The importance of accurate intelligence
The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has highlighted the critical role accurate intelligence plays in preparing for a battle. The Russian invasion has also showcased what happens when inaccurate intelligence is provided, or no intelligence is available at all. This brings two quotes to mind. “Knowledge is only of value if you share it with people who have the ability to do something with it,” and “We don’t know what we don’t know.” So, how do we find out? Collecting intelligence is an age-old practice. Chinese general Sun Tzu wrote in his famous treatise The Art of War: “Enlightened rulers and good generals who are able to obtain intelligent agents as spies are certain for great achievements.” Julius Caesar put together an elaborate spy network to keep himself apprised of the various plots against him. In fact, Caesar may have known about the Senate-led conspiracy that culminated in his assassination. Even the best spy network sometimes cannot stop a dagger. In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church was more powerful than most governments – and it had a robust surveillance network to match. But let’s get back to the present.
The US intelligence community
The US Intelligence Community (IC) is a coalition of 17 agencies and organizations within the executive branch that work independently and collaboratively to gather the intelligence necessary to conduct foreign relations and national security activities. Their primary mission is to collect and convey the essential information the President and members of the policymaking, law enforcement and military communities require to execute their appointed duties. But this doesn’t apply only to adversaries. People and nations spy, even on friends – shock, shock. And why is that? Well, a friend today may not be a friend tomorrow. What’s more, an enemy today may not be an enemy tomorrow. “Even among friends, a lot of espionage takes place, and some of that espionage is targeted against threats to national security. The rule is that everybody spies on everybody – except when they have an agreement not to,” says Steven Aftergood, head of a project on government secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists.
Might not stop espionage
But even that might not stop them. “Allies spy on each other because they don’t have identical interests,” says Jeffrey Richelson, author of “The US Intelligence Community.” According to Richelson, “There’re very few allies that are so close that there’s no point in collecting intelligence.” But how do nations collect, assess and use intelligence? There’re more ways than you might imagine. Still, one method stands out – HUMINT (Human Intelligence), which has been the workhorse and traditional method of collecting intelligence from the very beginning. Once the star of countless cold-war spy novels and movies about espionage, HUMINT now shares the spotlight with many other technological means of collecting intelligence. But humans remain important.
Anyone can provide information
This may be the first time since the Cuban Crisis that the US has released intelligence to try to prevent a war. Washington began releasing intelligence about Russian disinformation, false flag, military and cyber operations like never before. And while it only delayed the invasion this time, we can be sure it won’t be the last time this strategy will be used. We are now in the middle of the most information-rich conflict in the history of war. The world is monitoring and documenting Russia’s actions. Today, almost anyone can provide information, most often through cellphone cameras, capturing anything from troop movements to potential war crimes. People can also share updates on social media. This type of information abounds today. While this may provide clues about an adversary’s capability, it rarely helps us decipher intentions. If we don’t know what others are planning, we have nothing left but our own judgments.
What does Putin want?
Well, that’s just the problem. We’re not sure. Without reliable HUMINT, we can only speculate what is behind his fiery speeches and his need to project masculinity. But it’s not just the West that needs good intelligence. Putin doesn’t seem to be getting accurate intelligence from those he trusts most. He doesn’t seem to truly understand that the war he launched in Ukraine puts him at significant risk of losing the things he cherishes most – his power and his wealth. Douglas London, author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence,” teaches intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service for over 34 years. A long-time Russia watcher, London thinks it’s unlikely that Putin has totally lost the plot but rather “is so ill-informed as to be basing his calculus on intelligence that bears little resemblance to reality.” Putin is getting poor intelligence.
Based on Putin’s two years of Covid isolation and his hot temper, Douglas London believes he is becoming increasingly paranoid over his own personal security and that of the country he rules. Putin has voiced his displeasure about how the West has humiliated Russia on many occasions and may be attempting to rewrite history and reconstitute the great Russian Empire. But it could also be because he’s more concerned with what he believes is an existential threat that will destroy him unless he does something about it. As unhinged and delusional as Putin appears to be, I think he’s terrified of a grassroots movement that might depose him if neighboring countries embraced democratic ideals. After all, if Russia became a true democracy where the Rule of Law applied, Putin would lose power, his enormous wealth and possibly even his life.
Better insight through HUMINT
The West needs better insight into Putin’s mindset, his aspirations, intentions and the intelligence upon which he is making his decisions. And that must come from HUMINT obtained from people who have close access to him. All our “spy-in-the-sky satellites and listening posts here and there won’t be able to provide the answers to critical questions we need to know. We need insight into Putin’s thinking, intent and endgame. And that will come from traditional intelligence collection. After focusing on counterterrorism for the last 20 years, intelligence agencies now need to return to collecting intelligence from strategic adversaries. And technology can’t do it alone. It takes a long time and a great deal of effort to develop well-placed agents among insiders and decision-makers in another country. Nevertheless, we must remain cautious. Intelligence is not perfect. If it were, it would be called information.