3 peeks in­side se­cret in­tel world

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

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 a nu­clear weapons, might 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 might be the most in­trigu­ing: the Wik­iLeaks scan­dal, in­volv­ing the unau­tho­rized In­ter­net re­lease of thou­sands of U.S. govern­ment doc­u­ments.

Amiri may have de­fected to Amer­ica. Or per­haps the CIA kid­napped him. The Voice of Amer­ica re­ports that 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.

The 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 that 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 in­tel­li­gence was fairly solid.

His high-dol­lar pay­off might 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 could be­come an ex­press­way.

Sept. 11 was an in­tel­li­gence fail­ure. The United States has many vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, in­clud­ing sea­ports, air­ports and sub­ur­ban malls. Amer­ica’s in­tel­li­gence or­ga­ni­za­tions had to grow. The Washington Post’s ar­ti­cles did an ex­cel­lent job doc­u­ment­ing the ex­pan­sion. This new en­larged in­tel com­mu­nity, how­ever, suf­fers from bureau­cratic ex­cess. Quan­tity does not as­sure qual­ity. Data 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 us­able 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 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 in­ves­ti­ga­tion. 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 sug­gests Wik­iLeaks it­self is an in­tel­li­gence “honey pot” op­er­a­tion de­signed to en­snare leak­ers.

The diplo­matic fall­out is fas­ci­nat­ing. Pak­istan’s In­ter-Ser­vices In­tel­li­gence agency is out­raged at Wik­iLeaks rev­e­la­tions of its sup­port for the Tal­iban. U.S. di­plo­mats ac­knowl­edge that this rev­e­la­tion may cre­ate a po­lit­i­cal op­por­tu­nity. This, U.S. de­nies, is a plot to em­bar­rass Pak­istan — but in the world of mir­rors, who knows?

Jae c. hong

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