"BUGGER: Maybe the real state secret is that spies aren't very good at their jobs and don't know very much about the world"
For instance when New Zealand arrested the DGSE agents who sunk the Rainbow Warrior, the agents gave them the phone numbers of their “relatives” as part of their cover story. Instead of calling the numbers, the New Zealand police called their french counterpart to do a reverse lookup on the numbers, and the French police responded that the numbers belong to the DGSE...
One of the biggest success of French secret services is Farewell, the code name for a Soviet officer providing valuable intelligence to the DST. Based on this intelligence, France expelled Russian agents. The Russian ambassador protested to the French foreign minister, who showed him some stolen document to prove that France was well informed. Having seen what document had been stolen, it didn’t take long to the Russians to identify the source and execute him.
Or in the 80s in Lebanon. A huge explosion killed dozens of French UN soldiers. France suspected Iran was behind the attack and decided to respond in kind. They left a jeep loaded with explosives in front of the Iranian embassy but the bomb didn’t explode. They then tried to shoot on the jeep to make it explode, no luck. It didn’t take long to the Iranian to find who purchased the jeep...
 first part (the others must be on youtube too): https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=JQijy9P7M_4
So they missed the USSR collapsing... and the fall of the Berlin wall... and the Arab Spring... basically every gigantic sociopolitical change for the past 70 years has caught the CIA by surprised and that not being the case is literally their only job.
and quoting "Aldritch Aimes" is a bit like quoting Kim Philby
So some spied did some efficient work, apparently, just not the CIA ones.
When you PAY someone to generate reports of bad news and non-optimum situations, they will generate bad news and non-optimum situations - and then report on it (accurately or otherwise).
When you allow those same people to keep everything they do a secret, for the sake of 'national security', everything they do will be for the sake of 'national security' and therefore kept a dire secret. This includes their own war crimes and other crimes against humanity - as we have seen time and time again with the CIA and its military-pharmaceutical-industrial super-state, which rules us all through fear and coercion whether we like it or not.
"No one will ever know all the times we've done our job well.. but every mistake will get us f*d up the ass."
Very confusing comment, whichever is true.
On the other hand, claiming that "We didn't see it coming" is the safer and more logical public reaction for most cases. The opposite "We knew that this would happen" is a mine field.
If they knew it; there is an informer. With enough repetitions or forcing rare events to test the reactions, anybody suspicious could be disclosed as mole. And if they knew it, but didn't do anything to prevent a disaster, the public outrage wave would hit they really hard. Better to pretend to be dumb.
Like everyone thinking your spies are everywhere and know everything?
on edit: fixed typo
In the US, only the CIA really does both. DIA, DNI, NSA, NGA, and the intelligence services of the military branches are mostly pure intel gathering.
On the active side are also the various special forces units, which the US has gathered up under the JSOC. They sometimes do intel gathering, but long-term covert is rare. Anybody in the field on the active side will probably become known to the enemy sooner or later.
There are historic successes in both areas, but not a huge number of them. The US put a huge amount of effort into assessing USSR military capabilities, and mostly got it wrong. Poor intel led to the "bomber gap" and "missile gap", and missed the USSR's A-bomb and H-bomb, as well as the breakup of the USSR. The USSR put a lot of effort into spying on atomic weapons, with some success (succeeded with A-bomb, failed with H-bomb), got spies into the State Department (useless, according to KGB archives released at the end of the cold war) and struggled to find out how the US made reliable jet engines, without much success.
There's a history of special operations, written for that community, for which I don't have a reference right now. They go over the major special operations of the 20th century. This was written pre-9/11. For each they ask "Was it a success" and "was it worth it"? The only operations for which both answers are "yes" were Eben-Emael and Entebbe. Only Eben-Emael changed the course of a war.
An impression I was left with after reading Daniel Ellsberg’s last book was this wasn’t entirely an intelligence failure so much as it was a deliberate ignoring of intelligence and making up of a fiction so the air force could build lots of bombers and missiles.
I think we’ve all experienced this in our workplaces, the higher ups really only want to hear what they want to hear, and intelligence that doesn’t fit that very often is ignored.
 They had more than enough shorter range missiles to take out ~everyone in western Europe though.
Apparently the best source of intel were RB-47 and U2 overflights. Ike knew, going into negotiations w/ Khruschev, just how weak the USSR's hand was.
Still, a success ...
This is not about the quality of any one channel, it is about needing multiple channels with distinct provenance that can be used to cross-reference each other. The fact that this article even frames the question as it does means that they have completely missed the point -- there is no such thing as bad intel, only intel that you are too blind to know is inconsistent.
huh? what where when?
I don't disbelief you but what was this complete destruction, when did it happen? (related to OPM at all?)
Most of the public incidents in the past ten years seems related to that CIA failure, so I'm not sure what you're talking about.
This was pretty big
It's why trolling on social media and fake news works and why keeping a good signal-to-noise ratio is important.
you need both
A lot you can verify just by looking at our strategic decisions in the moment vs. how things turn out later and internal communications get declassified. We didn't understand that the Sino-Soviet split had happened until decades later, and still thought that China and Russia formed a united communist bloc well into the 80s. A number of people still think of China as communist, which isn't true at all.
I'm actually seeking out information contrary to my experience here - I would love to see stories where U.S. intelligence agencies were completely on the mark but were ignored. But my knowledge base so far is that intelligence agencies are as vulnerable to human cognitive biases as the general public, and frequently get basic facts wrong.
I think that Chinese corruption is very different in character from Russian corruption. Russian corruption stems from a sort of hyper-individualism and a belief that you need to take what you can get while you can get it, because somebody else will if you don't. Chinese corruption, however, often starts from the belief that the family is the fundamental unit of social organization, over the self, country, and God. Nepotism ("filial piety") is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture, and isn't really considered a bad thing. Beyond the family, there's the web of social relationships and obligations ("guanxi") through which business is conducted, but Chinese people usually don't buy appeals to higher organizing principles like patriotism or salvation. There's an odd relationship to the concept of nationhood, as well: here, you're American if you have a piece of paper proving American citizenship, while for a Chinese person you are Chinese if you are ethnically Chinese, regardless of where you're located or which passport you carry. (This is a source of occasional tension for Chinese-Americans: when interacting with another Chinese person, their immediate assumption is that you are Chinese too - "You're Chinese, why don't you X?" - while most of us are more likely to say "Actually, I'm American.")
One thing that both China and Russia share is a weak rule of law, though. Laws are routinely bent in both of these countries if it suits the interest of a powerful person or furthers a relationship. America is headed in the wrong direction in this regard - and IMHO the words of the current president don't help here - but there's still a default assumption here that the law is the law, and that we're all equal before it. This is a fiction, but it's a powerful fiction that has led to a lot of prosperity for America, and would probably lead to much suffering if people stopped believing it.
I've known a lot of Singaporeans and their concept of 'kiasu' (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kiasu) is very similar, though I'm not sure if the origin of the behaviour is from China.
I get the sense that the Russian impulse also extends toward power, though. Chinese people generally do not have an urge to tell other people what to do. Even when they're at the top of a hierarchy, commands are usually couched in language of it being for the greater good, or to ensure social harmony, or that it's simply right and natural. And this is different from the strategic form of dissembling that is common among powerful Americans, where they tell a broad populace that it's for their own good while secretly admitting to themselves that it's mostly for their personal benefit. Chinese people really don't make the distinction - it just never occurs to them that others' interests might not be aligned with their own. And I feel like that's very different from the Russian impulse to seize power when they have a chance - Russians are keenly aware of when there are powerful people whose interests do not align with their own, and then try to act quickly to ensure that they get what they need before someone else does.
Come to think of it, a lot of Cold War (and present) foreign policy could be explained by these cultural differences. The U.S. impulse to shore up potential strategic options if there is a challenge (but not make aggressive moves themselves) is interpreted as a threat by Russians who assume that American defensive moves must be a prelude to seizing power/territory/wealth. Meanwhile, the Chinese are off in East Asia milking every bit of free stuff out of their newly capitalist economy, which is interpreted as a threat by both Americans and Russians but is actually just them grabbing free stuff while possible, and they don't understand why this could possibly be construed as offensive. The U.S. response of containment (through Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan, etc.) is perceived as promoting disharmony among largely ethnic Chinese people, though, which is an affront to their culture.
Probably because it's evolution into a mafia state has been much slower. President Xi has been slowly accumulating power for 15 years. Since Mao power was purposefully kept defuse, and while corruption has been rampant at least since the free market reforms, it was of a different kind and in some respects served to maintain competing power centers.
This is not true. See e.g. the 13 August 1969 Presidential briefing:
"The potential for war between them clearly exists."
"A climate of high tension, marked by periodic border clashes, is likely."
"Peking, which appears to view the USSR as its most immediate enemy, will face stiff competition from the Soviets in attempting to expand its influence in Asia."
The USA actually held discussions with the USSR to bomb China's nuclear missile facilities. Moreover, this knowledge aiding in reaching rapprochement with China in 1972.
A related comment in that vein is people the west often don't get that people other places correctly see their corrupt semi-authoritarian governments as their best real option.
On the other hand I have read a declassified early '80s CIA report (too lazy to search for the link right now) that nominated two relatively young communist apparatchiks as potentially having the chance to replace Romanian dictator Ceausescu. One of them was Ion Iliescu, who in fact did just that in December 1989, after the Romanian "Revolution" (the other one was Virgil Trofin, who had been demoted to running a State agriculture farm where he suffered a sudden and mysterious death in 1984). As a matter of fact just as they were about to get shot Elena Ceausescu reproached to her husband: "I told you that we should have killed Iliescu". Not sure if the powers that be in the States acted or not on this piece of good and accurate CIA intel.
In many of those cases that person gets replaced by somebody more eager to execute the high level demand.
The question that's being asked here is not how often intelligence agencies actually gets intelligence or gets or recognizes accurate intelligence, but how often an intelligence apparatus proactively provides a report or claim which isn't true. In those cases, the stakes are usually higher, and the burden of proof is entirely on them. I was asking about examples of those kinds of failings.
 U.S. Congress. House Committee on Foreign Affairs. (1989). Developments In Afghanistan And Their Implications For U.S. Policy. Congressional Hearing, Feb. 21, June 14, 1989.
A common response to the article is a sort of "publication bias" argument, that "well, we only seem to hear about espionage failures because the successes are likely to be kept under wraps." But I think this gives these people (intelligence professionals) a bit too much credit -- and looks weirdly obsequious for a such a garrulous, contrarian, and high-IQ group of people as HN. The intelligence community knows the arguments Gopnik's making (well, reviewing and making) well; they've been around for ages, as he states in the article. If there truly were reams of intelligence successes for every failure behind the curtain, you'd think the Caseys and Angletons of the world would be into some kind of decades post-facto program evaluation. Why not take the CIA's every move in, say, the decade 1946-1956 and tally the wins and losses? Surely this stuff could be declassified, right?
"No one will ever know all the times we've done our job well.. but every mistake will get us fd up the ass."* This may have been told to the poster sincerely, but man, I can't for the life of me come up with a better cover story for incompetence or sloth. I wish I could tell my higher-ups and funding sources something like that when they come asking if I've done anything well with their money lately. "Sorry, ma'am, that's classified." What a world.
But that 1% that turn out to be important are very important.
And you can't tell before that time which will be which.
"CIA bungles [thing]" is a splashy headline and memorable story. "US does 10% better in trade negotiation because it was reading the other side's emails" is not. But one happens much more often than the other.
Probably, but we have no legitimate way of knowing which one it is.
Anyway, generally speaking, the really juicy secrets (from a lay person's standpoint) are not highly classified. The most secret stuff -- sources and methods -- is generally pretty boring unless you're really deep in the weeds.
(Also, "highly classified" and "slightly classified" are the same as far as CNN is concerned.)
On top of that, vast swaths of the public are amazingly incompetent. Why waste time debating with them? Flat earthers and anti-vaxxers are easy targets for this argument. But, do you want national security operations to be influenced by the opinion of someone who "cures" people with essential oils? It's like asking for military tactics from a barista. Don't forget, a lot of people fall for over the phone scams of all kinds. Not just old people. It's a wide gamut of the population. I didn't even get into the real hardcore conspiracy nutjobs that have the loudest voice because they have nothing better to do.
Part two, the public does a terrible job of verifying facts or ever understanding them. That's been the public discourse for... oh... I don't know... forever?
Let's say that you and someone ten times smarter than you had to decide on what's for dinner. Even though they are smarter than you, you would still want a say, because no matter how dumb you are you still have preferences.
It's kind of an "inverse conspiracy" to think that a group of skilled people will conspire in secret to help you when they could be serving themselves: without evidence, it's no more rational than negative paranoia.
(By the way, who administered IQ tests to everyone in the CIA? They're drawn from the American population and they aren't paid millions. They could easily have the same brains per capita as the people who believe what they hear on cable news.)
At the end too, averaging and voting doesn't change reality. If a group of people vote if an animal is a rabbit or a crow, but 75% vote rabbit, is it a rabbit even though it's a crow? Wisdom of crowds needs to be taken with a fistful of salt.
Although it also have been some kind of joke, who knows.
However that said, intelligence agencies and spies can do much harm as well and are a necessary foreign element to democracy and even republicanism.
Any state should be really careful and think hard with how and what kind of intelligence service you build for your country.
P.S: Interesting story, Stalin had the best spy network in history and systematically perched his foreign intelligence networks (and diplomatic core) and basically received basically no foreign intelligence for weeks.
I know there's an entire controversy around this subject that merits even its own wikipedia entry , but the fact is that Germany's intention to do something against the Soviets was clear for anyone who wanted to see it.
I live in Bucharest, Romania, and I frequently visit an antique bookstore close to me which right at this moment sells some photos of Hitler's German troops who are shown as preparing/training with the Romanian troops on Romanian ground in the spring of 1941 (in April, to be more precise), at least according to the date written on the back of those photos. Presumably these were not secret military maneuvers, presumably the German soldiers who had entered Romania as allies were there for everybody to see, even to people sympathetic to the Soviets who might have let the Soviets know about said German troops, so not everything depended on a Russian spy's message being ignored or not, the Germans were right at the Soviets' door and preparing to break it.
I also don't believe for one second that Stalin would think of other people as having the chance to "betray" him or not, as far as I've read about the guy he didn't give anyone the chance to betray him, especially not to the head of State of a foreign power and potential enemy. You could say that Hitler was naive enough to let July 20th 1944 happen, but during all of Stalin's bloody reign nothing of the sorts happened because he was ruthless, and being ruthless first of all means not trusting other people, especially not a guy like Hitler.
In a way he was right on the first point - Germany wasn’t ready for a protracted winter-time conflict. However they attacked anyway, brazenly confident they would be finished before the winter cold sets in, and also maybe desperate to strike before Stalin has a chance to strike first.
Nothing to do with friends and betrayals, just a series of miscalculations on all sides.
Or so “they” say.
Intelligence done poorly is probably worse than no intelligence (which I think is partly what this article is saying, and of course intelligence is indeed often done poorly), but the tone of the article feels very "here are a bunch of cases of US intelligence gone awry; your tax dollars at work! MKULTRA!" A paragraph does actually start with "Your tax dollars at work." Yes, we know the CIA did unethical and awful things that provided no intelligence value, such as dosing people with LSD, unbeknownst to them, in MKULTRA.
The only non-US critiques are Stalin ignoring or not believing intelligence about the German attack, and the KGB concerned fake defectors (double agents) would fly the coop and defect for real, but I don't think Stalin is exactly a good example of a typical analyst of intelligence or that the situation with the USSR and defection to America implies an inherent folly in intelligence gathering. It's lacking nuance; though I suppose that shouldn't be too surprising for an editorial that begins with a question which it weaselly wants you to answer in the affirmative.
I have never worked in intelligence or for the government or military or anything, but, to me, it sounds like the article is just describing common fallacies and biases and internal politicking and status-jockeying that shitty and narrow-minded intelligence collectors/analysts/managers would be guilty of. It kind of has a tone suggesting as if barely anyone in any intelligence position possesses the capacity for self-reflection and higher-level thinking.
>The rule that having more intelligence doesn’t lead to smarter decisions persists, it seems, for two basic reasons. First, if you have any secret information at all, you often have too much to know what matters. Second, having found a way to collect intelligence yourself, you become convinced that the other side must be doing the same to you, and is therefore feeding you fake information in order to guide you to the wrong decisions.
Yes, sure. Too much information can make things difficult. Myopic paranoia (rather than healthy skepticism) about your intelligence and sources is bad. And the US, and I'm sure every country, is guilty of these mistakes. But the article is speaking in a kind of authoritative, almost absolute way, as if it's impossible to extricate the good and valuable from the bad and counter-productive. As if none of these people are highly aware of all of this and are constantly questioning their assumptions and trying to falsify their own hypotheses.
The article also says this:
>It’s remarkably hard to find cases where a single stolen piece of information changed the course of a key battle.
For one, they didn't mention that there may be cases we don't know about because the details are still highly classified. But it also just seems like they're kind of missing the whole point. This is all part of a very complex system with a lot of moving parts. It affects decision-making and events in complex ways. It often can't be reduced to "and it's what made us win this tactical battle", or something. (And also, even if you theoretically had perfect intelligence about an enemy before a battle, there are a lot more factors going into a military engagement. Your intelligence isn't necessarily going to prevent them from killing all of you with a bunch of RPGs and grenades, even if you know where they are, know how many there are, and know that they're armed with RPGs and grenades.)
And they didn't really touch much on how it's helped win entire wars or shape major world events, even if (ostensibly) not battles, beyond a bit of lip service to the famous and undeniably successful WWII D-Day ruse.
For example, ISIS and their larger plans and goals were architected by a mostly secular and particularly ambitious Iraqi intelligence colonel. He likely received KGB/Stasi training, as did many other people in Iraq's intelligence agencies under Saddam Hussein. He likely directly modeled much of ISIS's governing style based on his training and experience in intelligence, with documents containing meticulous detail concerning how to take over Syria, how to operate an omnipresent Stasi-esque intelligence apparatus to secure the group's power, how to most effectively do propaganda, etc. This intelligence "state within a state" (the Stasi to ISIS's East Germany) - I guess you could say it's a "deep state" - was called Emni, and may have been more responsible for ISIS's success than their military forces and actions.
Given a few different hypothetical dice rolls of history in the past decade, one intelligence officer may have been very close to establishing a vast empire. Without his background, and without building a carefully-crafted intelligence apparatus deeply into the foundation of ISIS - one that may have rivaled the Stasi and KGB in many respects and was developed based on their models - they may not have experienced nearly as much success as they did.
Putin probably became prime minister / president / dictator-for-life in large part through his experience in intelligence.
Intelligence killed Osama bin Laden and many of his officers.
Intelligence revealed the USSR's true capabilities (after bad intelligence misled the US about their capabilities) and found the nuclear missiles in Cuba before much more were about to be shipped over.
Intelligence helped the US win naval engagements in the Pacific theatre by knowing where the enemy fleet was and what it planned to do.
Intelligence turned an entire state (East Germany) into a surveillance dystopia despite no modern surveillance technology.
Austria's government was just toppled a few months ago in what was most likely an intelligence operation.
Intelligence campaigns likely helped and are helping foment a lot of discord in the US and around the world as we speak.
Spies were and are very much worth the trouble for those states and people.
This was kind of a confusing read until I got to the end and reached the possible apex of the piece, and now I'm wondering if the entire piece was possibly just a setup to reassure liberals about Trump's complicity in a Russian conspiracy, or something like that, and that a most of the rest was pretty much just filler to lead up to that conclusion.
>Where we may go wrong is in valuing stealthily obtained information over unglamorous, commonly shared knowledge. And so the disappointment that liberals, newly sympathetic to our intelligence services, found in the Mueller report lay simply in the fact that what was most shocking in it was already well known. The Russian conspiracy went on largely in the open, with most of the clandestine bits hidden under a diaphanous cover. Donald Trump’s genius was, as it so often is, his inability to dissemble: no one can quite believe what he gets away with because we assume that a public act is unlikely to be incriminating. We interpret as strut and boasting what is actually a confession. Richard Nixon, a genuinely Shakespearean villain, had full knowledge of his wrongdoing and a bad conscience about it, if not enough of one. Trump is a figure right out of the Theatre of Cruelty; he just acts out, without any mental inner workings, aside from narcissist necessity. Had his “Russia, if you’re listening . . .” been encrypted in a text, it would have had the force of a revelation. Made openly, it seemed merely braggadocio.
I do think the article does paint a good, comprehensive picture of just how much trouble can be caused when this process goes awry, with examples, and that is absolutely extremely important to talk about. But taken as a whole, its tone and angle is kind of noxious to me.
If there are any people with experience in intelligence, do you agree with this assessment? What do you think of the article?
One should also not, that we now know more about this thanks to Steven Kotkin work. Stalin had a lot of evidence that the German might attack, but he also had a lot that they might not as the Germans both ran a major counter intelligence campaign and native disbelieve that such an operation would not be smart.
The evidence he had was not as bullet prove as the histories often write it, if you look in real time at the information Stalin had.
people like to make an elephant out of a mosquito, but in reality, without spies crime / terrorism and other things generally bad for our society (which we do all cherish and want to keep, admit it. you want your house, tv and job safety, and to go to work without having too much worries if you will be able to go home at end of the day safely) would be able to cause much more disruption.
i'd agree that in recent times, especially in the cyber / internet domain there have been grave mistakes / misjudgements made on all sides of the fences, but the evilness / incompetence etc. etc. is by far overestimated by the public.
this is the same idea as that 'all banks are bad' just because some bankers misbehave or make bad calls. you still want banks and use them, so perhaps try to see that people arent inherently bad or incompetent, and are trying their best to avoid such calamities.
be sure that for any 'incompetence' which comes to light, internally these agencies are much much more critical and taking action than what you 'see' them doing.
most of this work (99.99999999%) is still not in the public eye and will never be. saying spying is inherently bad due to some mistakes is grosly underestimating what good they do, and overestimating the incompetence / bad intentions of these actors and agencies.
you never hear it if a spy does a good job, he'll just submit some intelligence, or prevent some calamity, and remain anonymous. these people should be praised, not shot down due to some of their colleagues missing the mark.
remember you are observing MEDIA, not actual reality. if the media speaks about most topics, you will take their words with a bucket of salt, but if they speak about corporate or goverment mishaps, suddenly their word is absolute truth? get real.
What about all the crime/terrorism they themselves have enabled in foreign countries. Why is our society worth ruining others?
And maybe these spies do end up doing some good, but their failures have led to millions of deaths. They also aren't shy about boasting over their successes, do I find it hard to believe their successful yet secret work can atone for that.
Yeah nice talk and all, but whenever some clusterfuck permeates to the public its such an epic fail on many levels that often shows utter incompetence... coming from people who shouldn't fail like that.
I wish secret services around the world would be those nice good guys guarding freedom, being just, highly competent etc. But reality is simply not like that. Either the folks are semi-incompetent and drowning in politics and chasing money and careers more than actual job they should do, or those highly competent are often cold-blood murderers who couldn't care less whom they kill (ie mosad guys). And I don't even go into topic of all of them desperately wanting to know every private detail of every single person on the globe, because 'security'.
I used to expect more from them. But that naivety was lost along the road long time ago.
Because there is this other theory, that the "handful of derps" we see in the media are just the tip of the iceberg, because most failures can and do get shoved easily under the carpet, with a "top secret" stamp.
offering counter-point as most views are highly negative and paranoid. but i suppose in my country, there's not really much negative media about these sort of things, guess intelligence agency quality and media coverage varies by country, feeding this paranoia of you guys (guessing most will be basing their well founded and very knowlegable opinions on US media posts.)
in my country, the coverage for our intelligence services looks much more positive...
https://nos.nl/artikel/2253313-mivd-we-hebben-russische-hack... (sorry, sure you can figure out google translate.. - and yes, tis is also public media, highly reliable source as always. :')... but i guess at least it's public enough for u...)