The digital age won’t make old fashioned CIA spy craft obsolete
In the spy thriller MISSION OF VENGEANCE, Corey Pearson makes sure his CIA officers operate in the shadows, keep away from prying eyes, and maintain their false identities. But social media, cell phones, facial recognition technology and super computers make this job difficult.
Regardless, the spy thriller recognizes the importance of HUMINT (Human Intelligence) and incorporates a wide variety of traditional CIA spy craft into the plot. In the real world of espionage, the CIA is quickly finding out that their globally dispersed teams of undercover officers find it difficult, indeed, to operate in the shadows. Prying eyes are everywhere.
A recently leaked cable from the CIA’s counterintelligence division mentioned that dozens of CIA sources were arrested or executed. These are the foreign spies that CIA operatives recruit. The cable urged its operatives to focus more on the security of those that they convince to spy.
Can traditional spy craft become obsolete in the digital world? I don’t think so; we’ll always need HUMINT, human-intelligence gathering capabilities. Just look at how, in 2000, FBI agents uncovered an entire network of Russian sleeper cells positioned inside America. Teams of Russian spies were posing as everyday Americans. They were trained in Russia to assimilate into everyday American life by getting married, obtaining jobs, and raising families.
Once inside America, they sent encoded messages back home. The spies lived double lives, and for over a decade, FBI agents bugged their homes, followed their travels, and ultimately cracked their secret communications network. Teams of FBI counterintelligence (CI) agents used foot and vehicle surveillance tactics to tail them, undetected. That’s what HUMINT is all about!
The CI teams observed them as their children attended public schools with other kids and as they attended July 4th parties with their neighbors- not once did any one suspect them to be Russian spies. They also got jobs that brought them close to people in powerful positions, enabling them to gather sensitive information that was sent back to Moscow- information which could potentially be used to damage U.S. national security.
The trouble is foreign governments use the same technology to identify CIA spies lurking in the midst. Some think that the digital technology revolution makes it all but impossible for CIA operatives to maintain their false identities and to disguise relationships, including the protection of the assets they recruit. I believe the CIA’s traditional human intelligence model can survive the digital age, regardless of the enhancement of social media, cell phones, facial recognition technology and super computers.
True, with CCTV cameras set up on every street corner, even James Bond would be immediately identified and picked up in a hostile environment. However, Bond has the skills to worm his way into the confidence of a key decision-maker at a foreign defense plant that the CCTV cameras surround. Good HUMINT, including old-fashioned foot and vehicle surveillance techniques, will enable James, or any well-trained intelligence operative, to tail the target around and find out where he/she eats, drinks, or frequents for basic entertainment. No techno gizmo will prevent James Bond from accidentally bumping into his targets at a bar, for example, and peering into their hearts and minds, ingratiating them, and eventually learning their secrets.
Actually, digital technology can be harnessed to allow CIA operatives and spies to conduct their intelligence collection. The wizards at Langley can hijack surveillance cameras of secure premises to either stop recording or set up an endless loop that would not leave a trace of evidence of a CIA operative lock-picking the door and entering the office of the key foreign defense plant key decision maker mentioned previously.
In the MISSION OF VENGEANCE spy thriller, the CIA uses digital technology to aid its operatives to identify Russian spies as they venture to the Dominican Republic. Here is a snippet:
Several hundred thousand Russian tourists flew into Punta Cana and Santo Domingo from Moscow and St. Petersburg each year. Corey had his counterintelligence team take photos of them as they arrived at airports, booked into hotels, and relaxed on sunny beaches. The photos were sent to the FBI’s Next Generation Identification System, NGI, which CBIF taps into- a vast digital database of fingerprints, DNA profiles, iris scans, palm prints, voice identification profiles, and facial photographs.
Most of the Russian visitors were young and came from educated, upper-middle-class families with no NGI alerts. They simply wanted to catch a few rays of the tropical sun and go shopping. A few weren’t so nice, and NGI identified them as FSB and GRU agents. Corey feared the Russian man who contacted the bootlegger was one of them.
“Steve, don’t tell the FBI anything about what we know. Contact Lieutenant Sanchez and tell him you want the complete crime scene report.”
End of snippet
HUMINT offers a three-dimensional assessment, right from the gut. CIA operations officers can meet contacts and assess their role and importance to determine how they can fit into the bigger picture of the mission, as well as evaluating their motivation and reliability. It is of my humble opinion that hi-tech, digital gadgets are mere handmaidens to HUMAN intelligence-gatherers.
Robert Morton is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO), enjoys writing about the U.S. Intelligence Community, and relishes traveling to the Florida Keys and Key West, the Bahamas and Caribbean. He combines both passions in his Corey Pearson- CIA Spymaster series. Check out his latest spy thriller: MISSION OF VENGEANCE.