Preserving national security in a hostile world is a primary function of American government. Protecting America involves both anticipating and meeting threats to America as well as exploiting the weaknesses of rival states and groups. Protecting the national interest requires the gathering and analysis of information as well as covert operations to weaken an enemy. Many agencies within the federal government such as the CIA and FBI are charged with pursuing America’s intelligence-gathering and counter-intelligence activities.
The topic of espionage and counter-espionage is certainly very relevant today. As a citizen and political scientist, I am concerned deeply over the threats to our democracy that are posed by foreign intervention in our country’s political and economic affairs and the cavalier attitude too many of our leaders and citizens have regarding these intrusions.
The news constantly reports attempts by foreign governments such as Russia or China to compromise our military, political and economic security. International terrorists require constant vigilance. Our cyber security is routinely threatened. Real spy stories make compelling reading and we all enjoy a good spy thriller. But the real world of espionage is tedious, constant, dangerous and demanding.
Recently, I participated in an intelligence conference in Washington DC entitled Inside the CIA. Participants included representatives of the CIA, NSA, FBI, Mossad and the former KGB, now the FSB. While much of the work of national security agencies focuses on the gathering and analysis of information, the work of espionage is also a significant component. The Russian penetrations of the American political process as well as the work of Mossad in the Middle East and espionage related to terrorism were all focuses of the conference.
Lessons I learned at the conference:
- The threats to our democracy are real, effective and constant.
A small number of successful espionage attempts can severely damage our security and the integrity of our institutions. We only hear about the ones that are discovered.
- The pursuit of national security Has major moral and ethical implications.
Many of the practitioners of international espionage operate on the functional principle that it is necessary, and therefore ok, to do for state security whatever is necessary. This can include doing that which is illegal or immoral for individuals such as lying, cheating, stealing and even murder. The security of the state comes first for, so it is argued, without that security the pursuit of moral ends such as justice would be impossible. The so called “good guys” can do some not very good things to defend the state. Something to think about: Where on our hierarchy of goals/values does and should state security come?
- Espionage against terrorist groups is particularly challenging.
Areas of chaos, poverty, derivation and alienation, which exist throughout the world, provide a breeding ground for radicalization and terrorism. ISIS and Al Qaeda may appear down but they are not out. Foreign terrorist groups provide a challenge for the intelligence community in that they are not easy to penetrate.
- Espionage and counter-intelligence are very diverse pursuits and require constant and diverse means to defeat them.
The security threat is constant. Because people become spies for all sorts of reasons such as ideology, money, excitement, sex, ego, disgruntlement and being compromised, there is a never-ending supply of spies. It is a never ending struggle and just as our body is constantly bombarded by germs and viruses so is our nation bombarded by espionage attempts.
The CIA conference impressed upon me the need for constant vigilance. Offensive espionage techniques are always evolving, staying just ahead of counter- intelligence. We need to take espionage seriously. So the next time we read about a spy being caught and the threat that person posed to our country, we should pay attention and demand aggressive action on the part of our government. This is not fake news; foreign espionage and covert action are threats to our way of life.