Why Spy?

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Technical prowess notwithstanding, US communications intelligence is dumb congenitally. In a previous column I explained that NSA’s use of sensitive antennas to capt the electronic spectrum, of supercomputers to record “the take,” and of sophisticated algorithms to search it suffer from the same deadly lack of quality control (counterintelligence) that afflicts human collection; moreover that elementary countermeasures reduce even the possibility of capting useful information. The latest revelations that the NSA has been listening to such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s private conversations as well as to Cardinals at papal conclaves highlight a more fundamental flaw, namely US government officials’ misunderstanding of intelligence, of the very reason for spying.

MerkelIntelligence, by its very nature, is information that you can do something with or about. It is not about reveling in secrets. Trying to learn about secrets apart form plans for action amounts to voyeurism. Worse, intelligence as a giant “fishing expedition” for secrets detracts from focusing on getting information, regardless of source, to accomplish specific objectives. Unfortunately, the very reason why US intelligence in general and NSA’s COMINT in particular gather all they can is that US officials don’t really know what they are doing and foolishly expect intelligence to prompt them.

Officially, all US intelligence, NSA included, works within a “National Intelligence Priorities Framework.” Testifying before Congress James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, described it as “a huge enterprise… with thousands and thousands of individual requirements.” This “framework” is the end product of the so-called “Requirements Process,” that consists of countless committees and subcommittees from every intelligence agency and executive departments, overseen by the White House.

But this bureaucratic enormity is intellectually empty. Attempting to explain why NSA had been listening to the telephones of Mrs. Merkel and similar people, Mr. Clapper said that it is to learn whether “what they’re saying gels with what’s actually going on,” because this can “impact us across a whole range of issues.” What does this reveal about the officials involved in the “Requirements Process?” First, that they expect private conversations to shed light on people and events the character of which they are unable to judge through ordinary dealings. Second, that they have no idea of any issue to which a change of assessment brought about by acquiring secret information might be relevant, never mind how it might be relevant. In sum, this is a declaration of collective ignorance and professional incompetence.

Let us be specific. What might US officials have learned about Mrs. Merkel’s approach to Europe’s financial troubles from her private talk that might contradict ordinary observation of German politics? Any Chancellor’s freedom of action is bound by the German people’s abhorrence of inflation and of subsidies to countries that permit it. Moreover, what is the US government prepared to do about any Chancellor’s edging from one side of that narrow wiggle-room to the other? The “requirement” for intelligence on Mrs. Merkel served to “punt” on such questions.

What might make sense of capting the phone calls of cardinals gathered in Rome to elect a pope? Maybe to find out whether they were going to elect a Catholic? And what did anyone think the US government might do with whatever information came from those conversations? The questions answer themselves. Don’t think. Gather now. Maybe figure out why later, maybe not. Meanwhile the programs go on, the budgets swell, the careers roll.

Using intelligence to indulge voyeurism and, importantly, to punt on policy matters is an old story. In the autumn of 1962, for example, America was awash in reports by Cuban refugees that Soviets were installing missiles on their island. President John F. Kennedy had received high-altitude reconnaissance photos monitoring the construction. Yet he ordered two low-level photo missions to get close ups of the missiles. These could tell no more about the nature of these devices than close ups of Playboy centerfolds could about the sex of the models. But the quest for close ups served Kennedy’s desire to put off deciding what to do.

Today’s twist on that old story is the general pretense that more secret intelligence is required “to keep us safe.” But that claim is as subject to the triune rule of reason as any other about intelligence, namely, “What, precisely, do you mean to find out? What do you mean to do with it? What difference will that make?

Alas, the US government’s “Requirements Process” abstracts from these questions because the officials who participate in it are smaller than their jobs.