If You Don't Understand The Business Keep Your Hands Off
Published on July 10, 2018
In the world of foreign covert human intelligence (humint) the most disruptive circumstance that occurs is the advent of "civilian" assessment of a unit's operational record. (By the way, the domestic organization of this arcane activity may be different in locale and structure, but essentially the same in its personnel's reaction.) Underlying everything for field-level operational officers is the deeply ingrained belief that it's impossible for people who have never undergone the complex experience of direct participation in foreign intelligence covert operations to truly comprehend and assess the day-to-day functioning of a given project.
Similar statements could well be made about many other challenging professions - from long distance truck driving to brain surgery. The only real difference is that the general public - and politicians in particular – actually think they know all that is pertinent to know about intelligence operations. In the modern age, Ian Fleming planted the seed of this acquired knowledge through his heroic and brilliant James Bond. Actually, Ian Fleming had been in the business and well knew the Bond character had little or no legitimacy. But that didn't matter, because the public and its leaders wanted to believe in this form of romanticized challenge.
Challenge certainly exists in the intelligence business at all levels - from administration to operations – with essential research and analysis underpinning it all. Of course in some instances, while there are elements of physical danger, the romance portion resides solely in the imagination. Unfortunately, that part must be left to the novelists. Then there are the complications of everyday life that tend to interfere with accomplishing the operational job in the field. This is a unique vocation that depends strictly on human talent, perseverance and sometimes pure luck. Meanwhile, the restrictions of bureaucratic discipline and oversight should never be forgotten. One wonders how anything ever gets accomplished. The truth is that few people are really good at the balance. Most in the business just struggle as hard as they can to keep up with the complexities and multifarious demands.
Covert human intelligence operations (as opposed to electronic) exist not merely because of political requirements on both a local and national basis. Humint exists because mankind's socio-economic and political existence demands it – and has done so since time immemorial. There is nothing new in the world of intelligence. Any serious student of history (or literature) knows this. What might be considered as new is each generation's belief that their era and environment uniquely alters the challenge – which it of course does not. Each contemporary scene has been preceded by similar circumstances: including political structuring, economic happenstance, religious pressures and a myriad of other human experiences.
It is interesting that most people who participate professionally in this foreign intelligence business rarely think of what has gone on before, except where there is an operational necessity. That's referred to as keeping focused. It also means "keeping one's nose clean" and avoiding doing anything that can get you into trouble, administratively speaking. Recent events point to this most clearly.
And here is where the aforementioned "civilian" assessment comes in. From the intelligence professional's viewpoint, they - the outsiders - just don't understand. They haven't lived the life; the ups and downs, the good, the bad and yes, the ugly. How can they know, much less understand? Of course it really doesn't matter. A few careers are altered, some even ended, but the business goes on. Covert human intelligence will always go on. It always has and always will. The problem is that none of this is understood or even considered by the "civilians". It really is another world, with different rules, attitudes and even realities.
The problem with maintaining oversight of covert human intelligence in the twenty-first century is that American intelligence systems and the personnel who run them are quite different than they were when the first centralized agency was established shortly after WWII. The emphasis here must be focused on the human environment that surrounds the system in order to effect control.
Seventy years ago there was no such thing as a careerist in the U.S. foreign intelligence service. Today that is not the case - just the opposite. Professionals are expected to have lengthy careers. Most of them start off relatively young and then remain until they are well into or beyond middle age. With this basic personnel change is the loss of the original belief that an experienced and older leadership would be able to act as the ultimate overseer of operations. To protect the security and effectiveness of operations it is now believed that "civilian" control must be exercised by specific committees of the House and the Senate – of course with the "assistance" of special sections of the DOJ.
In reality, from an operational standpoint, this is the antithesis of covert intelligence administration. However, we are told it is the only way such activity can operate within a democratic system and structure of laws. Too many people have too much access to matters that should/must be closely held. To make matters worse, it is questionable that the "cleared" representatives of the public are actually vetted to the degree and extent of the intelligence personnel who gather the information and act upon it. (In this we are speaking of the field personnel and not the current collection of politically ambitious higher-ups.) One wonders how often and to what extent elected and appointed overseers are polygraphed to deter-mine the legitimacy/legality of their previous months of activity. Leaks, by the way, are actually crimes within the operational intelligence community.
The balance of security and efficiency is the ultimate goal in intelligence gathering and operation. The problem is that the intelligence committees of the House and Senate are vul-nerable to political influence and even manipulation. If this system of oversight is to succeed consistently, the committees so concerned must be able to proceed apolitically. If this cannot be accomplished, then oversight must be a profession in itself and an integral part of the intelligence system. There are no other alternatives.