WASHINGTON — A disgruntled American general steals more than a dozen missiles loaded with a lethal chemical poison. He and his troops take the missiles to the island of Alcatraz and point them toward San Francisco. The renegade general demands $100 million from the United States government to reimburse families of men who served under his command and whom the government abandoned behind enemy lines. The government had covered up its actions and expected the general to keep its secret.
Yup, you guessed it, another Hollywood blockbuster - "The Rock." And true to those good-guys-win endings, Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery, la James Bond, slay the terrorists and save the day.
But movies like this aren't so far-fetched: Real-life spies in the post-cold-war world are increasingly asked to track components that make up chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of mass destruction and to spy on groups and countries that acquire them.
From the sarin gas attack in Tokyo's subways in March 1995 to the June 25 bomb blast at the American military base in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, terrorists have proved that they can strike anywhere, any time.
Spies of the post-cold-war future face these new and evolving threats, in addition to their more traditional roles - keeping tabs on regional conflicts, emerging powers like China, and economic espionage.
Israel's Mossad intelligence agency is busy ferreting out Islamic suicide bombers trying to thwart Mideast peace. Britain's MI6 is focused on terrorist bomb attacks set off by the Irish Republican Arm., Russia's FSB - the former Soviet KGB - has its sights fixed on Chechen terrorist attacks on its military. And America's Central Intelligence Agency is tracking terrorist networks on a global basis.
"The toughest challenges for intelligence are [the] proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and narcotics," says John Gannon, the CIA's deputy director for intelligence.
What is changing are the methods the CIA uses to collect and analyze information - especially given these new challenges. Fewer fedoras and trench coats will be needed in the future, experts say, but on-the-scene spying won't disappear altogether.
In addition to excellent satellite photographic imagery and signal intelligence, what the intelligence community refers to as "open source" material is becoming more and more available. The fast-growing worldwide Internet computer network is becoming one of the best sources of information.
Mr. Gannon cites as an example the rise of Refah (Welfare Party) in Turkey. Prior to this year, not much information was publicly available about it; the CIA had to rely on agents in the region. Today, Refah has a Home Page on the World Wide Web, where information about the party's make up, intentions, and even election results can be obtained.
The impact the technology explosion is having on spying, Gannon says, is "much more profound than we think." The intelligence business of the future, he adds, will be "probably smaller, very carefully managed, and much more sharply focused" than it is today.
An analyst will have to be able to determine the needs of the "customer," then decide how those needs can be best met - either through collection of information through open sources, clandestine collection, or a combination of the two.
Last summer, before Croatia reclaimed the region known as Krajina, the CIA was called upon to determine whether the Krajina Serbs would fight back if attacked by Croatia, how the Bosnian Serbs would react, and whether neighboring Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic would come to their aid. Gannon says the CIA was able to determine that the Krajina Serbs would not be able to withstand an assault using open sources: reading newspapers.
But, he adds, they used "a combination of clandestine and other kinds of sources" to determine that Mr. Milosevic would not be able to jump in, nor would the Bosnian Serbs be in a position to help.
Although more information is publicly available, that does not diminish the need for human intelligence-gathering, others argue.
"The analyst is unlikely to know the intentions or capabilities of a particular group adversarial to us because of the efforts of that group to keep those intentions and capabilities secret," says William H. Webster, who served as director of the CIA from 1987 to 1991.
The only way the US could lay its hands on the blueprints for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's bunker during the Gulf war, Judge Webster says, was because a person handed them to an agent.
Robert Gates, director of the CIA from 1991 to 1993, agrees. "Ground-pounding" is the most useful way to find out information about governments such as Iran, India, and Pakistan, which are developing weapons of mass destruction. Groups that are developing those capabilities independent from a government aren't normally advertising their intentions. "You need to penetrate," he says.
The CIA's major effort to track these groups and countries is its 10-year-old counterterrorism center. The center brings together experts from the FBI and other US intelligence agencies and networks with intelligence agencies worldwide. It has developed a comprehensive database on terrorists and a great deal of expertise, Gannon says.
The center also brings together regional specialists from around the CIA. It has developed a vast database on terrorists and tracks groups and countries that are developing weapons of mass destruction.
"The most fascinating thing I learned is how organized the informal terrorist groups are," says a former CIA analyst who trained at the counterterrorism center. She explains that when terrorists fly commercial airlines almost anywhere in the world, their names usually come up on a list. "While they are being detained, someone will copy their address book. We have this address book of terrorist phone numbers, and they all interconnect - IRA people know [Palestinian people] who know Philippine insurgents - they all help channel funding to one another."
The analyst, who requested anonymity, explains this is how the CIA, working with the FBI, Interpol, and Scottish police, were able to solve who downed Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
It's not writing psychological profiles of leaders of foreign governments that keeps analysts up all night now, she adds. It's tracking chemical and biological components that countries and groups create that "you can take on a dime ride on the metro - something that can take a whole city out."
For example, the US has a number of aid programs to help people in the developing countries with rural crop and stock management, she says. One of the chemicals used to combat anthrax in sheep can easily be used in chemical warfare. Tracking all this is a monumental task, she says. "That's what keeps analysts up at night, believe me."
A centuries-old art
It doesn't look as if the James Bond-types will be getting pink slips any time soon. Intelligence - learning an adversary's secrets, exploiting those secrets, and protecting your country's secrets - has been around for centuries.
Its roots go back at least to a 6th-century BC Chinese general named Sun Tzu. In "The Art of War," Sun Tzu explains the role of intelligence: "Now the reason the enlightened prince and the wise general conquer the enemy whenever they move and their achievements surpass those of ordinary men is foreknowledge.
"What is called 'foreknowledge' cannot be elicited from spirits, nor from gods, nor by analogy with past events, nor from calculations. It must be obtained from men who know the enemy situation."
Most major countries engage in intelligence gathering. The end of the cold war changed the traditional US versus the Soviet Union policy that drove intelligence strategies for more than four decades.
"But Russia remains a very high priority," the CIA's Gannon says. It's not the same, he explains, as during the cold war when Moscow had its nuclear arsenal aimed at the US and when American policy was determined not by "objective interests in third-world countries, but by what the Soviet Union was doing at its embassies among third-world countries."
Although Russia is now an emerging democracy, it could revert to a dictatorship in a heartbeat, he says. Russia, after all, was under authoritarian rule for more than 1,000 years.
Oleg Kalugin, a retired major-general in the former Soviet KGB agrees that the need for espionage hasn't ended. "You need intelligence on any major political changes to make decisions on how to form your foreign policy," he says. "We do not know what would happen if [presumed Republican presidential nominee Bob] Dole takes over."
Conversely, says Mr. Kalugin, sitting in his Washington office surrounded by mementos from Moscow, the US doesn't know what will happen in Russia with the unexpected rise of security chief Alexander Lebed.
"Moles placed inside governments supply the greatest information on intentions, long-range plans, real or likely threats," he says, shaking two clenched fists to reinforce the point. Russia's priorities, he says, now are essentially the same as the US: stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and drug trafficking.
Like the US, Russia has a major interest in the emerging power of China, as well as the role Iran and other Islamic states play in exporting their ideologies through terrorism.
"Islamic fundamentalism imperils Russia's southern belly," Kalugin says. Iran is attempting to influence the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, and Uzbekistan, he says, which could have a tremendous impact on stability in the region.
THE CIA IS LOOKING FOR
A FEW GOOD ...
r Young men and women who speak non-Romance languages - particularly Far Eastern, Middle Eastern, and Central European languages. Native speakers are needed to teach languages in-house. Be prepared to travel to exotic places, such as the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, or Latvia (tracking the sale of nuclear materials is big).
r Scientists - preferably with advanced degrees in biology, chemistry, and physics. If you see yourself as the Nicholas Cage character in The Rock, you could work at the CIA. Scientific skills are in demand in the war against weapons of mass destruction.
r Young men and women with MBAs - Following the money is always important in good detective work. If you speak Chinese, even better. China is becoming an economic kingpin - the US needs to be able to understand more about this emerging giant.
r Electrical engineers - for traditional roles as well as more innovative. The CIA needs engineers for designing systems, technological development, analysis, and collecting information. The more you know about a subject, recruiters say, the better suited you are for searching adversaries' systems for secrets.
r Young men and women for its internship program - If you are heading to graduate school, you could get help with tuition and expenses if you agree to work a specified time for the agency afterward.