April 23, 2021
The elderly Russia specialist who sat across the conference room table from me looked like he was either dead or just asleep…
We were in a well-fortified ’70s-era building in woody northern Virginia, where a trip to the men’s room required an escort, and he was slumped on one side of his chair, mouth slack, eyelids drooping.
Dr. Expert’s near slumber, ignored by his colleagues, was punctuated by occasional violent head-jerks when he momentarily regained wide-eyed consciousness. But after a quick glance around the table, he realized it was only me – an outside political risk consultant – droning on still, and went floppy again.
Along with the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) mug I bought in the gift shop, Dr. Sleepy is the most prominent memory of a handful of visits I made a number of years ago to the Langley CIA headquarters…
The National Intelligence Council… A Living Paradox
I was there to brief the National Intelligence Council (“NIC”), which – their mothers tell them, at least – is the crème de la crème of the (oxymoron alert) government intelligence apparatus. The NIC is tasked with advising the Director of National Intelligence, who oversees the 18 (!) organizations that make up the American government’s intelligence community. I was there as an outside voice to talk about key risks in Russia, where I’d recently lived for close to a decade, and followed closely thereafter.
Party trick for your next Zoom cocktail hour: How many of that dozen and a half can you name? No peeking. Cheers if you get more than five, and double cheers if the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (GEOINT uses imagery of physical features and geography) and the National Reconnaissance Office (which is in charge of spy satellites) were on your list.
And pour yourself a double on the rocks if you knew that the U.S. Coast Guard Intelligence – part of the Department of Homeland Security – is a member of the IC.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (“ODNI”) publishes an Annual Risk Assessment report every year that “focuses on the most direct, serious threats to the United States during the next year.” The report’s introduction explains that it reflects the “collective insights of the IC” – which provides “nuanced, independent, and unvarnished intelligence.”
Translated from bureaucratese, that means that the report’s insights have been pasteurized to within a millimeter of their life, so that the entire IC – supported by hundreds of thousands of employees and contractors and an $81 billion budget – can agree on it. The result is a sky-is-blue analysis filled with observations that you’d find in a term paper of a second-year international relations major (that he’d get a stretch “B” on)… or a guy falling asleep at a briefing.
This year’s report covers, among other topics, “China’s Push for Global Power,” “Russian Provocative Actions,” and of course COVID…
“The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to strain governments and societies,” the Annual Risk Assessment warns us. “The scourge of illicit drugs and transnational organized crime will continue to take its toll on American lives, prosperity, and safety,” it continues. And of course, “regional conflicts continue to fuel humanitarian crises, undermine stability, and threaten US persons and interests.”
Few people in America have Dr. Paul’s insight into the inner workings of the government, which is why you need to see his latest warning.
The Real 007: A White-Collar Bureaucrat
You might think – if you watch movies – that the sophomoric nature of these conclusions notwithstanding, these insights may nevertheless be hard-won… the result of agents in the field cultivating morsels of insight from their sources, deploying complex analytical frameworks to uncover those small bits of intelligence that will keep us all safe.
That would be at least partly because the U.S. (and U.K., thanks to James Bond) intelligence community has enjoyed decades of free PR from Hollywood. Many a pundit and AM radio talk show host career has been launched on the back of a bio that starts and ends with “I worked for the CIA.” Spy thrillers are an entire genre that – the IC itself acknowledges – is about as real as purple unicorns that exhale pixie dust…
Sorry to disappoint, but Jason Bourne and Sydney Bristow are not realistic portrayals of intelligence work. Most IC employees aren’t what you think of as “field agents,” and even those who do collect human intelligence (HUMINT) don’t engage in hand-to-hand combat or bloody shoot-outs to get that information.
Most spy work isn’t that dissimilar from researching which SUV offers the best value for money, or figuring out where to send your toddler to preschool. It’s desk research using information that’s publicly available to anyone with an Internet connection – only sometimes spiced up with the occasional “secret” insight.
But the hundreds of thousands of diplomatic communications that were made public in the multiple waves of WikiLeaks releases – the massive data dumps that made Julian Assange a household name – yanked back the curtain to reveal the downright mundane nature of security clearance-level communication. Just because something is “secret” doesn’t mean it’s worth knowing.
“I can’t tell you how many times I took your daily comments, and turned them into a cable,” an old friend who worked at the U.S. embassy in Moscow years ago told me some time ago. Back then, I was a stock market analyst at a Russian bank, and my firm’s daily market, sector, and company commentary was easily available to clients and friends.
My buddy reframed the insight in my write-ups about Russian banks or media companies or automakers, slapped “confidential” on what he wrote, and sent it on to headquarters back in Washington, D.C. as on-the-ground insight from a local source. (Which, strictly speaking, was true… in the same way that a garbage man is a “refuse collection engineer.”)
I know that because my friend told me about how he perverted my stock market insight for U.S. intelligence purposes… But also, thanks to WikiLeaks, much of that isn’t even secret anyway.
And today, around 1.4 million Americans have a “top secret” clearance. And they – along with their colleagues in the U.K. and elsewhere – are actively being targeted, even if much of their “intelligence” isn’t all that smart. As the Financial Times explained last week…
More than 10,000 British nationals have been targeted online in the past five years by hostile states such as China, as foreign spies increasingly manipulate professional networking sites to recruit new agents and steal secrets… Posing as recruiters, foreign spies lure their targets to meetings in person where they may be subjected to bribery or blackmail in order to obtain intelligence.
Security Clearance… A Low Bar
Meanwhile, the bar of who qualifies for security clearance was lowered to gymnast limbo level when former President Donald Trump, as the occupant of the Oval Office, had the highest possible security clearance.
As the Washington Post explained in February 2017, “If Donald Trump were an off-the-street federal job applicant, he most likely would not be granted a security clearance… There is so much about him and his conduct, past and present, that is unknown.”
For people not named Trump, getting even the most low-level security clearance requires the applicant to strip mine his history and background in a way that only a tell-all biographer would appreciate. The 127-page Standard Form 86 Questionnaire for National Security Positions requires an excruciating level of detail.
Among the most daunting questions for anyone who’s lived outside the United States is Section 19, “Foreign Contacts:” Do you have, or have you had, close and/or continuing contact with a foreign national within the last seven (7) years with whom you, or your spouse, or cohabitant are bound by affection, influence, common interests, and/or obligation?
And Trump – who as president didn’t need to bother with Form 86 – lived up to his billing as a security risk, spilling highly classified information in the Oval Office in May 2017 to Russia’s foreign minister about Islamic State threats – thereby potentially jeopardizing the source.
Two years later, he tweeted an aerial image of a launchpad in Iran, enabling amateur Internet spies to figure out the satellite and its orbit – which isn’t information you want your adversary to know. (And of course there were multiple translators-only meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin… the substance of which were “none of your business,” Trump told reporters – and anyone else who asked, including Congress.)
The big question, as I wrote late last year, was whether Trump would leverage what he knew. “How many state secrets is Trump going to sell to pay off his debts?” asked Vanity Fair. And even though Trump was famously indifferent to the details of foreign policy and eschewed intelligence briefings, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t still a danger, as the Washington Post explained in November…
The chances are low that Trump knows the fine details of intelligence, such as the name of a spy or where an intelligence agency may have planted a surveillance device. But he almost certainly knows significant facts about the process of gathering intelligence that would be valuable to adversaries.
The snoozing gentleman across from me in Langley probably would be a more valuable intelligence asset. Ironically, he knew little direct knowledge about Russia (thus my presence) – which was supposedly his ostensible expertise. One of the unfortunate contradictions of that line of work is that you can’t really be an expert on a place without, well, going there… but if you’re a U.S. intelligence officer, you can’t hop on a plane to Moscow.
Hindsight Is 20/20
The bigger challenge of the entire intelligence community – similar to investing – is that laying out the risks, as the ODNI does in its annual report, can only get you so far… Preparing for the unexpected is good work if you can get it. But the real problem is with a “black swan” event – which is something unpredictable, unexpected, and unusual that has severe consequences.
Calling something a black swan can also be a handy way for intelligence community cubicle-dwellers to deflect blame for something big and bad happening… which is the same things that investors do. If no one could have possibly predicted it, how could we?
And that’s the riddle that even the IC can’t figure out… and the snorer in front of me that day in Langley didn’t either.
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