October 22, 2015: Strategy Page
In Syria the U.S. Air Force came face-to-face with differences between targeting (selecting what to hit) from the air (using aerial and satellite surveillance) and using that supplemented with information gathered on the ground. The air force depended on aerial surveillance to find and approve targets to hit in Syria. The CIA, meanwhile, had its own “air force” of armed UAVs that concentrated on key Islamic terrorist personnel. Air force analysts with high enough security clearances could not help but note that the CIA effort was more successful. The key CIA advantage was the network of spies, informants and other specialists they had on the ground. Many of these “assets” were not even Americans and the CIA was able to make deals with foreign nations for valuable target information.
Much of these CIA advantages were relatively new. The post September 11, 2001 world dramatically altered the way that U.S. national intelligence services did business. After the 1970s, U.S. intelligence operatives became rare and competent ones even more so. Until 2001 this did not bother the CIA or the U.S. government all that much. But it is a problem when there is an emergency. So, since September 11, 2001, the U.S. has been forced to rely more on contractors for the more personal and tradition forms of espionage.
The decline of American spy craft is an aftereffect of the Church Committee. This was an investigative operation sponsored by Congress in the late 1970s that sought to reform and punish the CIA. The reforms were mainly about eliminating CIA spying inside the United States, or doing stuff for the president that Congress did not approve of. There was also a desire to avoid any CIA connection with foreign unpleasantness (like using unsavory people as spies or informants, paying foreign politicians for information, or using contractors to run informant networks). This led to a growing list of restrictions on what the CIA could do overseas and at home. Congress was out to make sure no future president (the CIA works for the president) could use the CIA, as had been done during the Vietnam War and before.
The CIA interpreted all this as "no more James Bond stuff." After the 1970s, the CIA relied more on spy satellites and other electronic monitoring for their reports on what was going on in the world. The Church Committee insured that the CIA became a much less interesting place to work for practitioners of traditional (on the ground, up close and personal) espionage. A lot of the most capable people got out over the next two decades. Recruiting competent replacements became difficult. But after September 11, 2001, the CIA was tossed a huge pile of money and told to staff up and get going and save us all from the Islamic terrorists. The Church Committee restrictions were largely, if not completely, ignored. But long lists of things-you-couldn't-do were still on the books. After a decade of doing whatever it took, the rules are being enforced again.
One of the more successful operations hurt by this temporary retro thinking was the use of contractors to run Pakistan intel operation. Things were not done by the book, but results were demanded, especially efforts to find Osama bin Laden. Everyone looked the other way while the deed was done. Now Congress is again calling for investigations and “rogue operators” to punish. This sort of thing makes it very difficult to recruit and keep competent spies, even as contractors.
But it's not just paper bullets intelligence operatives have to worry about these days. The post-9/11 world dramatically altered the way that national intelligence services do business. For one, the craft of espionage and military intelligence has become inherently more dangerous for case officers and agents in an age of terrorism and insurgency than it was during the Cold War.
This is a complete turnaround from the way business was done during the Cold War in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Many case officers on all sides, whether CIA or KGB, served out their entire 20 or 30 year careers as professional spies without ever having touched a firearm after their initial tradecraft courses. After all, getting into gun battles was not their job. Collecting information was. Furthermore, the case officers themselves, often operating under official diplomatic cover, didn't really have anything to fear if they were caught or their covers blown, except a tarnished career and expulsion from whatever country they operated in. The ones in real danger were always the informants, or "assets", that the case officers recruited, who were liable to face execution if they were found out. Simply put, spying really wasn't that dangerous for the case officers during and immediately after the Cold War.
After the War on Terrorism began, the Cold War rules began to rapidly disappear. For one thing, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, along with most places that CIA officers operate today, are actual war zones with nothing "cold" about them. During traditional peacetime case officers don't really have to worry about their own safety, just that of their informants. Once you get involved with terrorists or an actual shooting war starts, all of that changes, and intelligence officers (whether CIA, or Army Intelligence) become major high-value targets for terrorist and insurgents. Since 2001, over a dozen (the exact number is classified) CIA officers have been killed in the line of duty. In short, the espionage business has gotten far more dangerous in a very short period of time.
This has necessitated a number of dramatic changes in the way the Americans, British, and other professional intelligence services do business where they are needed most (in war zones). For one, the spooks are getting strapped. Case officers working in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and even Egypt routinely carry handguns everywhere they go to defend themselves should the need arise. During the Cold War this was unnecessary and generally considered a stupid liability since being caught with a weapon would probably get you booted out of the country you operated in. Not anymore.
Besides carrying guns, agencies and case officers are paying extra attention to things like counter-surveillance, disguises, and evasive driving. Carrying a sidearm is necessary for a case officer working in a city like Baghdad, Karachi or Kabul, the truth remains that getting into a gunfight is still the last resort and should be avoided at all costs. Case officers know that the most effective way to avoided being a terrorist target is to avoid following the same routines every day, varying routes to and from work/meetings, never sleeping in the same safe house for too long, and generally making one's life as varied and unpredictable as possible. Experienced spies know that if you can't be found, you can't be a target. The best game plan is to be as invisible as possible. Using contractors to run your informant networks is the best cover of all, unless Congress is looking for someone to prosecute.
Russia is different, as the Russians always had the best spies. This was because of superior recruiting, training, and management. A lot of those spies were cut loose after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, and some of them offered to talk (if the price was right). What these guys revealed was chilling for Western intel agencies, a decades long tale of successful old-school espionage operations. The KGB was so good that most of these ops were not even suspected. But the new information enabled the U.S. to roll up a number of well-placed Russian agents and moles and provide evidence supporting calls for a return to traditional espionage. Congress was still hostile to that and the September 11, 2001 attacks were one result. The current comedy of errors in Russia is another. There will be more.