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date: 18 January 2022

National Security Intelligence

Abstract and Keywords

This text aims to impart an understanding of the important and relatively new discipline that focuses on the hidden side of the government. Such hidden side of the government includes secret agencies that provide security-related information to policymakers and carry out other covert operations on their behalf. The objective of this book is to provide an up-to-date assessment of the literature and findings in this field of strategic intelligence and national security intelligence study. This book seeks to map out the discipline and aim to suggest future research agendas. In this text, several nationalities, career experiences, and scholarly training are reflected, highlighting the spread of interest in this subject across many boundaries. The outcome of this mix is a volume loaded in research disciplines, findings, and agendas, with a multitude of international perspectives on the subject of national security intelligence.

Keywords: government, secret agencies, security-related information, strategic intelligence, national security intelligence, intelligence agencies

The purpose of this Oxford Handbook of National Security Intelligence is to impart a broad understanding of an important, and relatively new, discipline that focuses on the hidden side of government: those secret agencies that provide security-related information to policymakers and carry out other clandestine operations on their behalf. The Handbook's objective is to provide a state-of-the art assessment of the literature and findings in this field of study, often referred to as “strategic intelligence,” or, in this volume, “national security intelligence”—a more accurate title, since the topic encompasses tactical as well as strategic intelligence. The envisioned readership includes both specialists and well-educated nonspecialists who would like to have a synthesis of the current scholarship on espionage and related activities. The essays collected here seek to map out the discipline and suggest future research agendas.1

Since 1975, the literature on national security intelligence has burgeoned in the United States and other countries. In the United States, this growth has been stimulated by public concern over intelligence scandals and failures: illegal domestic spying, disclosed in 1975; the controversial covert actions labeled the Iran-contra (p. 4) scandal, in 1987; spectacular cases of treason inside the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), revealed in 1994 and 2001, respectively; the shock of terrorist attacks against the homeland in 2001; and the faulty prediction that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in 2002. In the wake of these unfortunate—indeed tragic—events, voluminous reports written by government panels of inquiry poured forth, followed by scholarly (and often not-so-scholarly) books and articles that commented on the scandals and failures, offered reform proposals, and marshaled data and theory to achieve a better understanding of the dark side of government. (See the References at the end of each chapter for lists of suggested readings.)

Joining the CIA's well-regarded journal on intelligence, entitled Studies in Intelligence and published since the 1950s (at first, only in a classified form), came a number of new journals devoted to scholarship on national security intelligence, including Cryptologia, published in the United States and focused on codebreaking; The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, published in the United States; and Intelligence and National Security, published in United Kingdom. By 2007–2009, this field of study had become sufficiently mature to warrant three major handbooks: one published by Routledge, another by Praeger (in five volumes), and now this less specialized, but more comprehensive, overview from Oxford University Press.2

Starting in the 1970s, I began clipping articles on intelligence from the New York Times. Before the 9/11 attacks in 2001, my scrapbooks filled slowly, except for a few days or weeks during the height of an occasional intelligence scandal or failure, as with the congressional hearings into the Iran-contra affair in 1987. Often the newspaper was fallow for months with respect to stories on intelligence. Now, though, there is an article to clip almost every day and certainly every week, stimulated by the 9/11 attacks; the Iraqi WMD failure; squabbling in Washington, D.C., over the proper degree of legislative supervision for intelligence activities; controversy over warrantless electronic surveillance in the United States, disclosed in 2004; the intelligence reform drive from 2001 to 2005; and ongoing concerns about U.S. security vulnerabilities. Even popular magazines, such as The New Yorker, have dedicated more space than ever in recent years to reporting on intelligence subjects. The discipline of national security intelligence has come of age in the public conscience, as well as among journalists and policymakers and within an expanding pool of researchers in the nation's think tanks and universities—although remaining still something of an orphan in mainstream academic studies (Zegart 2007a).

As exhibited (for example) by the nationalities of contributors to the journal Intelligence and National Security, a similar evolution of intelligence studies has been taking place in other countries, too, with an increasingly robust involvement in the field by scholars in Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as in France, (p. 5) Germany, Israel, Italy, Austria, Greece, Scandinavia, and Australia. Additional pockets of intelligence research have cropped up in Brazil, Argentina, Poland, and South Korea (Born, Johnson, and Leigh 2005).

In this Handbook, a wide range of nationalities, career experiences, and scholarly training are reflected, underscoring the spread of interest in this subject across many boundaries. While most of the authors are from the United States, represented, too, are experts who reside in Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Israel, Scotland, and Wales. Twenty-three of the contributors are from academe; twenty-two from intelligence agencies in the United States and the United Kingdom (retired or still on active duty); eight from the Congress, the judiciary, and government institutions of higher learning; two with nonprofit study centers; and one associated with a think tank. Some of the contributors are senior scholars, well known in the discipline; others are new to the field. The outcome of this mix is a volume rich in research disciplines, findings, and agendas, with a multitude of international perspectives on the subject of national security intelligence.

1. The Meaning of National Security Intelligence

Put simply, the main purpose of intelligence is to provide information to policymakers that may help illuminate their decision options. A leading intelligence official has suggested that the goal is one of “eliminating or reducing uncertainty for government decision-makers” (Clapper 1995). The assumption is that good—that is, accurate, comprehensive, and timely—information will lead to more effective choices made by government officials. Of course, policymakers receive information from a variety of sources, not just the nation's secret agencies; intelligence is only one, albeit sometimes a vital, current in the “river of information” (Gates 1994) that flows through a nation's capital.

In the United States, a basic (if incomplete) definition of national security intelligence is the “knowledge and foreknowledge of the world around us—the prelude to Presidential decision and action” (Central Intelligence Agency 1991, 13). This definition points to intelligence as a matter of “situational awareness,” that is, understanding events and conditions throughout the world faced by policymakers, diplomats, and military commanders. In this vein, when people speak of “intelligence” they are usually referring to information—tangible data about personalities and events around the globe. This information is communicated by intelligence officers to policymakers in the form of oral briefings, memoranda, and more formal reports, either short or long, all focused on bringing a leader up-to-date on current events or investing the policymaker with a more in-depth comprehension of a topic based on exhaustive research.

(p. 6)

The policymaker may want to know the location of terrorists affiliated with Al Qaeda, the number and whereabouts of Chinese nuclear submarines, or the identity of nations buying yellow cake uranium from Niger or other nations that have rich deposits of this element critical for the production of nuclear weaponry. Military commanders on a battlefront will want to know the weapons capabilities of adversaries and the location of their war-fighters. The amount of information that could be valuable in making a political, economic, diplomatic, or military decision is potentially vast, and its collection is limited only by a nation's available resources to fund espionage rings, surveillance satellites, reconnaissance aircraft, and listening devices, plus its skill in ferreting out pertinent data (“signals”) from the vast sea of irrelevant information (“noise”).

National security intelligence can refer to more than an information product, though. It can mean a process as well. Although it is easy enough to state the core purpose of intelligence—providing information to policymakers—the challenge of actually gathering, assessing, and delivering useful insights to those who make decisions is an intricate matter. As many a grand strategist has lamented (for example, Murray and Gimsley 1994), uncertainty and ambiguity dominate the environment in which decisions are made in Washington, D.C., and every other world capital. The process of collecting information, along with its analysis and dissemination to policymakers, is often known as the “intelligence cycle” and, as discussed below, it is a process replete with chances for error.

Moreover, intelligence may be thought of as a set of missions carried out by a nation's secret agencies. The intelligence cycle captures the first and most important mission: gathering, analyzing, and disseminating information to policymakers. A second mission, though, is also significant: counterintelligence (CI)—the responsibility of secret agencies to thwart hostile operations directed against them and their nation by foreign intelligence services or terrorist organizations. Significant, too, is a third mission known as covert action (CA), whereby a nation seeks to intervene secretly into the affairs of other nations or factions in hopes of advancing its own security interests.

Finally, intelligence may refer to a cluster of people and organizations that carry out the missions of collection-and-analysis, counterintelligence, and covert action. “Make sure you check with intelligence before bombing that building,” a commander might tell his fighter pilots, urging them to clarify that the recommended target is truly an arms depot and not a hospital. In the United States, this cluster of people and organizations is known as the “intelligence community,” consisting of sixteen agencies and amounting collectively to the largest and most expensive intelligence apparatus in history.

The four meanings of national security intelligence—information, process, missions, and organizations—receive a closer look in this introduction, since the rest of the handbook requires a familiarity with these basics. Using the United States as an illustration, let's start with intelligence as a set of organizations; then we can peer inside these structures to examine the dynamic nature of their secret operations.

(p. 7) 2. Intelligence as Organization: The American Example

The major American intelligence agencies include eight organizations housed within the framework of the Department of Defense, seven in civilian policy departments, and one—the CIA—that stands alone as an independent agency. The military intelligence agencies include the National Security Agency (NSA), the nation's codebreaking and “signals intelligence” agency (engaged primarily in telephone eavesdropping); the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), dedicated to the gathering of photographic or “imagery” intelligence from cameras mounted on spy satellites in space, as well as lower-altitude reconnaissance aircraft; the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which supervises the construction, launching, and maintenance of the nation's spy satellites; the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which conducts assessments of military-related subjects; and the intelligence units of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, each preoccupied with collecting and analyzing tactical intelligence from theaters overseas where U.S. personnel serve in uniform. Together, the NSA, NGA NRO, DIA, and the four service intelligence units account for some 85 percent of the total annual U.S. intelligence budget of some $75 billion and employs roughly 85 percent of the nation's espionage personnel.3 (See figure 1.1 for a current blueprint of the U.S. intelligence community.)

On the civilian side, seven of the major intelligence agencies include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), located in the Justice Department and assigned both a counterintelligence and a counterterrorism mission; a Treasury Department Office of Intelligence Support, which concentrates on a variety of global financial topics, such as tracing the flow of petrodollars and the hidden funds of terrorist organizations; the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), the smallest of the secret agencies but one of the most highly regarded, in part because of its talented corps of foreign service officers; the Energy Department's Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, which tracks the worldwide movement of nuclear materials (uranium, plutonium, heavy water, and nuclear reactor parts) and maintains counterintelligence security at the nation's weapons laboratories; the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which has an intelligence analysis unit; a Coast Guard intelligence service, affiliated with the Department of Homeland Security; and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), long a component of the Justice Department and recently elevated to the status of a full-fledged member of the intelligence community.4

(p. 8)

National Security Intelligence

Figure 1.1. The U.S. Intelligence Community in 2010.From 1947 to 2004, a Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) led the Intelligence Community, rather than a Director of National Intelligence.

From 1947 to 2004, a Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) led the Intelligence Community, rather than a Director of National Intelligence.

One more agency, the CIA, is also civilian in character, but is located outside the government's policy cabinet. During the Cold War, the CIA—“the Agency,” as it is known among its officers—held a special cachet as the only espionage organization formally established by the National Security Act of 1947. More important still, it became the location where the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI)—the titular leader of all the intelligence agencies—hung his hat (no woman has held that position), in a suite of offices on the seventh floor of the Agency's Old Headquarters Building in Langley, Virginia, adjacent to the township of McLean.5

(p. 9)

As the names imply, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Director of Central Intelligence were meant to reside at the heart of the intelligence establishment, playing the role of coordinators for the community's activities and the collators of its “all-source” (all agency) reports, in an otherwise highly fragmented mélange of spy organizations.6 R. James Woolsey, who held the position of DCI during the early years of the Clinton administration (1993–1995), has described the role of America's intelligence chief. “You're kind of Chairman and CEO of the CIA,” he stated, “and you're kind of Chairman of the Board of the intelligence community” (Woolsey 1993a). He emphasized, though, that the Director does not have the authority to give “rudder orders” to the heads of the various intelligence agencies (Woolsey served for a time as Undersecretary of the Navy). Rather, he went on, “it's more subtle”—a matter of personal relationships, conversations, and gentle persuasion—the glue of trust and rapport that is rarely discussed in the government textbooks but is the essence of successful government transactions.

The CIA's organizational framework during the Cold War is presented in figure 1.2. Admiral Stansfield Turner, who served as DCI during the Carter years (1977–1981), once referred to the four Directorates within the Agency—at the time, Operations, Administration (now called Support), Science and Technology, and Intelligence—as “separate baronies,” underscoring the point that the CIA has several different cultures within its walls that are not always in harmony with one another, or with the Agency's leadership cadre on the seventh floor (Turner 1991).7

As figure 1.3 illustrates, during the Cold War (1947–1991) the Directorate of Operations (DO), led by a deputy director for operations (DDO), was the arm of the CIA that extended overseas, housed for the most part in U.S. embassies around the world. Today the DO is known as the National Clandestine Service (NCS). Its personnel abroad are known as “case officers,” or, in a recent change of nomenclature, “operations officers,” and are led by a chief of station or COS within each embassy. The job of the case officer is to recruit foreigners to engage in espionage against their own countries, as well as to support the CIA's counterintelligence operations and covert actions. For this recruitment effort, case officers need to be gregarious individuals: charming, persuasive, and daring. To fall under their beguiling spell is to be “case officered” or “COed.”8

National Security Intelligence

Figure 1.2. The Organizational Framework of the CIA at the End of the Cold War.Fact Book on Intelligence, Office of Public Affairs, Central Intelligence Agency (April 1983), p. 9.

Fact Book on Intelligence, Office of Public Affairs, Central Intelligence Agency (April 1983), p. 9.

National Security Intelligence

Figure 1.3. The Organizational Framework of the CIA's Directorate of Operations during the Cold War.

Back at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, analysts in the Directorate of Intelligence (DI) interpret the “raw” (unanalyzed) information gathered by operations officers and their local recruits, as well as by America's spy satellites and other machines. The job of the analysts—the Agency's intellectuals—is to provide insight (p. 10) (p. 11) into what the information means with respect to the global interests and security of the United States. The Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T) is the home of the CIA's “Dr. Q” scientists and assorted other “techno-weenies” who develop equipment to aid the espionage effort, from wigs and other disguises to tiny listening devices and exotic weapons. The Directorate of Support (DS) is where managers reside who conduct periodic polygraph tests on employees and otherwise ensure the maintenance of tight security. Both DS&T and the DS offer support to NCS field activities abroad and DI analysis at home.

All of the intelligence agencies exist to carry out operations at the request of the president and other senior policy officials. The most important of these operations—Mission No. 1—is the gathering and interpretation (analysis) of information about world events and conditions, guided by the theoretical construct known as the “intelligence cycle”—the process by which information is brought from the field to the White House.

(p. 12) 3. Intelligence as Process

The Intelligence Cycle

Despite its simplification of a complex process, the “intelligence cycle” offers a useful analytic construct for understanding how the secret agencies gather, interpret, and disseminate information.9 Intelligence professionals refer to the first step in the cycle as “planning and direction” (see figure 1.4).

Planning and Direction

National Security Intelligence

Figure 1.4. The Intelligence Cycle in the United States.

Adapted from Factbook on Intelligence, Office of Public Affairs, Central Intelligence Agency, October 1993, p. 14.

The initial stage of the intelligence cycle is critical. Unless a potential target is clearly highlighted during the listing of intelligence priorities (“requirements”) by Washington (p. 13) officials, it is unlikely to receive much attention by those with responsibilities for collecting information in the field. The world is a large and fractious place, with more than 200 nations and a plethora of groups, factions, gangs, cartels, and terrorist groups, some of whom have a sharply adversarial relationship with the United States. As DCI Woolsey observed soon after the end of the Cold War, the United States had slain the Soviet dragon, but “we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes” (Woolsey 1993a). However much prelapsarians might have longed for the sunlit uplands of a new and peaceful era after the demise of the Soviet Union, realists properly anticipated a future still dark and filled with menace. At some point the degree of danger posed by foreign adversaries (or domestic subversives) becomes self-evident, as in the case of the Qaeda terrorist organization in the wake of its surprise attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. Unfortunately, though, no one in the government—or anywhere else—has a crystal ball to predict exactly when and where danger will strike. Part of the dilemma stems from the fact that we live in a world filled not just with secrets but with mysteries.

By secrets, intelligence experts (for example: Nye 1994, Treverton 1994) refer to something that the United States might be able to find out, even though the information is concealed by another nation or group, say, the number of tanks and nuclear submarines in the Chinese military inventory. With the use of satellites and other surveillance methods, the United States can determine that number. Some secrets, though, are much harder to acquire, such as the whereabouts of terrorist leaders, or the precise vault in Tehran that contains Iran's nuclear weapons plans. At least, though, there is a chance of gaining access to this information. In contrast, mysteries are things we are unlikely to know about until they happen, because they lie beyond the ken of human capacity to foresee. For example, no one can tell who will be the next chancellor of Germany, or what breakthroughs in the invention of new strategic weaponry the Chinese may achieve in the next decade. As former Secretary of State Dean Rusk liked to point out (Rusk 1988), “Providence has not provided human beings with the capacity to pierce the fog of the future.”

Rwanda provides an illustration of how difficult it can be to anticipate unfolding world events. Les Aspin once told me (Aspin 1994): “When I became Secretary of Defense [in 1993 at the beginning of the Clinton Administration], I served several months without ever giving Rwanda a thought. Then, for several weeks, that's all I thought about. After that, it fell abruptly off the screen and I never again thought about Rwanda.” The African nation had become the “flavor of the month” for policymakers and, in turn, intelligence officers scrambled to meet the information needs of Secretary Aspin and others about why Rwanda was in turmoil. Similarly, two decades earlier in 1963, who in Washington anticipated that within a year Vietnam would become one of the most important intelligence priorities for the United States, and would remain so for a decade? In 1989, or again in 2002, who placed Iraq at the zenith of America's security concerns, as it would become a year later in each instance?

In the United States, the task of determining intelligence priorities is often known as “threat assessment.” Experts and policymakers gather periodically to evaluate the (p. 14) perils that confront the nation. They establish a ladder of priorities from the most dangerous threats (often designated “Tiers 1A and 1B”) to the least dangerous (“Tier 4”). A special category (“Tier 0”) is reserved for crisis situations that might suddenly require immediate U.S. military intervention (Garthoff 2005, 240). Important, too, are calculations about possible global opportunities for the United States. Intelligence is expected to provide a “heads up” regarding both threats and opportunities. Bias and guesswork enter into the picture, along with the limitations caused by the inherent opaqueness of the future. On which tier should one place China in the threat assessment? Iran? Syria? What about the Russian Federation, which is now less hostile toward the United States than during the Cold War, but still retains the capacity to destroy every American metropolis from Los Angeles to New York City in the thirty-minute witchfire of a nuclear holocaust? What about Cuba, benign enough to some in recent years, but for others still a pesky and unpredictable neighbor?

Around the Cabinet Room in the White House the arguments fly regarding the proper hierarchy of concerns, as senior policy and intelligence officials attempt to assess the world's risks and opportunities. This is not an academic exercise. The outcome determines the priorities for the multibillion-dollar spending that occurs each year on intelligence collection-and-analysis. It also pinpoints locations on the world map where spies will be infiltrated; telephones and computers tapped; surveillance satellites set into orbit; reconnaissance aircraft dispatched on overflight missions; and potentially lethal covert actions aimed.

Over the years, the United States has undertaken several major inquiries into the activities of the intelligence agencies. Each has concluded that one of the most significant flaws in the intelligence cycle is the failure of policymakers to clarify, during the initial planning-and-direction phase of the intelligence cycle, exactly what kinds of information they need. All too frequently, intelligence officers are left in the dark about the “wish list” of top policy officials, who in turn are inclined to assume that somehow the secret agencies will divine and respond to whatever issues await action in the policy in-boxes of the White House, the State Department, and other important places around Washington.

Further, as a rule, policymakers are reluctant to take the time to update their list of collection priorities for the intelligence agencies (a responsibility called “tasking”), even annually. So the right hand of intelligence often remains ignorant about the left hand of policy deliberations. Some staffers in the nation's top forum for security deliberations, the National Security Council (NSC), have been on the job for a year or more and have never met—or even talked on a secure telephone—with experienced intelligence analysts working in their same areas of responsibility, whether arms control or global environmental issues (Inderfurth and Johnson 2004; Johnson 2000).

The ultimate question for planners is: how much intelligence is enough? That, in turn, depends on the chances a nation is willing to take about the future—how much “information insurance” they desire. It depends, as well, on the global interests a nation may have (Johnson 2003). I once asked former DCI William E. Colby (p. 15) (1973–1976) if the United States gathered too much intelligence. “Not for a big nation,” he replied (Colby 1991). “If I were Israel, I'd spend my time on the neighboring Arab armies and I wouldn't give a damn about what happened in China. We are a big power and we've got to worry about all of the world.”

Intelligence Collection and the Ints

The second stage in the intelligence cycle is collection: going after the information that planners and policymakers designate. During the Cold War, the highest intelligence priority was to learn about the locations and capabilities of Soviet weaponry, especially nuclear devices (Goodman 2007). This was sometimes a dangerous endeavor, as underscored by the more than forty U.S. spy planes shot down during the Cold War period.

Intelligence can provide “cat's eyes in the dark,” in the British phrase, although without necessarily being able to say precisely when or where something will happen. Even wealthy superpowers are unable to saturate the globe completely with expensive surveillance “platforms” designed for “remote sensing”—reconnaissance aircraft, satellites, and ground-based listening posts. The world is simply too vast. Nevertheless, satellite photography (“imagery”) helped to tamp down the hair-trigger anxieties of the superpowers during the Cold War. Through their use of satellites and reconnaissance aircraft, both ideological encampments could confidently spy on the missilery and armies of their opponents. As a consequence, a Pearl Harbor–like surprise attack became an unlikely possibility and this transparency allowed a relaxation of tensions in Moscow and Washington. Moreover, intelligence guides today's high-tech, precision weapons systems to their targets, by providing accurate maps, as well as data on weather and terrain contours.

Each of the U.S. intelligence agencies has a set of methods (“tradecraft”), known colloquially within the world of intelligence by the abbreviation “ints,” that is, intelligence activities (Lowenthal 2009). Imagery or photographic intelligence becomes “imint,” short for imagery intelligence (or “geoint,” for geospatial intelligence), and signals intelligence becomes “sigint.” Human intelligence—the use of agents or “assets,” as professionals refer to the foreign operatives who comprise their spy rings—becomes “humint.”10 Within each of the ints, intelligence professionals attempt to fashion ingenious methods for purloining secrets from America's adversaries, say, the laptop computer of a foreign government scientist in charge of weapons engineering.11 These espionage methods can range from highly sophisticated devices that watch foreign military maneuvers through telescopic lens on satellites orbiting hundreds of miles away in deep space, to the planting of miniature microphones in the breasts of pigeons trained to roost on the window ledges of foreign (p. 16) embassies in Washington, or overseas (Gertz 1994). Best of all would be a reliable human asset close to top decision-makers in another country, perhaps a staff aide or a mistress.

Another prominent int is “osint” or open-sources intelligence: information gleaned from nonsecretive origins, such as libraries, the Internet, the media, and—sometimes difficult to acquire in closed societies—public speeches by foreign officials. Is there information in the public domain about airplane runways in Rwanda and whether they can support the weight of a U.S. C-47, or must CIA agents acquire this data from secret sources? What about the density of the sand in the deserts near Tehran: is it firm enough for the landing of U.S. helicopters? (This was an important intelligence question in 1979, when the Carter Administration was planning a rescue of U.S. diplomats held inside the U.S. embassy in Iran's capital city.) During World War II, osint was often all the United States had to guide its armed forces and diplomats. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk recalled from his days as a young officer in Army intelligence or G-2 in 1941 (Rusk 1963, 390):

I was asked to take charge of a new section that had been organized to cover everything from Afghanistan right through southern Asia, southeast Asia, Australia, and the Pacific…. Because we had no intelligence organization that had been giving attention to that area up to that time, the materials available to me when I reported for duty consisted of a tourist handbook on India and Ceylon, a 1924 military attaché's report from London on the Indian Army, and a drawer full of clippings from the New York Times that had been gathered since World War One. That was literally the resources of G-2 on that vast part of the world a year after the war in Europe had started.

“The intelligence agencies are not in business to be the Brookings Institution,” a senior intelligence official has emphasized (Tenet 1994), referring to the prominent think tank in Washington, D.C. “They're in business to provide clandestine information.” Nonetheless, he continues, “there is a certain amount of overt information that is necessary to do that job.” Open-sources information can make clear what data is still missing and will have to be obtained through clandestine methods. Since the end of the Cold War, roughly 90 percent—some say as much as 95 percent—of all intelligence reports are comprised of osint. A contemporary example of useful osint are Iranian blogs on the Internet, which offer revealing glimpses into that secretive society.

The “golden nuggets” of intelligence acquired by way of the secret ints (documents lifted by a CIA asset from a Beijing government safe, for instance) are folded into the much larger osint mix. No organizations in Washington are better equipped and experienced than the intelligence agencies for the melding of this secret and public information—quickly and in a readable, bound form. Several of the secret agencies have been refining this skill since the early days of the Cold War and have become efficient at the compilation, printing, and rapid delivery of intelligence reports to key offices around Washington—a kind of fresh, direct “pizza delivery service” of information.

(p. 17)

The newest int—measurement and signatures intelligence or “masint”—can be useful, too. Here the methodology involves testing for the presence of telltale gases, or other chemical and biological indicators, that might reveal the presence of illicit materials, say, waste fumes in a factory that point to the production of the nerve gas sarin. Or electronic emissions from a weapons system that might disclose its specifications, perhaps revealing the presence of nuclear materials inside the metal casing of a bomb. Between 1994 and 2008, for example, the Energy Department's Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence reportedly spent some $430 million on nuclear detection equipment at international border crossings, especially along Russia's frontiers (Bronner 2008, A27).

Humint versus Techint

Another broad distinction made within the intelligence agencies is between humint and technical intelligence or “techint”—the latter an abbreviation that lumps together all of the machine-based intelligence-collection activities (see Richelson 2001, Wallace and Melton, with Schlesinger 2008). The vast majority of monies spent on collection goes into techint. This category includes: imint (geoint) and sigint satellites; large NSA listening antennae; and reconnaissance aircraft, like the U-2 and A-12 spy planes, and their successor the SR-21, as well as the popular Predator, a pilotless aircraft (a drone or unmanned aerial vehicle—UAV) fielded over Afghanistan, Iraq, and other nations in the Middle East and South Asia following the 9/11 attacks.

Understandably awed by the technological capabilities of spy machines, officials were inclined during the Cold War to readily approve appropriations for their construction and deployment; Washington policymakers and their military commanders in the field wanted photographs of Soviet tanks and missile silos, and transcripts of telephone conversations between officials in communist capitals. Less sexy were humint assets, whose identities remained concealed from budget officials, and whose yield is comparatively meager—no hundreds of photographs a day, as produced by U.S. surveillance satellites. This fascination for intelligence hardware has continued into the Age of Terrorism.

The United States devotes just a single-digit percentage of the annual intelligence budget to humint (Millis 1994, A15). Spy machines are costly, while human agents are inexpensive to hire and sustain on an annual stipend. One of the ironies of American intelligence is that while the vast percentage of its annual budget goes into expensive intelligence hardware, especially satellites, the value of these machines is questionable in helping the United States understand such contemporary global concerns as terrorism or China's burgeoning economic might. Cameras on satellites or airplanes are unable to peer inside the canvas tents, roofed mud huts, or mountain caves in Afghanistan or Pakistan, where terrorists gather to plan their deadly operations, or into the deep underground caverns where North Koreans have constructed atomic weapons. “Space cameras cannot see into factories where missiles are made, or into the sheds of shipyards,” emphasizes an intelligence expert (Zuckerman 1982, 130). “Photographs cannot tell whether stacks of drums outside an assumed chemical-warfare plant contain nerve gas or oil, or whether they are empty.”

Further, many of the best contributions from spy machines come not so much from pricey satellites as from the far less expensive UAVs. On occasion, though, sigint satellites do capture revealing telephone communications, say, between international drug lords. Moreover, the photography that imint satellites produce on such matters as Russian and Chinese missile sites, North Korean troop deployments, Hamas rocket emplacements in Gaza, or the secretive construction of nuclear reactors in Iran, are of obvious importance. In the case of terrorism, though, one would prefer to have a human agent well situated inside the Qaeda organization. For America's security, such an asset could be worth a dozen billion-dollar satellites.

Yet, humint has its distinct limitations, too. It is worth stressing that inside closed societies like Iraq in 2002, or North Korea and Iran today, local spies are difficult to recruit—especially since Americans have focused for decades on the communist world and largely ignored the study of languages, history, and culture necessary to recruit and operate spies in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. How many Americans speak Pashto, Arabic, and Farsi well? How many can comprehend the nuances of slang and various dialects in those regions of the world? The answers are: very few. And how many are willing to serve as operational officers for government pay in perilous locations, trying to recruit local assets? Again, few. Moreover, even if successfully recruited, indigenous assets can be untrustworthy. They are neither Boy Scouts nor nuns, but often the dregs of society, driven by greed and absent any moral compass.

Foreign assets sometimes fabricate reports, sell information to the highest bidder, and scheme as false defectors or double-agents. A recent example of the risks involved in humint is the German agent in Iraq during 2002, Rafid Ahmed Alwan, prophetically codenamed “Curve Ball.” He managed to convince the German intelligence service that WMDs did exist in Iraq; and the CIA, in turn, took this bait through its intelligence liaison relationship with the Germans. Only after the war began in Iraq in 2003 did Curve Ball's bona fides fall into doubt among German and CIA intelligence officials; he was, it turned out, a consummate liar (CBS News 2007).

Now and then, however, a humint asset can provide extraordinarily helpful information, as did the Soviet military intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky during the Cold War. Information from him helped the United States identify the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962. With the occasional successes like Penkosky in mind, the United States and most other countries persevere in their quest for reliable and productive espionage agents, even though the cost-benefit ratio will be poor in most years.

Synergy is important, as well, for effective intelligence collection. DCI Woolsey once offered the example of North Korea. “That nation is so closely guarded that humint becomes indispensable to know what is going on,” he told me (Woolsey 1993b). “This humint then tips off sigint possibilities, which in turn may suggest where best to gather imint. These capabilities, ideally, dovetail with one another.”

(p. 19)

A controversial form of intelligence collection is the use of harsh interrogation techniques against captured terrorist suspects. This approach can involve “extraordinary rendition,” whereby the CIA essentially grabs a suspect off a street in another country and flies him to a foreign capitol (Cairo is reportedly a favorite) for questioning by local intelligence officers unrestrained by U.S. legal and ethical prohibitions against brutal cross-examination techniques—as if this handoff absolved the Agency of complicity just because its officers were absent from the room when the electrodes were attached to a victim. Although the CIA has occasionally resorted to such collection methods itself (for example, using the technique of waterboarding, a form of torture that simulates drowning), this kind of tradecraft has been widely discredited. The editor of Newsweek International, for example, has noted that “the best sources of intelligence on jihadi cells have tended to come from within localities and neighborhoods [that is, from local humint]. This information has probably been more useful than any we have obtained from waterboarding or sleep deprivation” (Zakaria 2006, 9; see, also: Cole and Dempsey 2006; Fisher 2008; Goldsmith 2007; Johnson 2007c).


In the third stage of the cycle, the intelligence that has been collected—perhaps intercepted telephone conversations in Farsi or stolen Syrian government documents—must be converted into usable information, that is, translated into English, decoded if necessary, and put into a form that the president and other officials can readily comprehend. This is known as processing: the conversion of “raw” intelligence, whether photographs or telephone intercepts, into a readable format.

Intelligence pours into the U.S. secret agencies “like a firehose held to the mouth,” to use a metaphor made popular by a former director of the National Security Agency, Admiral Noel Gayler (Johnson 1985, 83). He had become exasperated by all the information rushing into his agency from sigint satellites, huge listening antennae located around the globe, and thousands of small eavesdropping devices planted by CIA and NSA teams in various countries. Each day, hundreds of satellite photographs arrive at the NGA; and about four million telephone, fax, and email intercepts, often in difficult codes that must be deciphered, flood the NSA. The volume is unlikely to dissipate. For example, every minute a thousand people around the world sign up for a new cell phone. Moreover, the United States is always short on translators, photo-interpreters, and codebreaking mathematicians. In response to a query about the major problems facing U.S. intelligence, no wonder Admiral Mike McConnell remarked when he was NSA director: “I have three major problems: processing, processing, and processing” (Johnson 1994).

As the public now knows, the day before the 9/11 attacks the NSA intercepted a telephone message in Farsi from a suspected Qaeda operative. Translated on September 12th—too late to be of any use—the message proclaimed: “Tomorrow is zero hour” (Woodward 2004, 215). Whether a more rapid translation might have led to a tightening of U.S. airport security procedures on the morning of 9/11 and (p. 20) thwarted the attacks is anyone's guess, but it may well have. The point, though, is that as things stand today the vast majority of information gathered by America's intelligence agencies is never examined; it gathers dust in warehouses—the fate of an estimated 90 percent of what the intelligence community collects, and as much as 99 percent of the telephone intercepts swept in by the NSA (Millis 1998; Bamford 1984). Here is a supreme challenge for the government's information-technology specialists: improving the nation's capacity to sift rapidly through collected intelligence data, separating out the signals from the noise.


At the heart and soul of the intelligence cycle is the next phase: analysis. At this stage, the task is to bring meaning and insight to the information that has been collected and processed—what the British refer to as “assessment.” The method is straightforward: hire the smartest people you can find to pore over all the available information from open and secret sources, in an attempt to understand better what is happening in the world. If the intelligence community is unable to provide reliable insights into what all the collected information means, each of the preceding stages in the intelligence cycle is for naught. For example, it is one thing to have discovered in 2000 that a group of terrorists convened in Kuala Lumpur (as did members of the 9/11 Qaeda attack team), but what policy officials really needed to know is why the meeting took place and what schemes were hatched. What were the specific implications of the secret terrorist rendezvous for America's security? This information was never acquired and analyzed.

Here's the bad news: intelligence analysts will always be taken by surprise from time to time, because of human limitations on the accurate forecasting of events (Betts 2007). This brings us back to the dilemma of incomplete information and the uncertain light of the future. Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk once suggested to me that all intelligence reports ought to start off with the honest caveat, “We really don't know what is going to happen, but here is our best guess” (Rusk 1988).

There is good news, too, however. For the roughly $75 billion it spends each year on intelligence today (over double the figure from 1994, in constant dollars), the United States is able to deploy the largest and—at least in terms of spy machines—the most sophisticated espionage apparatus ever devised by humankind. This brings in a torrent of information, some of which is quite useful. Further, the federal government has been able to attract into the intelligence agencies many good minds to interpret the findings. The secret agencies are expert, as well, in packaging and delivering their best judgments to the right people in government in a timely manner.

Yet, despite all this intelligence sophistication, things still go wrong. Perhaps nothing illustrates this reality better than the information failures associated with the 9/11 attacks and the misjudgment about the existence of WMDs in Iraq (Betts 2007; Clarke 2004; Johnson 2006; Risen 2006; Tenet with Harlow 2007; Zegart 2007b). Many of the essays in this book shed light on why such failures occur before, during, and after the analytic phase of the intelligence cycle and what might be done to limit them.

(p. 21) Dissemination

Finally, intelligence reports must be distributed to those who make decisions on behalf of the United States. This may seem easy enough, but even this stage of the cycle is rife with possibilities for mistakes. Former DCI Robert Gates once observed (1994) that “we have twenty-first century methods for collecting information and getting it back to Washington, and eighteenth century methods for getting it to policymakers.” As the first U.S. intelligence director after the Cold War, he proposed the use of advanced desktop computer technologies to keep policymakers informed of the latest intelligence; but members of the policy community, like the Luddite parents of high-tech teenagers, proved reluctant to embrace these new “virtual” methods. A closer examination of intelligence dissemination returns us to the question of intelligence as an informational product—the “value added” by key data provided to policymakers in reports like the President's Daily Brief (PDB) and National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs).

4. Intelligence as Information

The President's Daily Brief is the most prestigious report on current world events and is distributed to only the President and a few other top policymakers in the government of the United States. The National Intelligence Estimate is a longer, more in-depth study of a topic—say, the future leadership succession in China. It has a wider dissemination, but is still limited to top officials.12

Intelligence must have several essential characteristics for it to be helpful to policymakers. Ideally, it will be relevant, timely, accurate, complete, and unbiased. It must also be “actionable” (sometimes referred to as “tactical” by intelligence officers)—that is, specific enough to allow policy officials to act upon the information.

Relevance is essential. If the president wants to know about the activities of insurgents in Baghdad, but the CIA analyst is concentrating on the subject of his Ph.D. thesis—leadership succession in the Mongolian People's Army—the president will be poorly served and unhappy about the quality of intelligence support. The president and other officials are driven by fires in their in-boxes; they want answers to these immediate problems. If intelligence fails to know about these fires and address them, it will be ignored.

Timeliness is equally vital. The most disquieting acronym an analyst can see scrawled across his or her intelligence report by a policymaker is OBE—“overtaken by events.” Reports on the whereabouts of Qaeda terrorists are especially perishable, as the Clinton Administration found out in 1999. That year, the President authorized the firing of cruise missiles from American warships in the Red Sea to take out the Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, who was (according to local intelligence assets) (p. 22) bivouacked in the Zhawar Kili region of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, Bin Laden departed the terrorist enclave of tents just a few hours before the missiles came streaking low across the Paktia Province headed for the encampment.

Accuracy, too, is indispensable. Just ask the NATO pilot whom the U.S. intelligence agencies provided with targeting coordinates over Belgrade in 1999 to guide his bombing of a suspected Serbian weapons depot, only to discover after he had released his payload that the building was actually the Chinese embassy. Several Chinese diplomats and journalists on the premise were killed.

By complete intelligence, I mean information and analysis based on the combined data available from each of the intelligence services—a holistic integration of “all-source” information. In creating the CIA, one of President Harry S. Truman's objectives was to eliminate the separate piles of intelligence reports from different agencies that accumulated each morning on his desk in the Oval Office. He wanted them replaced with a smaller number of coordinated and collated reports—sometimes referred to as “all-source fusion,” “multi-int,” or, in the military, “jointness.” All-source reports capitalize on the synergism possible from bringing together each of the ints from the various agencies to create a more coherent picture of world events and conditions—a jigsaw puzzle or mosaic replete with as many pieces as possible (though inevitably, in the real world, with many missing pieces).

Unbiased intelligence is also high on the list of desirable intelligence qualities—the highest of all, according to most experts. Here the goal is to keep information free of political spin. Analysts are expected to assess facts and their possible meanings in a neutral, dispassionate manner, just like scholars and journalists. For the most part, intelligence officers maintain this ethos; occasionally, though, a few succumb to pressures from the White House or some other high office to deliver “intelligence to please”—information that supports the prevailing political views of an administration, rather than speaking truth to power about the unpleasant reality that its policies have failed or are likely to fail. On the flip side, policymakers in high office ideally will have the courage to hear the truth, rather than brush it aside as President Lyndon B. Johnson did with intelligence reports that brought him bad news about the war in Vietnam during the 1960s (Hughes 1974).

As for actionable intelligence, if reports from the CIA are vague—“our warning indicators are blinking red and terrorists may strike the United States at any time”—they have limited value. Of course, a vague warning (if reliable) is better than no warning at all and can alert Americans to hunker down; but infinitely better is to know when, where, and how terrorists are going to strike. “Qaeda operatives will try to board commercial airplanes in Boston next Wednesday at 8:30 a.m.”—here is the level of detail that one hopes for. If this degree of specificity can be achieved, the intelligence agencies will have scored a home run with bases loaded in the ninth inning of a tied game. An information coup of this magnitude will be a rarity; but it remains the goal, and one that is sometimes achieved.

These qualities of intelligence reporting add up to a tall order and indicate why errors occur throughout the intelligence cycle. In an effort to reduce the number of mistakes, the lion's share of the annual intelligence budget has gone toward (p. 23) supporting each phase of the cycle: from planning, collection (the most expensive), and processing, to analysis and dissemination. The ultimate irony of intelligence is that, even when secret reports achieve a high level of perfection, policymakers may reject or twist them because they fail to fit into their hopes and preconceptions. As Pushkin put it in his poem, entitled “The Hero,” “Uplifting illusion is dearer to us than a host of truths.”

5. Intelligence as a Set of Missions

While intelligence as information, the end product of the intelligence cycle, is the most important mission for a nation's secret agencies, covert action and counterintelligence are prominent, too. Neither of these latter two missions were mentioned specifically in the National Security Act of 1947 that founded the modern U.S. intelligence community; both, however, quickly evolved into core and sometimes controversial responsibilities. Now and then, covert action has attracted more support than the phases of the intelligence cycle, becoming the tail that wagged the dog.

Covert Action

The covert action mission is nothing less than an attempt by the United States to change the course of history through the use of secret operations against another country, terrorist group, or faction—“giving history a push,” suggests a senior CIA operative (Johnson 1986). These sometimes-controversial activities consist of propaganda operations (say, planting newspaper articles abroad with the help of a “media asset,” or secretly leafleting against a cause anathema to American interests); political activities (behind-the-scenes election campaigns against adversaries, providing money and advertising for friends); attempts to disrupt the economies of adversaries (counterfeiting foreign currencies, blowing up power plants, mining harbors); and paramilitary initiatives (supplying weapons to friends overseas, advising surrogates in secret wars against common adversaries, engaging in assassination plots).13

Although out of favor with some administrations, others have spent enormous sums of money on covert action. A prominent example is the bold use of this “quiet option” in Nicaragua and Afghanistan during the Reagan years. For proponents of this hidden and aggressive approach to American foreign policy, the 1980s were a Golden Age—the historical high point of spending on, and high-level attention to, secret intervention abroad (Johnson 1996).

Covert action is tricky in more than one sense of the word. Its outcome can be highly unpredictable; history is known to push back. In 1953, this approach—chiefly (p. 24) the instrument of covert propaganda—permitted the United States and the United Kingdom to depose the incumbent leader of Iran, Mohammad Mossadeq, and install the Shah, who was more friendly toward the West's primary interest in the region: access to cheap oil. Then, the very next year, the CIA managed—again mainly through the use of propaganda operations—to frighten the leader of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, out of office after he threatened to nationalize the United Fruit Company, an American banana-importing corporation.14 It all seemed so easy. An irritant on the world stage? Send in the CIA—far less noisy than deploying the Marines and quicker than diplomacy. Similar efforts to overthrow Fidel Castro of Cuba in 1961 demonstrated, though, that this philosophy of foreign policy by CIA paramilitary operations was less simple than it was simpleminded; covert action as a panacea for America's foreign policy woes crashed at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 (Wyden 1979).15

The two major Reagan Administration covert actions, in Nicaragua and in Afghanistan, further underscored the unpredictability of this modus operandi. Congress closed down CIA paramilitary operations (PM ops) against the Marxist regime in Nicaragua, believing they were unnecessary. This action by lawmakers drove the Reagan Administration underground; it decided to pursue paramilitary methods against the Nicaraguan regime by means other than the CIA, despite the legal ban. The result was the creation of a secret “self-sustaining, off-the-shelf, stand-alone” paramilitary organization—“The Enterprise”—outside the official government. This subterfuge produced the Iran-contra scandal (Hamilton-Inouye Committee 1987; Cohen and Mitchell 1988). Against the Soviets in Afghanistan, however, PM ops properly authorized by the President and the Congress proved remarkably successful, in large part as a result of stinger missiles supplied by the CIA to the anti-communist mujahideen forces in Afghanistan. These weapons gave the Afghan fighters (many of whom would later become members of Al Qaeda) the capacity to shoot down Soviet military aircraft and led Moscow to have second thoughts about continuing the war (Coll 2004; Crill 2003).

Often there are long-range unanticipated consequences of covert action. In the Guatemalan coup of 1954, for example, the United Fruit Company was no doubt pleased at the outcome; but the impoverished citizens of that nation have lived under repressive regimes ever since this CIA intervention. As journalist Anthony Lewis writes (1997, A19), “The coup began a long national descent into savagery.” Moreover, after twenty-six years of repressive rule by the Shah in Iran, the people of that nation rose up in revolt in 1979 and threw their support behind the nation's mullahs and a fundamentalist religious regime—one that is still at odds with the United States.

(p. 25)

Even the celebrated ousting of the Soviets from Afghanistan during the 1980s had a down side. The Soviet defeat set the stage for the rise of the fundamentalist Taliban regime, which in turn provided a haven for Al Qaeda during the time when its leaders approved the 9/11 terrorist attack against the United States. Moreover, the stinger missiles (shoulder-held rockets that could bring down not just Soviet warplanes but any nation's commercial airlines) were never returned to the CIA, remaining in the hands of Qaeda terrorists, Taliban extremists, and Iranians who purchased them on the open market from mujahideen warriors after the Soviets fled Afghanistan. “You get all steamed up backing a rebel group for reasons that are yours and not theirs,” President John F. Kennedy's national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy (1987), once cautioned. “Your reasons run out of steam and theirs do not.”

Although they never succeeded, the CIA's assassination plots against foreign heads of state (Fidel Castro of Cuba and Patrice Lumumba of Congo, among others) eventually became known to the world and portrayed the United States as a global Godfather (Church Committee 1975a). This was hardly the image most Americans desired in a Cold War contest with the Communist nations to win the allegiance of other nations toward the United States and its presumably more benevolent form of government (Church 1976).

Of course, one person's perception of long-term negative effects may be countered by another's joy over short-term gains. Looking back on the Iranian coup, DCI William E. Colby observed (King 1987): “. . . the assistance to the Shah to return in 1953 was an extremely good move which gave Iran twenty-five years of progress before he was overthrown. Twenty-five years is no small thing.” And, Colby might have added, neither is a quarter-century of low prices for Americans at their gas pumps, which this allegiance with the Shah permitted.

Another former DCI, Stansfield Turner, points to the CIA's covert propaganda program aimed at communist regimes during the Cold War as an effective use of covert action. “Certainly one thinks that the book programs [smuggling behind the Iron Curtain books and other reading materials that were critical of communism in general and the Soviet regime in particular], the broadcast programs, the information programs do good,” he has said (Turner 1991). “When you get facts into a country where the truth is not a common commodity, you're doing some good.”16


A third mission, counterintelligence, entails the protection of America's secrets against theft by foreign intelligence services (Barron 1987; Johnson and Wirtz 2008, pt. 7; Mangold 1991; Martin 1980; Masterman 1972). These secrets include such items as the names of CIA assets overseas, the specifications and orbits of NRO sigint and imint satellites, the capabilities of U-2s and reconnaissance drones, and the timing (p. 26) and location of military operations. Defined more formally (Commission on Government Security 1957, 48–49), counterintelligence is the

knowledge needed for the protection and preservation of the military, economic, and productive strength of the United States, including the security of the government in domestic and foreign affairs against or from espionage, sabotage, and all other similar clandestine activities designed to weaken or destroy the United States.

Counterintelligence specialists wage nothing less than a secret war against antagonistic intelligence services and terrorist organizations (the latter struggle a subsidiary of counterintelligence known as counterterrorism). As former CIA officer Paul Pillar has noted (2008): “The principal challenge for the U.S. intelligence agencies is outsmarting adversaries who work assiduously to keep secret what the U.S. government hopes to find out. One side's intelligence success is the other side's counterintelligence failures.”

Counterintelligence consists of two matching halves: counterespionage and security. Counterespionage is the offensive or aggressive side of counterintelligence; it involves identifying specific adversaries and developing detailed knowledge about their operations against the United States. Counterespionage officers attempt to thwart these enemy operations by infiltrating a secret agent or asset (“mole”) into the hostile intelligence service or terrorist cell—an operation known as a “penetration.” As a CIA document explains (Church Committee 1975b), counterespionage “involves knowing all about foreign intelligence services—their people, their installations, their methods, and their operations,” while security consists of “all that concerns perimeter defenses, ID badges, knowing everything you have to know about your own people.”

Security is the passive or defensive side of counterintelligence. It entails putting in place static defenses against all hostile and covert operations aimed against the United States. Security defenses include the screening and clearance of personnel, as well as the establishment of programs to safeguard sensitive intelligence information; in short, the administration of controls to shield against the theft of information inside America's government. The goal is to defend the personnel, installations, and operations of America's intelligence agencies and other components of the government against infiltration by enemy intelligence services and terrorist organizations.

Among the specific defensive devices used by counterintelligence officers are security clearances that consist of thorough inquiries into the background of job candidates; polygraph (lie-detector) tests—“the poly,” as insiders call it, without affection; special locks; security education; document accountability; censorship; camouflage; and special access codes. Additional methods of physical security include the night lighting of sensitive areas, concrete Jersey barriers, and fences with concertina wire, along with the use of alarms, badges, passes, checkpoints, and restricted zones. Grim-faced guards, accompanied by German shepherd dogs, patrol (p. 27) electrified fences that surround the intelligence agencies. Inside their headquarters buildings, polygraph experts administer tests of loyalty to all new recruits and, periodically, to seasoned intelligence officers, probing to determine if they have had suspicious contacts with foreigners. Polygraphs have hardly been foolproof. Several traitors have fooled the machines, among them the Soviet mole inside the CIA, Aldrich Hazen Ames, finally discovered in 1994 after he had spied for the Kremlin for a decade. On occasion, though, the polygraph has uncovered treason or other inappropriate behavior, including a confession from a nervous would-be CIA employee who had murdered his wife and buried her body in their suburban backyard (Johnson 1995).

The best counterintelligence and counterterrorism officers have the scholarly attributes of a Talmudic scholar, sifting patiently through dusty field reports and other records to find out who on the outside might be trying to burrow, mole-like, into the CIA or one of its companion agencies; or who already on the inside might be a traitor working for a foreign nation or terrorist group. Over the years, the counterintelligence mission has sometimes suffered from insufficient attention—the forgotten stepchild in the intelligence community, overlooked because the job lacks the immediacy of collection-and-analysis or the glamour of “shoot 'em up” covert actions. The discovery of Ames (Wise 1992) and, soon after, another Soviet spy, Robert Hanssen in the FBI (Wise 2002; Weiner, Johnston, and Lewis 1995), changed that perception; the importance of counterintelligence suddenly needed no further explanation, at least for a while.

6. Intelligence Accountability

While this handbook concentrates chiefly on the four meanings of national security intelligence discussed above, the question of supervising secret agencies is of interest to national security scholars, too. If power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton famously warned, secret power can be the ultimate danger to freedom in a democracy. For this reason, the United States and several other democracies have experimented since 1975 with measures to hold the intelligence agencies to a high standard of accountability before the public and their representatives—what, in the United States, is often referred to as “oversight” (Barrett 2005; Johnson 2004; Miller 2008; Schwarz and Huq 2007).

In 1975, investigators in the Congress and the White House discovered that the American intelligence agencies had violated the public trust (Johnson 2004; Schwarz 2007). The CIA had spied on Vietnam War protesters inside the United States; the FBI had launched a secret war of espionage and harassment against not only Vietnam War protesters, but against civil rights activists and (in a warped sense of balance) members of the Ku Klux Klan as well—anyone who failed to fit into the (p. 28) image of loyal Americans held by the Bureau Director, J. Edgar Hoover. The NSA improperly read every international cable sent abroad or received by an American citizen. Military intelligence units spied within the United States. All the good work these agencies had carried out during the Cold War was stained by these excesses, which demanded tighter control by legislative, judicial, and executive intelligence overseers. The era of new and more serious oversight had begun and continues today. An ongoing search was underway, in the United States and several other countries, for the proper balance between the close supervision of intelligence under the law, on the one hand, and sufficient executive discretion to permit the effective conduct of the intelligence missions, on the other hand.

7. An Intelligence Studies Agenda

Here, then, are the elements of what is meant by “national security intelligence.” It is a vast and complicated topic, with both technical and humanistic dimensions—all made doubly hard to study and understand because of the thick veils of secrecy that surround a nation's security apparatus. Fortunately, from the point of view of democratic openness as well as the canons of scholarly inquiry, many of these veils have fallen in the past three decades, as a result of government inquiries into intelligence failures and wrongdoing, accompanied by a more determined effort by researchers to probe the hidden side of government. The essays in this volume are a testament to the insights about national security that can accrue from a steady probing of intelligence organizations and their activities.

Much remains to be done and national security imperatives, quite properly, will never permit full transparency in this sensitive domain. In a democracy, however, the people must have at least a basic understanding of all their government agencies, even the shadowy world of intelligence. The Cold War was essentially a struggle between Western and Communist spy organizations, demonstrating the importance of intelligence (Aldrich 2001, 5). Sometimes these secret agencies have been the source of great embarrassment to the government, as with the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the CIA assassination attempts carried out during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, the domestic spy scandals of the mid-1970s, and the Iran-contra scandal a decade later. Intelligence errors can have enormous consequences, too, as when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 based in part on a faulty intelligence assessment that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, was developing WMDs that could soon strike the United States and the United Kingdom. Further, intelligence organizations and operations are costly. For all of these reasons, the study of intelligence deserves the public's attention and closer study by the scholarly community. The editor and the contributors to this handbook hope the essays that follow will help the public understand intelligence better, as well as stimulate more research into this neglected and difficult—but vital—subject.


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(1) The editor warmly acknowledges the indispensable assistance of David McBride at Oxford University Press, who approached him with the idea for this Handbook; Alexandra Dauler, also at Oxford University Press, who guided the projected along the production pathway; Kristin E. Swati for her computer guidance and many other helpful hints; Gwen Colvin, production editor at Oxford University Press; Katherine Ulrich, for outstanding copyediting; and the all-star lineup of authors who graciously met the deadlines on time.

(2) Johnson (2007a); Johnson (2007b).

(3) The 85 percent figure for funding is from Aspin-Brown Commission (1996, 49), and for personnel, from the editor's interviews with U.S. intelligence experts in 2008.

(4) For an insightful account of how the Coast Guard became a member of the intelligence community, see Wirth (2007).

(5) In 2004, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act replaced the Office of the DCI with a new position: the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or DNI.

(6) On the evolution of the American intelligence establishment, see Corson (1977); Jeffreys-Jones (1989); Lowenthal (2005); Ranelagh (1986); Ransom (1970); Richelson (2008); and Stuart (2008).

(7) For a vivid description of his difficulties in trying to manage the CIA, let alone the larger intelligence community, see Turner (1985).

(8) For a fictional, but realistic, glimpse into the life of a case officer (C/O) and the difficulties of recruiting spies abroad, see Weissberg (2008).

(9) For a critique of the complex reality behind the simplified theoretical abstraction of the “cycle,” see Hulnick (2007).

(10) On imint (geoint), see Burrows (1986); on sigint, Bamford (1984); and on humint, Hitz (2004).

(11) As DCI R. James Woolsey once stated in a 1994 speech: “What we really exist for is stealing secrets” (Wise 1999, M2).

(12) On the PDB and the NIE, see Johnson (2008).

(13) See Daugherty (2004); Johnson (1989; 1996); Prados (2007); Treverton (1987); Weiner (2007) Gelb (1975); Church Committee (1975a); Wilford (2008).

(14) See, respectively: the memoir written by the CIA's lead operative in the Iranian coup, Roosevelt (1981), as well as on the Guatemalan coup, Immerman (1982); Wise and Ross (1964); and Chapman (2008). These covert actions were not blood free, though, by any means. For example, in Guatemala at least forty-three of the CIA's local “rebels” were killed in the covert action (Weiner 1977, A11).

(15) On intelligence failures more broadly, see Johnson (2007d).

(16) On the CIA's use of propaganda during the Cold War, see Wilford (2008).