Austin Bay / July 28, 2010

Three Windows Into Spydom’s World of Mirrors

Events this month opened three windows into the mirror world of espionage and covert operations.

The three windows are opaque and narrow, but that’s always the case with the spy business, a shadowy enterprise where the source (or sources) of light should also be regarded with suspicion.

Window One, Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri’s return to Iran, is reminiscent of a Cold War spy novel where double agents steal, deal and often die. This current affair, however, involves a flesh-and-blood human being, not a character, and the driving issue behind the incident, the Iranian dictatorship’s intent to build nuclear weapons, may result in a deadly war.

The Washington Post opened Window Two when it ran a series of articles examining America’s ever-expanding intelligence bureaucracies.

Window Three on the world of mirrors may be the most intriguing: the WikiLeaks scandal, involving the unauthorized Internet release of thousands of U.S. government documents.

Shamir Amiri may have defected to America. Or perhaps the CIA kidnapped him. The Voice of America reports three different video clips exist “all featuring a man who appeared to be Amiri,” and each video Amiri tells a different tale. Spy agencies thrive on “plausible deniability.” Though three Amiris are implausible, in this case confusion itself is a cover story.

CIA allegedly paid Amiri $5 million for nuclear details. When Amiri offered information, money hit the table. To determine the utility of his information required interrogation. Over the past year, U.S. officials have hinted the U.S. had gained critical insight into Iran’s nuclear programs. Amiri has now returned to Iran. Agent, double-agent, or triple-agent? If Amiri turns up dead, that might indicate his intel was fairly solid.

His high-dollar payoff may not be wasted, for it works as psychological warfare. If Amiri is a fraud, knowing Uncle Sam pays millions may ultimately draw the real thing. In the mirror world, an apparent blind alley may become an expressway.

Sept. 11 was an intelligence failure. The United States has many vulnerabilities, from seaports to airports to suburban malls. America’s intelligence organizations had to grow. The Washington Post’s recent articles did an excellent job documenting the expansion.

This new, enlarged intel community, however, suffers from bureaucratic excess. Quantity does not assure quality. Data points do not produce insight. As I read the articles, I thought about former CIA Director James Schlesinger’s 2003 observation that “major organizational change (in intelligence) is not the salvation … the real challenge lies in recruiting, fostering, training and motivating people with insight.”

Producing useable intelligence is an art. It seems few leaders and even fewer bureaucrats understand that. Now if The Washington Post would apply the same reportorial skills to the Departments of Commerce and Labor, we might make some headway.

As for the WikiLeaks scandal: Intelligence officers love and hate the Internet, for it is simultaneously an overt and covert intelligence-gathering tool and an overt and covert intelligence-operations environment. That’s great, but an enemy can pull the same trick on you. That’s bad. Intel and counter-intel strategists have not yet determined the best way to handle the Internet’s beauty and beast.

The WikiLeaks scandal provides an example. WikiLeaks, an Internet-based organization that asks sources everywhere to send it secret information for publication on its site, has begun releasing tens of thousands of Afghan War-related documents. The Pentagon has launched a criminal probe. Many documents are reportedly “open source,” meaning the information is publicly available, though The Wall Street Journal reports some files covering civilian casualties and special operations were “sensitive.”

The release has stirred a data security controversy. The Internet is rife with rumors, including one that suggest WikiLeaks itself is an intelligence “honey pot” operation designed to ensnare leakers.

The diplomatic fallout is fascinating. Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI) agency is outraged at WikiLeaks’ revelations of its support for the Taliban. U.S. diplomats acknowledge that this revelation may create a political opportunity. The U.S. denies a plot to embarrass Pakistan – but in the world of mirrors, who knows?

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