Governments that deliberately pervert their spy agencies are shooting themselves in the head.
ALL countries operate spy agencies, so some of their practices and experiences are universal.
Governments deem intelligence services to be useful, even necessary, in evaluating and anticipating events – so they are earnestly nurtured and cultivated. However, whether and how far these services actually contribute to policymaking depends on a multitude of variable factors.
The capacity of a “secret service” derives from the scale of its available resources – human, financial, technical, etc.
The richer a country the greater the means for developing its intelligence service, and the more powerful a country the greater its need or purpose for doing so.
Yet that need not mean that a richer or more powerful country would have a more competent intelligence service.
Unlike conventional institutions such as the armed forces, the critical criteria cannot be the strength of numbers or the expanse of field coverage.
Since the quality of information handled is key, spy agencies perform like a scalpel where other security institutions act like meat cleavers.
At the same time, all of them need to be coordinated and concerted through optimised complementarity.
Conceptually, the intelligence services are highly professional institutions performing specialised tasks in the national interest.
In discharging their duties, they must observe laws and conventions that guide and limit their clandestine activities.
In practice, however, they are often politicised in the perceived interests of specific administrations.
This compromises their credibility, debases their status and subverts their effectiveness.
Another universal experience, regardless of a country’s developed or developing status, is that the intelligence services are boosted in times of great national distress.
Trying times are also the best times to stretch and test their capacities.
Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), for example, originated in the Secret Service Bureau established in 1909.
This was a joint effort of the War Office and the Admiralty, with a focus on Imperial Germany.
The impetus for the service developed with the exigencies of two world wars.
In the United States, the demands of wartime intelligence in the early 1940s resulted in the creation of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) to coordinate information streams from the armed forces.
The OSS would later morph into the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), technically the first US spy agency.
The United States until then did not have a centralised intelligence agency, so the CIA emerged to fill the gap.
As it was with the SIS, the existence of the CIA was not officially acknowledged until decades later. But what began as a fledgling effort requiring British inputs soon ballooned into a US intelligence community comprising no less than 16 spy agencies.
Intelligence agencies tend to have a civilian (police) or military character depending on the needs of the state at the time. Nonetheless, their constant is the primary purpose of protecting the state.
The early Soviet Union felt it needed to guard against counter-revolution, and so established the Cheka secret police under the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
The Cheka then underwent several transformations to become the NKVD, which in turn experienced further transformations to become the KGB of Cold War lore, in the process picking up military elements in the world wars.
The Malayan Emergency (1948-60) was a domestic insurgency that exercised the resources of the police force.
The police department that focused on vital intelligence gathering was the Special Branch, evolving under British tutelage during the colonial period and developing further upon Malayan independence.
Currently, all national intelligence agencies combine human (Humint) and signals (Sigint, or telecommunications interceptions) intelligence.
The latter comprises communications between individuals (Comint) and electronic intelligence (electronic eavesdropping, or Elint) that favour countries with bigger budgets because of the costs incurred in technology and expertise.
However, while a common strength lies in surveillance or information-gathering, analysis and interpretation of the information so gathered often fail to keep pace.
Where analytical deficits occur, political interests often exploit these spaces to pervert the course of intelligence gathering.
At the same time, the quality of intelligence is sometimes patchy where official links are weak.
Britain’s SIS was thus handicapped in Germany during the First World War, just as US intelligence services are now hampered in Iran and Syria as they were in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The problem is compounded when governments refuse to acknowledge their inadequacies and prefer to give their own dubious capacities the benefit of the doubt.
The mistake often lies in equating overwhelming military superiority with operational success requiring sound intelligence.
And so regime change in Iraq was described as a “cakewalk” and a “slam dunk”, with unanticipated difficulties emerging once the plan was operationalised.
A similar development almost occurred in Syria upon underestimating President Bashar al-Assad’s effective control.
Hyper-intelligence combines the prowess of two or more ally countries’ intelligence services, taking spying to a whole new level.
The US-British “special relationship” is one such example, only that it is more than bilateral collaboration.
What began as a post-war agreement between London and Washington in 1946 soon encompassed the other English-speaking countries of Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the UKUSA (United Kingdom – United States of America) Agreement.
Focusing on but not limited to Sigint, this “Five Eyes” pact formalises the sharing of intelligence on other countries that any of the five spies upon.
Earlier this month, a leak by former US intelligence operative Edward Snowden revealed that the UKUSA Agreement goes further than these five Western countries. It effectively and routinely includes Israel as well.
The National Security Agency (NSA) reputedly runs the most extensive intelligence gathering operation for the United States.
Its global reach is shared with the largest unit in the Israel Defense Force, the NSA-equivalent Unit 8200 (or ISNU, the Israeli Sigint National Unit), in unfiltered form.
That means anything and everything that the United States and/or the other “Five Eyes” countries knows about the rest of the world from spying are known by Israel as well.
It explains Washington’s determination to “get Snowden” – not only are the leaks embarrassing, they discourage other countries from engaging the United States in security cooperation.
The other problem is no less serious: politicisation, which corrupts and perverts otherwise professional and competent intelligence services.
This amounts to blowback, a CIA-originated term meaning self-inflicted policy injury.
It (in)famously occurred when the US-British axis that invaded Iraq built its rationale on the lie that Saddam had stockpiled “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs) – even when whatever little intelligence there was had indicated that Iraq had dismantled WMD facilities years before.
It happened again when Washington insisted that Assad was responsible for chemical weapons attacks in civilian areas.
Not only had Russian intelligence and UN inspectors found anti-Assad rebels culpable instead, but both German and Israeli intelligence had privately cleared Assad of those charges.
The inside information available to diplomats had cast such doubt on the US allegations that US-friendly countries such as Singapore refused to accept Washington’s version at the UN.
Politics had dictated that the United States stick with its allegations, just as politics had dissuaded Israeli policymakers from correcting misinterpretations of intelligence data wrongly blaming Assad.
Fiddling with intelligence for some passing gratification such as attacking an adversary may seem tempting, but dumbing down vital strategic data is a dangerous and costly exercise. It is also an act of singular and self-defeating stupidity.
Contributed by Behind The Headlines: Bunn Nagara
> Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.
>The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
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