by Austin Bay
July 27, 2010
Events this month opened three windows into the mirror world
of espionage and covert operations.
The three windows are opaque and narrow, but that's always
the case with the spy business, a shadowy enterprise where the source (or
sources) of light should also be regarded with suspicion.
Window One, Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri's return
to Iran, is reminiscent of a Cold War spy novel where double agents steal, deal
and often die. This current affair, however, involves a flesh-and-blood human
being, not a character, and the driving issue behind the incident, the Iranian
dictatorship's intent to build nuclear weapons, may result in a deadly war.
The Washington Post opened Window Two when it ran a series
of articles examining America's ever-expanding intelligence bureaucracies.
Window Three on the world of mirrors may be the most
intriguing: the WikiLeaks scandal, involving the unauthorized Internet release
of thousands of U.S. government documents.
Shamir Amiri may have defected to America. Or perhaps the
CIA kidnapped him. The Voice of America reports three different video clips
exist "all featuring a man who appeared to be Amiri," and each video
Amiri tells a different tale. Spy agencies thrive on "plausible
deniability." Though three Amiris are implausible, in this case confusion
itself is a cover story.
CIA allegedly paid Amiri $5 million for nuclear details.
When Amiri offered information, money hit the table. To determine the utility
of his information required interrogation. Over the past year, U.S. officials
have 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 Amiri
turns up dead, that might indicate his intel was fairly solid.
His high-dollar payoff may not be wasted, for it works as
psychological warfare. If Amiri is a fraud, knowing Uncle Sam pays millions may
ultimately draw the real thing. In the mirror world, an apparent blind alley
may become an expressway.
Sept. 11 was an
intelligence failure. The United States has many vulnerabilities, from seaports
to airports to suburban malls. America's intelligence organizations had to
grow. The Washington Post's recent articles did an excellent job documenting
This new, enlarged intel community, however, suffers from
bureaucratic excess. Quantity does not assure quality. Data points do not
produce insight. As I read the articles, I thought about former CIA Director
James Schlesinger's 2003 observation that "major organizational change (in
intelligence) 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 few
leaders and even fewer bureaucrats understand that. Now if The Washington Post
would apply the same reportorial skills to the Departments of Commerce and
Labor, we might make some headway.
As for the WikiLeaks scandal: Intelligence officers love and
hate the Internet, for it is simultaneously an overt and covert
intelligence-gathering tool and an overt and covert intelligence-operations
environment. That's great, but an enemy can pull the same trick on you. That's
bad. Intel and counter-intel strategists have not yet determined the best way
to handle the Internet's beauty and beast.
The WikiLeaks scandal provides an example. WikiLeaks, an
Internet-based organization that asks sources everywhere to send it secret
information for publication on its site, has begun releasing tens of thousands
of Afghan War-related documents. The Pentagon has launched a criminal probe.
Many documents are reportedly "open source," meaning the information
is publicly available, though The Wall Street Journal reports some files
covering civilian casualties and special operations were "sensitive."
The release has stirred a data security controversy. The
Internet is rife with rumors, including one that suggest WikiLeaks itself is an
intelligence "honey pot" operation designed to ensnare leakers.
The diplomatic fallout is fascinating. Pakistan's
Interservices Intelligence (ISI) agency is outraged at WikiLeaks' revelations
of its support for the Taliban. U.S. diplomats acknowledge that this revelation
may create a political opportunity. The U.S. denies a plot to embarrass
Pakistan -- but in the world of mirrors, who knows?