The shapeshifters

Michelle Van Cleave, who served as head of U.S. counterintelligence from July 2003 through March 2006 has an interesting article in the Washington Post claiming that foreign espionage is so rampant nobody even knows how bad it is.

Back in 2002, I got an unexpected phone call from the White House. "Would you be interested in serving as the head of U.S. counterintelligence?" they asked.

The Obama administration may already have placed such a call and picked someone to handle my old job: identifying and stopping other nations' spies. But my successor will have his or her work cut out for them. ...

The Chinese stole the design secrets to all -- repeat, all -- U.S. nuclear weapons, enabling them to leapfrog generations of technology development and put our nuclear arsenal, the country's last line of defense, at risk. To this day, we don't know quite when or how they did it, but we do know that Chinese intelligence operatives are still at work, systematically targeting not only America's defense secrets but our industries' valuable proprietary information. ...

How could such spies have operated unseen at the very heart of our national security enterprise for so long and with such success?

The reason spies can operate with such impunity, according to Van Cleave, is that the different US intelligence outfits are pursuing their own agendas: "the FBI, the CIA and the military services tend to go their separate ways". As a result, Van Cleave says, there is no overarching strategy which governs the purposes of counterintelligence, which has resulted for example, in the neglect of offensive counterintelligence operations (penetrating the bad guys to find out who their spies over here are) and a focus on purely defensive measures. "Ninety percent of our counterintelligence resources are concentrated within the United States. We're playing goal-line defense rather than looking for opportunities to get ahead of the game."

Presumably things would improve with better strategy. But there are two major problems which must be implicitly solved. The first is whether the existing shops are willing to yield power over their counterintel strategies to an external body. The second is political. The weaknesses of US human intelligence operations abroad were illustrated by the Iraq WMD fiasco.  On the domestic front, counterintelligence operations might run afoul of the established ways of doing business, especially when the foreign agents are politically well connected or are politicians themselves. Effective espionage and counterespionage requires doing politically incorrect things. America needs to root out spies, but who will bell the cat? Van Cleave describes how spies operate in wide-open America:

in America today, there are thousands of foreign-owned commercial establishments, hundreds of thousands of exchange students and visiting academicians, and countless routine trade and financial interactions. Hidden beneath these open and legitimate activities can be darker purposes. With our open, rich society as cover, intelligence officers and their agents can move about freely, develop contacts and operate in the shadows -- a point no more lost on foreign spies than it was on the 19 hijackers that September morning in 2001.

There may even be those who would argue that it is more important to 'keep America open' than it is to find the traitors, a word whose usage mirrors the fortunes of counterespionage. If spycatching is truly impossible, then it is interesting to consider the extent to which the reluctance to coordinate itself constitutes a form of counterintelligence. In a situation where it is unclear who to trust, communication and coordination shuts down.  The intelligence agencies hoard their pieces of the puzzle. Up and down the hallways the doors close. Perhaps the single greatest paradox of an open society occurs when foreign spies can so penetrate it that trust nodes are disabled and the network effectively segments. Then the openness of that society is turned against itself and the information balkanization begins. That imposes significant costs. A business intelligence professional remarked that from one point of view the credit crisis is exactly that: a collapse of trust nodes reflected in the LIBOR rates.  Maybe the phrase "eternal vigilance is the price of freedom" isn't simply a figure of speech, but an expression of the price in security we must pay in order to be able to implicitly trust one another.