Espionage in the 21st Century

Growing up in 20th century America, it was easy to be a fan of James Bond, who had not just a license to kill but girls and cars, which was far better. Looking back, James Bond helped make the Cold War fun, but all good things must come to an end. The Cold War ended just as I was being exposed for the first time to the security world, and its realities were far more mundane than they looked in the movies. Yet espionage and spying retain a certain allure and relevance in the 21st century. Retired Congressman Mike Rogers (R-MI) said, “There are more spies in the United States today from foreign nation states that at any time in our history — including the Cold War.” That’s quite a claim, but I cannot help but wonder, what are they all doing? Rogers explains, “They’re stealing everything. If it’s not bolted down, it’s gone. And if it’s bolted down, give them about an hour — they’ll figure out how to get that, too.”

The evidence for these assessments isn’t at all clear, and Rogers seems to rely on the professional judgement of the intelligence community (IC). However, the IC’s interest isn’t exactly academic — their professional livelihood is tied up with the continuation and perpetuation of the intelligence game, and at times it really can seem like a game. Recently, it was revealed that the German spy agency, the BND, has been spying on the White House, but of course a few short years ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had excoriated the US for spying on her. Game indeed.

But to extract the emotion or affect out of the espionage game for just a moment, spying activities mostly entail simple data gathering so that governments can make informed policy decisions. The data gathered is organized by the processing, exploitation, and dissemination or PED process by which information or intelligence is gathered, made sense of, and put in products that are briefed to and consumed by senior decision makers. The intelligence can come from many different sources such as signals (SIGINT), images (IMINT), or humans (HUMINT). Analysts can specialize in each of these types of intelligence (or INT), which can then be combined by all-source analysts to create products that integrate and combine many types of INT. Simple right?

However, reintroducing affect reveals that a certain emotional satisfaction is derived by the espionage process. Knowing what others do not grants a feeling of being in on a secret, of being on “the inside,” of being “in the know,” a feeling of power. And that’s the key: controlling large armies doesn’t really confer power in the 21st century — though it helps — but having the crucial, inside information does. Of course leveraging that information for power, influence, and money is not always a straightforward process, but once again, it helps.


Finally there is the matter of reaching out, touching, and influencing other political actors, which in the IC is called operations, the fundamental activity of politics. So fundamental is this relationship between intelligence and operations that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has traditionally been comprised of two directorates: the Directorate of Intelligence (DI, now the Directorate of Analysis or DA) and the Directorate of Operations (DO). Of course there are many specialties and variations of the basics of intelligence gathering, analysis, and influence, which only appear to be ever more salient in the 21st century.


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