The Future of Counterintelligence

What should covert actions look like after the Manning and Snowden leaks?

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A "covert action" is defined in the National Security Act as "an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly." A provision in the fiscal year 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act adds the following requirement to the Congressional notification provisions for such actions:

For each type of activity undertaken as part of a covert action, the President shall establish in writing a plan to respond to the unauthorized public disclosure of that type of activity.

No doubt motivated by the recent disclosures by Pfc. Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, this new requirement takes a very practical approach to the idea that the unauthorized disclosures of classified or sensitive information by government insiders is something that will likely happen again and that we should be planning for.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

Not only that, it's something that we should have anticipated in the first place. This is nothing new. The insider cybercriminal is something I've written about for years:

Any and every secret we have in digital format can literally go viral in a microsecond. The potential damage is truly catastrophic. ... Unfortunately, we are probably going to see more and more of this kind of thing. ... Any meaningful cybersecurity framework absolutely must have a well thought out counterintelligence annex. This should apply whether a military, civilian or intelligence agency is responsible for a particular activity or mission.

It's not the purpose of this piece to do an "I told you so." However, it is the purpose to emphasize how difficult it is for the intelligence community – as a whole – to articulate the risks associated with any of its work.

Perhaps nothing like the words "slam dunk" illustrate this any better – the words the then CIA director used to describe the probability of Saddam Hussein having a WMD program.

He was wrong. Oh, was he wrong!

Look, intelligence work is very hard. And it never involves something that should ever be described as a slam dunk, especially something with any appreciable degree of risk to it. So why is it so hard to get the intelligence community to articulate the risks associated with its work? And why should it be necessary for Congress to require it to have a written plan to deal with a blown covert action, just for example?

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Now we're getting somewhere. By the way, this is a not a new problem, and here are some basics:

First: Intelligence work involves dealing with the devil, especially with field work when, far too often, the sources are in the "scum of the earth" category. And, at the very senior levels, the political bosses are not about to ever accept responsibility for a failed or compromised intelligence activity or operation, whether covert or not. So one can't blame the intelligence community professionals for, essentially, treating most everyone they deal with as a liar.

Second: To articulate objectively the risks associated with what might begin as a high risk operation in the first place – as many intelligence operations are – makes approval of the operation more difficult for political appointees. So, as a general rule, the intelligence community doesn't like to be required to articulate the risks involved, whether this is from traditional counterintelligence reasons of the possibility of a blown operation because of Snowden – like disclosures.

Third:  Counterintelligence is the very, very unpopular step child in the intelligence business, and always has been, at least since the days of James Angleton, a very proactive official at the CIA during the early days of the Cold War, who believed many of our intelligence operatives and activities had been penetrated by the enemy. Many believed he was too aggressive and the CIA deemphasized counterintelligence thereafter; however, others believed – and still believe – that this "post-Angleton" environment encouraged the "decades of the spy" in the 80's and 90's with such turncoats as Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.

Also, as the Soviet Union fell apart, and the files of the East German secret police were examined, just for example, it was clear that many of our intelligence operations and activities had in fact been compromised. This caused some to conclude that Angleton was right and there was a new emphasis on counterintelligence, leading to the establishment of a counterintelligence executive.

However, even this new emphasis has been disappointing to some (including the writer), because a series of counterintelligence executives – some with weak intelligence backgrounds – have not been able to raise counterintelligence to the level of attention it needs. The result? The entirely predictable cyberspies Manning and Snowden – and no doubt more to come. It is way past time to finally get serious about counterintelligence. We need to elevate it to the direct responsibility of the director of national intelligence.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should Americans Be Worried About the National Security Agency's Data Collection?]

Fourth:  This last point is almost in the silly category, but nevertheless, it's an unfortunate fact of life in the intelligence business: the reluctance to accept the reality that a particular activity or operation has been compromised. As a result, we sometimes get a "head in the sand" response when we have a program compromised. This sometimes results in the continuation of programs that are only treated as classified by those on the inside who are working on them – and, also unfortunately, sometimes this has more to do with careers and government contracts than anything else. It takes very strong and objective leadership to adjust the various missions and operations of an agency after a serious compromise.

In sum, and despite the mostly negative assessments above, it is possible for us to emerge, post-Manning and Snowden, with a set of controlled responses to minimize damage and move ahead aggressively. However, it's way past time for us to get very serious about counterintelligence and the articulation of risk involved with most intelligence activities and operations.

In short, our senior intelligence professionals should require our politicians make the tough decisions and not let them later argue that they "didn't know."  Last, if a program is blown, let's quickly get over it and come up with new approaches to get the vital national security information we need. The sources and methods used to get critical intelligence are rarely – if ever - pretty, but we have no real choice in the matter when dealing with an enemy sworn to kill us all.

Daniel Gallington is the senior policy and program adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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