Think Again: Spies

Virtually every nation resorts to the "dark arts" of espionage to protect its government, economy, and citizens. But with the end of superpower conflict, the spread of democracy, the advent of new information technologies, and the emergence of a more transparent world, the central question about spying today is whether it is still necessary.

Spying Is a Cold War Anachronism

Spying Is a Cold War Anachronism

Wishful thinking. True, global spying probably reached its zenith during the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. Spies, though, have been around in one form or another since the Lord told Moses to "send men to spy out the land of Canaan." For all the talk of a global trend toward democracy and greater transparency, spies seem likely to thrive, even in the absence of a superpower struggle.

In the United States, the intelligence budget — approximately $30 billion in 2000 — is gradually inching back to its Cold War heights. (As a general rule, nations spend on spying an amount equivalent to about 5 to 10 percent of their defense budgets.) The difference is that whereas the United States used to allocate 65 to 75 percent of its intelligence resources to spy on the U.S.S.R., it now devotes only about 15 percent to Russia. The rest goes toward dealing with what the former U.S. Director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey characterized in his 1993 confirmation hearings as "a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes," whether terrorism, drugs, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, ethnic conflict, or good old-fashioned bad behavior between, among, or within nations.

Although just about every major intelligence service shrank in size after the Cold War, most have eagerly embraced the "new threats" mantra as a strategic imperative. By 1994, the British Secret Intelligence Service — the United Kingdom’s equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) — devoted only 15 percent of its resources to the former U.S.S.R. (compared with 37 percent during the Cold War) and roughly 40 percent to fighting drugs, terrorism, weapons proliferation, and money laundering, with the balance divided among individual countries. As Ernst Uhrlau, Germany’s intelligence chief, recently noted, he sees "an ever stronger connection between transnational issues and internal and bilateral conflicts." The transnational game is one that even lesser nations feel compelled to play: In 1997, seven years after achieving independence, Namibia cited terrorism, ethnic conflict, and the trafficking in drugs, arms, and diamonds as the rationale for creating its central intelligence service.

Bureaucracies inevitably strive to advance their own interests, especially when they are less accountable to the public. Yet even though they may inflate threats in order to pad budgets, it is hard to argue that spying is no longer necessary. During the last decade, wars and civil conflicts that threatened the interests of greater and lesser powers erupted from the Persian Gulf and the Balkans to East Timor and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. North Korea tested long-range missiles. Terrorists bombed U.S. barracks and embassies in Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and Tanzania, as well as buildings in New York City and Moscow. The Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan released sarin nerve gas into Tokyo’s subways. India and Pakistan conducted surprise nuclear tests. And, lest we forget, Russia and the United States remained (and remain) armed with enough nuclear warheads to annihilate one another in a half-hour.

In a strategic landscape plagued by still greater uncertainties, the need to know not only endures but grows. Moreover, although globalization has brought about a new set of favorable circumstances for nations in terms of trade, travel, and communications, it has also brought greater exposure to foreign intrigue, against which intelligence can provide a shield. New information asymmetries add to the seductive power of spying: Whether on the battlefield or in trade negotiation sessions, the disproportion of the benefits that accrue to those with superior intelligence and information has grown. Given these circumstances, it should come as no surprise that spying in some cases is actually increasing in intensity. In the United States, wiretaps related to espionage and counterespionage (chiefly against suspected terrorists and international drug dealers) shot up from 595 in 1990 to 880 in 1999. In a 1994 white paper, the South African government noted that its country was experiencing a "dramatic increase in foreign intelligence activities." And from Central Asia to the Baltic States, the new nations clustered along the periphery of the former Soviet Union have experienced a surge of spying by Russia, the United States, China, and assorted other powers.

In Spying as in War, the Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend

Not anymore. When the Cold War ended, the sense of threat on both sides diminished, and with it, the cohesion that had drawn allied secret agencies into a web of cooperation. The Russian secret service currently has minimal ties with the state security apparatus in most of the former Soviet satellites. In fact, it significantly increased its own spy network in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic following their accession to nato in March 1999.

Although the foreign-policy objectives of nations within the Western alliance were reasonably compatible during the Cold War, they were never fully congruent and are less so today. In 1998, German counterintelligence uncovered a CIA attempt to recruit a Bonn official for espionage, and the next year the Federal Republic expelled three CIA officers for spying. In early 1999, Tokyo and Washington had a tiff over Japan’s plans to develop its own spy satellite and enhance its intelligence capabilities. Earlier this year, a French member of the European Parliament denounced an eavesdropping operation run by the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, known as echelon, as "an Anglo-Saxon Protestant conspiracy."

As shadowy figures operating outside the law or conventions of war, spies are in some ways the ultimate agents of national interest. Intelligence cooperation between nations has therefore always been marked by a sense of ambivalence. Consider the case of the European Union: Many European analysts have touted the benefits of greater intelligence cooperation in an era of falling budgets, exploding information, and growing integration; indeed there has been an improvement in cooperation among Europeans (and with the United States) in some areas, such as counterterrorism and counternarcotics. Yet intelligence services are reluctant to support the idea of a truly united European approach to intelligence sharing. Cooperation has been even more halting among the member states of the United Nations, which faces vexing disputes over secrecy and sovereignty issues. Barring the dissolution of the current system of nation-states and the establishment of full-fledged global governance, intelligence-sharing relationships will remain significantly constrained by divergent policy interests, the fear of turncoats inside an ally’s government, and the general need for secrecy.

Spying on Economic Competitors Is Now Preeminent

Not really. When the European Parliament published its report on the echelon eavesdropping system last February, France’s justice minister huffed that what had begun as a military system "has been diverted to the purposes of economic espionage and for keeping a watch on competitors." As one of the most aggressive practitioners of economic spying, the French could perhaps be forgiven their paranoia. But when it comes to the security agenda of most intelligence services, commerce continues to take a back seat to direct threats to national survival. Governments rightly remain more concerned about threats such as terrorism, drug smuggling, and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, the resources that some intelligence services devote to economic matters have been growing. In the United States, the proportion of collection and analysis resources allocated to economic intelligence rose from less than 10 to 40 percent in the immediate post–Cold War period. Of special interest has been the monitoring of unfair trade practices. In 1994, U.S. intelligence learned that the French had tried to bribe Brazilian officials in an attempt to win a $1.4 billion contract for Thomson, their communications company; when the United States objected, Brazil awarded the contract to the American company, Raytheon. U.S. intelligence agencies have also backed up diplomats in trade talks: During recent negotiations with the Japanese government over automobile imports, the U.S. delegation reportedly received agent reports and telephone taps that helped close the deal. The United States has so far refused to spy on private foreign companies, but the roll call of countries so engaged is long. A 1996 survey by the American Society for Industrial Security named China as the most aggressive perpetrator of industrial espionage against U.S. companies, followed by Canada, France, India, Japan, Germany, South Korea, Russia, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Israel, and Mexico. The United States, however, overlooks its own self-imposed prohibition against commercial espionage if a foreign business is state owned, as is sometimes the case in the telecommunication and aerospace industries.

But the value of economic espionage is disputed. Open government agencies often have better information on global economic activities than their clandestine cousins; so do any number of open sources, whether multilateral institutions, think tanks, or leading newspapers and magazines. One of the best economic intelligence networks is that of Japan, which relies overwhelmingly on bureaucrats at ministries, trade associations, trading firms, and companies overseas.Virtually all of the economic data obtained by Japan about the U.S. market supposedly comes from open sources.

Moreover, economic spying raises serious practical and ethical issues. Intelligence cannot be provided in fairness to one U.S. company over another; yet widely distributing secrets risks the disclosure of sensitive sources and methods. Since most major U.S. firms are multinational, intelligence distributed to them cannot be expected to remain tidily within the United States. And if the CIA were caught with its hands in a Toyota safe at midnight, would that risk be worth the likely setback in U.S.-Japanese relations?

Technology Has Made Spying Easier

Yes, and harder, too. Intelligence has come a long way since the days when pigeon droppings served as a source of invisible ink. Even during the Cold War, major powers resorted to surveillance technology that now seems like something out of a Laurel and Hardy movie. Frantic to learn more about Moscow’s military capabilities, the United States lofted unmanned, camera-carrying balloons across Soviet airspace; most crashed somewhere in the vast Russian expanse. In contrast, today’s satellite cameras can canvass the globe and penetrate the cover of clouds and darkness. Moreover, the time required for the retrieval, development, and dissemination of the photography has diminished from weeks to minutes.

Espionage agencies have invented a wide range of sensitive listening devices, some as small as a pinhead, others as large as a football field. For the individual agent, secret codes have become more elaborate and almost impossible to break; methods of communication between spies and their case officers have shifted from radio transmissions to quick-burst electronic messages bounced off satellites; lock picking and letter opening are now a science; and agent disguises rival those of Hollywood. Technology, though, cuts both ways. As countries have grown more sophisticated in crafting spy machines for use against adversaries, so have adversaries become more clever in evading these prying eyes and ears. During the Indian nuclear tests in 1999 that took much of the world by surprise, the Indians knew exactly when the spy cameras would be passing over the testing facility near Pokharan in the Rajasthan Desert and, in synchrony with the satellite orbits (every three days), scientists camouflaged their preparations.

Advances in the commercial surveillance industry have further reduced the information edge once enjoyed by some governments. In 1999, the U.S. company Space Imaging launched a surveillance satellite (named Ikonos II) that yields photographs almost as detailed as the intelligence community’s — imagery for sale to anyone with cash or a credit card. Within a few years, Iraq or any other nation can have their own satellites or commercially available substitutes (the "rent-a-satellite" option). Accessing communications signals has also become more difficult. Existing signals-intelligence satellites are designed to snatch analog microwave communications from out of the air. The world, though, is rapidly switching to digital cellphones and underground (and undersea) fiber-optic modes of transmission that are much harder to intercept, leaving nations with a sky full of increasingly irrelevant listening posts.

Furthermore, even poor nations and terrorist groups can encrypt messages with complicated mathematical, computer-based technologies that stymie even the most experienced cryptologists. Under pressure from the U.S. software industry, the Clinton administration recently decided to allow the export of advanced encryption software, making life more difficult for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (fbi) and the National Security Agency (nsa, the United States’ code-breaking organization). Similarly bowing to sales opportunities for their private firms, the European Union is expected to lift its barriers to the export of strong encryption software. Rest assured, however, that government spy masters will not respond by closing up shop, but by pouring more resources into the development of advanced intelligence collection, code-breaking, and counterdeception methods.

Open Sources Provide Better Information Than Spies

Increasingly, but not always. During the Cold War, about 85 percent of the information contained in espionage reports came from the public domain. Today, in light of the greater openness of governments around the world, that figure is more like 90 to 95 percent. Within this figure, though, are not just well-known newspapers and magazines but "gray" sources that are not secret but are nonetheless hard to find (for example, remarks by Libyan leader Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi at a political rally in Tripoli). The acquisition of such "open" information may require a covert agent in just the right place.

Sometimes information that is openly available proves insufficient to answer an intelligence question. During its investigation into U.S. intelligence activities in 1995, the Aspin-Brown Commission (with members appointed by the president and Congress) explored the relative value of open and clandestine reporting by looking at both sources for a few days (August 3-7) with respect to events unfolding in Burundi. The commission asked the firm Open Source Solutions to explore the open side, drawing on the resources of such private information companies as Jane’s Information Group, Lexis-Nexis, and Oxford Analytica. The open sources performed well, providing a brief, accurate history of the tribal conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi factions, and detailed order-of-battle statistics and descriptions of weapons in the Burundian inventory. However, contrary to some reports, the U.S. intelligence community shined as well. The CIA generated up-to-date information on the growing political polarization in the country and the high likelihood that violence would soon erupt. The CIA also presented comprehensive data on regional ethnic population patterns, illustrated with impressive four-color maps, along with facts on Burundi’s acquisition of arms in the international marketplace (which led to U.S. diplomatic pressure to halt the shipments). The information provided by Jane’s Information Group on the characteristics of weapons in Burundi proved richer than the CIA’s profiles, but the CIA offered better insights into the evolving humanitarian crisis in Burundi, the attitudes of leaders in surrounding nations, and the need for the United States to begin preparing for the evacuation of U.S. and European nationals. The open and clandestine sources each revealed pieces of the Burundian jigsaw puzzle; when joined together, the picture became much clearer.

Intelligence agencies perform especially well on topics that open reporting sources have trouble tracking, notably the precise whereabouts of foreign military forces, the activities of terrorist groups, the machinations of international criminals, and events and personalities in closed societies. Open reporting is often better for the long-term interpretation of political events. A leading newspaper, for example, may have a seasoned reporter assigned to a foreign capital for years, perhaps even decades, while intelligence officers typically undergo rapid turnover as they move from capital to capital during their careers.

China and Japan are especially proficient at cultivating open sources of information; so are Israel, the Netherlands, Singapore, and Taiwan. And according to Robert D. Steele, the chief executive officer of Open Source Solutions, "the Nordics are sensational at open source exploitation." Sweden, for example, has pioneered new methods of coordinating open-source collection among all its government agencies and tapping the resources of the Internet. Many Western nations, though, underestimate the value of such sources. After all, an ordinary city map purchased at a Belgrade kiosk in 1999 could have saved the CIA from the embarrassing blunder of mistakenly targeting the Chinese embassy in Serbia. The U.S. National Foreign Intelligence Board found that U.S. intelligence agencies devote only 1 percent of their total budget to the aquisition of open source material, despite the importance of information from the public domain in the preparation of intelligence reports.

Open sources, though, are no panacea. A 1996 CIA study of the Internet estimated, for example, that only 1 percent of the millions of Internet pages contained content useful for intelligence purposes. As Ray Cline, a former CIA deputy director of intelligence, once observed, "Espionage is now the guided search for the missing links of information that other sources do not reveal." The effective intelligence analyst starts trying to answer questions with an exhaustive examination of open sources — a much less expensive method of detection. Too often, however, analysts set aside open sources in favor of the more beguiling and abundant (if frequently less reliable) secret information that pours in from agents and spy machines — including, in the United States, some 400 photographs a day from surveillance satellites.

Machines Provide Better Intelligence Than Humans

Don’t say goodbye to James Bond just yet. Technology is important, but agents have had their moments of glory, too. The United States’ best agent during the Cold War, the Soviet military intelligence officer Col. Oleg Penkovsky, provided the CIA with information on the Kremlin’s military policies and weapons, including drawings of missile sites inside Russia. In October 1962, this information allowed CIA imagery analysts to interpret telltale signs in U-2 photographs that revealed comparable sites being constructed in Cuba. Further, the CIA only initiated U-2 flights over Cuba in the first place because its agents reported unusual activity on the island, including the sighting of what appeared to be missile parts unloaded from Soviet ships. Of the 3,500 CIA-agent reports preceding the missile crisis, only eight yielded accurate information about the presence of missiles; nevertheless, those eight reports proved invaluable as triggers for the U-2 reconnaissance flights.

But that was almost 40 years ago, before the age of advanced surveillance satellites and other major innovations in technical espionage. How useful are agents today? In those nations that can afford costly spy machines, funding for technical intelligence dwarfs that expended on agents (the spending ratio in the United States is roughly 7 to 1). But spy satellites are unable to see through roofs and into the inner councils of foreign governments where decisions are made. It takes a human agent for that.

The need for reliable agents is continual. Although the attempted rescue of American hostages held in Tehran during the Carter administration failed, its planners had good reason to think it might succeed, in part because agents in Tehran had been able to provide information on exactly where each hostage was being held inside the U.S. embassy. During the United States’ disastrous intervention in Somalia in 1993, the Pentagon learned that its powerful Black Hawk attack helicopters were worthless without spies on the ground who could point them toward the right targets in Mogadishu’s twisting maze of dirt streets and alleyways. This year, U.N. blue helmet troops captured Sierra Leonean rebel leader Foday Sankoh, thanks to a tip from an indigenous agent reporting to U.S. forces among the peacekeepers. As transparent as machines have made some parts of the globe, much still remains opaque. In fact, nations like North Korea that pose the greatest threat to world peace are generally the least transparent.

Spying and Democracy Are Fundamentally Incompatible

On the contrary. Human rights activists and other champions of democracy have understandably balked at the excesses that have occasionally characterized intelligence activities, whether assassination plots, coups, bribery, the spreading of propaganda, or the lack of accountability. Yet during the Cold War, the Western intelligence services, working together, provided an indispensable early-warning system against threats to democracies from the Communist world. Intelligence services continue to provide this first line of defense, including efforts to uncover the use of chemical and biological warfare before the sarin gas, anthrax particles, or other horrendous substances are released among mass civilian populations.

Spying has advanced other laudable goals, from battling international drug dealers to uncovering renegades who attempt to violate U.N. sanctions. During the recent Balkan wars, spy satellites spotted mass graves freshly dug near the villages of Pusto Selo and Izbica in Kosovo, allowing U.N. investigators to search for additional evidence of atrocities. U.S. secret agencies have been involved in environmental activities, including the use of satellite cameras to inspect crop blight as well as track the spillage of radioactive materials from submarine accidents and leaky nuclear storage sites. Intelligence agencies have been drawn into the task of global disease surveillance, too, both by doing long-range analyses and ferreting out facts beyond the ken of the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization — as when the Chinese attempted in 1996 to cover up an aids-contaminated blood product (serum albumin) produced by a military-run factory.

Spying, then, can be a vital support to democracy; but it can also have just the opposite effect if a regime fails to maintain a system of accountability over its secret agencies. Until recently, the intelligence services of every nation enjoyed immunity from close review by outside overseers: The philosophy was that, by necessity, secret agencies had to be divorced from society. While most intelligence services throughout the world continue to operate free from parliamentary supervision, in 1976 the United States adopted a system of legislative oversight for its intelligence activities — an approach stemming from revelations that U.S. intelligence agencies were spying on their own citizens and subsequent discoveries that the CIA had engaged in assassination plots overseas. A few other countries, most notably Canada and Australia, have also established serious parliamentary checks on intelligence activities. Ultimately, in a democracy, the viability of an effective secret service relies on public respect. Oversight by elected representatives provides an important link between the people and the hidden side of government and helps to guard against the misuse of secret power.

Perhaps some day spying will be as outdated as dueling. But democracies will continue to tolerate espionage as an instrument to keep themselves informed about the intentions and capabilities of unpredictable nations with a penchant for international misbehavior: the North Koreas and Iraqs of the world. And even against fellow democracies, most citizens will accept spying as a necessary evil, for the simple reason that democracies still compete against one another for political and economic opportunities. A worthy goal for the future is to seek a reduction in harmful competition and spying between democracies, so they can direct their intelligence capabilities toward providing a common defense against the world’s more troublesome regimes, along with the transnational threats of weapons, drugs, terrorism, crime, environmental pollution, and infectious diseases that continute to spread and endanger everyone.

Loch K. Johnson is Regents professor of political science at the University of Georgia and author of Bombs, Bugs, Drugs and Thugs (New York: New York University Press, 2000).

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