The open invitation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to the disgruntled Russians to join it as spies could be interpreted as the admission of arguably the best-endowed spy network of the world that its policy of dealing with Moscow so far was inadequate.
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But will recruiting Russians as American spies work in this cyber age? The answer may prove difficult, given the growing importance of technology, not manpower, in the success of intelligence gathering.
Last week, CIA Director of Operations David Marlowe noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s failure to achieve his military and security goals in the nine-month invasion of Ukraine had given the CIA a valuable recruitment opportunity.
“Putin was at his best moment the day before he invaded because he had all the coercive power that he’s ever gonna have,” Marlowe said at an academic panel discussion at George Mason University’s Hayden Center in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Marlowe told the audience that Putin was “at his best moment the day before he invaded [Ukraine]” because he had “all the power that he is ever going to have. But he squandered every single bit of that,” before adding: “We’re looking around the world for Russians who are as disgusted with [Putin’s actions] as we are. Because we’re open for business.”
Marlowe’s comments were first reported by The Wall Street Journal, which pointed out similarities to comments from former senior CIA officers, who have said that disaffection with the war in Ukraine has provided fertile ground for recruiting disgruntled military officials, oligarchs who the war has financially impacted, and those who have fled the country.
Now, the video of the whole debate is also freely available.
Reportedly, more than 400,000 Russians are believed to have left Russia in the months following Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February. The Kremlin estimated a further 700,000 Russians to have left the country in the two weeks since Putin declared the “partial” mobilization of reserves in mid-September.
The Many Failings Of The CIA
But then, seen historically, the CIA does not have an excellent record when assessing Russia or the Soviet Union during the Cold war. For instance, it had failed to warn of the first Soviet atom bomb (1949), anti-Soviet risings in East Germany (1953) and Hungary (1956), and the dispatch of Soviet missiles to Cuba (1962).
Many American pundits have pointed out how the CIA had not even exactly predicted the sudden disintegration of the Soviet Union (the USSR) in 1991. In recent times, the CIA failed to predict the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Nor, for that matter, could it stop what the Americans, particularly the supporters and activists of the Democratic Party, alleged Russian disinformation ahead of the 2016 Presidential election.
Given this record, experts have pointed out that as far as Moscow is concerned, the CIA sometimes overplays Russian capacities and sometimes underplays them. Its best job in Moscow was in 1962, when intelligence collected by U-2 spy planes gave President John F Kennedy the time and evidence he needed to compel the Soviet Union to remove nuclear weapons from Cuba without sparking a nuclear war.
It may be noted that intelligence has always been an essential part of warfare and statecraft. During wars, good intelligence helps save lives and facilitates wins by anticipating the enemies’ next moves and understanding their intentions, plans, and capabilities.
And during peacetime, intelligence helps leaders make better decisions by preventing miscalculations and providing timely insights into threats and opportunities.
Viewed thus, the CIA has a mixed record. And when one talks of record, it is not only the intelligence gathering for which the CIA was essentially founded (on September 18, 1947, by President Harry S Truman) but also for covert activities, often flouting US domestic and international laws. These covert operations abroad involved violence, kidnapping, and killings.
They also included “buying elections” in countries like Japan, France, and Italy under the pretext of protecting democracy. The CIA even sponsored coups in Guatemala, Iran, Syria, and Iraq, where a Baath Party leader boasted in 1963, “We came to power on an American train.”
At the same time, however, it has also failed miserably in its operations in countries such as Cuba, Vietnam, Chile, and Indonesia. Even the CIA’s assessment was wrong— as with assessments of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programs before the Iraq war.
But then, intelligence is, by nature, an uncertain business that involves piecing together fragments of information about adversaries who are intent on denial and deception. And this intelligence-gathering now needs both human agents and technical methods. Technological innovations are now more significant challenges.
From biotechnology and nanotechnology to quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI), rapid technological change is giving US adversaries new capabilities and eroding traditional US intelligence advantages. That explains why many Americans wonder how their “intelligence agencies missed Russia’s most important tool: the weaponization of social media.”
Downsides Of Cyber Revolution
The “cyber revolution” has exploded open-source information (connecting more smart devices ever to the Internet), which, in turn, has made even the classified information gathered through the agencies like the CIA vulnerable to America’s adversaries.
For instance, the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy organization posted nearly 9,000 documents and files dated 2013-16 in what it said was the first taste of a “vault” of CIA secrets. WikiLeaks claimed that the archive was provided by a former American government hacker or contractor eager to “initiate a public debate” about the security and democratic control of cyber weapons, viruses, and malware.
Another problem due to cyber-revolution is the easy flow of information from anyone about anything (just a swipe or a click away). This information reaches the policy-makers without vetting or analysis, raising thus the risk of their premature judgments instead of waiting for slower-moving intelligence assessments that carefully consider source credibility and offer alternative interpretations of breaking developments.
Intelligence Moved From ‘Files’ To ‘Google Earth’
In her new book, Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence (Princeton University Press, 2022), Amy Zegart, a Stanford scholar, describes what is at stake in the future of American espionage as technology rapidly changes and transforms all aspects of government and society.
She writes, “intelligence is no longer shrouded in classified files at Langley; it is found online in public spaces like Google Earth, where anyone can uncover government secrets hidden in plain sight.
For example, thanks to the thousands of satellite images readily available, Stanford scholars – not special agents with security clearances – were able to sleuth out nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.”
Today, anybody with a cellphone and an internet connection can collect or analyze intelligence, Zegart argues, adding, “What that means is that superpower governments no longer control the collection and analysis of intelligence like they used to in the Cold War. It’s a different enterprise today.”
She advises that intelligence agencies must balance the advantages and disadvantages that new technologies, like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and social media, offer to gather intelligence worldwide.
“These tools have incredible potential, but they also have limits and risks. For example, when detecting nuclear threats from a foreign threat, relying on artificial intelligence to inform analysis is not enough.
“Imagine going to the president and saying, ‘Mr. President, we think China will likely invade Taiwan because that’s what the AI tells us.’ It’s not so compelling, right? An analysis isn’t just about data. It’s also an act of persuasion,” Zegart adds.
According to her, what is needed now is a new mindset about how the intelligence community thinks about classified information. “We need to fundamentally reimagine what intelligence can and should do in a digital era, and that starts by realizing that secrets don’t play the role they used to.”
Viewed thus, if the CIA wants to assess Russia better, more important is an analysis based on America’s technological penetration of Moscow rather than recruiting Russians as spies.
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
- CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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