Internet transforms culture of spying
With so much 'intelligence' available online, critics say CIA should downplay covert strategy.
WASHINGTON — When Russian tanks unexpectedly rolled into Kosovo last summer - preempting and embarrassing NATO troops - George Friedman said he was among the first Americans to know.
Mr. Friedman, who runs a private intelligence company in Texas, received an e-mail almost immediately from one of his sources in Kosovo. "We knew before the government knew," he says.
While Friedman's scoop may have been inconsequential - the news was widely available minutes later - it underscores the rapidly changing world of intelligence gathering.
Local press reports, once smuggled across borders at great risk, are available on the Internet. High-resolution satellite images, once the domain of superpowers, can be purchased for about $2,000 a shot. And, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it takes little more than a passport and a plane ticket so see what were once the world's most forbidden cities.
"When you desire something," Mr. Friedman explains, "it's just as easy as asking someone who's over there, 'Hey, can you do me a favor?' "
But while the changing landscape of information gathering has helped businesses like Friedman's, it has cut both ways for America's 13 intelligence agencies, spearheaded by the CIA.
On one hand, new technology has allowed them to do the same job they have been doing for decades - with less money and less uncertainty. On the other hand, it has chipped away at their raison d'tre.
According to former CIA director James Woolsey, for example, about 95 percent of all economic intelligence comes from "open sources," or sources that are available to the public.
"Five percent is essentially secrets that we steal," he recently said at a press conference. "We steal secrets with espionage, with communications, with reconnaissance satellites."
Big espionage budgets
Given those figures, analysts say, it is becoming more and more difficult for the intelligence agencies to justify their methods and budgets. Intelligence agencies spend about $30 billion annually - roughly the same as they received at the peak of cold war spending and more than Russia's federal budget today.
And they do so at substantial danger - to the international reputation of the US, to ongoing diplomatic efforts, and, sometimes, to human life.
There are also problems in what the CIA does not do, analysts say. They are accused of not taking full advantage of open sources and criticized for refusing to admit that they need a paradigm change following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Today, there are a wide range of potentially threatening countries (no longer just the Soviet Union). There are also a wide range of intelligence consumers, from political officials to economic experts to US allies in NATO. So much information is available through new technologies that the greatest difficulty becomes sorting through fact and fiction.
According to Greg Treverton, a former high-level intelligence official under the first Clinton administration, CIA analysts often go to great lengths to produce reports that could have been gleaned from the Internet or from private-sector sources.
"In a world in which everyone is dependent on information processors, [the CIA] should think of themselves as the shapers and verifiers of all that information," says Mr. Treverton, now an analyst at Rand Corp.
Robert Steele, a former Marine Corps intelligence officer, has crusaded to get the CIA and other agencies to use more open sources. He proposes that the government spend $1 billion tapping private-sector analysis from companies like the one he presides over, Open Source Solutions Inc.
"We should be in the business of informing the government, not stealing secrets," says Mr. Steele.
Perhaps the strongest charges being levied against the CIA - and its director, George Tenet - are that the agency has responded to criticism and diminished influence by becoming too politicized.
Melvin Goodman, a former CIA official who now works at the Center for International Policy, argues that Mr. Tenet has tried to exaggerate threats to the US as a means of preserving the agency. He also says Tenet has tried to find a niche for the CIA among the 13 intelligence agencies as the specialist in covert actions and "gadgets."
"They're increasingly touting an ability that's no longer relevant in the post-cold-war environment," says Mr. Goodman.
Critics of the CIA also fault the agency for not reinventing itself in the age of cyberspace.
In other words, it may now be more important for the intelligence services to be able to forecast a new trend than it is for them to uncover the secrets of a foreign government. The CIA should be able to inform US officials, for example, about possible genocide in Rwanda and historical claims in Kosovo, says Steele.
Recent well-publicized intelligence failures have also highlighted some of the agencies' weaknesses. A mapping error was blamed for the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia last year. And, in 1998, the CIA failed to predict that India would test a nuclear weapon.
The test was, however, warned of in an obscure anti-India newsletter circulated among the Sikh community in British Columbia, according to Treverton.
But rather than use those missteps as an impetus for reform, officials argued that they were a case for greater funding.
Just as the Department of Defense (which controls eight intelligence agencies and 85 percent of the entire spy budget) has resisted change following the end the of cold war, the intelligence community appears to have gone into a self-preservation mode, says Treverton. When working at the CIA, Treverton was part of the National Intelligence Council, which synthesizes all the different agencies' work.
No reforms yet
Despite a 1995 government commission on intelligence reform chaired by former Defense Secretaries Les Aspin and Harold Brown, few changes were made, analysts say, other than the establishment the following year of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.
Most recently, the CIA gave Terry Ward a distinguished career intelligence medal for "excellence" during 35 years of service. Mr. Ward, however, had been dismissed in 1995 over a scandal in which the CIA had failed to inform Congress of its connections to human rights violations in Guatemala.
And the CIA was recently accused of trying to cover up security breaches by former Director John Deutch, who had written classified memos on his unprotected home computers.
These may be cases, analysts say, of spies protecting their own.
But, in fairness, says Friedman, who runs the private-intelligence company, it is easy to criticize the CIA from afar - or in retrospect. "If I make a mistake, it's embarrassing," he says. "If they make a mistake, people die."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society