America’s CIA offers jobs to disgruntled Russians, but can human intelligence outshine new-age technology?

The Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) open invitation to disgruntled Russians to join it as spies could be interpreted as an admission by arguably the world’s best-endowed spy network that its policy of dealing with Moscow was so far inadequate.

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But will recruiting Russians as American spies work in the age of cyber? The answer may prove difficult, given the growing importance of technology, not manpower, in the success of intelligence gathering.

Last week, CIA Director of Operations David Marlowe noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s failure to achieve his military and security objectives during the nine-month invasion of Ukraine had given the CIA a valuable recruiting opportunity.

“Putin was at his best the day before he invaded because he had all the coercive power he will ever have,” Marlowe said during an academic roundtable at George Mason University’s Hayden Center in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Marlowe told the audience that Putin was ‘at his best the day before he invaded [Ukraine]because he had “all the power he will ever have.” But he wasted everything”, before adding: “We are looking all over the world for Russians who are so disgusted by [Putin’s actions] as we are. Because we are open for business.

Marlowe’s comments were first reported by The Wall Street Journal, which pointed to similarities to comments by former senior CIA officers, who said disaffection with the war in Ukraine had provided fertile ground for recruiting disgruntled military officials, oligarchs that the war had financially impacted. , and those who fled the country.

Now the video of the entire debate is also available for free.

According to reports, more than 400,000 Russians left Russia in the months following Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February. The Kremlin estimated that an additional 700,000 Russians left the country within two weeks of Putin’s declaration of the “partial” mobilization of reserves in mid-September.

The Many Failures of the CIA

But then, seen historically, the CIA doesn’t have a great track record when evaluating Russia or the Soviet Union during the Cold War. For example, he did not warn of the first Soviet atomic bomb (1949), the anti-Soviet uprisings in East Germany (1953) and Hungary (1956), and the sending of Soviet missiles into Cuba ( 1962).

Many American experts have pointed out that the CIA did not even accurately predict the sudden disintegration of the Soviet Union (the USSR) in 1991. Lately the CIA has not predicted the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Nor could he stop what Americans, especially Democratic Party supporters and activists, alleged was Russian disinformation ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Given this track record, experts pointed out that when it comes to Moscow, the CIA sometimes overestimates Russian capabilities and sometimes underestimates them. His best work in Moscow dates back to 1962, when intelligence gathered by U-2 spy planes gave President John F Kennedy the time and evidence he needed to compel the Soviet Union to remove nuclear weapons from Cuba without start a nuclear war.

It can be noted that intelligence has always been an essential element of warfare and statecraft. During wars, good intelligence helps save lives and facilitates victories by anticipating the next moves of enemies and understanding their intentions, plans and capabilities.

And in peacetime, intelligence helps leaders make better decisions by avoiding miscalculations and providing timely information about threats and opportunities.

Seen in this way, the CIA has a mixed record. And when we talk about record, it’s not only intelligence gathering for which the CIA was essentially founded (on September 18, 1947, by President Harry S Truman) but also for covert activities, often flouting national laws and American internationals. These covert operations abroad involved violence, kidnappings and murders.

They also included “election buying” in countries like Japan, France and Italy under the guise of protecting democracy. The CIA even sponsored coups in Guatemala, Iran, Syria and Iraq, where a Ba’ath Party leader boasted in 1963, “We came to power on an American train.”

At the same time, however, it has also failed miserably in its operations in countries like Cuba, Vietnam, Chile, and Indonesia. Even the CIA’s assessment was flawed, like the assessments of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction programs before the war in Iraq.

But then, intelligence is, by nature, an uncertain business of piecing together bits and pieces of information about adversaries who are intent on denying and deceiving. And this intelligence gathering now needs both human agents and technical methods. Technological innovations are more important issues today.

From biotechnology and nanotechnology to quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI), rapid technological change is giving US adversaries new capabilities and eroding traditional US intelligence advantages. This explains why many Americans wonder how their “intelligence agencies missed Russia’s most important tool: the weaponization of social media.”

Russia ride hailing app hacking
Image for representation

Disadvantages of the cyber revolution

The “cyber revolution” has exploded open source information (connecting ever more smart devices to the internet), which, in turn, has made even classified information collected by agencies like the CIA vulnerable to adversaries of the CIA. ‘America.

For example, the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks released nearly 9,000 documents and files dated between 2013 and 2016 in what it called the first taste of a CIA “vault” of secrets. WikiLeaks claimed the archive was provided by a former US government hacker or contractor wanting to “start a public debate” about the security and democratic control of cyber weapons, viruses and malware.

Another problem due to cyber revolution is the easy flow of information from anyone about anything (just a swipe or a click). This information reaches policymakers without verification or analysis, increasing the risk of their premature judgments instead of waiting for slower intelligence assessments that carefully examine the credibility of sources and offer alternative interpretations of disruptive developments.

Intelligence changed from “Files” to “Google Earth”

In her new book, Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence (Princeton University Press, 2022), Stanford scholar Amy Zegart describes what is at stake in the future of American espionage. as technology rapidly evolves and transforms all aspects of government and society.

She writes: “Intelligence is no longer locked away in classified files at Langley; it is found online in public spaces like Google Earth, where anyone can discover government secrets hidden in plain sight.

Cyber ​​war
Cyberwar/Representative Image

For example, thanks to thousands of readily available satellite images, Stanford scholars — not special agents with security clearances — were able to root out nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.

Today, anyone with a cell phone and an Internet connection can collect or analyze intelligence, Zegart said, adding, “This means that superpower governments no longer control the collection and analysis of intelligence like they did during the cold war. It’s a different business today.

She advises intelligence agencies to balance the advantages and disadvantages that new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and social media, offer for gathering intelligence around the world.

“These tools have incredible potential, but they also have limitations and risks. For example, when detecting nuclear threats from a foreign threat, it is not enough to rely on artificial intelligence to inform the analysis.

“Imagine going to the president and saying, ‘Mr. President, we think China will probably invade Taiwan because that’s what the AI ​​is telling us. That’s not that convincing, is it? not just the data. It’s also an act of persuasion,” adds Zegart.

According to her, what is needed now is a new mindset about how the intelligence community thinks about classified information. “We need to fundamentally reimagine what intelligence can and should do in the digital age, and that starts with realizing that secrets no longer play the role they once did.”

Viewed this way, if the CIA wants to better assess Russia, more important is an analysis based on American technological penetration of Moscow rather than recruiting Russians as spies.

  • Veteran author and journalist Prakash Nanda has been commentating on politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and a recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Fellowship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda(at)hotmail.com
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