A crying shame for the spying game

A crying shame for the spying game

The recent flurry of reports highlighting the antics of the US intelligence community has mortified even the most hardened members of the world’s second oldest profession in the world’s largest clandestine community. Concerned spooks have cringed not so much at the veil being dropped, but at what it revealed: A bloated and inefficient establishment that has failed at several critical junctures and is at war with itself.

For example, the office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), created five years ago to coordinate the work of the myriad agencies, has been through four incumbents. The latest uber-tsar of intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, resigned over a reported rift with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The recent exposure of a Russian spy network, though a commendable feat, also revealed the inability of the US agencies to prosecute its members. Hence the hastily arranged spy swap with Moscow. Similarly, the curious case of the Iranian nuclear scientist, Shahram Amiri, the alleged Iranian double agent who had been reportedly recruited by CIA, is not only reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, but, if true, also reflects the gullibility of US spymasters.

Finally, a Washington Post investigative series on the top-secret world in the US revealed that the ballooning of resources since 9/11, coupled with the privatization of key functions, had created a system “lacking in thorough oversight and so unwieldy that its effectiveness is impossible to determine". While the intelligence budget of $75 billion is bigger than the gross domestic product of many countries and has created a veritable army of over 800,000 people with top-secret clearance, it is not at all certain that this has made intelligence operations effective. On the contrary, this growth has likely created serious problems for providing actionable intelligence.

All of this reveals several fundamental flaws. First, the system is overwhelmed by the amount of information it now has the ability to gather. While the National Security Agency intercepts and stores 1.7 billion pieces of communication—emails and phone calls—every day, it does not have the wherewithal to analyse all of it. As Gen. James R. Clapper Jr, the latest aspirant for the post of DNI, confessed: “There’s only one entity in the entire universe that has visibility on all (top secret programmes)—that’s God."

This was dramatically illustrated in the inability of this vast apparatus to detect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s plans to blow up a passenger plane last Christmas. A terrorist has to be lucky only once and the state every time, but in this instance the US agencies had not one, nor two, but 16 chances to disrupt Abdulmutallab’s plot, and failed each time. It was only the intervention of fellow passengers that averted the tragedy.

Second, there is a bias in the US system towards technical means and so-called “sigint" (signal intelligence), and against humint—empowering agents on the ground or having analysts with the appropriate skills. Most analysts are inexperienced college graduates with little or no knowledge of the country they work on or its language, especially Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is best illustrated in the covert operations where an operator at Creech airbase in Nevada flies intelligence gathering drones over Afghanistan, which explains some of the most appalling failures.

Third, before 9/11, the US system was primarily designed to gather intelligence about other states and less about non-state actors. Since then, the effort to protect the US from terrorist groups has led to some change in the system, but not necessarily in the attitude.

Finally, while spying is a necessary instrument of statecraft, the vast, complicated and stove-piped system that Washington has developed is defeating its very purpose. It is time for a radical transformation—at least to ensure that the money invested in the system is well spent.

W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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