Let’s start with a quiz. Who is the biggest spy in modern US history?
If you said Aldridge Ames, or Robert Hanson, you’d be wrong. As despicable as those two traitors are, and despite the assets they killed through their actions, they are not the biggest spies. Even though both had and corrupted the highest clearances our government can give, it is not them. Who was it? It was PFC Bradley Manning, of WikiLeaks fame.
Despite being a very junior analyst in a tactical military HQ, and not having any “special” tickets to speak of (he did have a Top Secret clearance, but did not compare to Ames and Hanson as far as legitimate access), Manning gave away to his accomplice/handler Julian Asange more volume of stolen intel than anyone ever.
My purpose is not to debate the relative worth of Manning’s “take” with the others (yes, Ames and Hanson’s acts cost lives, Manning’s much less). My point is that the sheer amount of classified data that Manning stole blows the other two away. How did he do it? Simple – by exploiting cyber. Bottom line, cyber has changed the world of intel, and this is just one example.
Another example is the growth of Open Source Intelligence, or OSINT, the newest intel discipline. We have always used open source (non-classified info readily available to anyone interested in getting it) information, but now it is different. There is so much of it, and it is so timely and ubiquitous that it is now the “fashionable” INT. Before, we read newspapers, listened to radio and TV broadcasts, and it was a useful augment to other types of intel collection. The advent of the cyber era has given us huge mountains of data from social media, from data mining, and from the “people.” Now everyone is a journalist, an analyst, a photographer, and a witness to history, and they spew forth what they see/hear/record with immediacy and frankly a lot of accuracy. All that has made the intel world sit up and take notice. Today, OSINT is a growth market, and there is little chance of it slowing down.
Espionage has changed and grown. Today, we have industrial espionage that involves U.S. business on U.S. business, foreign business on U.S. business, foreign intel services on U.S. business, and criminal on U.S. business. On the national security side, we have criminals on U.S. Government, foreign business on U.S. Government, and foreign intel service on U.S. Government. The bad guys are no longer content to steal a few file folders passed in a DC park. They now “come in” to our networks, our databases, and our smart phones, and pillage enormous mountains of data. Whenever you see the losses described in multiples on the pages in the Library of Congress, you know it’s a lot.
Stealing secrets is decidedly old school, but it is the scale that is new. Additionally, the ability to get in, steal the mountain, and get out without it appearing that anything has happened that scares the heck out of everyone. You don’t even know what your adversary (whoever they are) has gotten. This problem of scale was what got Manning into the Spy Hall of Infamy. His Lady Gaga CD took out such a volume of reports, that it staggers the imagination. One more twist is that the spies can go one little step future if they wish, and steal the data, but leave behind corrupted data at your end. This is a particularly scary thought.
Are there still Old School Spies out there? Clearly, yes. They are more like George Smiley than Jason Bourn, but they are there. The future, however, is in cyber spying, and everyone knows it. Cyber has changed the world of intel.
We need to do much more to protect our secrets, regardless of where they are. We must be way cleverer at determining how the adversary might get in and how we keep him out. The U.S. is improving in both our ability to defend, and to exploit, but the road is still a long, costly and potentially dangerous one. The bad guys are working overtime to “get” us. We can work no less diligently to fend them off.