Not performing enough human intelligence collection is a standard refrain these days. As the saying goes, “we’ve traded spies for satellites.” A golden age of honeypots and tradecraft and dead drops had been left behind at the dawn of the digital age. This is, purportedly, in keeping with the military establishment’s general overreliance on technology, stretching back to Rumsfeldian “transformation,” the ill-fated “revolution in military affairs” (RMA), and earlier. Conventional wisdom has it that this shift in emphasis was proven correct in the 1991 Gulf War, but it could also be argued that this was the war that the US military—especially the “armor guys”—had been itching to fight since the partition of Germany. Rather than the harbinger of a new era, the Gulf War was instead the last gasp of the Cold War.
But what does this have to do with human intelligence?
Contrary to the emphasis placed on the “spy games” aspect of Cold War diplomacy, intrigue, and espionage, the period between 1936 and 1989 saw a vast increase in technical methods of intelligence and relative devaluing of human collection (analysis, as always, has remained a predominantly human province). Some of these technical methods and their operators became lore unto themselves—Francis Gary Powers in his U-2 (imagery intelligence, or IMINT) and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park (signals intelligence, or SIGINT) come to mind—but most operated in a behind-the-scenes way. And they certainly continue to do to this day, recent disclosures notwithstanding.
The intelligence community has additionally seen a change in the way it structures its collection and analysis missions. During much of the Cold War, capabilities were duplicated throughout different agencies. Thus, in addition to the Defense Mapping Agency that preceded the National Imagery and Mapping Agency and today’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had its own IMINT people in the form of the National Photographic Interpretation Center, the National Reconnaissance Office did its own thing with satellites, and so forth. While all of these organizations persist in one form or another, their functions have been streamlined, such that we have most IMINT running through NGA, much of the SIGINT community operating at the National Security Agency (NSA), et cetera. Gaps do exists, as do split missions, and the joint responsibility of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and CIA for HUMINT is one such example. But in general, we now have standardized methods and practices of intelligence gathering, processing, exploitation, collection, and analysis. The very concept of “all-source intelligence” during the Cold War would have been unthinkable—and still seems a novelty to many analysts in the intelligence community—because it would have meant someone was driving in your lane, and that would be unacceptable. Fortunately, this is no longer the case.
But the real question is: what happened to human intelligence collection? Why did we dissolve that capability, and how do we get it back? The simple truth is that we’ve never been that good at it. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a massive advantage in terms of the scope and position of their penetration into the United States, and neither country ever really succeeded in placing people close to upper echelons of decision-making. And that’s because of both who the adversary and the main threat it posed to the United States were.
Fundamentally, the Cold War was a “clash of civilizations,” or at least, of competing systems and ideologies. The conflict was less “a few people versus agents of the United States”; rather, it was a total war between two peoples. In essence, it was one system pitted against another (and irrespective of the particulars and merits of each). Our intelligence-gathering apparatus merely began to reflect this.
Take, for instance, the overriding existential threat posed to the nation: nuclear holocaust. Here, no “defense” can ever be adequate, hence the rise of second-strike capabilities, hardened and dispersed targets, and Mutually-Assured Destruction. But in order to effectively threaten retaliatory annihilation, we had to maintain the ability to detect a Soviet launch and respond in kind. We also needed to keep tabs on Soviet missile deployments, SSBN rotations, weapons development, and other changes in the overall strategic balance. And for the most part, technical methods were the best means to do so. That sneaky Khrushchev wants to deploy SS-4s to Cuba? CORONA will find it. The Soviets want to park their boomers off the Eastern Seaboard? They’ll have to thread the sonar and sensors of the GIUK gap first.
A nuclear program is the embodiment of industrial-age technology. No matter how advanced the centrifuges, they still need powerful HVAC systems and a large building to run them in. Missiles tend to run towards the fairly sizeable. And while road- and rail-mobile ICBMs change the equation somewhat, it is exceedingly difficult to hide all the reactor equipment, production facilities, missile assembly plants, and other physical infrastructure associated with having a long-range nuclear capability. For satellites, COMINT, and other technical collection methods, it’s easy pickins’.
By the same token, the United States was fighting the menace of “communists” and not “Russians.” In a systemic war, a “clash of civilizations,” the people don’t really matter. The point is to stave off doomsday for as long as you can, and that requires intimate knowledge of the adversary’s weapons of the apocalypse, not necessarily cultivating ties with foreign diplomats. None of this is to say that the latter is useless, but rather that, staring into the faces of the four horsemen, there was an immediate and definite priority.
But we still struggle to come to terms with the end of the industrial age—an age still reflected by our intelligence systems, policy, posture, and a host of other realms—and in the meantime, we have moved into an era based around information and small, nimble systems. The sprawling nuclear complex of yesterday has been replaced by the nondescript office park home to a startup biological research facility. The entire system that was supposedly hell-bent on our destruction is gone, and risen in its place are small bunches of people—empowered agents—who wish to do harm to Americans. In this Brave New World, massive technical collection systems and indeed, American technophilia itself, are a poor substitute for winning and knowing the hearts and minds of potential and future adversaries. We’re not countering an entire system, we’re rolling up networks, and that’s a much different challenge for the intelligence community.
In this way, looking at the Gulf War as the dawn of a new technological error seems a massive error in judgment. It was in fact some of the last true state-on-state warfighting in which the United States would engage. And it set the stage for the disastrous sequel in 2003, during which the country was reminded that technology and people are rather different after all, and that the latter uses the former to affect more of the latter. Technology won’t win wars; humans using technology might. One of the most trenchant satires of the whole Iraq War was Max Brooks’ World War Z, in which M1 Abramses drawn up on the Saw Mill River parkway to halt a flood of zombies marching from Manhattan proves useless after firing their three anti-personnel rounds and switching to SABOT, which literally pass right through the human bodies. The subtext: weapons designed to use against other weapons function spectacularly poorly when you replace the anticipated technological foe with mere people.
And the same applies to intelligence, because especially without a concentrated entity on which to bring to bear the full power of the United States, the only actors are individual humans. Technical collection tends to prove ill-suited to countering and to some extent surveilling their actions (though perhaps not as much as believed until recently). The beauty of HUMINT, too, is that not only can we learn through collection who wants to kill us, but through other operations we can make them not want to. But this is a skill that if we once had it, has severely atrophied, and has never been developed as the focus of US intelligence that it ought to be.
This is why in large part, those who bemoan the post-Cold War “loss” of human intelligence capabilities have it wrong. We didn’t lose that ability—we just never really had it in the first place.