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Loch K. Johnson

International Society for First World War Studies

Part of the dilemma stems from the fact that we live in a world filled not just with secrets but with mysteries. By secrets, intelligence experts for example: Nye , Treverton refer to something that the United States might be able to find out, even though the information is concealed by another nation or group, say, the number of tanks and nuclear submarines in the Chinese military inventory. With the use of satellites and other surveillance methods, the United States can determine that number. Some secrets, though, are much harder to acquire, such as the whereabouts of terrorist leaders, or the precise vault in Tehran that contains Iran's nuclear weapons plans.

At least, though, there is a chance of gaining access to this information. In contrast, mysteries are things we are unlikely to know about until they happen, because they lie beyond the ken of human capacity to foresee.

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For example, no one can tell who will be the next chancellor of Germany, or what breakthroughs in the invention of new strategic weaponry the Chinese may achieve in the next decade. Rwanda provides an illustration of how difficult it can be to anticipate unfolding world events. Then, for several weeks, that's all I thought about. After that, it fell abruptly off the screen and I never again thought about Rwanda.

Similarly, two decades earlier in , who in Washington anticipated that within a year Vietnam would become one of the most important intelligence priorities for the United States, and would remain so for a decade? In , or again in , who placed Iraq at the zenith of America's security concerns, as it would become a year later in each instance? Important, too, are calculations about possible global opportunities for the United States. Bias and guesswork enter into the picture, along with the limitations caused by the inherent opaqueness of the future.

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On which tier should one place China in the threat assessment? What about the Russian Federation, which is now less hostile toward the United States than during the Cold War, but still retains the capacity to destroy every American metropolis from Los Angeles to New York City in the thirty-minute witchfire of a nuclear holocaust?

What about Cuba, benign enough to some in recent years, but for others still a pesky and unpredictable neighbor? Around the Cabinet Room in the White House the arguments fly regarding the proper hierarchy of concerns, as senior policy and intelligence officials attempt to assess the world's risks and opportunities. This is not an academic exercise. The outcome determines the priorities for the multibillion-dollar spending that occurs each year on intelligence collection-and-analysis.

It also pinpoints locations on the world map where spies will be infiltrated; telephones and computers tapped; surveillance satellites set into orbit; reconnaissance aircraft dispatched on overflight missions; and potentially lethal covert actions aimed. Over the years, the United States has undertaken several major inquiries into the activities of the intelligence agencies.

Each has concluded that one of the most significant flaws in the intelligence cycle is the failure of policymakers to clarify, during the initial planning-and-direction phase of the intelligence cycle, exactly what kinds of information they need. So the right hand of intelligence often remains ignorant about the left hand of policy deliberations.

Some staffers in the nation's top forum for security deliberations, the National Security Council NSC , have been on the job for a year or more and have never met—or even talked on a secure telephone—with experienced intelligence analysts working in their same areas of responsibility, whether arms control or global environmental issues Inderfurth and Johnson ; Johnson The ultimate question for planners is: how much intelligence is enough?

Outbreak of World War One

It depends, as well, on the global interests a nation may have Johnson Colby p. We are a big power and we've got to worry about all of the world. The second stage in the intelligence cycle is collection: going after the information that planners and policymakers designate. During the Cold War, the highest intelligence priority was to learn about the locations and capabilities of Soviet weaponry, especially nuclear devices Goodman This was sometimes a dangerous endeavor, as underscored by the more than forty U.

The world is simply too vast. Through their use of satellites and reconnaissance aircraft, both ideological encampments could confidently spy on the missilery and armies of their opponents. As a consequence, a Pearl Harbor—like surprise attack became an unlikely possibility and this transparency allowed a relaxation of tensions in Moscow and Washington. Moreover, intelligence guides today's high-tech, precision weapons systems to their targets, by providing accurate maps, as well as data on weather and terrain contours.

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Each of the U. Best of all would be a reliable human asset close to top decision-makers in another country, perhaps a staff aide or a mistress. Is there information in the public domain about airplane runways in Rwanda and whether they can support the weight of a U. C, or must CIA agents acquire this data from secret sources?

What about the density of the sand in the deserts near Tehran: is it firm enough for the landing of U. This was an important intelligence question in , when the Carter Administration was planning a rescue of U. I was asked to take charge of a new section that had been organized to cover everything from Afghanistan right through southern Asia, southeast Asia, Australia, and the Pacific…. That was literally the resources of G-2 on that vast part of the world a year after the war in Europe had started.

Since the end of the Cold War, roughly 90 percent—some say as much as 95 percent—of all intelligence reports are comprised of osint. A contemporary example of useful osint are Iranian blogs on the Internet, which offer revealing glimpses into that secretive society. No organizations in Washington are better equipped and experienced than the intelligence agencies for the melding of this secret and public information—quickly and in a readable, bound form.

Here the methodology involves testing for the presence of telltale gases, or other chemical and biological indicators, that might reveal the presence of illicit materials, say, waste fumes in a factory that point to the production of the nerve gas sarin. Or electronic emissions from a weapons system that might disclose its specifications, perhaps revealing the presence of nuclear materials inside the metal casing of a bomb.

The vast majority of monies spent on collection goes into techint. Understandably awed by the technological capabilities of spy machines, officials were inclined during the Cold War to readily approve appropriations for their construction and deployment; Washington policymakers and their military commanders in the field wanted photographs of Soviet tanks and missile silos, and transcripts of telephone conversations between officials in communist capitals.

Less sexy were humint assets, whose identities remained concealed from budget officials, and whose yield is comparatively meager—no hundreds of photographs a day, as produced by U. This fascination for intelligence hardware has continued into the Age of Terrorism. The United States devotes just a single-digit percentage of the annual intelligence budget to humint Millis , A Spy machines are costly, while human agents are inexpensive to hire and sustain on an annual stipend. One of the ironies of American intelligence is that while the vast percentage of its annual budget goes into expensive intelligence hardware, especially satellites, the value of these machines is questionable in helping the United States understand such contemporary global concerns as terrorism or China's burgeoning economic might.

The Twentieth Century

Cameras on satellites or airplanes are unable to peer inside the canvas tents, roofed mud huts, or mountain caves in Afghanistan or Pakistan, where terrorists gather to plan their deadly operations, or into the deep underground caverns where North Koreans have constructed atomic weapons. Further, many of the best contributions from spy machines come not so much from pricey satellites as from the far less expensive UAVs.

On occasion, though, sigint satellites do capture revealing telephone communications, say, between international drug lords.

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Moreover, the photography that imint satellites produce on such matters as Russian and Chinese missile sites, North Korean troop deployments, Hamas rocket emplacements in Gaza, or the secretive construction of nuclear reactors in Iran, are of obvious importance. In the case of terrorism, though, one would prefer to have a human agent well situated inside the Qaeda organization. For America's security, such an asset could be worth a dozen billion-dollar satellites. Yet, humint has its distinct limitations, too. It is worth stressing that inside closed societies like Iraq in , or North Korea and Iran today, local spies are difficult to recruit—especially since Americans have focused for decades on the communist world and largely ignored the study of languages, history, and culture necessary to recruit and operate spies in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

How many Americans speak Pashto, Arabic, and Farsi well? How many can comprehend the nuances of slang and various dialects in those regions of the world? The answers are: very few. And how many are willing to serve as operational officers for government pay in perilous locations, trying to recruit local assets? Again, few. Moreover, even if successfully recruited, indigenous assets can be untrustworthy. They are neither Boy Scouts nor nuns, but often the dregs of society, driven by greed and absent any moral compass.

Foreign assets sometimes fabricate reports, sell information to the highest bidder, and scheme as false defectors or double-agents. Now and then, however, a humint asset can provide extraordinarily helpful information, as did the Soviet military intelligence officer Oleg Penkovsky during the Cold War. Information from him helped the United States identify the presence of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in With the occasional successes like Penkosky in mind, the United States and most other countries persevere in their quest for reliable and productive espionage agents, even though the cost-benefit ratio will be poor in most years.

Synergy is important, as well, for effective intelligence collection.

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These capabilities, ideally, dovetail with one another. A controversial form of intelligence collection is the use of harsh interrogation techniques against captured terrorist suspects. Although the CIA has occasionally resorted to such collection methods itself for example, using the technique of waterboarding, a form of torture that simulates drowning , this kind of tradecraft has been widely discredited. In the third stage of the cycle, the intelligence that has been collected—perhaps intercepted telephone conversations in Farsi or stolen Syrian government documents—must be converted into usable information, that is, translated into English, decoded if necessary, and put into a form that the president and other officials can readily comprehend.

The Best of Times

Intelligence pours into the U. He had become exasperated by all the information rushing into his agency from sigint satellites, huge listening antennae located around the globe, and thousands of small eavesdropping devices planted by CIA and NSA teams in various countries. Each day, hundreds of satellite photographs arrive at the NGA; and about four million telephone, fax, and email intercepts, often in difficult codes that must be deciphered, flood the NSA.

The volume is unlikely to dissipate. For example, every minute a thousand people around the world sign up for a new cell phone. Moreover, the United States is always short on translators, photo-interpreters, and codebreaking mathematicians. In response to a query about the major problems facing U. Whether a more rapid translation might have led to a tightening of U. The point, though, is that as things stand today the vast majority of information gathered by America's intelligence agencies is never examined; it gathers dust in warehouses—the fate of an estimated 90 percent of what the intelligence community collects, and as much as 99 percent of the telephone intercepts swept in by the NSA Millis ; Bamford Here is a supreme challenge for the government's information-technology specialists: improving the nation's capacity to sift rapidly through collected intelligence data, separating out the signals from the noise.

At the heart and soul of the intelligence cycle is the next phase: analysis. If the intelligence community is unable to provide reliable insights into what all the collected information means, each of the preceding stages in the intelligence cycle is for naught. What were the specific implications of the secret terrorist rendezvous for America's security?

This information was never acquired and analyzed. Here's the bad news: intelligence analysts will always be taken by surprise from time to time, because of human limitations on the accurate forecasting of events Betts This brings us back to the dilemma of incomplete information and the uncertain light of the future.

There is good news, too, however. This brings in a torrent of information, some of which is quite useful. Further, the federal government has been able to attract into the intelligence agencies many good minds to interpret the findings. The secret agencies are expert, as well, in packaging and delivering their best judgments to the right people in government in a timely manner. Yet, despite all this intelligence sophistication, things still go wrong.