Spying 2.0 and All That

FEATURES | February 6, 2012     

Spying 2.0 and All ThatNew Questions, Paradigms and Worlds for an Ancient Craft

Intelligence in this century will continue to be a key feature of national security policies around the world. The basic contours of the intelligence game will remain familiar: there will always be human spies; intelligence analysts will continue striving to understand the world, anticipate events and avoid surprise; and the profession will continue to harness technology in aid of the purposes of spymasters.

But beyond these certainties loom many unknowns. At the end of the day, intelligence is about understanding the world, where events are heading, and anticipating potential sources of trouble. This was easier in the Cold War and in the 17-year period between its end – the Soviet collapse in 1991 – and the international financial crisis of 2008.

During the Cold War, everything could be examined through the clarifying prism of US-Soviet conflict. Against that backdrop, most other concerns were secondary or derivative. And after the Soviet Union disappeared, the US had the luxury of being more or less unchallenged on the international stage until the 2008 financial crunch created huge resource strains, raised questions about the US economic model, and drew more attention to the emergence of China, India and other surging economies as potential challengers for primacy in the international arena.

For US intelligence organizations, the world that they must understand has grown enormously more complex. Given that intelligence cannot cover everything with equal intensity and focus, it helps to have a widely understood organizing principle – sometimes captured in a phrase or two that all can grasp. However, in contrast to earlier eras of extreme challenge, no such concept exists to date – at least not one around which most observers could comfortably coalesce. During WW2, everyone could easily grasp ‘defeat the Nazis.’ And during the Cold War, Western intelligence services could easily rally to an anti-Soviet strategy captured by the idea of ‘containment’ – as put forth in George Kennan’s famous article in Foreign Affairs. Ideas like these provide the architecture for setting priorities when it is impossible to do everything.

In describing American intelligence history, British scholar Christopher Andrew posited an “era of innocence” from the American Revolution to WW2 (when America was isolated or safe enough to feel no particular need for an intelligence establishment), an “era of transformation” from WW2 to the collapse of the Soviet Union (when American intelligence was organized at the national level, and took on a global mission), and an “era of uncertainty” from the collapse of the Soviet Union to, say, the attacks of 9/11 (when intelligence absorbed sizeable resource cuts, and had to recalibrate its mission).

Some might presume to call the current era one of ‘integration,’ ‘asymmetry,’ ‘reformation,’ ‘fragmentation,’ ‘connectivity,’ ‘precision,’ ‘globalization,’ or even ‘hard choices.’ Looking at various global trends, there is little likelihood that the picture will become clearer anytime soon.

At the most elementary level – that of population growth and the underlying demographics – the world is changing dramatically. World population not long ago passed the seven billion mark, and demographers suggest that, by 2050, it will exceed 10 billion. The recent spurt of growth occurred mostly in parts of the world least prepared to deal with the resulting pressures – Africa, the Middle East, parts of Southeast Asia – and projections are that the developed world will account for less than three percent of the growth over the next four decades. An important underlying trend has been a steady growth in urbanization (with more than 50 percent of the global population living in urban areas), with the trend once again dramatically more pronounced in the developing world than elsewhere. We are heading toward an era of developing-world mega-cities – from Lagos to Jakarta – of more than 20 million people.

Intelligence officers watching all of this will have to be alive to the likelihood of increasing strains on governments that are unable to meet the concomitant demand for basic services and employment – and the possibilities of ethnic and tribal strife, societal instability, mass migrations, and the availability of large numbers of unemployed young men for recruitment by extremist movements.

At the same time, resource pressures will be growing in the world. Despite repeated pledges by developed countries to lessen dependence on carbon fuels, nothing has yet occurred to make this a reality. Some projections therefore foresee global energy demand rising by at least 30 percent over the next three decades. China’s demand alone over the last two decades grew by about 280 percent, and will likely continue to rise at a rapid rate. All of this, of course, could be driven up or down by growth prospects and other factors. But with 54 percent of proven oil reserves, and 40 percent of proven natural gas reserves, in the Middle East – still the largest deposits globally – intelligence officers will, for years to come, have to pay attention to great power competition and its consequences in that troubled region.

Much has also been written recently about potential shortages in clean, safe water – especially in the developing world. Some projections say that, within a relatively short time, as many as three billion people could be affected. In developing economies, some 80 percent of water usage is still in agriculture, where it takes about a thousand tonnes of water to produce one tonne of grain. With more than one-third of the Earth’s surface consisting of river basins shared by more than one country, and with water tables falling in some of the world’s principal grain-growing regions, it is not hard to imagine circumstances in which water becomes a source of competition and conflict.

Contrasting with such scarcity is the increasing availability of dangerous materials. Although US President Obama has embarked on policies intended to counter or reverse this trend, intelligence officers will, for the foreseeable future, have to worry about the security of these materials. With approximately 2,300 tonnes of highly-enriched uranium or reprocessed plutonium stored in varying states of security around the world, intelligence officers will have to remain ever vigilant about the possibility of this material falling into the hands of people with ill intent. To be sure, we know that the material does leak: on at least two occasions – in 2003 and 2006 – significant amounts of near-weapons-grade uranium were intercepted at the Georgian border in the former Soviet Union. And these are, of course, only the cases that we happen to have detected.

In the background of such trends is another factor that is certain to strongly affect intelligence: the burgeoning revolution in technology that is altering all aspects of modern life. This is evident in nearly all fields, but especially in information technology (including social networking), biotechnology and nanotechnology. These developments will be of growing importance to intelligence for several reasons – chief among them being that intelligence must always do more than simply take advantage of existing technology. Intelligence must constantly be a step ahead of where everyone else is, as the adversaries that it must understand and detect have access to all that is commonly available. And, of course, this is a task that is complicated by the growing, unprecedented banality of very sophisticated technology-enabled or technology-based capabilities.

This is probably the trend that is likely to have the greatest transformative effect on intelligence in the coming century, and it means that intelligence in the years ahead will have to be extraordinarily inventive. Challenging conventional wisdom about what is technologically feasible will become a requirement for success and, conceivably, for survival in certain circumstances. Increasingly, intelligence officers will have to ask themselves what has been called the ‘paradigm-shift question’: what is it that, if it could be done, would revolutionize what we do?

The answer to that question often holds the secret to what intelligence has to tackle next – technologically or otherwise. Whether they knew it or not, American intelligence officers in the late 1950s and early 1960s were posing the paradigm-shift question when they asked: what if we could take photographs from space? Such imagery from space is now almost prosaic – especially for a generation that has grown up with Google Earth. Back then, however, it was a huge technological hurdle to reliably get a rocket into space with conventional photographic equipment, and then to return the film to Earth and interpret it. The initial efforts to realize this goal failed over a dozen times before success with what was known as the Corona satellite program. This was a ‘game-changer’ to a degree that few appreciate today; after that success, the US was never again surprised by a major Soviet military programme (even though it was occasionally caught off guard by how the Soviets employed such programmes).

How should intelligence answer the paradigm-shift question today? What are the ‘game- changers’ of the future? Is it too much to ask: what if we could see through dirt? What if we could see through metal? What if we could detect the movement of very small amounts of radioactive substances from thousands of miles away? In essence, questions like these start to push intelligence beyond the suite of collection techniques into which intelligence agencies have settled a little too comfortably since the late 19th century, when classic human espionage – spying, as it were – began to be augmented by early industrial-age technologies, producing what we have come to call signals intelligence (SIGINT), photographic intelligence (IMINT) and various other technical measures and signals (MASINT).

This long-standing intelligence framework, derived mainly from technologies that matured more than half way through the last century, will be dramatically destabilized in this new century – especially since, only one decade into it, we are zooming through what is arguably the most sweeping technological and scientific revolution in human history. The best minds in the intelligence profession need to work closely with technologists to brainstorm the future direction and scope of innovation, and what these might hold for both offensive and defensive strategies.

One thing is certain: these kinds of revolutionary trends in technology – and indeed in the human condition – are likely to increase the number and broaden the scope of issues requiring intelligence attention. In the absence of a guiding strategic concept with the organizing power that ‘containment’ had in the Cold War, one of the principal problems for intelligence in the coming decades will be the struggle to prioritize. As mentioned, intelligence organizations, despite myths to the contrary, cannot be everywhere and cover everything. Add the fact that most nations are heading full-steam into a period of constrained resources in which intelligence leaders increasingly will have to ‘place their bets,’ as it were. This ‘bet-placing’ will extend to everything from technologies in which they invest to the types of individuals that they target for recruitment as spies. All of this is made doubly challenging by the fact that we are entering an era wherein the potential for surprise – since time immemorial the chief ‘enemy’ of intelligence – will be rising substantially due to shifting power relationships among nations and the speed of technological change.

These circumstances will demand disciplined thinking about priorities. There are many ways to do this. Here is one way to think about it: why not arrange issues for coverage in five descending categories of effort – realizing that, with the fluid nature of geopolitics, these categories will be neither neat nor mutually exclusive. The categories could be as follows:

Urgent – issues that unquestionably threaten the lives of citizens, the fortunes of armed forces, or the physical security of one’s country. For the US, at present, this would at minimum have to encompass issues such as terrorism, the development and proliferation of dangerous weapons (nuclear and conventional) and materials, and cyber-security.

Important – issues that pose a clear threat to national interests and regional or global stability, along with specific countries that pose special dangers. Each country will have its own list, but for the US it might include regional tensions in places such as the Middle East and South Asia, and countries such as Iran and North Korea.

Emerging – issues and countries in which neither the threat nor future evolution is clear, but for which the potential for miscalculation is great, and for which prudence demands an attentive posture. Each country will calculate differently on this score, but for the US, logical candidates might be countries like China and Russia, as well as issues like climate change and the possibility of a global pandemic – both of which could have enormous national security implications.

Maintenance – countries and issues in which the threat to interests and stability may be less obvious, but for which surprises can quickly elevate them into one of the top two categories. New crises frequently spring from matters that are getting less attention and fewer resources, or for which no one has exclusive responsibility. The global financial picture – the crisis of 2008 having caught nearly everyone off guard – is a good case in point; as is the crisis that unfolded more than a year ago in Tunisia. The challenge in this very broad category is to dedicate sufficient coverage to be able to detect trends heralding change, and to ramp up quickly should something occur that rapidly elevates the importance or threat potential of the issue.

Investment – the proportion of effort that intelligence leaders are prepared to dedicate to developing new techniques and capability in recognition that the world is not static, and that the price of standing still – technologically or otherwise – is certain failure.

Of course, no matter how disciplined one is, it is impossible to peer very deeply or confidently into the century now stretching before us. Any list of priorities will therefore be fluid, and intelligence officers will need unprecedented agility and high tolerance for ambiguity. Let us just imagine how successful futurists might have been at this point in the last century. Who could possibly have foreseen, in 1912, two world wars, the rise of history-changing figures like Hitler and Stalin, the Holocaust, the Cold War and nuclear power? Retrospective assessments of strategic futures are a recipe for deep humility.

It is nonetheless possible – taking all of the foregoing into account – to imagine at least three different worlds that could evolve over the next decade or so, influencing the trajectory of events for years into the future, and fundamentally affecting the character and level of effort required of intelligence services. (Here we borrow generously from an informal talk in which former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, some 20 years ago, was commenting on very different circumstances for a group of national security specialists – including the author.)

One – perhaps the least likely – we might call Stable World. This ‘world’ could come about through what might seem an unlikely concatenation of events. It could begin to emerge through some combination of outcomes, such as the strategic defeat of Al Qaeda (something already envisioned by some counter-terrorism experts), a settlement of the long-standing disputes in the Middle East between Israelis and Arabs, agreements modernizing the international financial system, reversal of nuclear proliferation trends, and the continued evolution of Sino-US relations along lines of engagement, rather than confrontation.

A second possible outcome we might call Messy World. This is arguably where we are today, and it is a state of affairs that could be prolonged by failure to make progress – or by continued drift – on many of the issues just mentioned. Tensions and uncertainties would abound in places such as the Middle East and the rest of Asia if Arab-Israeli negotiations remain stalled, and if the Arab Spring fails to yield the improved living standards and governance that populations desire. This would be a world in which nuclear aspirant countries like Iran progress enough to establish a ‘break-out’ potential – but stop just short of full capability – making it difficult to organize a consensual international response. This is a world in which great powers, such as China, the US, India and Russia, continue to vacillate between moments of suspicion and collaboration, with longer-term relationships remaining up for grabs. In short, this is a world in which many of the fundamentals affecting global stability remain unsettled.

The third world we might call Nasty World. Given that we are at a moment in history when events in one part of the world affect events in other parts more certainly and rapidly than ever before, it would not take much to tip events in this direction. This is a world of rising tensions and little agreement among major nations about how to avoid or manage conflict. A chain-reaction of trouble could be triggered by things like a cascading spread of nuclear weapons capabilities in the Middle East in the wake of an Iranian nuclear test, a renewed intifada in the Palestinian-Israeli setting, state failure in an important country like Pakistan, another Taiwan crisis, or a major outbreak of cyber-war – or by some combination of events like these.

These three ‘worlds’ are quite evidently neither precise nor mutually exclusive. The decades ahead might very well see elements of all three appearing simultaneously in some combination that would merit a different label – or a linear progression in one or another of these directions. In this tumultuous global environment, the only certainty for intelligence in this century is that the craft will be challenged more formidably than at any time other than during the global wars of the last century.

With energy and innovation, this can, as was the case then, also be a time of transformation and renaissance for an ancient profession – a profession whose highest calling is to help nations see clearly enough to avoid the tragic or painful consequences of the worst of all worlds.


John E. McLaughlin is Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. He was Deputy Director and Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2000 to 2004.

(Illustration: Ryan Snook)

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