The Central Intelligence Agency is in trouble. In early October, the US counterintelligence summit sent a warning to all its stations and bases around the world: the CIA has recently lost a significant and growing number of informants recruited to spy for the United States on others countries.
The top-secret and extremely unusual cable made it clear that agency spies had been killed, captured, or compromised by rival secret services. The media’s access to the contents of the report a week after it was sent, incidentally, only proved that US intelligence does indeed have quite a problem on its hands.
The text made it clear that this is not a new problem, but that it needs to be resolved urgently. Sent to officers who command informants, develop sources and recruit agents, the message said that it was necessary to focus on the scope of the problem – and it is precisely the target of the message that makes the statement even more explosive.
So-called compromised informants, better known as double agents, make up the majority of cases. They are spies who over the years were lost not because they were arrested or executed, but because they fit into the more complicated category: agents who still communicate with the United States, but who the CIA isn’t sure to have switched sides, and therefore, more than useless pieces, are a real threat to national security.
The agency has difficulty dealing with the challenges of the modern world
The United States depends on the CIA and its human sources to gather information and prevent a war or start a conflict, smooth international relations, or tighten positions of economic bias and even political decisions vis-à-vis other countries. The fact is that if there is something systematically wrong and the agency has lost its ability to recruit spies from around the world, this is far more than a reallocation problem, it’s about losing a historic advantage that has long been on the line. your hands.
According to Mark Zaid, a lawyer specializing in national security, there is no doubt that the loss of property, particularly human assets, is a matter of great concern. “There are also always concerns about leaks and traitors, but more important is the fear of sophisticated computer hackers. It also poses serious risks to entire networks and exposure at a level of magnitude that spies of the past could only dream of.”
One criticism of the CIA, says Zaid, is whether the US government has abandoned previous assets and failed to protect them. “Did we leave them behind? What message does this send to those who might be willing to risk their safety and betray their own country to work for ours? When almost everyone now has some kind of computer and internet access, what do they learn from the security news the United States will provide to our foreign informants? Shall we reward them? Protect them? Or leave them behind?”
As a matter of fact, while there is no doubt that the agency somehow neglected its informants, it is also true that at least three other factors are responsible for this transformation in the panorama of US espionage. Over the decades there has been a drastic change that has made life as a spy in the modern world very difficult.
New technologies, communication, artificial intelligence, facial recognition, cameras everywhere have all become a huge watershed and an immeasurable complicator. It is no longer possible to have four passports and disappear without a trace because when you go to a foreign country even your retina can be scanned. And, well, they still haven’t invented the possibility of having a second retina in their luggage.
Zaid, who often represents former federal officials, especially intelligence and military officers, points out that today’s spying world is no longer what we know in the Cold War and before, but that doesn’t mean the art of spying is either lost.
“Technology has made it more difficult to manage operations around the world. Most can easily understand how we are linked to our cell phones and how simple it is to track our surroundings using GPS technology. Furthermore, surveillance technology has improved so much and costs so little that it is virtually impossible to move undetected. But not all countries in the world are so sophisticated when it comes to technology. There are still gaps. And, of course, major spy agencies pride themselves on creating counter technology that would help spies evade detection, even in countries that have state-of-the-art equipment.”
The development of counterintelligence services in places that were not always thought of as the best spy services is another important factor. Iran and Pakistan have advanced to the point where they are now signing some of the best counterintelligence operations in the world.
Another classic example, often cited by former CIA officials, is when in 2009 the agency recruited a Jordanian doctor to infiltrate al Qaeda to gather information and bring it back to the United States. The American team arranged for that doctor to go to the secret base that the CIA operated at the Chapman camp in Khost, Afghanistan. Trouble was, they were so eager to find a source, to hear what he had to say, that the doctor entered the base without even going through all the security checks. Too late: the same doctor had become a suicide bomber in the service of al Qaeda. In the explosion, seven agency officers were killed in what was one of the most devastating days in the history of American espionage.
“Focused on the “War on Terror”, the CIA left a vacuum in other areas”
At the time, the agency was on the hunt for Osama bin Laden and completely dedicated to the so-called “War on Terror”, the third reason for the CIA’s current mishaps. After the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, that is, for the last 20 years, US spies have dedicated themselves almost exclusively to combating terrorism.
The agency ended up, however, leaving aside the expertise that during the Cold War it struggled so hard to conquer.
The most recent evidence that US intelligence needs more than ever to be vigilant was the 2016 elections and Russian interference. In that case, one of the most controversial findings was that Russian President Vladimir Putin favored Donald Trump in the election. And the reason the CIA learned of the maneuver was, in part, thanks to espionage from a human source. As Putin doesn’t use cell phones and it’s very difficult to understand his intentions, he’s left to infiltrate spies. The agency managed to place an observer in meetings with the Russian president, who overheard his conversations with advisers in the Kremlin. In this case, the CIA was quick to withdraw the agent from Russia to ensure his integrity.
Anyone studying recent history, Zaid points out, is likely to come to a very confused conclusion about whether it makes sense to work with the CIA. “For me, this represents an increasingly damaging prospect of future recruiting, although the reality is: money talks and sometimes that’s enough in the short term.”
Source: with Agencies