Repost of an essay from 2009 by Charles S. Viar (Twitter: @Charles_S_Viar), present chairman of the Center for Intelligence Studies in Washington D.C. (reposted here for layout reasons; in accordance with the copyright notice at the bottom of the essay):
THE DARK ART
Intelligence, Counterintelligence, and the Mind of the State
Charles S. Viar
Although the origins of intelligence have been lost in the mists of time, the practice is at least as ancient as warfare. In what is perhaps the oldest written reference to an intelligence operation, The Book of Numbers recounts God’s command that Moses dispatch a reconnaissance team to scout the Israelite advance upon the Promised Land:
Send thou men, that they may search the land of Canaan, which I give unto the Children of Israel. Of every tribe of their fathers shall ye send a man, everyone a ruler among them…
Had the Canaanites possessed an effective counterintelligence capability, the story of the Israelite assault might have ended differently. For even a minimal foreknowledge of their intentions and capabilities would have made it possible for the Canaanites to organize a more effective defense. But as may be inferred from the Bible, they failed to detect the operation directed against them.
For that, they paid a fearsome price.
Narrowly defined as “evaluated information,” intelligence is a dynamic process that involves the collection, analysis, and dissemination of data to national policymakers and other government officials of lesser rank. Intelligence serves to forewarn them of likely actions, events, and developments within their sphere of responsibility; and aids in matching available resources to threats and opportunities alike. As such, it is the sine qua non of effective statecraft.
More broadly, intelligence also serves as a force-multiplier. Much as Archimedes Lever makes it possible to magnify mechanical force transmitted across space, covert and clandestine intelligence operations make it possible for states to enhance the power they project beyond their frontiers. History is littered with examples of small and middling states exercising disproportionate influence through the deft application of secret intelligence.
Given the enormous – and occasionally decisive – advantages conferred by effective intelligence in the Great Game of Nations, well-governed states seek to maximize the effectiveness of their own intelligence services and to protect themselves against hostile services deployed against them. Domestic security typically provides one level of defense, and counterintelligence another.
Although counterintelligence has been recognized as an integral component of state security since the Chinese military scholar Sun Tzu published The Art of War in the Fourth or Fifth century BC, the concept remains muddled. For almost two and a half millennia, the term itself has defied definition.
According to James Angleton, the legendary former Chief of CIA Counterintelligence, the term is ineffable. Although Angleton’s Deputy Chief for Operations generally concurred, he believed counterintelligence could nonetheless be described in terms of core functions. Angleton’s Deputy Chief for Analysis, however, disagreed with both. According to Raymond G. Rocca, counterintelligence is self-defined: it applies to any action undertaken to counter, i.e., negate, the efforts of hostile intelligence services.
Having studied under all three of the practitioners listed above, the writer of this paper eventually concluded Rocca’s understanding is more nearly correct; and has since argued that counterintelligence can be best illustrated by contrast. Where counterespionage – or security – seeks to neutralize individual spies and spy rings, counterintelligence attempts to neutralize hostile intelligence services as a whole.
In a more perfect world, intelligence services would aspire to comprehensive coverage of their targets. But in actual practice, physical, organizational, political, and budgetary constraints have traditionally forced them to limit their collection activities to data pertaining to the targeted state’s organization, capabilities, and intentions. More recently, intelligence services have been tasked with gathering financial, economic, and technical data as well; and with the development of remote collection techniques, the amount of raw data collected by major intelligence services has become staggering in both scope and volume.
From a theoretical standpoint, intelligence collection and analysis should not be especially difficult. But given the fact that intelligence services routinely devote a substantial portion of their resources to deception operations designed to deceive their adversaries, the task is far more difficult than it first appears. Tables of organization and orders of battle can be faked, deployment patterns and readiness indicators manipulated, and communications traffic played for purpose. Indeed, almost any sort of intelligence data can be fabricated and fed to foreign intelligence services through sacrificial spies, dangles, false defectors, and dispatched agents.
This inherent vulnerability to hostile deception operations lays bare what Angleton formally referred to as the Epistemological Problem:
Given the fact that foreign intelligence services routinely mount large and carefully crafted deception operations against us, how can we know what we believe to be true is actually so?
In less guarded moments, he called it “That damnable question.”
As intelligence practitioners will attest, it is a damnable question indeed. Nonetheless, there are two solutions to the problem – one partial, the other complete.
The first solution is to look at intelligence data in terms of a jigsaw puzzle extending across time. After fitting together as many of the pieces as possible, one may flag those that are known to be true beyond doubt. Subsequent pieces that fit with those may be presumed true, in the absence of contrary evidence.
Although this approach has considerable merit – including especially the way it facilitates intuitive judgments – the results it generates are both probabilistic and tentative. The likelihood that new data may significantly alter the pattern is high.
In contrast, the second solution can provide definitive answers – but only rarely, when two relatively unlikely events occur simultaneously: 1) a high-level penetration agent confirms the validity of specific intelligence data, and 2) a code break “backstops” the veracity of the confirming agent. In the world of intelligence, certainty depends upon serendipity.
The recruitment of high-level penetration agents is rare, and code breaks are even more so. They occur together perhaps once a decade, and when they do intelligence analysts emerge from their garrets to enjoy a brief moment of clarity. But when the agent is lost or the codes are changed, they are condemned to wander once more through what Angleton termed “The Wilderness of Mirrors” – an Epistemological Hell from which neither truth nor falsehood may be surely obtained.
Determining the validity of intelligence data thus depends in part on recruiting from the enemy’s ranks senior political office holders or high-ranking government officials, and in part upon breaking their codes. But once affected, these unlikely circumstances open a window to other intriguing possibilities – including, specifically, offensive counterintelligence operations designed to penetrate, infiltrate, and suborn the target’s intelligence service in order to play it back against the state it serves. The ultimate goal of such operations is to entice or provoke the targeted state into undertaking ruinous and self-destructive actions.
As Angleton observed, successful politicians and senior government officials are a remarkably homogenous lot. For the most part, they derive from roughly comparable social circumstances and share core formative experiences in common. They attend the same schools – or at least the same types of schools – and are imbued with the same canon. They also hold remarkably similar beliefs and values, and share certain characteristic attitudes regarding the larger world. Together these form something akin to a collective psyche, or what Angleton termed the “Mind of the State.”
If states have minds, they also have states of mind – and as with individuals, it is their state of mind that makes them most vulnerable to deception. For a state of mind is a predisposition to belief or action; and if that predisposition can be accurately gauged, tempting or provoking the targeted decision-makers to ruin becomes a plausible exercise in perception management.
If there is a single failing common to decision-makers throughout history, it is an excessive faith in intelligence. For reasons that remain obscure, decision-makers seem unable or unwilling to grasp the implications of the Epistemological Problem Angleton described. Despite ample warnings, they almost invariably place far more credence in intelligence reports than they deserve; and it is upon this most basic failing that offensive counterintelligence plays.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote “Supreme excellence is to subdue the enemy without fighting” and argued this end may best be achieved by manipulating the “Golden Threads” of intelligence – that is, the lines of communications that connect agents recruited from within the enemy’s camp to one’s own. The first Golden Thread may be activated by sacrificing deliberately misinformed low-level agents for capture, dangling double agents for enemy recruitment, and dispatching false defectors to the enemy’s camp. The second is brought into play by querying the agent-in-place to determine how the enemy decision-makers have interpreted the false information they delivered. If the information evokes the intended state of mind, the false message can be reinforced by repeating the process in different ways. If not, it can be modulated until it does.
By these means offensive counterintelligence operations can create a false picture of reality in the minds of targeted decision-makers, much as an artist paints an image upon a sheet of canvass. Brush stroke by brush stroke, the attacking service can exploit the enemy intelligence service it suborned to systematically manipulate the Mind of the State.
The many critics of offensive counterintelligence argue that strategic deception operations of the size and scale suggested above are far too complex and complicated to be practical, as they are doomed to eventually collapse under their own weight. The criticism is true at least in part, but nonetheless disingenuous. Intelligence operations of any sort have a relatively short shelf life; and unless shut down by those who initiated them or uncovered by their intended targets, they will ALL eventually collapse for similar cause.
Perhaps more to the point, modern history is strewn with examples of successful strategic deceptions including the TRUST operation of the 1920’s, which saved the nascent Soviet state from ruin; the Soviet-sponsored WIN operation that forced the United States to abandon its post-war efforts to liberate Eastern Europe; and the Anglo-American deception operation that made possible the successful invasion of Normandy in 1944. All of these operations were conducted in the manner outlined above, and each inflicted massive damage upon the states they targeted.
Unfortunately, the United States abandoned its national counterintelligence capability in December of 1974 – and with it, the ability to mount large-scale strategic deception operations. Redefined and re-envisioned by successive administrations, counterintelligence had been reduced to little more than a security function until the Clinton Administration partially resurrected it after disastrous and overlapping penetrations of the CIA and the FBI were uncovered in the 1990’s. Expanded and reorganized in the aftermath of 9-11, a National Counterintelligence Executive now exists as a semi-autonomous supervisory agency. And yet despite the many long overdue reforms that have been undertaken since 2001, U.S. counterintelligence remains hobbled by an obtuse and legalistic definition, conceptual confusion, tangled jurisdictions, and – above all – by institutional timidity. For while offensive counterintelligence operations are now officially recognized, they remain tightly controlled and rarely sanctioned. They are tactical operations, most often mounted in reprisal.
Despite ample modern precedents, strategic deception operations of the sort advocated by Sun Tzu and refined by Angleton remain beyond the pale. This is unfortunate and – for those that seek to limit the suffering caused by armed conflict – deeply disconcerting.
For in the Great Game of Nations, offensive counterintelligence remains the only plausible means for achieving victory without war. For if only in theory, it is the primary offensive instrument of state.
Published by the Center for Intelligence Studies.
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Copyright 2009. This paper may be reproduced in part or in whole for civic or educational purposes, provided that context is preserved and full attribution is given