February 02, 2004

Getting Back Into the Spy Business

I'm a technology kind of guy. But part of doing my job right is to properly judge when a job is better done in a low tech instead of high tech way. In some way's it's the start of any design job I do, "should I be doing this at all". Unfortunately, this is a question that doesn't seem to have been properly handled in the spying business. The always insightful StrategyPage has an article on the subject entitled "Why American Spies No Longer Exist".

Alas, in the 1970s and 80s, the U.S. Congress decided that it was beneath the United States to deal with criminals and unsavory people when engaged in espionage. Spy satellites are so much cleaner. Plus they are made in the USA, by American workers. None of this exporting millions in cash to bribe some guy with a long rap sheet, who happens to party with some Baath Party munchkins who hear a lot of interesting conversations. You simply can't trust people like that. These amazing satellite photos, on the other hand… That's how everyone got snookered. Establishing enough spies in Iraq to have exposed the WMD scam would have taken more money, talent and dirty dealing than most governments are willing to tolerate. And then there's the media risk. One of your spies gets ticked off and bumps into someone from the Washington Post. Who needs the headaches? It's easier to deal with being ignorant. If no one else knows what's going on, where's the harm? 

I had been thinking of writing something along the same lines but I would have based it on the most extreme and recent of the spy eviscerating bonehead moves, a Clinton administration executive order I recall passing that made recruiting spies with unsavory connections illegal. I couldn't find the text of the thing so I put it on the back burner.

But the Clinton administration was only the culmination of a very big problem that has spanned decades and has afflicted spying policies conducted by both parties. The temptation to rely on technical resources over building human networks has led us to our current, dangerously impotent state of human intelligence.

The real cure is to forge a consensus that spying, though unpleasant and certainly not clean, is a capability that we cannot do without. That consensus has to span beyond the elected officials of both parties to the media and the public at large. How to get there from here is a mystery, but it is a mystery we should all be seriously thinking about.

Posted by TMLutas at February 2, 2004 12:03 AM