In Espionage, Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Cipher Brief Expert View

Douglas London is a retired senior CIA Operations Officer and Adjunct Associate Professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. Mr. London served 34 years in the CIA’s Clandestine Service that included several Chief of Station assignments and executive Headquarters management positions. 

Since retiring from the CIA’s Clandestine service a year back, I’ve watched the predictions of doom for Human Intelligence (HUMINT) with varying degrees of fascination and skepticism. Well researched and thoughtful articles appropriately raise the threat that technology poses to this most ancient of human endeavors. Artificial intelligence, biometrics and the exponential capabilities of data collection and analysis are said to undermine anonymity, cover, and clandestine communications between the world’s intelligence services and their agents. Such dire assessments are backed by stories concerning China and Iran’s counterintelligence successes in compromising U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) agents. Unquestionably, technological evolution changes the clandestine battlefield, but is a double-edged sword for the hunted and the hunters alike. Still, espionage’s foundation has always been people. It’s the personal relationships, imagination and unlimited human ingenuity that makes it work and evolve. Arguably, it might be harder to clandestinely run agents today than 5, 10, or 20 years ago, but hardly hopeless.

The Cipher Brief has become the most popular outlet for former intelligence officers; no media outlet is even a close second to The Cipher Brief in terms of the number of articles published by formers.” —Sept. 2018, Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 62

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