Wednesday, July 14, 2010


"In the end, both the U.S. and Russian models — indeed most intelligence models — are built on the core assumption that the more senior the individual, the more knowledge he and his staff have. To put it more starkly, it assumes that what senior (and other) individuals say, write or even think reveals the most important things about the country in question. Thus, controlling a senior government official or listening to his phone conversations or e-mails makes one privy to the actions that country will take — thus allowing one to tell the future.

Let’s consider two cases: Iran in 1979 and the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991. The fall of the shah of Iran and the collapse of the Soviet empire were events of towering importance for the United States. Assume that the United States knew everything the shah’s senior officials and their staffs knew, wrote, or said in the period leading up to the Iranian Revolution. Or assume that the shah’s prime minister or a member of the Soviet Union’s Politburo was a long-term mole.

Either of those scenarios would not have made any difference to how events played out. This is because, in the end, the respective senior leadership didn’t know how events were going to play out. Partly this is because they were in denial, but mostly this is because they didn’t have the facts and they didn’t interpret the facts they did have properly. At these critical turning points in history, the most thorough penetration using either American or Russian techniques would have failed to provide warning of the change ahead. This is because the basic premise of the intelligence operation was wrong. The people being spied on and penetrated simply didn’t understand their own capabilities — i.e., the reality on the ground in their respective countries — and therefore their intentions about what to do were irrelevant and actually misleading.

We started with three classes of intelligence: capabilities, intentions and what will actually happen. The first is an objective measure that can sometimes be seen directly but more frequently is obtained through data held by someone in the target country. The most important issue is not what this data says but how accurate it is. Intentions, by contrast, represent the subjective plans of decision-makers. History is filled with intentions that were never implemented, or that, when implemented, had wildly different outcomes than the decision-maker expected. From our point of view, the most important aspect of this category is the potential for unintended consequences. For example, George W. Bush did not intend to get bogged down in a guerrilla war in Iraq. What he intended and what happened were two different things because his view of American and Iraqi capabilities were not tied to reality.

American and Russian intelligence is source-based. There is value in sources, but they need to be taken with many grains of salt, not because they necessarily lie but because the highest-placed source may simply be wrong — and at times, an entire government can be wrong. If the purpose of intelligence is to predict what will happen, and it is source-based, then that assumes that the sources know what is going on and how it will play out. But often they don’t.

Russian and American intelligence agencies are both source-obsessed. On the surface, this is reasonable and essential. But it assumes something about sources that is frequently true, but not always — and in fact is true only with great infrequency on the most important issues. From our point of view, the purpose of intelligence is obvious: It is to collect as much information as possible, and surely from the most highly placed sources. But in the end, the most important question to ask is whether the most highly placed source has any clue as to what is going to happen.

Knowledge of what is being thought is essential. But gaming out how the objective and impersonal forces will interact and play out it is the most important thing of all. The focus on sources allows the universe of intelligence to be populated by the thoughts of the target. Sometimes that is of enormous value. But sometimes the most highly placed source has no idea what is about to happen. Sometimes it is necessary to listen to the tape of Gorbachev or Bush planning the future and recognize that what they think will happen and what is about to happen are very different things.

The events of the past few weeks show intelligence doing the necessary work of recruiting and rescuing agents. The measure of all of this activity is not whether one has penetrated the other side, but in the end, whether your intelligence organization knew what was going to happen and told you regardless of what well-placed sources believed. Sometimes sources are indispensable. Sometimes they are misleading. And sometimes they are the way an intelligence organization justifies being wrong".

Dr. George Friedman, "Russian Spies and Strategic Intelligence," 12 July 2010, in

No doubt in the world of spy satellites, the National Security Agency and whatnot, there are rationales to be had for all the spending and public attention that is put on the old-fashioned art of 'human intelligence', id est., spies. Even if one abstracts out the whole public fascination, there is at the margins some degree of reason for the all the importance placed on spies and spying. However, the thing to remember of course is the caveat that I deliberately used: 'at the margins'. Why this qualifier? Simply because with one or two exceptions: Richard Sorge, Oleg Penkovsky come immediately to mind, human intelligence has not been a very important variable in the diplomatic history of the 20th century. Certainly, there has been nothing in human intelligence to compare in importance to say the ULTRA machine of the Second World War, say. Which as the late Sir Francis Hinsley commented, probably aided the Western Allies to such an extent that it shorten their war by at least two to three years (Sir Francis Hinsely, British Intelligence during the Second World War: its influence on strategy and operations, vol I. 1979). The alternative argument is that for all the successes of Sovietskaya Vlast and its minions during the Cold War in penetrating (in some cases almost entirely) various Western intelligence agencies, those said successes did nothing to prevent the downfall of Sovietskaya Vlast (for this argument, see: Sir Christopher Andrew, Defend the Realm: the authorized History of MI-5, 2009, pp. 833-844 and passim). Which is not to argue that one should willingly tolerate say Russian and Chinese spying in this or any other Western Country if one can help it. However, the larger point is that one should not lose sight of the relatively un-importance of professional spying by other governments both here and abroad. And, in point of fact, one can only commend wholeheartedly the manner in which the American government and its Russian counterpart handled the entire recent 'spy scandal'. In essence to the great extent possible putting the entire matter to bed as quickly as possible. Ultimately one can only agree with the late Earl of Stockton, Mr. Harold Macmillan who once complained to the head of MI-5, Sir Roger Hollis, that:

"When my gamekeeper shoots a fox, he doesn't go and hang it up outside the Master of the Foxhounds' drawing room; he buries it out of sight. But, you just can't shoot a spy as you did in the war. You have to try him...better to discover him, and then control him, but never catch him."

Alistair Horne, Macmillan, Vol. II: 1957-1986, pp. 460-461.


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