Intelligence on Wikileaks: Why Can’t America Trust Its Own Spies?

Slightly out of TPOH’s wheelhouse, but interesting nonetheless. More of America’s spycraft ended up as a document dump on Wikileaks this week. Why can’t the intelligence community keep a secret?

Seems to be a historical problem. From Gary J. Schmitt:

Although the WikiLeaks publication of what it has dubbed the CIA’s “hacking arsenal” and Edward Snowden’s pilfering and release of documents about NSA’s cyber collection capabilities are the most recent examples, the problem itself is decades old. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, low-level functionaries at NSA were able to provide the Soviets with information on that agency’s technological prowess in reading Kremlin and Red Army communications. In the ’70s, a young TRW contractor in California handed the KGB station in Mexico City critical data on an American satellite system capable of listening in on various Soviet radio and microwave networks. Next to go was a handbook on America’s most advanced photographic spy satellite, the KH-11, provided to Soviet intelligence by a low level CIA employee. Then in the 1980s, an NSA employee gave away a top secret Navy program that involved tapping underwater Soviet communication cables.

Such losses in technical collection are important precisely because human collection — spying — is neither for the faint of heart nor for anyone looking for a high percentage of success. It can pay off in big ways, but it’s unlikely to fill the gaps in information American policymakers want when it comes to the most difficult and sophisticated targets.

Spying is a job. But it’s a job greatly enhanced by technology. Where HUMINT (human intelligence) fails, electronic intelligence takes over.

However, whereas HUMINT can be kept under wraps, for the most part, because so few people are involved in the planning and execution, electronic intelligence is very difficult to manage secretively, even among members allegedly on the same team.

Given the vagaries and uncertainties of the human spy business, employing American technical ingenuity has always been a way of trying to stay ahead of opposition when it comes to intelligence collection. But, unlike human collection operations, where the number of people “in the know” can be limited, technical collection efforts often require a large number of personnel to develop, test, and then put into operation. And a lot of that work, especially once a program is up and running, will be managed by a team, sustained by technicians, and, for reasons of cost and expertise, involve contractors. That’s a lot of hands in the pot; not all will be taking home large paychecks, but all know they are handling some of the country’s most valuable gems.

Compounding the difficulty of keeping these newest collection systems secret is the fact that the explosion in information-age systems, which provide the target-rich environment for U.S. intelligence to operate in, are the same systems the community uses to exploit, collate, and share information. Closed networks are obviously safer than open networks, but they are still networks with vast amounts of data potentially available.

And, finally, there is no getting around the fact that globalization, both politically and technically, has created an environment in which no small number of individuals believe that the “internet of things” should be free of the kind of state-centric competition that justifies and guides the work of intelligence agencies. Proud of their cyber savvy but perhaps relegated to mundane technical tasks, it’s not difficult to imagine just one or two individuals deciding to take things in their own hands and expose capabilities that should remain hidden.

You can question the value of spying as a whole. Does it protect or save lives? Is it the right thing to do? Why can’t countries and leaders just be more forthcoming about their national aspirations? Etc. But intelligence gathering is a fact of life. Countries spy on other countries merely because it is human nature (and thus leadership’s nature) to withhold or even deceive when a potential outcome may harm one’s personal interest (Plus, it also makes for some of the best novels ever written. And is anyone watching Homeland? Art imitates life!).

But you gotta ask yourself — are technological advancements hurting security? And why is the spy community so very bad at cultivating trustworthy employees? It may just be the nature of the business, in which case, what more can be done to keep the world safe?

Does the Federal Government Have to Be in Washington?

Want to decentralize the federal government, start by decentralizing where the federal government resides. That’s the suggestion from economist Paul Kupiec, who suggests that there’s no real reason why all federal agencies need to be in the nation’s capital.

Kupiec says if the federal government really wants to spread the wealth around, one way to do it would be to let agencies that don’t need to operate in Washington build their headquarters around the country.

Kupiec noted that the FBI and the Labor Department are both ready to move to new buildings. They’ve outgrown the aging facilities where they are housed currently. Combined, the construction costs alone could top $3.5 billion, a pricey bill that not only could benefit other areas, but could actually come down if agencies were built outside the bubble that surrounds the nation’s capital.

But construction costs are not the only consideration for moving these agencies

To understand the potential impact of moving a federal-agency headquarters out of Washington, consider what relocating the FBI headquarters to Detroit would do. Moving 11,000 FBI employees would hardly make a dent in the D.C. economy. Over 275,000 people—over 14% of the workforce—are federal-government employees, according to the Office of Personnel Management. In contrast, 11,000 well-paid federal government jobs and $2.5 billion in construction spending would provide a significant boost to the Detroit economy, where less than 2% of the workforce are federal employees. …

It would also be healthy for the country to more broadly distribute the wealth and power of federal-government agencies across the nation.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 11 of the 20 richest U.S. counties—including the three richest counties—are in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Incomes near the national capital are bloated not only by generous federal-government payrolls, but also by ‘Beltway bandit’ consultancy firms that provide contract services to federal agencies. It is little wonder that many Americans view the federal government as a money machine for bureaucrats and political insiders.

Besides reduced construction and maintenance costs, smaller federal payrolls due to cost of living adjustments, and less bloat from special interests, there’s another reason for moving some of the federal government out of Washington.

The concentration of federal agencies in a single area increases the potential for a breakdown of government services in the event of a terrorist attack, a snowstorm, a hurricane, or even the increasingly frequent service interruptions on the Metro, the Washington area’s troubled subway system.

Sure, agencies outside the capital would need to keep liaison offices for cabinet officials and Congress, but modern communications make it easy to decentralize.

Ultimately, Washington is viewed with disdain by many Americans who are disconnected from the administrative functions of government and who look at Washington as an insiders club. To improve perception, and possibly even increase efficiency, it could be helpful and cost-effective to relocate the bureaucracy into the heartland, giving people a closer look at and a larger stake in how government operates.

What do you think?

Read Paul Kupiec’s article in The Wall Street Journal.