Intelligence gathering is not really anything like people imagine it to be. Scratch beneath the veneer of impressive-sounding acronyms and dark-suited silent types. Look past the ominous office buildings huddled around national capitals and see spycraft for what it is. A grubby, oftentimes dull profession. The glitz and glamor? Fabrications; Hollywood smoke and mirrors.
The reality of intelligence gathering is that the work is slow paced and methodical. At least, that’s the way Harry Ferguson — a former MI6 intelligence officer who spoke to the Guardian in 2014 — sees it:
“Now and again, the work of the secret service really counts and they are the moments you look for. In between that, there is a lot of mundane routine work, setting up agents, pottering round and going to meetings that don’t come to anything. You have to find the resilience to get through those periods.”
So, it’s not James Bond then.
But perhaps that is the point.
Spies Like Us
The day-to-day world of geopolitical maneuvering is a dark and dirty place. The heads of intelligence agencies across the globe green light the occasional assassination attempts, such as was the case with the CIA’s unsuccessful attempts to rid the world of Fidel Castro, or the Korean NIS‘ successful removal of South Korea President Park Chung Hee via a bullet to the head.
They authorize the theft of state secrets. They sign off on bribes to entice agents to tattle on their own government. Oh sure, they get up to no good on a daily basis.
But they also provide a vital link in the defense of their respective nations. They watch ‘bad guys,’ they thwart terrorism. Theirs is an invisible shield but it is a shield nonetheless. They cast their net as far and wide as they are able. They put their lives on the line, they risk imprisonment or even death and are forced to endure the enormous burden of responsibility that comes with the inevitability of human error. A burden that — according to Ferguson — can be crushing:
“Knowing someone else was imprisoned, tortured or killed because you didn’t do your job properly is a terrible burden.When you start off as a young recruit, you think, ‘Fine, that suits me.’ But it is emotionally crushing for officers in the secret services and you can never really share that guilt with anybody. You always carry that around with you.”
It’s a good job they don’t have to bear it alone
Intelligence sharing has long been considered a barometer of bilateral relationship health. It’s more than that really. It’s currency.
Moreover, to share information is to declare trust. It’s an offer of a back scratch in the hope of reciprocation down the line. It’s the ultimate quid pro quo.
And as the Guardian noted:
“The closest relationship of all is Five Eyes, the club of English-speaking countries who pool the bulk of their intelligence: the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Membership was regarded as a status symbol by those allied agencies, but the downside of sharing the most intimate details became apparent when the internal workings of the UK signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, ended up in the hands of Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) contractor turned whistleblower.”
The sharing continued. It had to.
It allowed agencies to cast their nets further afield, to concentrate resources on specific regions knowing full well that their allies were watching other sensitive hot spots. Often such operations overlapped. So much the better.
And the fact is that it worked. Five Eyes kept us safe.
And then came President Donald Trump.
Chai Knees Whispers
To begin with, Trump’s own security agencies have been withholding information from him out of a fear he would casually share it with the Russians. And they were right to do so. Indeed, earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that he had shared highly secretive information that had been:
“Provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government.”
The implications of which are obvious. Although the President is entitled to declassify anything he sees fit, he is also expected to exercise judgment in doing so. The fact that he is incapable of such restraint is in part why his own intelligence agencies refuse to share information with him. But it cuts even deeper than that.
According to the Guardian:
“In the days before Trump’s inauguration, Israeli intelligence officials were reportedly getting nervous that what they shared with the new administration could end being leaked to Russia and then Tehran, after officials from the outgoing White House warned them the Kremlin had “leverage” over Trump.”
They aren’t nervous anymore.
They are livid.
And they are not the only ones.
Five Eyes Shut
“The intelligence community – in the United States and in the other Five Eyes –must now reckon with the Trump risk. The man who has the right to ask for and see all US intelligence cannot be trusted not to blurt it to whoever it is he wants to impress on any given day. They will take all necessary actions to protect their sources and methods, even if that detrimentally impacts intelligence cooperation.”
That is to say, what the monkey doesn’t hear the monkey can’t say.
It seems that the U.S. may have just lost a vital chink in its armor.
And Richard Nephew, a former NSC and state department official saw no need to sugar coat just how dire of a situation we have found ourselves in:
“People may die, including American citizens, if fear over Trump leaking leads to a refusal to share sensitive information in the future, It starts with the danger to the sources and methods … people could have died to acquire this information. To continue, I think it may be impossible to overstate how bad and dangerous this might turn out to be.”
How bad indeed?
Let’s hope we never find out.
Watch Senators demand answers regarding Trump’s Leaks
Featured image from Russian Foreign Ministry via NY Times.