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A mentality from the Cold War era

Spies, Lies, and Algorithms. The History and Future of American Intelligence
INTELLIGENCE / In the United States, 18 different U.S. agencies at the government level are engaged in intelligence activities. In 1996 there were 6 million decisions to declassify material – by 2016 this had grown to 55 million!


When a group of US Navy Seals found Osama in May 2011 Bin Laden and was in the process of attacking his hideout in Pakistan, was the Pakistani intelligence service completely unaware of what was going on. They had discovered nothing. But a local Pakistani citizen with some background in information technology, Sohaib Athar, heard unusual noises out in the night. "Helicopters over Abbottabad at 01am," he wrote on Twitter. This in itself was highly unusual. He continued to listen and observe, continuously reporting on the entire American operation against the world's most wanted terrorist live on the social media.

Amy B. Zegart, a political scientist at Stanford University, uses the episode in her latest book as a good example of how so-called open source-information in the last decades has established itself as an ever-greater challenge for not least the 18 different US agencies that deal with intelligence at the state level.

The sheer volume of information that changes hands in this way is staggering. In 2019 laid Internetusers send out 500 million tweets every single day, send 294 billion emails and post 350 million photos on Facebook. Weekday!

The technological development

Only a minimal part of this enormous volume has real intelligence value, but the phenomenon has nevertheless come to stand as a serious obstacle to the necessary democratization of the various espionage services worldwide. A serious challenge is at the core of the nature of these services viz secrecyotherwise. In the past, these services interacted minimally with ordinary citizens because they didn't need to, so they discreetly gathered information about real or imagined counterparts to always maintain an edge.

In 2019, netizens posted 500m tweets every single day, sent 294 billion emails and posted 350 million photos on Facebook – every day!

At a time when more than half of the world's population is online and where five billion Google searches are made daily, the classic spy as we know him from John le Carré has long since become a museum piece. We got a good example of the new times in the aftermath of the invasion of the far-right Trump supporters Capitol in Washington DC on January 6, 2021. A whole host of private computer geeks began collecting images from the events. A college student even created the website Faces of the Riot, and with the help of the technological tools readily available on the Internet, this group of civilians actually identified the key perpetrators much faster than the professional agencies.

But where this can be said to have a beneficial societal function, technological development has also led to a violent slide when it comes to the leaks that have always been part of the intelligence community. It took earlier Robert Hanssen, which stands as one of the most significant cases in recent times, twenty years of handing over a total of 6000 secret FBI documents to the Russians – one bag at a time. In comparison, Chelsea managed Manning to download 250 documents from the State Department during 000, and in just ten months Edward Snowden got his hands on one and a half million documents.

Deep State

As a result of all this, a deep crisis of confidence has arisen. The intelligence services are frantically trying to protect their territory, and this has been shown by more and more documents being classified. Thus, in 1996 there were 6 million decisions to declassify material, and in 2016 this had grown to 55 million. It often leads to absurd situations. When President Obama stood up in 2011 and was able to announce that an American terrorist in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, had been killed, he could not mention the words 'drone' and 'CIA'. They were classified, although the daily press was full of reports that al-Awlaki had been killed in a CIA-sponsored drone attack.

The book includes a useful review of the history of the American intelligence services, as well as a more theoretical part about intelligence in general. This provides a good basis for understanding what has happened in modern times, where the digital media have turned this special world upside down.

Among other things, Zegart directs a sharp accusation against a lack of flexibility in relation to the necessary adjustment that the digitization of the entire society must necessarily require. CIA has tried to present a friendly and open face to the outside – for example by letting the Disney group be responsible for the design side, when a new reception was to be built at the headquarters. The big picture, however, points in the opposite direction. You can see that a significantly greater distance has emerged between the general population and the various services. Such things are difficult to measure, but a poll from 2017, launched by the daily newspaper Washington Post, speaks its own language.

48 percent of the American population believes in the existence of a Deep State, where the military and intelligence services manipulate government decisions.

Here you could read that 48 percent of the American population believes in the existence of one Deep State, where the military and intelligence services manipulate government decisions. Only 35 percent reject this as a conspiracy theory. And another poll from 2019 found that 83 percent of Republican voters were convinced that the same Deep State was working to bring down Trump.

A bleak future

This in itself is a kind of foretaste of a future that promises to be very varied for intelligence work as we know it in the classical sense. Zegart provides a good example with the Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential campaign. Without firing a shot, used Putin here a cheap and effective means of weakening American democracy somewhat, by manipulating Americans' attitudes through social media. To put it bluntly, countries with a strong defense and abundant resources have always been best equipped against hostile attacks. But in the modern world, mountain ranges and oceans offer no protection, because the battle takes place in cyberspace, where it often turns out that the most advanced and most digitized societies are the weakest against an enemy. And this enemy is not just government networks, but everything from criminal fraudsters, hackers and spies to political activists and teenagers sitting at the computer in their parents' basement. In 2018, two billion people – equivalent to two-thirds of the global online population – had their personal information stolen digitally. These thefts cost the world $600 billion that year – the same level as the value of the global drug trade.

two billion people – equivalent to two-thirds of the global online population – had their personal information stolen digitally.

So one might rightly fear that the inability of the intelligence services to adapt is an integral part of the political crisis that the United States finds itself in. But it is an advanced, capitalist democracy that depends on computer networks, while the services stubbornly reject to collaborate with private actors, which also include university researchers – and in this regard, the relationship between Washington and the tech giants of Silicon Valley is characterized by deep mutuality , confidence. Here it is clear that the intelligence services are stuck in a mentality from the Cold War era. They accuse the industry of a lack of patriotism.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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