On Point: Three Windows Into Spydom's World of Mirrors


by Austin Bay
July 27, 2010

Events this month opened three windows into the mirror worldof espionage and covert operations.

The three windows are opaque and narrow, but that's alwaysthe case with the spy business, a shadowy enterprise where the source (orsources) of light should also be regarded with suspicion.

Window One, Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri's returnto Iran, is reminiscent of a Cold War spy novel where double agents steal, dealand often die. This current affair, however, involves a flesh-and-blood humanbeing, not a character, and the driving issue behind the incident, the Iraniandictatorship's intent to build nuclear weapons, may result in a deadly war.

The Washington Post opened Window Two when it ran a seriesof articles examining America's ever-expanding intelligence bureaucracies.

Window Three on the world of mirrors may be the mostintriguing: the WikiLeaks scandal, involving the unauthorized Internet releaseof thousands of U.S. government documents.

Shamir Amiri may have defected to America. Or perhaps theCIA kidnapped him. The Voice of America reports three different video clipsexist "all featuring a man who appeared to be Amiri," and each videoAmiri tells a different tale. Spy agencies thrive on "plausibledeniability." Though three Amiris are implausible, in this case confusionitself is a cover story.

CIA allegedly paid Amiri $5 million for nuclear details.When Amiri offered information, money hit the table. To determine the utilityof his information required interrogation. Over the past year, U.S. officialshave hinted the U.S. had gained critical insight into Iran's nuclear programs.Amiri has now returned to Iran. Agent, double-agent, or triple-agent? If Amiriturns up dead, that might indicate his intel was fairly solid.

His high-dollar payoff may not be wasted, for it works aspsychological warfare. If Amiri is a fraud, knowing Uncle Sam pays millions mayultimately draw the real thing. In the mirror world, an apparent blind alleymay become an expressway.

 Sept. 11 was anintelligence failure. The United States has many vulnerabilities, from seaportsto airports to suburban malls. America's intelligence organizations had togrow. The Washington Post's recent articles did an excellent job documentingthe expansion.

This new, enlarged intel community, however, suffers frombureaucratic excess. Quantity does not assure quality. Data points do notproduce insight. As I read the articles, I thought about former CIA DirectorJames Schlesinger's 2003 observation that "major organizational change (inintelligence) is not the salvation ... the real challenge lies in recruiting,fostering, training and motivating people with insight."

Producing useable intelligence is an art. It seems fewleaders and even fewer bureaucrats understand that. Now if The Washington Postwould apply the same reportorial skills to the Departments of Commerce andLabor, we might make some headway.

As for the WikiLeaks scandal: Intelligence officers love andhate the Internet, for it is simultaneously an overt and covertintelligence-gathering tool and an overt and covert intelligence-operationsenvironment. That's great, but an enemy can pull the same trick on you. That'sbad. Intel and counter-intel strategists have not yet determined the best wayto handle the Internet's beauty and beast.

The WikiLeaks scandal provides an example. WikiLeaks, anInternet-based organization that asks sources everywhere to send it secretinformation for publication on its site, has begun releasing tens of thousandsof Afghan War-related documents. The Pentagon has launched a criminal probe.Many documents are reportedly "open source," meaning the informationis publicly available, though The Wall Street Journal reports some filescovering civilian casualties and special operations were "sensitive."

The release has stirred a data security controversy. TheInternet is rife with rumors, including one that suggest WikiLeaks itself is anintelligence "honey pot" operation designed to ensnare leakers.

The diplomatic fallout is fascinating. Pakistan'sInterservices Intelligence (ISI) agency is outraged at WikiLeaks' revelationsof its support for the Taliban. U.S. diplomats acknowledge that this revelationmay create a political opportunity. The U.S. denies a plot to embarrassPakistan -- but in the world of mirrors, who knows? 

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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