Review: Trading Secrets: Spies and Intelligence in an Age of Terror

5 Star, Intelligence (Government/Secret)
Amazon Page
Amazon Page

Mark Huband

5.0 out of 5 stars Useful to Policy and Intelligence Professionals, as Well as Students and the Public, March 23, 2013

I enjoyed this book, and particularly enjoyed the rather clever the way the author is able to say some pretty devastating things about intelligence failures in a rather bland manner. This book ends with a clear statement on how the US and UK intelligence agencies are trying — and failing — to “future proof” their calling. As I have spent the past 20 years thinking about that topic, for me this book is perhaps more valuable than some might find it–it has helped me to think about what seven points I might make to the serving heads of intelligence if I were asked, and I end my review with those.

At root this book outlines the following:

01 How the UK and US intelligence systems spent 50 years developing sources and methods suited to the Cold War state on state confrontation, only to find that today those sources and methods are largely useless against both fanatical non-state actors and dispersed non-state actors.

02 How the primary value of intelligence in the past may have been the ability to detect plans and intentions being kept secret, but today there are too few surprises, and the real challenge is understanding the underlying political, socio-economic, ideo-cultural, and techno-demographic parameters that make any given body do what it does.

03 Citing Christopher Andrew, how still today, and for the past decade since 9/11, the intelligence communities have no learned to work together nor learn from history.

04 In relation to the elective war on Iraq, the author finds the intelligence elements seriously abused by policy-makers who misrepresented the truth, and now seriously in need of reinstatement, but does not provide a prescription, something I offer below at the end of my review.

05 Knowing what is “really” going on is a grass-roots human intelligence deliverable, and not to be confused with the blithering of the think tanks, academics, media, and agitating activists.

Where the book falls short — see my easily found list of intelligence reviews below — is in accepting 9/11 at face value (19 rag-heads with box-cutters), in failing to evaluate George Tenet as a likely traitor whose job was to keep the US intelligence community from interfering with Dick Cheney’s plans to make it happen (the national counter-terrorism exercise giving Cheney control over the entire government and all military operations was scheduled for “the day” months in advance), and in avoiding the contextual discussion of how all elements of society failed to demonstrate intelligence with integrity on the matter of Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). I find the index VERY disappointing, it appears to be a name index not a subject index, The bibliography is narrow. I am also distressed by the persistent assumption that spying is intelligence. Not so. Spying is an input, intelligence (decision-support) is an output.

As a building block book, making the point that the agencies do not play well with one another, are ill-equipped to address today’s threats, and need to so something if they are to “future proof” their profession, I certainly recommend the book.

Several quotes that all by themselves made this book useful to my own reflections, and that I record here for permanent reference (I give away all books after I have read them now that I am globally mobile):

QUOTE (21): That five percent — when it is an address, the time of a meeting, or an account of an individual’s movements — may have more value than the remaining ninety-five per cent if what it contains can alone turn disparate strands into a coherent whole.

I agree moderately with the above, but my last 20 years has been spent trying to get governments to pay attention to the 95% in the first place, while keeping politicals and policy mandarins honest, something that demands a much more pervasive and ruthless counterintelligence service neither the UK nor the US appear willing to countenance.

QUOTE (73): It is an awkward truth for the leading Western intelligence agencies that the era which created their modern image was in fact one during which success rates were — if the views of the former SIS officer quoted above are to be regarded as accurate — low, when seen against the abudance of resources deployed.

Exactly right. General Tony Zinni, USMC (Ret) is on record as starting that he got, “at best” 4% of what he needed to know and commanding general of the US Central Command, from secret sources and methods — to which I would add, and they provide nothing at all for everyone else.

QUOTE (73): This ill-preparedness can be traced back to those early Cold War moments, when instead of seeking to use intelligence to understand an avdversary’s true intentions, devise strategies on the basis of reality, and use subtle means to steer events in a certain direction, it was used to manipulate, misinform and manufacture truths.

PRECISELY. I like to say “the truth at any cost lowers all other costs.” Our problem in America, leaving the British to criticize their own, is that we have been ignorant and arrogant and all too willing to spend money to impose our callow greedy will on others, not at all understanding the consequences of throwing sand in the gears of a very delicate Earth and its cultures centuries in the making.

QUOTE (94): By creating African realities of their own — and for each other — the CIA and the KGB abused the weakness of the fragile new countries into which they injected themselves. From the perspecitve of their own intelligence spy-craft they also created, developed, and refined practices which divorced them from the process of gathering genuine understanding of the societies whose destinies they were seeking to manipulate.

PRECISELY. The US Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has commissioned a new National Intelligence Strategy, and I have offered to help — my chances of being brought back into the fold are at best 50%. The fact is that the future of the $80 billion a year US Intelligence Community is not at all assured — if it does not get back into the business of ethical evidence-based decision support for Whole of Government. My current thinking on this is easily found at Tiny URL /Steele21 .

QUOTE (224): While using these resources in pursuit of security remains the priority, intelligence-based reporting would be of even greater value if it extended beyond intelligence and governmental circles, to the academics, social scientists and political scientists whose often unique ground-level knowledge of the very same issues that haunt spies and politicians in possession of secrets would greatly increase understanding if it were informed as much by the ‘covert’ as the ‘overt.”

PRECISELY what I have been saying for 20 years, to which I would add the following from Daniel Ellsberg, from page 236 of Secrets: A Memoire of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, lecturing Kissinger: “The danger is, you’ll become like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours” [because of your blind faith in the value of your narrow and often incorrect secret information. P. 236].

Now fast forward to the elective war on Iraq, with a dolt for president, a nakedly amoral knave for vice president, and assorted neo-conservative Zionists betraying the public trust across the board. Absent PUBLIC intelligence, SECRET intelligence can be igorned. The large lesson here is not that the spies need open source intelligence, but that the public needs to be able to contain policy-makers and politicals who lack all semblance of intelligence with integrity. With PUBLIC intelligence as a “brake” on the neo-morons, SECRET intelligence can focus on what cannot be found openly. Without the first, the second is irrelevant.

Here is the easily found full list of my intelligence reviews up to last year, with all reviews leading to their Amazon page:

Worth a Look: Book Reviews on Intelligence (Most)

Here are ten other books that support this one in various ways, most of them of more general interest to the lay reader:
9/11 Synthetic Terror: Made in USA
A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies
Wedge: From Pearl Harbor to 9/11–How the Secret War between the FBI and CIA Has Endangered National Security
Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform
Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA
The Shadow Factory: The NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America
The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism
The Secret Team: The CIA and Its Allies in Control of the United States and the World (Second Edition)
No More Secrets: Open Source Information and the Reshaping of U.S. Intelligence (Praeger Security International)
Open Source Intelligence in a Networked World (Continuum Intelligence Studies)

Click on Image to Enlarge
Click on Image to Enlarge

Finally, as promised, and also provided in a graphic above under the book cover, are seven things that I called for in 1990 that we still do not have today. Anyone wanting to “future proof” the US Intelligence Community might wish to consider these to which I add a seventh as I have developed it these past 20 years:

01. Meet the needs of ALL public programs.
02. Do Indications & Warnings of Revolutionary Change
03. New theory and method of counterintelligence (including religious counter-intelligence)
04. Develop an information technology strategy (make sense not just storage, preserve all content)
05. Establish a responsive requirements system (and show return on investment across the disciplines)
06. Realign resources in an era of radical change ($3B to 07, cut technical in half, triple processing, quadruple human intelligence)
07. Establish an Open Source Agency (OSA) to nurture all the opens and serve as a baseline for a Smart Nation and a coherent effective secret world.

With best wishes to all,
Robert David STEELE Vivas
ON INTELLIGENCE: Spies and Secrecy in an Open World