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Ranking the World’s Spies

Spring 2009 Features

Ranking the World’s Spies

Which intelligence services are the best in the business?

Guess the world’s best spy services. It sounds like a parlour game for Bond fans, and might be, if only the question were not quite so serious and the answer quite so elusive. Serious because spy services now have a new cachet and weight in a world of fast on-rushing, globalized threats. Elusive because spy services remain charter members of the land of secrets, and stubbornly refuse to reveal too much of themselves in public. While the failures of intelligence services often make the news, their successes rarely do, adding difficulty to the task of measuring effectiveness.

Espionage activities have been around for a very long time. But despite a long history and a literature studded with some notable classics, beginning with Sun Tzu’s Tsaoist masterpiece, The Art of War, it seems that only in the post-9/11 age have we awakened to the idea that intelligence services truly matter, and that the popular understanding of spies in our midst may not serve us all that well. With modern spy services entering their second century (British intelligence celebrates its centennial this year), one might think that some agreement exists about how to measure their performance. It does not, however, and no accepted ranking exists, except perhaps at the fuzzy edges of popular wisdom.

Where better to start, then, than the place where the mind will quickly, and with little resistance, go – to the dominant images purveyed by spy novels and films. The genre has been shaped by some well-known fabulists. Ian Fleming gave us a new and reassuring spy for the Cold War: James Bond, Agent 007. John le Carré, Fleming hater and arch-rival, gave us Alec Leamas and George Smiley, intellectually tortured figures grappling with a world of espionage that was a microcosm of all of society’s ills. Tom Clancy brought the spy novel to American shores and gave us a mélange of action and techno-thrills in the service of a distinctive brand of American patriotism. And Hollywood has kept the flame alive by channelling George Orwell into a series of compelling takes on conspiracy and paranoia, from Three Days of the Condor in 1975 to Enemy of the State in 1999.

Audience beware. Some of this fabulism has a cautionary point, and much of it is fun. What it does not do is reflect reality.


Popular Culture Sells Espionage

Although the temptation is great, one cannot reach into the realm of imaginary spies for real-world yardsticks. Except for this. The popular culture of espionage has added fizz and attractiveness to the idea of spying, giving it public prestige and sometimes shoring up its legitimacy at critical moments. It has undoubtedly performed as an unpaid recruiter, driving young men, and maybe women, into the intelligence business. Spy services need talent, and they need public legitimacy. Popular culture has helped with both, but only in the Anglosphere. Metric No. 1 is thus – if you have a popular culture of espionage, you are ahead.

If one is inclined to doubt this, consider that the very origins of modern British intelligence owe much to a spy panic generated, just before WW1, by the earliest ink-stained wretches of the spy novel genre. The man once lauded as the “great white spy chief,” legendary (at least before his fall) CIA director Allen Dulles, appreciated full well the importance of popular culture. Dulles practiced selling a burnished image of spying in a variety of settings, from Georgetown drawing rooms to media interviews to the inner sanctum of the White House. Indeed, he kept a spy novelist in his agency’s employ, and devoted himself to publishing a collection of his favourite spy stories in retirement.

If pondering popular culture yields something for our effort to rank spy services, lifting the lid on history yields more. The history of spying tells us much about why spy services were created, how they evolved, how they prospered, how they coped with failure, how they became powerful.

History is a darwinistic laboratory of intelligence survival.


The Times They Are a Changing

The modern history of espionage begins in the years before WW1, when a handful of European states laid the permanent foundations, or strengthened the activities, of existing spy services in the face of a perfect storm of changes that confronted them. These changes included unsettling shifts in the nature and distribution of power in the international system, which negated the post-Napoleonic ‘Concert of Europe’ and raised the spectre instead of systemic anarchy, imperial overstretch, the unrelenting application of technology to warfare, increasing domestic political turbulence in the wake of industrialization and urbanization, the emergence of new mass political ideologies, and the rise in literacy rates (and hence political appetites). In other words, modern intelligence was born in troubled times, when states suddenly gained an appetite for information that might increase their security and odds for survival. Once the appetite was gained, it was rarely relinquished, though the intensity of hunger could come and go.

The history of modern intelligence teaches us that spying flourishes, and is best appreciated and used, in times of perceived unsettling change and national insecurity. Metric No. 2 measures perceptions of threat linked to the capacity of the state to understand intelligence as a form of succour. In a post-9/11 age, it could be argued that the world’s problems come to all corners and to all manner of states, but we can still distinguish those that feel most pressed by the Dylanesque notion of ‘the times they are a changing.’ Those that feel most hard-pressed are most likely to turn to intelligence services for help.


Spy Game Changers

The history of intelligence also teaches us about the dynamics of change. Good intelligence services are those that are able to ride the waves of change, adapt and utilize them to gain an edge. The game changers for intelligence services, from pre-WW1 days down to the present, have been the intertwined factors of technology and the informational universe. Technology has revolutionized intelligence by introducing new ways of collecting information, which freed classical spy services from the stasis of traditional reliance on the human agent and on slow-moving methods of passing secrets from spies to home capitals. Technology, beginning with Marconi’s experiments in wireless radio transmission, levered open a new dimension of fast-moving and ultimately global communications, which themselves could be targeted by adaptable intelligence services. Thus was born the discipline known as signals intelligence (SIGINT), which began to show its potential in WW1 (the Zimmermann telegram), was the crown jewel of allied intelligence services in WW2 (the Ultra Secret), and indeed went on to play an acknowledged but still difficult to document role in Cold War and post-Cold War contests.

Technology also freed intelligence from its lineof- sight constraints and, starting with the ingenious invention of the Wright brothers, created a whole new dimension of aerial, and later, space-based reconnaissance. Inevitably, another acronym was born – IMINT (imagery intelligence).

But the technological driver had its downside. While it held tremendous potential for delivery of high volumes of reliable information at speeds unheard of – all the while side-stepping the vagaries of dependence on the human agent and the mailbag – it was pricey and required advanced technological capabilities, as well as a matching industrial complex. To keep up in the technological spy race required steep investments in money and human resources. It also required some degree of burden sharing; that is, a willingness to join with like-minded states to share the costs, the targeting and the take of spy operations.

Metric No. 3 is thus the relative effort that states are willing and able to make to harness technology. In other words, how’s your spy machine?

In other words, how’s your spy machine? Technology took intelligence out of its perennial condition of informational drought or scarcity, and introduced it to an opposite phenomenon of informational glut or superabundance. Spying over the course of the twentieth century became less and less about digging up secret nuggets, and indeed more and more about exploring the vast universe of non-secret, so-called ‘open source’ information. Current estimates for Western intelligence services suggest that as much as 90% of their intelligence knowledge is derived from open source materials.

The coming of the internet has been both an unanticipated blessing and grave curse for spy services, forcing them to rethink the basic tenets of intelligence and to introduce new ways to collect, manage and disseminate information as they edge closer to becoming vast cyber-libraries, where an ability to find the right, relevant piece of available information is the key. Gone are the days when intelligence services were concerned only with secrets, and when the locked steel cabinet, with its red-tabbed folders, was a potent symbol of knowledge. Thus we arrive at Metric No. 4: How is your spy library?


Political Culture

Le Carré readers will know this, but Bond fans take note. Spy services are bureaucracies embedded in political systems. They are rarely “rogue elephants,” in Senator Frank Church’s famous phrase; they are never partnerships between stern father figure (M) and globe-trotting killer (007). Usually, they take their marching orders from the political leadership, and operate within political systems which they serve and political structures to which they have to adapt. To take one instance, the late and unlamented Soviet intelligence service, the KGB, lived by its official motto – “the sword and shield of the party.” That was its raison d’être. Spy services have cultures that reflect their place in the political system, from bull’s eye centre to life on the peripheries of power.

There are many elements to the political culture of intelligence, including a well-educated and well-trained work force; intelligence personnel whose diversity mirrors that of the broader makeup of the state; legal codes and norms; accountability regimes to ensure that intelligence services stay true to their mission, stay legal, and can learn from their mistakes; clear mandates and reporting structures within government; high-level interest in, and respect for intelligence’s role.

The political culture of intelligence ideally serves two ends. One is to allow intelligence services sufficient independence and power to pursue the fond, self-imposed maxim of ‘speaking truth to power;’ the other is to provide an intelligence system with the capacity to generate truths in the first place. These are large but delicate ambitions for spy services: a requirement for power and independence, but not too much; a genuine truth-seeking capacity nurtured within a system that inevitably places a premium on secrecy and privileged – but compartmented – access to information.

The political culture metric is a grab bag – hard to reduce to a single measure or thought. But, at its heart, it is about the capacity of a state to take seriously the idea of an independent knowledge source on key questions of national and international security. Metric No. 5 we will label the political culture of ‘truth seeking.’


What’s Your Neighbourhood?

Spy services thrive on threats to national security, perceived or real. These threats can be generated along any number of vectors: by internal troubles, border disputes, regional tensions or concerns for global security. Small powers are most likely to concentrate on internal and near threats; medium powers will have a more extended horizon of concern; great powers will tend to have global problems on their minds. The idea of intelligence, once a monopoly of a handful of European great powers, has essentially been exported and globalized. Most of the UN ‘family’ will thus sport some form of intelligence capacity.

A transition occurs from law enforcement and policing to intelligence as preoccupation with threats transcends one’s own borders. Thus, most small states, and most states primarily concerned with domestic turbulence, are more likely to invest in policing and internal security capabilities rather than in a full-service spy system. But there are, of course, exceptions to this rule, the most notable being that of the State of Israel – a small state by anybody’s measure, with preoccupations that are firmly focussed on internal security and on relations with its immediate neighbours, but with a significant and much-lauded intelligence system. There can be middle and great powers in the international system that do not devote many resources to espionage. A good example would be Japan, whose approach to intelligence was profoundly shaped by its post-war constitution and the renunciation of a tradition of militarism. Japan became a site for spying by other powers during the Cold War and after, and may, as its economic power blossomed, have acquired at least a private sector appetite for industrial espionage, but it has largely eschewed a major intelligence capability.

It is at least an arguable proposition that good spy services are most likely to be found in states that live in dangerous neighbourhoods, when that sense of ‘neighbourhood’ transcends the merely local. When it does not, spies give way to cops. The biggest, though not necessarily the best, spy services are to found in the possession of states with global footprints that fear international insecurity. Metric No. 6 is about the geopolitics of danger that animates intelligence work. It involves an understanding of how states deploy spy services to cope with insecurity beyond their borders.

A final metric might be suggested by the current economic crisis. Intelligence services need money. Times may change, and if the economic crisis continues to worsen, states might make deep cuts in intelligence budgets. But so far, nothing of that kind has been recorded. Resourcing might become a metric in future, though for the moment it is a ghost. Willingness to spend on intelligence in a post-9/11 age seems a common denominator.

The six metrics can be applied to fashion a ‘performance matrix.’ Which countries to try this out on? Some inclusions are inevitable: the US as the world’s preeminent intelligence power in terms of reach, technology and resources; the UK as a twentieth century pioneer with a self-professed ability to ‘punch above its weight;’ Israel for its stature as a Middle East power and as an exemplar of a state that has, even before its formal birth, invested heavily in intelligence. Canada needs to be in the mix because it exemplifies how middle powers tend to adopt a custom-built (or, less politely, jerry-rigged) approach to intelligence. To this grouping, I will add Australia, as a regional power with eyes fixed on the Pacific and South Asia, and as a member of the so-called ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance (with the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand), one of the most unique burden-sharing partnerships in intelligence history.

Two BRIC powers – Russia and China – have to be in the mix. The US National Intelligence Council’s impressive forecast of future trends – ‘NIC 2025’ – pays a lot of attention to the BRIC countries, and predicts a tectonic shifting of power West to East as the 21st century proceeds.

Russia has, of course, a long tradition of espionage dating back to its first engagement with the West during the reign of Peter the Great, and has shown an impressive recovery since the collapse of the Soviet empire. Russia’s prime minister is, after all, a former KGB officer. China remains – well – a little more inscrutable, but no one doubts that it brings its own methods of large-scale intelligence collection, including cyber-espionage, to bear on its increasingly global interests. And China lays claim to the earliest theoretician of intelligence, Sun Tzu.

To this group of seven intelligence powers, I will add one outlier – Pakistan. Pakistan does not just live in a dangerous neighbourhood these days: it is a dangerous neighbourhood unto itself, with serious fears that this nuclear-equipped state could tumble over the brink into failed state status if its internal politics comes awry. Moreover, its military intelligence arm, the ISI (Inter-Services Directorate) – originally a creation of the departing Raj – has been widely credited with contributing to both terrorism operations in Afghanistan and India, and to being a doubtful ally of its own political masters.

The methodology, such as it is, will be to apply a numerical coefficient (on a scale of 0 to 10) to each of the performance metrics, and to bundle these into a measure (spy matrix) of the ranking of eight state intelligence services. This is not hard science, econometrics or even that softer thing known as political science. It is just a suggestive – maybe provocative – guess.

Here is what we get for scores:



Spy Matrix: Ranking the Intelligence Services

The overall score is an aggregate of each of the individual metrics, according each one equal weight. A score of 5 and above I consider a passing grade; spy services below 5 are failing. Two of our eight spy services garner failing grades; two are stuck at mediocrity; four are good performers – or at least have all the tools to be good performers.

If these numbers be true to anything, they show the US and Israel – one superpower and one small power – at the top of the chart of world spy services, neck-and-neck in ratings. Pakistan ranks lowest, itself a dangerous indication. China does surprisingly poorly; Britain surprisingly well. Canada shows itself better than Russia, but less good than Australia. The moral is that the world’s best spy services are those that know that they live in a dangerous world, supported by governments that know that they live in a dangerous world, and are able and willing to tolerate spies as truthtellers. Or maybe, given all we have learned from the failures of intelligence around the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war, we should use Mark Lowenthal’s more cautious phrase: truth “approximators.”




Wesley Wark is a professor at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto, where he teaches on intelligence and security issues. His most recent book is Secret Intelligence: A Reader.

(Illustrations: James Turner)

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