Intelligence at a Cross Roads: To Be Or Not To Be…
4 stars – A+ on Its Narrow Focus, C+ For Contextual Shortfalls
David Omand and Mark Phythian, Principled Spying: The Ethics of Secret Intelligence (Georgetown University Press, 2018), 286 pages, $32.95, ISBN-13: 978-1626165601.In relation to their central focus – the ethics of overcoming extreme secrecy with extreme subversion, the book is excellent. For that alone Principled Spying is worthy of acquiring and reading. The book offers a very solid discussion in its chosen area of focus, and easily comes in as a four star endeavor strongly recommended for purchase and reading.
On the other hand, from my vantage point as both a former civilian spy and former military intelligence officer, and still today the foremost proponent for both Human Intelligence (HUMINT) writ large as well as Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), I would like to see this book understood in context with one particular point stressed time and time again: spying is not intelligence, and principled spying cannot exist in a vacuum – principled intelligence is the greater good, principled spying a sub-set.
Intelligence (decision-support) saves money, spying (espionage) costs money. This is a distinction that the President of the United States and his Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) are beginning to appreciate. Put bluntly, this book is a good attempt to extend the life of a very expensive unethical archipelago of out-of-control secret capabilities, while avoiding the promotion, perhaps by design, of the alternative: collective, ethical, legal, open capabilities. As I said in the 1990’s, “do not send a spy where a schoolboy can go.”
In my view the authors are rooted in old-school methods that have never been held accountable – truly, independently held accountable – for producing a return on investment commensurate with the multi-trillion dollar expenditures on secret collection, and the deca-multi-million dollar expenditures on wars and other mid-adventures rooted in lies that the secret world failed to challenge, and was, more often than not, complicit in developing and promulgating.
Generally speaking, this is a conventional book that adheres to the dogma of the secret world and does not acknowledge that we must go all-in on all open sources (not just the digital sources convenient to NSA and GCHQ), while also harnessing decentralized citizen collective intelligence and multinational sense-making.
The book’s treatise on principled spying – a most valuable construct – is somewhat diminished by the authors’ tacit acceptance of spying as the end-all. The below graphic positions their book in relation to principled intelligence that fully integrates holistic analytics and true cost economics of all threats, all policies, all the time.
Here are the larger ethical questions not addressed by this book:
- If intelligence is decision-support (the outputs) about all threats, all policies, all costs, what are the ethical failures attendant to the mandarins of secrecy refusing to do their job across the waterfront?
- If 90% or more of what all consumers of intelligence need can be provided by inexpensive open sources and methods, while the secret sources and methods provide “at best” 4% of what a major commander needs and nothing for everyone else, what are the ethical failures inherent in this myopia?
- If the spies don’t do open sources and the consumers don’t do holistic analytics, true cost economics, and Open Source Everything Engineering (OSEE), who, exactly, is responsible for creating a Smart Nation?
I must – with respect – point out that the aspects of the craft of intelligence that the authors discuss are nothing more than classified information rooted in the 1% of the collected technical data (both secret and open source) that is processed – 99% of what is collected secretly is not processed at all, and the secret intelligence communities of the UK and the US are not actually producing intelligence (decision-support) but rather an endless stream of secret noise.
In fairness to the authors, this book appears to have been conceived as a Socratic dialog about the ethics of spying specifically, and there is both ample room for agreement as well as mis-understanding in what they do and do not discuss directly.
The book offers a very solid discussion in its chosen area of focus, and easily comes in as a four star endeavor strongly recommended for purchase and reading. A follow-on book, perhaps an edited work entitled Principled Intelligence: The Ethics and Tangible Value of Evidence-Based Governance, would be most welcome and I for one would embrace the leadership of the two authors should they undertake such a project.
Strongest Points of the Book
Ethics matter; there is a difference between the rule of law and a culture of ethics.
QUOTE (5): It matters that intelligence officers act with good intent and that they think hard on the unintended as well as intended outcomes from their actions. The degree of ethical risk of harm to others that they judge acceptable must bear arelationship to the harms they are trying to prevent through authorizing intelligence operations.
All well and good in theory, but the authors fail to itemize the trillions of dollars and tens of millions of lives lost to the complete absence of ethics in UK and US intelligence going back over a century, not only as spent on intelligence, but as spent on five trillion dollar wars based on intelligence-led lies (935 of them in the case of Iraq), rigging elections, and more.
Intelligence is about prevention through anticipation.
Quite right and a confirmation of the techno-ignorance of the recently retired Director of National Intelligence (DNI) in the US, James Clapper, who has said in his recent book:
I always cautioned the president and secretaries that intelligence work was about acquiring and assessing foreign secrets, not predicting events or reading minds.
Never mind that the UK and US models fail on all counts, the authors are most erudite on these points.
Respect for the rule of law, regulation, and restraint can substantially legitimize secret intelligence.
Of course I agree, and the discussion, largely by Professor Sir David, is most valuable. Somewhat off-putting is the clear reluctance to state very clearly that both the UK and US secret intelligence communities have ignored the rule of law, flouted most regulations, and shown no restraint at all in the past fifty years.
The secret intelligence sledge hammer should not be used to swat local flies that are not a threat.
Mindful of the militarization of the police in both the UK and the US, it is most helpful to have the authors take pains to point out that using secret sources and methods against local level issues as mundane as “dog fouling” is totally inappropriate. Covert human officers must observe, not participate in, criminal activities.
This is harder done than said, particularly when violence is the norm and any hesitation means death, but it needs to be said – from the Irish civil war to Iran-Contra, we have too many officers engaged in transnational crime on a global scale. Recent successes in taking down Dark Web drug markets suggest that blurring the line between observing and getting involved is a standard operating procedure in some types of investigations. The authors will never admit this, but elements of MI-6 as well as elements of CIA and elements of the various European intelligence services have become sophisticated organized crime networks, far beyond the traditional embrace of criminal networks by secret organizations.
Human assets motivated by values are more reliable than human assets being blackmailed or bribed.
I found this portion of the book particularly interesting; one can read between the lines and appreciate the difference between Cold War defectors (walk-ins) seeking to bring down their own system, and Members of the US Congress entrapped by Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell with pedophilia (and perhaps murderous pedophilia as well), all on video forevermore.
9/11 led to the perversion and mis-direction of national secret intelligence.
The authors cite Charles Cogan writing in 2004 to the effect that intelligence operations in the 21st century will focus on hunting instead of collection. A similar disfigurement has happened to special operations forces, which are no longer about “White” operations by with and through indigenous allies, but instead about “Black” hunter-killer operations, very often against innocents because CIA simply cannot get the kill list right. CIA’s drone assassinations and its practice of rendition and torture disgrace us all.
While this is mostly Professor Phythian, with Professor Sir David all too eager to defend drones as precision weapons – they are not – this is a very welcome and utterly necessary condemnation. I am particularly gratified to have Mike Hayden called out in this book, with a discussion in the body of the book of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) thirty-eight page guide to “Factual Errors and Other Problems” found in Hayden’s book, Playing to the Edge. I anticipate that eventually George Tenet, Mike Hayden, and John Brennan will be judged by history for crimes against humanity on a scale that most cannot imagine today given the Deep State’s strict control over both the mainstream and social media – they are the embodiment of the present lack of ethics in spying.
Edward Snowden made a difference – he inspired the public debate over mass surveillance.
As much as I abhor any violation of any oath, and while there are still alternative explanations of why Snowden did what he did (including a CIA White Hat take-down of NSA preparatory to the Trump win against all odds), Snowden’s oath to the Constitution trumped his oath to protect wrong-doing by NSA. William Binney chose another route (incontrovertible reporting to the Inspector Generals of both the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense), and I am glad he did so because now he is a legitimate candidate to manage the demolition of 70% of NSA while re-directing the 30% worth saving. There are eight stages, all of which are required, to achieve effective counter-surprise.
The eight stages include existence of data and ability to overcome deception; available sources with access; impartial and responsible interpretation of acquired data; reaching the right people in the right way in time with warning reports; analytic assessments of quality for both secret and open sources; analytic explanations including probability that are understandable by the customer; acceptance by the customer of the intelligence offering; and sensible decision-making by the customer (in a timely manner). As my own work has documented over the past thirty years, we fail on all these counts, and even more so in that we only address two of the ten high-level threats to humanity, do not do compare and contrast policy assessments or true cost economics, and ignore the needs of those below the President, Prime Minister and national security cabinet officials and major commanders. Still, it is nice to see the authors include this, it adds to the educational value of the book.
Bulk digital collection is a two-edged sword, and private sector violations of privacy are very troubling.
It is quite clear that Professor Sir David has spent a great deal of time thinking about digital collection and exploitation, and that he is acutely aware of the many crimes being committed by private sector parties taking advantage of their access to personal information. His comments on digital collection as a two-edged sword, and on the degree to which databases that are not secret but are privileged, are being violated, are valuable. I do not have the impression he embraces the five major criticisms of mass surveillance that William Binney has articulated. Furthermore, most have no idea that Amazon is about to roll-out live stream analytics, blockchain and hyper-ledger cross-correlation across databases normalized across customers and frontiers. The future of finance, intelligence, value-added Application Program Interfaces (API), and live streaming is going to be known as Before Amazon (BA) and After Amazon (AA) and I strongly suspect neither the UK nor the US intelligence communities have a clue what is going to hit them (or their contractors who rely on Amazon cloud services and infrastructure that will be out in the cold with no notice) in about six months.
There are three areas where further open deliberation would be helpful.
Secrecy is at the heart of the tension between intelligence and policy. Yes, sort of. Certainly there is tension when policy-makers feel they are being lied to or ignored or worse – as in the case of then-candidate Donald Trump – being actively targeted in an organized conspiracy orchestrated by the sitting President, Barack Obama. What the authors also do not address is that secrecy has become the default not only across government policy domains, but in the private sector. As I testified to the Secrecy Commission led by former Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003), here in the US we all know that secrecy is used to enable lying to Congress and the President, not to actually protect sources and methods that are very well known to our adversaries. In addition, the authors do not address the tension resulting from the obstinate refusal of the secret mandarins to get it right across the board, fully leveraging overt human and open analog sources, as well as meta-data analytics (Thin Thread). 4% “at best” satisfaction of major commanders (and nothing for anyone else, is an indictment having nothing to do with secrecy and everything to do with intelligence lacking integrity.
Safeguarding economic well-being is one of three legitimizing missions for secret intelligence.
This may be so, but the fact that the book fails to point out that NSA has since 1994 gutted the security of all US communications and computing equipment is most disappointing. I will not speculate on the degree to which GCHQ has done the same to Commonwealth communications and computing. The book also observes that generally NSA and GCHQ do not spy for the commercial advantage of home countries (I am not sure this is completely true) while avoiding being quite clear on the fact that the Zionists, French, and Germans are vastly more annoying with their economic and industrial espionage than the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Russians. Given the complete failure of the secret world on this front, one third of its “legitimizing” mission stands null and void.
If customers do not levy requirements, the secret intelligence world can be forgiven for not responding.
Professor Sir David is completely correct on this point, but on the basis of my experience with the Advanced Program and Evaluation Group in the Collection Requirements and Evaluations Staff (CRES/APEG) at CIA, and as a member of the Foreign Intelligence Requirements and Capabilities Plan (FIRCAP) Committee, there are three aspects of this that are still wrong: a) customers outside of defense are not taken seriously at all and generally give up while also recognizing that CIA among others is simply not good at compare and contrast analytics such as are needed for trade intelligence; b) the FIRCAP or whatever has replaced it assigns tier 1 and 2 priorities to a handful of hard targets and very low priorities to everything else; and c) we still do priority-driven collection instead of gap-driven collection – we will dwell on and repeatedly surveil and monitor an obscure Russian outpost instead of a unique troop riot in Japan simply because Russia has an assigned threat priority of 1 and Japan is a 3 or less. This matter of customer requirements goes hand in hand with the question of “what is intelligence,” and I agree with Amy Zegart (today the co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution): until the President decides to “fix big,” intelligence will remain broken, dysfunctional, and largely worthless. In my view, James Clapper’s epitaph on our side of the Atlantic is simple: one trillion dollars spent, nothing significant accomplished (other than spending one trillion dollars, which was precisely the point). The secret world today is about spending, not about thinking or preventing or protecting.
Important But Not Fatal Shortcomings
There are three shortcomings in this book, none fatal but all important. First, the book avoids the central ethical question that 21st Century intelligence must confront if it is to be both relevant and valued: what is intelligence? There is only one correct answer:
Intelligence is anticipatory decision-support about all threats, all policies, all costs, at all four levels of analysis – strategic, operational, tactical, and technical – all of the time. Decision-support is by no means secret, and more often than not, more valuable when it is not secret and can be shared across executive, legislative and allied jurisdictions, as well as with the public and the media (both mainstream and social).
While the authors do speak to intelligence as having a role in improving decision-support at all levels, and they do recognize open sources as a growing place in the digital world (not in the analog or human world) I am just not feeling the holistic spirit to that end, and certainly not in relation to creating a Smart Nation (and a smart community of nations) in which the “eight tribes” of information (academic, civil society, commerce especially small business, government especially local, law enforcement, media, military, and non-government/non-profit) can share the 90% of the information that is not secret, not online, and not in English.
I have the impression the authors would, if challenged, lay claim to life-saving accomplishments for the bulk collection program. LtGen Alexander made this claim, asserting 54 terror attacks prevented by bulk collection, but his claims have been proven to be completely without merit – not a single terrorist attack has been prevented by NSA. GCHQ claims along these lines are suspect, and the so-called independent review was nothing more than obfuscation.
The authors buy into the entire “bulk data collection” approach that the US and UK IC have sold to Congress and Parliament as a justification for very expensive programs that are drowning the analysts in noise. They confuse “data” – billions of raw signals – with “information” – the patterns in those signals – with “intelligence” – precision predictive analytics that constructively alter decision-maker perspectives in time to make a difference. The claims of SIGINT as well as clandestine HUMINT are in my view severely inflated and will not stand scrutiny by a truly independent inquiry – nor are NSA and GCHQ likely to win a benchmark exercise against Thin Thread today, against any common database, such as all New York City banking transactions or all telephone calls to and from Central Asia.
Second, the book avoids confronting the most important ethical failings of US intelligence leaders – I will not speculate on UK intelligence leaders. The book strives to remain abstract and does not specify the top four ethical failings of the so-called intelligence leaders we have now: lying to the President and Congress as well as the public; active engagement in the bribery and blackmail of Members of Congress; tolerating pathological dysfunctionality and failure while keeping the money moving and also leveraging offshore funding rooted in the smuggling of cash, drugs, gold, guns, and small children; and budget-building rather than mission accomplishment as the persistent internal priority.
Third and finally, the book has some modest errors and omissions starting with a jacket blurb from John Brennan who is from the perspective of many in the US, an alleged criminal and traitor awaiting the opening of his sealed indictment. Such a blurb puts the authors “on the back foot” as it were, with anyone who values integrity as a root attribute of the craft of intelligence. There is no discussion of the failure of the secret world to bring down the Deep State and the Shadow Government (perhaps because the secret world serves the Deep State and is a core part of the Shadow Government), with specific reference to traitors, elite pedophiles, and white collar criminals, particularly bankers who feel they can manipulate interest and currency rates with impunity, while managing trillion dollar insolvency fraud and offshore tax evasion on a global scale. There is no discussion of the bias of the secret world toward war and terrorism as budget-building scams, while ignoring the other eight high-level threats to humanity (in rank order: poverty, infectious disease, environmental degradation, civil war, genocide, other atrocities including trade in women and children, proliferation, and transnational crime). Minor nits include:
- An incorrect crediting of Russia with the first cyber-campaign in the 1990’s; Israel, with PROMIS as distributed by Robert Maxwell, was actually the first, in the 1980’s.
- Overstatement of privacy being available – there is no assured privacy in the Dark Web, protonmail, whatever. Deanonymization technology is advancing and becoming increasingly automated. Digital privacy has become a chimera – especially if you own an Alexa that will record your conversations and then broadcast them or, as Professor Sir David notes, you data is in the hands of an unethical private corporation violating privacy with impunity – Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter all come to mind.
- Mention of Harry Truman creating CIA to brief presidents while the authors are dismissive of President Donald Trump, and fail to cite Truman’s repudiation of CIA in 1968.
- Avoidance of the growing problem of Private Military Corporations (PMC) as outsourced spying enterprises, often against our own government and often carrying out false flag operations against civilians in a domestic context, along with a reluctance to openly admit that most foreign false flag events are stage-managed by US, UK, and allied intelligence services among which the Mossad stands out as especially effective. 
- Professor Sir David speaking well of propaganda seeking to expose the nature of the Soviet regime, but very silent on the degree to which the Alternative Media is seeking to expose the Deep State, Shadow Government, fake news, and false flags. As I said before thousands at the Lincoln Memorial when invited to speak to Rolling Thunder, it is not possible to have an intelligent conversation about the Deep State or its gun control agenda without first confronting the reality that most school and club shootings are false flag events.
- Acceptance of the US IC findings on “the Russians did it,” which is absolute nonsense.
- The ending is well-intentioned. Despite the authors’ clear interest in the Internet they do not appear current with the #GoogleGestapo situation, the emerging post-Google and perhaps even post-Western Internet; and the potential of a mesh network or ad hoc networks frustrating all forms of meta analytics. The Western information technology industry, like the Western secret intelligence communities, remains retarded. We are a long way from human-centric sense-making computing, but architectural concepts are beginning to emerge, rooted in a combination of open source and blockchain, and accelerated progress may be possible, particularly if China, India, Iran, and Russia combine to create the post-Western noosphere starting with a World Brain Institute.
- Most distressing to me, but understandable, is the authors’ apparent oblivion to the fact that there are fifteen slices of HUMINT only four of which are classified; and that OSINT – not digital OSINT but human and analog OSINT – is 90% of the decision-support solution and also able to move the intelligence world from 4% utility to 100% utility.
- Bottom line: a serious book by serious people, strongly recommended. This reductionist view of intelligence is what I have been fighting against since 1988. It is my hope the authors (and those they represent most ably) and we iconoclasts and reformers can eventually converge in good faith toward principled intelligence instead of just principled spying – without the first, the second is moot.
IMAGE Credits: Book cover from publisher; three graphics created by Robert David Steele. Notes and source