Back to the future: Why spies and reporters still need human intelligence

Natali Sevriukova reacts next to her house following a rocket attack the city of Kyiv, Ukraine
AP/Emilio Morenatti

It is axiomatic that when technology moves fast, everything it leaves behind is not merely broken but also obsolete, from papyrus scrolls to Morse Code, Polaroids, VCRs and CDs. In the worlds of intelligence and journalism, which are more closely related than either care to admit, some argue that cellular networks, facial recognition, biometrics and video surveillance have made dead drops and meeting sources in back alleys and darkened paths not only unnecessary, but also too dangerous, even impossible.

Only a Luddite would argue that facial recognition, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, machine learning and quantum computing should be abandoned. But while those are valuable tools for spies and scribes alike, the most important questions are still ones that human intelligence — agents and HUMINT in one world, sources and in-person reporting in another — is best equipped to answer.

Consider Ukraine. Satellites, manned reconnaissance, and drones allowed us to see the gathering storm of Russian troops, armor and aircraft encircling Ukraine. Signals collection, itself often enabled by “insiders,” provided at least glimpses of Russian orders, chatter and activity. But technology could not answer the most important questions. Neither could the wizardry of artificial intelligence exploiting the open-source world’s various riches for nuggets, patterns and precedents. What was Russian President Vladimir Putin thinking? What was his intent? Only people, agents operating near Putin or among those closest to him, and others entrusted to execute his orders, can provide that context.

The absence of well-placed agents leaves a vacuum that produces a succession of public and Top Secret guessing games in SCIFs (Secure Compartmented Information Facilities), briefing rooms and on front pages, most of them tearing well-worn pages from Soviet and Russian playbooks in Finland, Estonia, Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine itself, about what Putin might do.

So, rather than abandoning human spying and shoe-leather reporting, new technology is a reason to double down on it. Classified and commercial satellite and drone images, communications intercepts, forward-motion drone video, server banks and the unprecedented abundance of open-source information can provide a snapshot of something that is, or already has, happened, but not what is still to come, nor the context for what has taken place. It was Soviet military intelligence officer Col. Oleg Penkovsky whose information provided the realities behind the Kremlin’s plans, intentions and capabilities that averted a world war when reconnaissance photographs revealed Soviet missiles on Cuba.

In December 1980, the U.S. used intelligence provided by Polish Col. Ryszard Kuklinski, a CIA agent at the heart of the Polish General Staff and a longtime aide to Defense Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski, to confront the Soviet Union. More recently, it was allegedly a well-placed CIA source in Putin’s orbit who shed light and context on Russia’s 2016 election meddling. And what made the difference between the Aug. 29, 2021, drone strike in Afghanistan that targeted the wrong car and killed 10 civilians and the early February special operations force raid that killed Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi, the Islamic State’s leader du jour? Without going into detail, human intelligence about who was in the house is part of what prompted President Biden to order a risky helicopter-borne assault, rather than another drone strike, and allowed U.S. forces to begin their ground attack with bullhorns rather than bullets. The hunt for his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was similarly enabled by actionable intelligence from a source.

Looking at Ukraine, we someday will learn how agents, not merely technology, enabled U.S. intelligence to get it right. The pressure provided by declassified reporting did not stop Putin’s invasion — but it wasn’t expected to. Rather, it brought pressure to bear across the world’s liberal democracies, resulting in the strong, unified response that Putin faces and Russia’s political, economic and security consequences yet to come.

Yes, technology has made recruiting, assessing and running agents and sources more difficult, especially for spies working out of the relative safety of official U.S. platforms. Switching cars and clothes and mingling with the nighttime crowd in the Bois de Boulogne or downtown Beirut and even wearing the best disguises don’t work the way they once did. But espionage and journalism have survived electricity, telegraphs, telephones, radios and computers. Spies have been tracked by dogs, people, cars, “spy dust,” bugs, beacons and other tools best left unmentioned.

Reporters in hostile environments grow tails, too, and even in America remote Cracker Barrels, parking garages and paint aisles in big box stores aren’t as private as they were 20 years ago.

But any weapon used to counter a spy, and sometimes a reporter, can be turned around against the user. In other words, if you can’t beat the machine, you can still beat the person behind it. All technologies have vulnerabilities that require constant patching as holes are surfaced through new innovations or created by well-placed insiders. And the smoke and mirrors of espionage still favor the fox, and not the hounds.

The greatest danger today’s technophilia presents is the growing difficulty of distinguishing not only truth from disinformation, but also what’s real from what’s not. Is the source on Signal who they say they are? Is the video image or the voice message real or a deep fake? Artificial intelligence is still in its infancy, but women already have complained that they were sexually assaulted on virtual reality platforms, and now you can see Abraham Lincoln turn his head and the Mona Lisa talk. Reporters on the ground across Ukraine have courageously provided some of the most credible accounts of the fighting, Ukrainian resistance, and Russian strikes against civilian targets.

The best antidote to the dangers the metaverse poses to two of the world’s oldest professions, spying and collecting information, is still meeting other people face-to-face and using the tools we humans, our primate ancestors and other animals have been developing for millions of years to distinguish friend from foe, smell danger and arouse suspicion. Are those tools infallible, even in the best of hands, eyes, ears and noses? No, but they still beat relying entirely on video screens, earbuds and computer terminals.  

After more than 34 years in the CIA’s Clandestine Service and an even 50 in journalism, we both think the hunt for the truth requires embracing shiny new tools without abandoning centuries of human experience.

Douglas London, a member of the CIA’s Clandestine Service for over 34 years, teaches Intelligence Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is the author of “The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.” Follow him on Twitter @DouglasLondon5.

John Walcott, a journalist for 50 years, is an adjunct professor in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and member of the Board of Advisors of the Global TechnoPolitics Forum. He is the co-author, with David Martin of CBS News, of “Best Laid Plans: The Inside Story of America’s War on Terrorism.” Follow him at johnwalcott@substack.com.

Tags CIA Espionage Joe Biden reporters Russian invasion of Ukraine Spies US intelligence agencies Vladimir Putin

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