There currently seems to be a bit of a flurry of dramatic-but-disappointing articles in the security space. The ones I have in mind have three things in common:

  1. They call for radical transformation of major institutions;
  2. They say quite a bit about the current problems; but
  3. They say little about how the transformation is to be achieved, or what the reformed institutions should be like.

A new article in Foreign Policy with the clickbaity title The Spycraft Revolution is a case in point.

The article focuses on espionage, i.e. spying, i.e. obtaining secret or confidential information without permission. In Lucas’ narrative, espionage used to be mostly a matter of fielding spies and managing human sources. However this kind of thing has become far more difficult, for a number of reasons:

  • New technologies make it now far easier for an adversary’s counterintelligence to uncover spies and sources;
  • Those developments also make classic spycraft methods such as the dead-letter box harder to use;
  • Intelligence agencies are now facing greater political and legal constraints than they used to, and than their adversaries do;
  • The public is increasingly distrustful of intelligence agencies;
  • Changing societal norms and standards mean that what seems acceptable spycraft today might, in a decade or two, be regarded as heinous;
  • The world of private intelligence companies is booming, and spies increasingly move between the public and private sectors, and these developments magnify public distrust;
  • Espionage-type activities are now far more common outside traditional agencies than they used to be;
  • Excessive secrecy “makes spy services timid, introverted, risk-averse, and calcified by procedure.”

Overall, traditional agencies are becoming less capable, less trusted, and less needed.

Note that Lucas’ modus operandi in making these points is argument by assertion and anecdote.  He provides no systematic evidence that the points are actually true, and doesn’t cite or link to any of the voluminous research literature on these topics.

But if we accept the general picture, what should be done?

By my reckoning, it took Lucas about five sixths of the article to lay out the problems, leaving only a few paragraphs for directions.  Consequently what he offers is pretty thin:

  • Intelligence agencies need to be more collaborative. “Intelligence agencies need to work with other actors outside the spy world.”  In particular they should be more “media savvy” and talk to journalists.
  • Spies “need to be at home in the worlds of business and finance.”
  • Intelligence agencies need to reduce secrecy.

Yep, that’s all I could find.

The author, Edward Lucas, is a career journalist, and the article reads more like a weekend newspaper long-read than a major thought-piece.  The article has more content than it does structure, and is more readable than it is rigorous.

For something in this area with much more depth and vision, I recommend the recent National Intelligence University Master’s thesis by Zachery Tyson Brown, Adaptive Intelligence for an Uncertain Age. (No download link currently available, as far as I know.)


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Thanks to David Sk for the image.