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?