New CIA Chief

One thing that immediately struck me about the nomination of Porter Goss for Director of Central Intelligence was that he spent decades as an operative, running agents and working undercover. He was neither an analyst nor a bureaucrat; he worked in human intelligence. Other than as an item in his capsule biography, none of the news sources I’ve read has considered why this might be significant.

Back in the 1970’s, the American intelligence services were cut back and placed under additional restrictions. A combination of Vietnam fatigue and a series of weak presidents created the opportunity for Congressional mischief, and Congress took full advantage. Partly as a result, the intelligence services switched to signals intelligence. Signals intelligence is gathering information by intercepting communications, monitoring energy signatures, and visual surveillance from a distance. It was cheaper, it was more palatable to the politicians, and it had less chance of turning into an international incident. Human intelligence — the kind Goss practiced — got less attention and money. You probably remember the boasting about how this satellite or surveillance airplane could pick out a license plate from umpteen miles up in the whatchamacallitsphere. It sounded good and made a great slide show.

The problem is that while a spy satellite can read a license plate, only a human on the ground could know where the car was going next. An agent needs to be present, dealing with other people who may have one precious nugget of information. It’s messy and dangerous, and absolutely essential. When the Islamist threat came into being, we had no one in place to notice what was going on. No one on our side had gained entry to their camps or was privy to their planning. Al Qaeda even began using our electronics against us. For example, one Al Qaeda member boasted after being captured that he had taken Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone out of Tora Bora to act as a decoy. They have notoriously stayed away from cell phones lately. Human messengers are considered more reliable. Also, steganography, the technique of hiding messages in minute changes to images, is very difficult to detect. Images containing messages can be posted to a website like eBay, then accessed and decoded by the intended recipient. The image would look normal to anyone, or to any computer without the key (usually the unaltered image). Al Qaeda and its allies have been using this technique. As far as I know, there is no effective countermeasure for this.

I take it as a good sign that Goss was nominated. Good intelligence requires human intelligence, signals intelligence, and analysis. We have been deficient in all three, but the human factor is in the worst shape. Bush made an excellent choice.

2 thoughts on “New CIA Chief”

  1. I hope you’re right about Goss.

    Americans do technology well, and one of our weaknesses is a tendency to overuse technology. This tendency manifests itself in the way we think about intelligence, as you point out, and also in debates about, for example, whether aerial bombing or nuclear missiles alone can win wars. Also, we sometimes allow our technological superiority to lull us into complacency about enemies and potential enemies who may be highly creative in non-technological ways.

    It would be great if the current crisis spurred us to improve our humint capabilities, and I hope that we’re already doing so.

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