The outcry over the extent to which the NSA and other agencies collect intelligence electronically will have some notable policy consequences. Already, there are reports of a mutual non-spying agreement between the US and Germany, a de facto extension of one aspect of the ‘five eyes’ arrangement.
And there is some understandable worry about how much damage the Snowden leaks are doing to US influence, playing into the hands of authoritarian states untroubled about striking a balance between democratic transparency and effective intelligence capabilities.
But there may be another unintended consequence of Snowden’s mega-leaks about US and allied signals intelligence (or SIGINT). To be sure, the NSA is coming under intense political scrutiny and can expect to have its ears clipped, literally.
Yet in a weird way, this whole saga may be good for spies.
In a self-help world, any self-respecting government will want the advantages of possessing classified intelligence – information that other states do not want it to have, and the very obtaining of which it wants to keep secret. Governments may not necessarily need this information on a day-to-day basis, but they do want to have options open so they can get hold of it in a crisis, precisely the hardest time to set up new collection sources and channels. Hence they typically ensure themselves the ability to collect more than they immediately need.
If it can't be got one way, perhaps it will be got another. With the prospect of much greater political and public scrutiny on SIGINT – its ambit, targets and methods – what will be the effect on another realm of spying, the use of human intelligence, or spies as traditionally understood?
One possibility is that governments which curtail their electronic efforts might begin to reinvest heavily in the human side of things, the old-fashioned world of running agents to gather forbidden information and insight through time-honoured if not exactly honourable methods of interacting in certain ways with other people. In other words, what is bad for the NSA may be good for the CIA.
This of course brings its own political and moral dilemmas. Human intelligence or HUMINT has its own fallibilities, including those that depend on the less-than-pure motives of people who give or sell classified information to foreigners. The sorry tale-telling of Iraqi defector Curveball is a reminder of HUMINT’s unique capacity for inaccuracy and distortion (and there’s a German connection in that story too).
Of course, HUMINT can occasionally deliver intelligence gems, such as a timely insight into the intentions of leaders or terrorists. But typically this comes with commensurate risk to diplomatic relations or even to a source’s life.
In any case, there is one kind of spy agency that is sure to find itself even busier due to all this rage against the SIGINT machine. Presumably, pressure is going to increase for domestic security organisations like the FBI and ASIO (a corporate member of the Lowy Institute) to identify and stop the next Snowden (and the next Manning while they are at it).
Regardless of whether a few countries now reconsider the extent of their own electronic eavesdropping abroad, it is absurd to imagine that the intelligence game can be wished away from relations between states.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.