In espionage, as in sports, we generally see the heroism of our side and the perfidy of the opponent. The latest spy scandal involving the Russian "sleepers" is a case in point.
The coverage of the Russian spy ring has been full of intriguing and salacious details: forged passports, fake identities, and secret coded texts posted on the Internet. There was even that indispensible element of the post-007 era: the KGB's comely Anna Chapman and her honey-traps. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has continued to rely on -- and celebrate -- these "illegals" who burrow into societies under false names and remain planted for years.
Oh, those crazy Russians! Didn't anyone tell Boris and Natasha that the Cold War is over and they can get all the intelligence they need from open sources or through the usual crypto-diplomatic channels?
But in espionage, as in politics, it's all who you know. Human intelligence -- or HUMINT -- remains a key element of spycraft. This rule applies as much to the untrustworthy Russkies as it does to the home team. Remember the huge appendix of agents in Philip Agee's pathbreaking Inside the Company: CIA Diary? Most of these were the usual chiefs of station, but the list also included people like Lloyd Haskins, an agent who worked as the executive secretary of the International Federation of Petroleum and Chemical Workers. The CIA did its fair share of infiltration.
But rather than train moles who can masquerade as locals, the CIA has specialized in cultivating "assets," namely foreigners willing to cough up secrets for cash or a ticket to a safe house in the Midwest. These operations, in turn, have been compromised by double agents in the United States. In the mid-1980s, for instance, Aldrich Ames nearly singlehandedly destroyed U.S. assets inside Russia from his position within the Directorate of Operations, which runs HUMINT. Those who have directed scorn at the Russians for what seemed to be third-rate spying should remember that the CIA entrusted secrets to a notorious drunk who was lousy at his job as a Soviet analyst. Not surprisingly, the CIA's reputation, post-Ames, fell to the level of a junk bond.
But it gets worse. In his book The CIA and the Culture of Failure, John Diamond connects the dots between a succession of U.S. intelligence failures. The intelligence community failed to predict or prevent 9/11, screwed up royally with the intel on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, didn't anticipate the subsequent Iraqi insurgency or the post-2002 revival of the Taliban in Afghanistan, was caught flat-footed by North Korea's nuclear weapons program, and has failed to penetrate al-Qaeda and capture Osama bin Laden. The Russians look foolish because they seemed to screw up at the penny-ante stuff. The CIA, meanwhile, has blown the high-stakes games. Remember the Jordanian asset who blew up the CIA's Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan in January? The Russians are no doubt reevaluating Anna Chapman; the United States is still reeling from Base Chapman.
Diamond praises former CIA director George Tenet for rebuilding the agency's HUMINT collection in the wake of the Ames scandal. With such recommendations as depoliticizing intelligence collection, Diamond sensibly urges structural changes within the intelligence community. But he doesn't question the larger mission of the intelligence collection. We read about the Russian spies and we ask: why? But these days, unlike the 1970s and the Church Committee hearings, we rarely ask the same question about our own intelligence activities.
Yes, I'd dearly like to see the end of al-Qaeda, the capture of Osama bin Laden, and no more suicide attacks against U.S. targets. But the question is whether CIA operations can actually help accomplish these goals. Remember: Moscow was running a spy in the very bowels of the CIA's Directorate of Operations. You can't get better intel than that. But even Aldrich Ames did not prevent the Soviet Union from collapse.
Of course the United States should reform its intelligence operations. But more importantly, we should take a serious look at why we believe that we need such operations in the first place. Perhaps if we didn't conduct multiple wars around the world, maintain a thousand or so military bases, and attempt to maintain full-spectrum dominance as befits the world's only superpower, we wouldn't need such a vast intelligence community, which now includes a horde of private contractors. The CIA, through prophylactic information-gathering, can't stop blowback. Only a fundamental change in U.S. foreign and military policy can do that.
We are bemused by the spy operations of a former superpower that no longer has global reach except for an arsenal of largely useless nuclear weapons. "What in the world do they think they were going to get out of this, in this day and age?" former Moscow station chief Richard F. Stolz asked in the New York Times. If we ask some hard questions about the means and ends of intelligence-gathering, perhaps we might discover that all this spycraft -- with its sad mercantilism, all-too-predictable treacheries, and dubious information -- is as overrated on our side as on theirs.