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Are spies more trouble than they're worth? (newyorker.com)
124 points by bookofjoe 46 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 119 comments



Adam Curtis has a great post on this.

"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"

https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/entries/3662a707-0af9...


France had its own fair share of embarrassing secret service blunders. Many are described in an excellent documentary [1].

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...

[1] first part (the others must be on youtube too): https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=JQijy9P7M_4


Reminds "Bons Baisers de Hong Kong" (which could be translated as "From Hong Kong With Love"), a parody of Bond movies...

Souvenirs, souvenirs...


The US Army had previously pointed out a similar issue to the BBC article, where a lack of internal guidance and oversight was leading to analysis and collection of non-optimal data [1]. Just like in academia, there seems to be a bit of a tension in getting to useful predictive insights to issues.

[1] http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/Afghanistan...


I've always been stunned that the CIA is permitted to continue operation after their many catastrophic failures. I mean, failures on a scale that are just mind-blowing and show their intense ineffectiveness. A couple weeks before the USSR collapsed, for instance, the CIA wrote a paper describing the USSR as a threat continuing to grow and the largest threat on the global stage. This isn't so much because they were incapable of seeing that the USSR was on the brink of collapse.... well, sort of I guess it was. What I mean is that they had the intelligence to know, but the concept was so dangerous for them to fathom organizationally that they couldn't admit it. The USSR was their bread and butter. They had more spies in Moscow than the KGB. We already knew the USSR wasn't doing great when Reagan was around. When he took office, the CIA was asked to do the standard thing and put together a bunch of briefings for the incoming president. The head of the USSR division at the time was Aldritch Aimes. He put together a paper saying the USSR was a paper tiger and running out of money. The director of the CIA threw the report away and told Aimes 'the president wants an enemy and we're going to give him one'. (that was one of the major things Aimes claimed made him jaded and led to him becoming a double agent for the KGB because he no longer viewed the CIA as doing serious work for good but just a group of opportunistic lackeys)

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.


Actually, that story shows how the CIA did their job well...but politicians and President Reagan didn’t want to hear it and used their oversight role to force their intelligence experts to fit their narrative. For the last 40+ years, political forces in the US are increasingly trying to distort facts to fit narratives instead of accepting facts and then spinning / competing over what to do about it.


Sorry the USA did not have many spies in Moscow it was insanely difficult to run anyone.

and quoting "Aldritch Aimes" is a bit like quoting Kim Philby


> led to him becoming a double agent for the KGB

So some spied did some efficient work, apparently, just not the CIA ones.


The time is long since past for the CIA to be disbanded. It was staffed with ex-Nazi's who used its secrecy as a fortress within which to build their own new reich, and this is the #1 cause of turmoil and strife in the world today.

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.


The world has changed a lot, and quickly. I imagine not too long ago, just having someone in another country, hanging out in cafes reading newspapers and making small talk with the other people there could have brought a lot of info. Info which we take for granted now.


Reminds me of the article “Maybe today’s Navy is just not very good at driving ships”

https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2017/08/27/navy-swo...


Oh my god the incompetence is outrageous. Thank you for posting. Le Carre's mocking of the American counterparts doesn't seem fair in light of this. Or maybe his point was at least the Brits were so incompetent they didn't really do that much in the end!


That is the enduring appeal of James Bond movies - the comforting fantasy that the spy agencies are competent


80/20 rule probably applies to every job.


The whole thing sounds pretty damning until one considers that Enigma was in the end an intelligence operation to place things in perspective.


I wonder if we mostly just hear about intelligence failures. Seems successful intelligence is most likely to be kept under wraps so reliable methods are not disclosed.


I worked at the Department of Justice ~15 years ago. This is the exact reason I got out. My boss who had been in the field and around the alphabet soup of names for almost 30 years said:

"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."


It’s like running IT in a company. If things go well people are asking what you are doing the whole day. If things don’t go well you get the blame.


really, this isn't different from any job, and not evidence that that it was not a case of "you only had one job!"


Not sure what you're saying here, is it that you got out because your boss was incompetent and delusional, or you got out because he was effective but you needed some sort of external validation despite your work being effective?

Very confusing comment, whichever is true.


I understand that is saying that their good job was not appreciated, but the eventual mistake was always criticised so they just can't win or keep a positive image of themselves. Sounds like a draining job.

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.


There are advantages to everyone thinking your spies aren't very useful.


Wasn't the argument the other way around?

Like everyone thinking your spies are everywhere and know everything?


If your spies are everywhere then it is useful if people think they're no good. If your spies are no good or nonexistent it is beneficial that people think they are omnipresent masterminds.

on edit: fixed typo


Both versions work, depending on the situation.


Generally people having extreme opinions about your abilities positive or negative is good.


Or the whole room 40 stuff in ww1 basically tracking the German High seas fleet in real time.


In this case I'd say it's more like 99/1, only even more so, to the point where using numbers doesn't even make sense. Spies are way more trouble than they're worth, except when they're not. But when they are not, they're worth literally everything.



First, you have to distinguish between intelligence gathering, which includes "spies", and covert action, which actively tries to do something to the enemy. There's an argument for keeping those separate, best articulated by Gen. Reinhard Gelhen in his memoirs.

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[1] and Entebbe.[2] Only Eben-Emael changed the course of a war.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Fort_Eben-Emael

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Entebbe


> The US put a huge amount of effort into assessing USSR military capabilities, and mostly got it wrong.

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.


There's also the problem that we didn't want the USSR to know that we knew that they didn't have very many ICBMS[1]. So Eisenhower and Kennedy felt they had to pretend in public that there was a missile gap, and spent most of their days pretending hard that there was a missile gap. And if you spend most of the day pretending something is true there's no way that doesn't warp your gut level understanding of the world. So was our knowledge of the USSR's actual capabilities useful if we didn't let it affect our policy making?

[1] They had more than enough shorter range missiles to take out ~everyone in western Europe though.


A couple of Eisenhower biographies goes along w/ this. He was well aware of all the machinations amongst different players, including defense industry players collaborating w/ politicians to sound warning drums, to Allen Dulles and his coterie manipulating policy for who knows what.

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.


But it seems, that Entebbe was mostly a success, because of sheer luck and incompetence (and moral hesitation to actual kill hostages) on the terrorist side. (They could land planes full of soldiors, without the ugandians noticing, they failed to kill sentrys with supressed fire, they killed hostages because the soldiers did not know how the hijackers looked like. And the ugandian army could have been prepared, if they would not have ignired the intel they recieved about the raid)

Still, a success ...


Ref to history of special operations: [1] Available as a book, but here's the original thesis at the Naval Postgraduate School. The author was a Navy SEAL, later headed the Joint Special Operations Command and became a U.S. Navy admiral. So he knows what he's talking about.

[1] https://www.afsoc.af.mil/Portals/86/documents/history/AFD-05...


Why don't you just say his name? It's McRaven.


The repeated destruction of US humanint networks over the past 50 years is probably one of the single largest threats it faces. Between the dismantling of the CIA hint networks by ourselves and complete destruction of our Chinese hint network by the Chinese, the US is blind in a huge number of situations.

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.


>>> complete destruction of our Chinese hint network by the Chinese,

huh? what where when?

I don't disbelief you but what was this complete destruction, when did it happen? (related to OPM at all?)



AFAIK that is basically what has happened in Iran, China, Lebanon and a lot of Russia in the past 10 years.


It happened because the CIA used shitty encryption. Someone warned them before it happened and again while it happened, and they fired him for it.

https://www.theregister.co.uk/2018/11/02/iran_cracked_cia_go...


It's not just about encryption. That is the case for Iran and some of China. For the rest it was terrible tradecraft and counterintelligence issues.


The piece about Iran mentions them sharing it with friendly nations, which likely included Lebanon. I haven't heard of events like that in Russia recently, an arrest or two but nothing major. And the encryption seems responsible for most of the Chinese events, the "mole" seemed like an attempt to push the blame elsewhere.

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.



Considering all the "good" the Dulles brothers did for the world, maybe this is for the best.


i think in todays world humanint is often overlooked. but sigint does take care most of the stuffs.


Good intel is no substitute for good judgement. But no or bad intel seriously impairs the ability to exercise good judgement. Pointing out stories (the same handful that have been repeated over and over before -- MK Ultra, Cambridge 5, Ames, etc.) of leaders with poor judgement failing to exploit good intel does not change the value of good intel in the hands of more capable leaders.


A mass of bad intel would drown out the good intel, making it much more difficult to make correct decisions.

It's why trolling on social media and fake news works and why keeping a good signal-to-noise ratio is important.


That's literally true but it's also why we need spies and HUMINT more generally rather than relying on mass surveillance and remote exfiltration.


yeah, obtaining data, and correctly contextualizing it are different skill sets

you need both


You could probably pose the same question about journalists, and come up with a similar disinterested admonishment, if you cherry picked as needed to fit the narrative.


You don't need to cherry pick, you just need to read an article about something you're an expert in to see how inaccurate and surface level most articles are.



What has struck me from reading history, US history at least, is how often intelligence reports prepared by the CIA, State Department, et al are accurate and predict more or less accurately what the outcome of a given situation will be. But time and time again, presidents will ignore their own agencies in favor of what they deem most politically or personally attractive. Makes me think that the whole idea of elected representatives is flawed. I think I'd rather be governed by people who got where they are because of expertise and experience in their field.


Curious if you have links to intelligence reports that turned out to be totally accurate? The ones I can think of (both in the news media and through personal connections to people who have worked in government) have been stunningly inaccurate.


How did you verify they were stunningly inaccurate?


The Iraq war comes to mind.


That was one of the media-related ones that came to mind. Also, I had an International Relations professor who was a consultant for the State Department and had just finished giving the briefing for the next 5-year strategic plan on August 19, 1991. He said that nobody in the Pentagon ever considered the possibility that the Soviet Union might not exist within 5 years, let alone days. Some other experience is fairly obvious just growing up in a bicultural household with an immigrant parent who had firsthand experience living in other parts of the world, eg. the U.S. consistently underestimates the degree of corruption in many other countries and the degree to which the "state" that is ostensibly our ally is actually a fiction, with the majority of actual daily life ruled by family, ethnic, or business ties.

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.


We (the west) are just starting to understand that China seems to be a mafia state in a similar way that Russia is. I was watching an ABC (the Australian one) report about the rampant corporate misconduct of the Crown Casino, and how they helped launder Triad money in Melbourne. It turns out that a major player in the racket was President Xi's cousin and a high ranking member of the CCP. Additionally, we've seen Triads deployed in Hong Kong recently to attack protestors.


I think that's both true-and-not-true, depending on what level you zoom in. Generalizing very heavily (I have some personal experience in Chinese culture, but virtually none with Russian culture, and basically consider myself American despite partial ethnic heritage)...

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.


Generalising also, there definitely seems to be a strain of "Take what you can while you can" in mainland China too. One story I've heard a few times is of restaurants that had to stop putting out free breath mints or other items because while we know that social convention is that you take one if you need it, a Chinese customer will just tip the whole bowl into their handbag because it's free to take and you'd be a fool to leave it there.

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 feel like that's also subtly different in character between Chinese and Russian culture. In Chinese culture that impulse is primarily economic, related to stuff & money - I'd describe it as an inability to resist free stuff. My dad, wife, and mother-in-law all have this habit of taking anything that's free, whether they need it or not, because it's free. Come to think of it, that's my dinner tonight, because my wife's workplace has leftover hamburgers. Growing up my dad would have all sorts of miscellaneous snacks in the freezer and breadbox because the supermarket was handing out free stuff...most of the time we wouldn't eat them, but it was the principle of the thing.

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.


> We (the west) are just starting to understand that China seems to be a mafia state in a similar way that Russia is.

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 good news, I guess, in the long run? Maybe. Except with nukes you never know.


> 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

This is not true. See e.g. the 13 August 1969 Presidential briefing:

https://www.cia.gov/library/readingroom/docs/DOC_0005976931....

Choice quotes:

"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.


> the U.S. consistently underestimates the degree of corruption in many other countries and the degree to which the "state" that is ostensibly our ally is actually a fiction, with the majority of actual daily life ruled by family, ethnic, or business ties

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.


You mean it's not a good idea to remove said government and bring (a naive attempt at) democracy? Yeah.


I thought the administration at the time pushed the WMD angle, while the intel said otherwise?


Not the OP but afaik the Soviet sudden collapse at the end of the '80s took almost all Western spy agencies and their governments by surprise.

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[1], 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.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virgil_Trofin


To be fair, the Soviet sudden collapse at the end of '80s also took almost all Warsaw Pact spy agencies and their governments by surprise.


I can't like to anything but reading multiple related to US regime change it seems that often the local CIA operatives understand many of the problems and predict more or less the outcome, or at least that it will not go as the higher up things.

In many of those cases that person gets replaced by somebody more eager to execute the high level demand.


It's a common trope that inward facing organizations make critically bad decisions based on internal political factors while ignoring outside opinions and facts on the ground.


To flip the question: can you show any that were inaccurate, other than the Iraq WMD stuff? One major fuckup doesn't necessarily mean everything before and after should be discredited.


I've mentioned a couple others in other subthreads of this comment.


If I'm understanding correctly, you seem to be criticizing negative failings rather than the much more dangerous and trust-dampening positive failings. I could also name plenty of things beyond not anticipating the Soviet Union's; e.g. improper response to intelligence warning of a possible attack pre-9/11. I think failing to predict or be aware of something is very different from proactively claiming something which turns out to be false, as with the Iraq WMDs.

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.


I think the problem with that is that the incentives wouldn't be there to act in the interests of the public on an ongoing basis. How effective that is under the current system is up for debate, but it's not a trivial matter. Ideally the people would care enough to elect someone that respects expertise and experience.


They've definitely gotten things very wrong, e.g. in 1989 Howard Schaffer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, testified to Congress "“We’re confident that [the Pakistani supported Afghan Government] will be neither communist nor messianic Islamic” [1]. Then Pakistan helped the Taliban seize power in the ensuing civil war.

[1] 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.


Can you give some examples?


I think a lot of this has to do with what it means to be a leader. You have the final say but you also have the responsibility to listen to your peers and use information provided. Many of our representatives aren't leaders. I know many here like to start out of politics, but case in point is Trump with his climate change denial rhetoric, constantly ignoring military advisors and tweeting on a whim without any consultation, and moving forward with various deals that advisors are recommending against.


Reading through the ~60 comments in this thread, I'm surprised that such a large number of HN readers appear so eager to dispute Gopnik's assertion that spying is probably not all it's cracked up to be. (Which is only half of his entire take: that, while spying isn't all it's cracked up to be, it's still probably somewhat necessary.) Not only is it not clear how many HN people are intelligence professionals, making a lot of the judgment here pretty speculative -- it points to a weird lack of civic, uh, maybe spirit is the right word: presented with some evidence indicating that the cloak-and-dagger people we permit to run wild in the shadows may not be all that competent, the response isn't "well how could we verify this?" but an odd faith that a hole into which we as a country throw piles upon piles of money without getting anything in return is actually running really smoothly, it's just that we the public aren't allowed to know about it because we haven't been given the access. It sorta bugs me: we allowed spies to run around in the first place; who's giving who access here?

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.


Edit: mostly unrelated: we're all taking issue with a book review. Gopnik's forming his own opinions here, sure, and we can take issue with them, but, like, has anyone actually evaluated the claims the authors are making? I'm guessing the Cambridge historian has more to back up his arguments than Gopnik (or any of us, for that matter) has, right?


It's hackernews... Many people here seem to totally lack any sort of reasonable scepsis when it comes to authorities.


I feel like this was a clear yes 50, even 60 years ago, but no government doesn't want to have spies if others do.


I suspect it is the type of situation where 99% are a complete waste of resources.

But that 1% that turn out to be important are very important.

And you can't tell before that time which will be which.


There's also a strong bias to remember/talk about the cases that turned out poorly, not the ones that turn out well.

"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.


Similar to no one talks about when the air force lands planes successfully, which it does thousands of times daily in peacetime. Even more in wartime. But when there's a crash, "Is the Air Force unable to properly fly planes?"


>But one happens much more often than the other.

Probably, but we have no legitimate way of knowing which one it is.


There's lots of stuff where we trust that expert communities are being honest. Medical research is impossible to verify unless you get access to the raw data (get into a PhD program and get a grant and then get a DUA... all in all, possibly harder than getting an intelligence community job and an SCI clearance) but we all basically trust that medicine works the vast majority of the time.


The information required to evaluate our spy agencies is unavailable to the public no matter what school you go to. Doctors took revealed the oxy crisis after taking merely a very long time, but revealing the CIA equivalent would be illegal.


There's plenty you can say if you have a clearance that won't get you sent to jail -- pretty much anything that doesn't state a classified fact or allow one to be inferred. "Every mission I worked on got people killed needlessly" is kosher for most people to say.

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.


Let's look at Snowden as an example. What would have happened if he had expressed a vauge, unsupported sentiment about the NSA "not being very nice," or "doing too much spying?" Nothing, probably. The larger public debate needs facts that it can verify and specifics that it can pick over.

(Also, "highly classified" and "slightly classified" are the same as far as CNN is concerned.)


I argue that the larger public doesn't need to know. Who, in the general public, is actually qualified to determine the effectiveness of these types of operations?

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?


It is widely known that the public is (individually) bad at making decisions, but they are the only group that can consistently be trusted to hold the interests of the public at heart. It doesn't matter how smart policymakers are if they direct their intelligence to their own benefit.

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.)


Theres a huge assumption about the wisdom of crowds. That the individuals have reliable info on said subject. I'd also say, are competent to use said info. The idea came from a dude back in the early 1900s who surveyed everyone at a county fair who was guessing on the weight of a cow or bull. The average was off by one pound, easily to be considered a successful test of that idea. However, let's get the same number of folks, but not farmers, instead... let's say silicon valley app engineers. Same rules as the old school, all you can do is look at the bovine and make a guess. Do you honestly believe they're going to have the same crowd accuracy? Especially without tech.

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.


That "bias" is appropriate because of actual cost va value! "I killed five people and their families are out to kill you but your salary is 10% higher!" isn't worth it even to a sociopath from the expenses. If their gains are small and their fuckups are large not getting rid of them is itself an immense fuck up.


If MOO2 has taught me anything, a good spy network is excellent at giving your opponent an advantage unless you waste resources trying to cover your ass, in which case you have wasted resources and the opponent still makes you suffer.


One book on the subject said that during the Cold War, Soviet surveillance was so good the West couldn't recruit anyone in the USSR to be a spy. The only successes the West had during that time were when a high level Soviet officer or politician literally walked through the door and said "Hi I'd like to defect and I have lots of useful information."


That's not true. Though not very successful, there was many significant people. One of the seemingly more interesting ones was the Head of KGB Counterintelligence.


Reminds me of this photo of an office at the old site of the German BND in Pullach, photographed by Martin Schlüter[1]:

https://www.detail.de/fileadmin/uploads/bnd-pullach-teaser.j...

Although it also have been some kind of joke, who knows.

[1] https://www.spiegel.de/fotostrecke/bnd-bildband-ueber-zentra...


It's ironic that this was posted on the same day as the NYT reports a US intel success that has substantively advanced American foreign policy objectives and possibly saved lives:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/28/us/politics/us-iran-cyber...


One of the key issues here is also about how policy makers engage with the Intel. For example, no matter how much good information GCHQ is gathering about Brexit, the UK politicians recieving haven't turned it into a workable policy. Compare that to the complete penetration of the IRA and pushing them towards peace in the late 80s and early 90s.


Spies got the Soviet Union the atom bomb, the negotiator of Brandon Woods agreement was a soviet spy and there are many many more examples. Then again, the Soviet Union had the advantage of leading a global communist network and had a truly transnational universal movement to draw from.

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.


> Richard Sorge, a Russian spy in Germany’s Embassy in Japan, gained detailed knowledge about the approaching German invasion of Russia in 1941, and passed it on. Stalin not only ignored information about the coming invasion but threatened anyone who took it seriously, since he knew that his ally Hitler wouldn’t betray him

I know there's an entire controversy around this subject that merits even its own wikipedia entry [1], 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.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_offensive_plans_controv...


“They” say that Stalin believed Germany was not ready for war yet and would only attack the next year, so he didn’t want to tip his hand by visibly preparing for war too early.

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.


It's been a while since I studied this but if I remember correctly Hitler strongly suspected Stalin would turn on him in the next year or two, once Russia had mobilized a larger army. Hitler's decision to launch a surprise assault wasn't so much hubris as it was a strategic choice between several tough options.


From what I learned in history classes in high school, Stalin ignored news about possible German invasion, because Red Army had already been gathering troops at the border, planning to invade Germany. Hitler forestalled him by just a few weeks.


Seems the author wants to discredit the intelligence service, but then backtracks at the end to indict Trump's collusion with Russia b/c "it's obvious that Trump is colluding and the intelligence is not telling us anything we don't already know."


Eh, the author's heart doesn't seem to be in that paragraph. It might have been added at an editor's insistence? Besides, whether you support Trump or not, he is proof that the president doesn't really need intelligence agencies.


<Humming the Jame Bond theme song> Yes, they are!


Great read.


(Apologies for the mega-long comment.)

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.

For example:

>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?


> The only non-US critique is Stalin ignoring or not believing intelligence about the German attack, but I don't think Stalin is exactly a good example of a typical analyst of intelligence.

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.


What country volunteers to be the first to disband its intelligence services?


most spies are highly efficient and useful to our governments goals / protecting people from bad things. the hand-full of derps we see in the news are unfortunate but shouldn't be taken as the general state of spying / intelligence work.

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.


>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

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.


> the evilness / incompetence etc. etc. is by far overestimated by the public

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.


"most spies are highly efficient and useful to our governments goals / protecting people from bad things. the hand-full of derps we see in the news are unfortunate but shouldn't be taken as the general state of spying / intelligence work."

Sources?

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.


you want me to send some nytime linkes for u there :')... sure they are reliable sources. :')...

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...)


Media coverage of the intelligence agencies is disgustingly positive in the US. Most of the press will report anything they say and cable news is overrun with their representatives. Hell, the New York Times has delayed or cancelled stories that would be embarrassing to them.




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