What will intelligence look like in the future?

BOOK REVIEW: Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence

By: Amy Zegart/Princeton University Press

Reviewed by Brian Fitzgerald

The Examiner: Brian Fitzgerald is one of America’s newest national security officials. He recently obtained his MBA and MPA from Columbia University where he focused his studies on strategy and geopolitics. His pre-government professional career includes stints at Big Law, EMEA-based tech and defense startups, and political risk consulting.

REVIEW – In Spies, lies and algorithms, Amy Zegart offers a polished primer on US intelligence for the uninitiated while posing challenging questions for veterans, who must recognize that the world around them is changing, with or without them. For current and old, this is not a book to ignore.

With chapter headings like “Intelligence Basics” and opening prose that reads like a graduate program, it’s clear Professor Zegart is the author. Spies, lies and algorithms with his Stanford students in mind. When she reveals that there are more college courses in rock and roll history than courses in intelligence, “giving undergraduates at America’s top universities a better chance to learn more about the rock band U2 than on the spy plane of the same name”, you understand why.

Zegart guides readers through the history of American intelligence in a captivating way, making accessible a subject that can too often seem obscure. It details the functions and nuances of congressional collection, analysis, covert action, and surveillance, using modern and historical case studies to inject practicality into the concepts. From George Washington’s deceptive placement of French cooking ovens along a New Jersey trail, to Operation AZORIAN’s removal of a Soviet submarine from the depths of the ocean, to intelligence scrutiny from the Church Committee of the 1970s and Stuxnet’s reworking of cyberconflict, Zegart gives readers just enough context to pique interest and still manages to connect the eras of American intelligence, distinct in their own way but each marked by “the halt in development, the fragmentation of the organization and democratic tensions”.

His cause is noble. When most Americans think of an intelligence professional, they think of Bond and Bourne, not Gordon or Hayden. This book aims to right that wrong through the lens of an outsider. As a former management consultant and current academic with an accomplished work that dates back thirty years, Zegart’s identity as a “visitor to the secret world of intelligence” frees her to “ask uncomfortable questions and arrive at unflattering conclusions. A career analyst with formed views on foreign enemies may miss how years of overclassification and (poor) education by proxy have eroded public understanding and trust in the intelligence community. Zegart cleverly outlines the drawbacks of a system designed to keep operations close to the vest; when a rogue NSA contractor is able to hijack the public surveillance narrative, conspiracy theories and Deep State thinking soon follow. “The bottom line is that when spying facts are rare, cynicism and suspicion are more likely to grow,” she argues.

In the book, Zegart goes as deep as it does wide. In her chapter on covert action, she expands the opening, explaining how covert action and paramilitary activity are not synonymous. The covert action manual also includes economic, political, and informational operations, all of which have been used in one form or another by administrations on both sides of the political aisle. She rightly notes that “when different leaders with different political philosophies facing different enemies in different times turn to the same toolkit, it’s time to set aside preconceptions and go deeper.”

Spies, lies and algorithms implores readers to contemplate the impact of 21st century realities. What was once a government monopoly on collection and analysis is gone. The definition of a policy maker has been rewritten. “Some of the most important decisions affecting US national security are made by the executives of Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and Apple, all of whom have global shareholders and no vote holding them accountable in elections,” Zegart writes. Open source intelligence has become the domain of private organizations and independent researchers capable of digging up enemy troop movements and missile sites at speeds comparable to those of intelligence agencies. The major difference: their discoveries are published on the World Wide Web, and not cloistered in a secret enclave. And that raises some tricky questions.

My main problem with Spies, lies and algorithms is that I wish he focused more on the future and less on the past. Should the government embrace the Bellingcats of the world and turn them into the Lockheed Martins of this century? What are the implications of such a change in contractualisation? Should a new OSINT agency be created? What would the business cards of a more transparent intelligence community look like?

I realize that I ask a lot of questions, expecting someone else to answer questions that will plague my generation of national security professionals. I pose them less as a cry for help (although I take it) and more as an expression of admiration for Zegart. I would be hard pressed to find anyone more capable than her to point us in the right direction. I just put this book down but I can’t wait to pick it up next.

Spies, Lies and Algorithms earns an impressive 3.5 on four trench coats.

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