own countries’ intelligence services. When I worked at CIA headquarters in the early 1990s, I once suggested to a friend who worked in counterintelligence that up to a third of all CIA agents could be doubles. He said the number was probably much higher.

Concrete proof is always scarce in these matters, but from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, most and very likely all Cuban agents on the CIA payroll were doubles. So were a majority of East German agents during the Cold War.

So why even bother? Now, Weisberg is does not want to totally scrap HUMINT, he just feels that the CIA should target more obtainable and useful (and boring) information and get over the myth of the super-spy:

Sympathetic Europeans who work at companies involved in the illicit transfer of nuclear components might help us understand how the underground nuclear supply chain works. Scientists who attend highly specialized conferences might glean valuable insights into foreign capabilities.

What Weisberg’s article made me think about (and this is an example of poor blog writing, as I’m burying the lead, but the nice thing about blogs is that I can write as I think, and this is what I was thinking on Sunday…) is perhaps “secret” information is really not all that valuable. Perhaps this massive expansion of the intelligence community, producing a great number of classified intelligence products is only marginally more useful than a subscription to the Washington Post, Google, and regular reading of Abu Aardvark.

What leads me to this question is not any empirical study– I’ve never read a classified TS document (though once, as a State Department Intern, I did have a Secret clearance to read cables and such, but little that I read then was all that exciting, and what was dealt with operational security, like the plans for a Secretarial trip to Lebanon that was of course public news the minute she landed…). Rather, what gets me here is some of the theoretical work I’ve done on language, building on Wittgenstein’s Private Language argument–you can’t have a private language because to have a meaningful social relations, you must speak in a way others can understand. Red, Pain, Beetle In the Box, that kind of stuff.

Add to this one of the rules of Networks. The bigger the network, the more powerful it is. The original Fax machine wasn’t all that valuable because there wasn’t anyone else to fax to. Only when everyone had a fax machine did it become a valuable thing to have because then you could actually use the fax to communicate and expect people to be able to fax.

Put this together, and perhaps you get to the point where information–intelligence–is only valuable when lots of people know it. Thus, secrecy, classification, and the like are usually more harmful than beneficial. As an illustration, consider the NIE on Iran. The public conclusion has been very powerful and had a tremendous impact on both the domestic political debate on what to do about Iran’s nuclear program, as well as the way Iran views the potential for negotiations with the US about its nuclear program. I don’t know what is in that report, but does it matter?

Now, I can understand two counter-arguments for ‘secrecy’ and classification.
1) OP-SEC: When I was interning at State, Secretary Albright was going to Lebanon. The first visit by a US SecState in several decades. Obviously a difficult security situation, and you don’t want to put her at risk, so the trip details are classified. But, once she got there, it was all public.
2) Sources and Methods: This is no different than the reporters who have anonymous sources–people talk more freely on a not-for-attribution basis. But in this case, what difference is there between a CIA officer and Dana Priest? (she’s a Post Reporter who covers national security). Once, in a chat she was doing, someone asked her the question– who has better info, you or a spy–and she said her. People were more willing to talk to a reporter than a spy for a whole host of reasons. Essentially, being overt was more of an asset than being under cover.

So, I’ve just taken an interesting Post Op-Ed on the problems of HUMINT and turned it into an ontological discussion of secrecy in spying. Not quite sure how I got there (well, actually I am rather sure of how I got there, but not in any way that I could explain in a blog post. Private language and all that…).

But, its going to be a fun long weekend with plenty of time to blog over the next 4-5 days, so a) you have more of this to look forward to and b) i hope this keeps you as entertained as it does me and c) if you’ve read this far, you deserve a medal or a cookie or something. Perhaps go read this Drezner post and decide if its Funny. I am still not sure.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.