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Covert Action


The activities of the intelligence community range from providing the President with timely and accurate information (especially during crises) to monitoring its customary array of targets; and from forecasting new problem areas to undertaking covert actions when traditional instruments of policy are deemed unsuitable or have proven ineffective.

Prior to World War II, the United States lacked a significant intelligence capacity, as that term is understood today; such a capacity--both military and civilian--developed during the war. Then, with the advent of the Cold War came the creation of a new, permanent intelligence infrastructure. The National Security Act of 1947 established the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), headed by the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), who was given the responsibility of coordinating all the agencies of the national intelligence community. In the mid-1990s, these agencies include the National Security Agency (NSA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the individual military service intelligence agencies, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, the counterintelligence unit of the FBI, and the offices--including the National Intelligence Council--that support the DCI, who has direct administrative control over the Community Management Staff and the CIA. In all, some thirteen federal agencies, most embedded in cabinet departments, are part of the intelligence community.

Although the current budget and personnel size of the intelligence community are classified, both budgetary and personnel figures are headed downward. Each agency is smaller in the mid-1990s than it was in the late 1980s, and Congress has mandated further cuts from what the press speculates was a $28 billion 1995 budget, so that levels by the year 2000 will be only about 75 percent of 1985-89 levels.

While the resources devoted to intelligence are shrinking, the objects of interest to the intelligence community and the demands for intelligence by decision makers are becoming more far-ranging and diverse. With the end of the Cold War, the overriding threat of the Soviet Union has been replaced by an increasing array of smaller threats, each requiring attention from the intelligence community. These threats were set forth as follows in the Clinton administration's 1995 statement, A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement:

Because national security has taken on a much broader definition...intelligence must address a much wider range of threats and dangers. [It] will continue to monitor military and technical threats, to guide long-term force development and weapons acquisition, and to directly support military operations. Intelligence will also be critical for directing new efforts against regional conflicts, proliferation of WMD, counterintelligence, terrorism, and narcotics trafficking. In order to adequately forecast dangers to democracy and U.S. economic well-being, the intelligence community must track political, economic, social, and military developments in those parts of the world where U.S. interests are most heavily engaged and where overt collection of information from open sources is inadequate. Finally, to enhance the study and support of worldwide environmental, humanitarian, and disaster relief activities, technical intelligence assets (principally imagery) must be directed to a greater degree towards the collection of data on these subjects.

Thus, the post-Cold War world poses unprecedented challenges for the U.S. intelligence community: it must function effectively, against a broad range of threats, in an environment of unparalleled openness and oversight, but with dwindling resources.

As of late-1995, three major studies of the U.S. intelligence community were underway--the first by the Aspin Commission, headed by former Defense Secretary Harold Brown. This commission was charged with reviewing the efficacy and appropriateness of community activities, including, among other issues, the community's roles and missions in providing support to the defense and foreign policy establishments; whether the community's roles and missions should extend beyond these traditional areas of support; whether the existing organizational and management framework of the community provides the optimal structure for executing the missions; whether existing principles and strategies concerning collection capabilities should be retained; whether intelligence analysis as structured and executed adds sufficient value to information already available to the government to justify its continuation; whether there is significant waste or duplication; and whether counterintelligence policies and practices are adequate to ensure necessary security. The report of this commission is due in March 1996.

The second review is being conducted by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the oversight committee that deals with the broad range of intelligence issues for the House. This report is scheduled for completion in January 1996, two months in advance of the Aspin report.

The third study, organized by The Twentieth Century Fund, is being done by a bipartisan panel of distinguished former State and Defense Department officials, senior intelligence officers, and members of Congress who have joined the private sector. The focus of the commission is an examination of the relevance of the National Security Act of 1947 in light of post-Cold War circumstances; the nature of the threat facing the U.S. intelligence community after the Cold War; the strategic role of intelligence in a time of growing openness; and the question of whether the proposed organizational reforms go far enough to ensure that the nation's intelligence capabilities are going to be effective in the world of the next century. The report of this commission is to be ready by June 1996.


Strictly speaking, the analytical side of intelligence is not an instrument of policy but serves as a support for policy. Unlike diplomacy or military force, intelligence analysis does not directly influence the behavior of foreign states or entities. Instead, its practitioners work intimately with the practitioners of persuasion and coercion who are striving to achieve such influence. Strategic intelligence services provide national security decision makers with the following:

  • Early warning of war and other developments that could threaten core U.S. interests, especially when such developments occur in countries restricting the access of U.S. diplomats and journalists.

  • On-going information about foreign countries' compliance with arms control and other international treaties.

  • Support for negotiators.

  • Support for ongoing or anticipated military operations.

  • Independent assessments of emerging situations and problems, including economic and political developments in key countries and regions.

  • Access to data about emerging technologies.

  • Protection against hostile intelligence services and others seeking classified information about U.S. government activities (counterintelligence).

  • The ability to undertake covert action--specifically, to influence foreign leaders, intervene in foreign conflicts, and alter foreign political organizations--without leaving visible evidence of the U.S. government's involvement. (Covert action differs from other intelligence community activities in that it is an instrument of policy, designed to fill the void between diplomacy and military force.)

    Given the multiple roles of intelligence, its instruments fall into four categories. One--collection--prepares the intelligence community to support policy makers and military commanders. One--analysis and reporting--is the act of providing such support. One--counterintelligence--supports U.S. personnel and agencies by protecting them from the harmful efforts of foreign intelligence agencies and other hostile groups. One--covert action--subsumes any instrument of influence when it is wielded in such a way as to keep secret the role of the U.S. or at least to provide U.S. leaders with plausible deniability.


    The term "collection" embraces the multiple means of gathering intelligence information. Human intelligence (HUMINT), the oldest type of collection, derives from operatives in the field. The Directorate of Operations within the CIA is principally responsible for clandestine HUMINT collection; DIA, the State Department, and the military services also contribute extensively to HUMINT. Signals intelligence (SIGINT) is the collection and processing of foreign communications, noncommunications electromagnetic radiations, and foreign instrumentation signals. SIGINT is the domain of NSA. Photography, infrared sensors, lasers, electro-optics, and synthetic aperture radar produce imagery intelligence (IMINT). CIA and the Department of Defense (DOD) share imagery tasking and exploitation, although the actual launch and maintenance of satellites has been handled by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Lastly, measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) comprises intelligence obtained by analyzing the distinctive features of a source, emitter, or sender utilizing acoustic, seismic, particle, multispectral, or other data associated with it.

    As the Cold War developed, U.S. intelligence became increasingly proficient in the development and deployment of collection systems using advanced technology--SIGINT, IMINT, and MASINT. HUMINT achieved some spectacular successes, but these were offset by the USSR's penetration of a number of Western intelligence agencies and the subsequent compromise of valuable assets. For example, it has recently come to light that most of the Cubans whom the CIA recruited during the Cold War were actually double agents working for Cuban intelligence. Similarly, Aldrich Ames's disclosure of the names of assets providing intelligence to CIA led to the death of a number of individuals at the hands of the Soviets.

    Collection and New Technologies. A profound question for the future of U.S. intelligence is the degree to which technology-based collection systems will retain their effectiveness. Several developments cast a long shadow of doubt:

    * Target countries and entities increasingly implement countermeasures as they become more knowledgeable about the capabilities (and limitations) of U.S. intelligence systems. For example, to preclude the collection of intelligence from space, many countries calculate when satellites are over their territories, and at those times curtail or enshroud activities that they wish to hide.

    * Advances in telecommunications and information systems, and the growing prevalence of sophisticated commercial encryption technologies, complicate the collection of data from communications and computer networks. The essence of the basic algorithms for encrypting messages beyond what all but the most powerful computers can break can be obtained from the Internet. Using such publicly posted algorithms as "Pretty Good Privacy," even strangers can exchange traffic secure in the knowledge that their transmissions cannot be interpreted without extraordinary effort.

    * The sheer cost of upgrading and maintaining space-based collection systems constitutes an obstacle in light of diminishing intelligence budgets. The press speculates that the U.S. is spending billions of dollars to upgrade its intelligence satellites.

    Collection and New Targets. A still more telling question for the intelligence community is the degree to which it can adapt to new targets. From the outset of the Cold War until after the break-up of the Soviet Union, intelligence resources and manpower were focused heavily on the Soviet Union and its spheres of influence. Over the course of forty-five years, the intelligence community built an extensive data base on the activities of the Soviet Union's military, economic, civilian and military leadership, and relations with foreign governments. Analysts watched the other Warsaw Pact countries as well, noting, for example, how they performed during military exercises. In the developing regions of Africa, Asia, South America, and the Middle East, Soviet client states received some attention, and the intelligence community also analyzed Soviet influence in nonaligned countries where conditions appeared ripe for an increased Soviet presence and the replacement of regimes committed to neutrality by leaderships actively hostile to the United States.

    Other major Cold War intelligence targets included the People's Republic of China, North Korea, and Cuba--both because of their ties to the Soviet Union and because of the threat they posed to U.S. interests in their regions. Areas of instability such as the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America received periodic surges of attention in response to regional conflicts. Lastly, the intelligence community devoted resources to economic and political developments in countries where the United States had considerable interests, including many outside the Soviet bloc for which open sources were inadequate.

    The question has arisen whether the sources and methods of collection cultivated during the Cold War can be translated to the collection challenges of the post-Cold War era. For example, the intelligence community developed unequalled expertise in counting and tracking nuclear weapons, but monitoring the dismantlement of such weapons and the disposal of fissionable materials presents some different problems.

    Shifts in the realm of political analysis also lie ahead. During the Cold War, intelligence agencies developed a keen sense of how communist systems functioned. In contrast, the challenge for political analysts in the post-Cold War world is to discover what factors may strengthen democratic political forces in post-communist societies.

    In the area of economic intelligence, the methods used to develop human sources and elicit information about the economic weaknesses of socialist systems and Cold War adversaries have little relevance to post-Cold War challenges. The acquisition of information about commercial practices and transactions, and the expertise to interpret financial and business data, require different sources and skills. The personnel most knowledgeable about these subjects are also sought by the private sector, against whose salaries government cannot compete. Furthermore, a host of ethical and methodological questions has arisen over the possibility of the intelligence community's sharing its information with U.S. business--aiding them, for example, in their pursuit of a level playing field in international commerce. Former DCI R. James Woolsey said clearly as he was stepping down from his position in early 1995 "We are not in the business of spying for private firms." Thus far, the policy remains unchanged. But the intelligence community sometimes does pass U.S. firms information about illicit activities taken against them by foreign companies and governments. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown stated that in 1994 "the intelligence community detected foreign firms using bribery to undercut U.S. firms' efforts to win international contracts worth $45 billion" and that in almost every case, the U.S. government informed the U.S. firm about the bribery attempt.

    Intelligence Community Structure

    Other new targets--such as international terrorism, crime, and drug trafficking--present their own problems. For instance, counterterrorism operations seek to prevent terrorist acts. Yet taking preemptive action usually entails revealing that the U.S. government was in a position to know of a terrorist organization's plans, which in turn jeopardizes intelligence sources and methods. Intelligence professionals must work closely with law enforcement officials to ensure that these sources and methods are not compromised in the process of providing foreign intelligence to the law enforcement community. The same holds true for counternarcotics operations.

    Environmental monitoring is another new target. Vice President Al Gore led an effort to make available hundreds of thousands of reconnaissance satellite images. Some 800,000 declassified images processed by the National Reconnaissance Office between 1960 and 1972, released in February 1995, are available on the Internet. Similarly, both France and Russia are offering satellite imagery for sale to commercial and other customers, a practice likely to spread. Environmental targets are becoming part of the tasking of imagery satellites. But intelligence personnel who interpret such images may find that expertise in identifying the signatures of Soviet military forces does not necessarily translate into a facility for addressing environmental issues.

    Some new targets seem to fit a traditional mold yet actually differ drastically. For example, the intelligence community traditionally supported U.S. intervention operations by providing early warning of volatile situations. But this role is greatly complicated to the extent that the issues driving U.S. foreign policy are unclear. As Les Aspin, the late chairman of the Commission on Roles and Capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community, noted, "Using the military to protect our values overseas...drives the intelligence community crazy because there is no way to anticipate where values issues might crop up next."

    Another example is the use of satellite photos to detect a new kind of suspicious military activity, namely, war crimes, as in Bosnia. Such use creates great pressure to reveal photo data, which the U.S. has traditionally been extremely reluctant to do. Indeed, after revealing evidence of mass graves dug by Bosnian Serb forces, the U.S. was not willing to provide all of its intelligence on the subject to the international tribunal judging war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

    Overhead photo of possible Serb war crimes site, displayed to the U.N. Security Council

    While adaptation to these circumstances has been reasonably successful, it has not been without problems. Most means of collection--in particular, satellite imaging--were designed to cover the Soviet Union. Within the constraints of physics, satellites have been adapted through new technologies to cover targets for which they were not originally designed. According to John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, the new 8X satellite can take high resolution photos of 1,000 square miles at a time, compared to 100 square miles for the KH-12 satellite it is replacing; if so, the wider coverage should reduce this problem. However, certain targets remain outside their range and must be accessed by alternative collection means, sometimes with the assistance of foreign partners who are unproven allies.

    Open-Source Information. The opening up of the former Soviet Union, combined with the information revolution, has provided a wealth of unclassified data that was hitherto unavailable. The explosion in open-source information creates yet another set of conceptual challenges for intelligence analysis.

    Some experts estimate that more than 80 percent of the data used by the intelligence community comes from open sources, and CIA and NSA are probably the only U.S. government agencies that have the technical capability to handle the vast quantities of information available. Such volume puts enormous strains on the systems designed to filter the intake and on the analysts who must process what is left.

    Another effect of greatly increased open-source information is the decreasing dependence on the intelligence community in some segments of the national security community. CNN is available in most operations centers and other government offices, as is increasingly the Internet, to satisfy multiple information needs. Some intelligence consumers prefer to probe their own sources and private contacts--either academics or foreign counterparts or colleagues whom they trust. One reason is that such information does not necessarily come with the cumbersome restrictions on use that accompany the output of the intelligence community. As a result, the intelligence community will in the future have to compete for customers as it never did when much information about the Soviet Union could be acquired only through sensitive sources, and such competition will require that the community add intelligence value to information it obtains from open sources.

    These facts have led some to question the need for maintaining an elaborate and expensive intelligence establishment at all. But aside from the issue of information not available from public sources, major distinctions still exist between information and intelligence. Journalists--the primary purveyors of information--generally describe what they have observed or have been told, often without the time, experience, and expertise to analyze or evaluate the implications of this information. Intelligence, however, constitutes information from a variety of sources that has been analyzed by specialists and tailored to the specific needs of the user. Thus, it will remain true that some key questions of policymakers and military commanders will be answerable only by the intelligence community. And those who take advantage of the community's capabilities will find that no media organization, think tank, or academic research can match the intelligence community for timeliness, responsiveness, and access to otherwise unavailable information--particularly when analysts understand their customers requirements.

    Analysis and Reporting

    For reasons of economy and security, national intelligence agencies were dispersed during the Cold War. While most remain in and around the Washington area, their geographic separation has made it difficult to develop a closely knit group of experts who could convene easily to deal with intelligence issues. Fortunately, new technology makes virtual meetings using audio-visual technology a reality. This also permits analysts deployed in the field to interact more productively with their Washington counterparts.

    The intelligence community's principal analytical organizations are the Directorate for Intelligence within the CIA, most of DIA, and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the State Department. These agencies have produced some impressive results, such as the analysis that sustained the Western effort to control exports of sensitive technologies to communist countries during the Cold War. But some post-Cold War concerns--for example, crises requiring the deployment of U.S. forces for brief periods--are short-lived, unlike the enduring concern over the Soviet Union. Even though budgets are declining, the intelligence community is still expected to produce timely and accurate intelligence on these situations, some of them involving countries about which little previous data has been developed.

    Outside Expertise. While information data bases can be built up over time and updated if resources allow, it is not cost-effective or even possible to maintain a cadre of specialists with the expertise to cover all possible contingencies. Therefore, the community has occasionally had to find ways to acquire the expertise it needs through nontraditional means. A case in point is the use of Kuwaiti students studying in the U.S. during the build-up to Desert Storm, when the number of capable Arabic linguists in the U.S. military and the intelligence community proved insufficient to meet the demand. Similarly, it is occasionally necessary to call upon the academic community for expertise that the intelligence community lacks.

    The United States' growing involvement in U.N. operations, and Washington's commitment to provide intelligence to support allied operations other than war, has led not only to greater sharing of intelligence with foreign governments but also to increased reliance on foreign expertise. The result so far is mixed. The United States still contributes the preponderance of intelligence to such operations; some coalition partners have been unwilling to provide their input on other than a bilateral basis with the United States. The storage and protection of intelligence documents have been problematic, as exemplified in the Somali operation by the discovery of classified material in an unguarded U.N. area. Intelligence support for U.S. military forces deployed in U.N. operations poses special problems. Deployments often occur in regions where neither the United Nations nor the United States has a complete picture of conditions on the ground. Such situations increasingly require cooperation with the private sector--private voluntary organizations (PVOs), for example--to gather information about infrastructure, language, customs, culture, and other subjects useful for humanitarian and peace operations. Some PVOs have been traditionally reluctant, if not averse, to cooperating with military forces or intelligence organizations and only recently have warmed somewhat to these interactions.

    Changes in Customer Support. Within the intelligence community, major changes have occurred in customer support since the end of the Cold War. However, these changes did not result from the altered strategic environment as much as from the increased integration of intelligence professionals into policy and military staffs and from dramatic changes in technology.

    By virtue of the changes in information technology, users of intelligence information, from policymakers to military commanders and their staffs, can retrieve some material directly from community data bases. Rather than waiting for the results of standing or special intelligence
    requirements, customers can acquire tailored intelligence almost as easily as they can access information from the Internet and other unclassified data bases. In addition to established hard copy intelligence publications, the Defense Intelligence Network provides televised reports of intelligence-based news events to senior levels in the Pentagon and the field. Intelink, the intelligence professionals' Internet, provides access to an expanding array of intelligence products and data bases and represents a powerful new tool in their analytical kit.

    Trying machine--the successful cryptanalytic effort against the "Enigma," depended on the Turning Machine.

    German Soldiers in WWII use the "Enigma," an Electromechanical cipher machine.

    But just as insufficient intelligence can pose a problem, too much unfiltered information can also impede sound policy and decision making. While technology also addresses this problem, it remains the responsibility of the intelligence community, particularly in a crisis, to deliver only the information needed to make timely, sound decisions. For example, during the buildup to the Gulf War, one of the earliest and most challenging problems facing the intelligence community was limiting the intelligence sent to Riyadh. Without pre-selection, customers would have been overwhelmed by data and unable to pick useful material out of the mass of information.

    But no amount of technological advance will matter if customers are unaware of the availability of intelligence, or choose not to use it. While this is a timeless problem, it has acquired added importance in the information age. In Desert Storm, one U.S. division commander executing the "Hail Mary" to flank Iraqi forces from the west was fully informed of Iraqi military activities throughout the operation, while another, executing a parallel mission, operated without such intelligence. The former had experts who knew how to obtain and use the relevant intelligence, something which the latter apparently lacked. Such situations will prove increasingly detrimental to the performance of coordinated operations in the future. To optimize intelligence, therefore, policymakers and military commanders must have experienced, well-trained intelligence officers and should understand the basics of the intelligence community and how it can serve their needs. Ideally, customers should also hold periodic meetings with the intelligence officers who support them. In such instances, the quality of intelligence support increases immeasurably.

    Support to Military Commanders. While each military service has its own intelligence organization, U.S. planners have long recognized the value of independently produced national intelligence. Such intelligence can serve as a check on the work of operational commanders' own intelligence units and add both breadth and detail to the strategic picture. Moreover, though military intelligence personnel may train for a wider range of contingencies, the services concentrate on tactical intelligence unique to their needs. They cannot devote sufficient resources to develop expertise for all possible operations. And when the expertise of their own intelligence agencies falls short, military commanders will look to the broader intelligence community to provide the required expertise.

    Those who use technical intelligence almost always do so with preconceptions that they bring to the analytical process. There is rarely disagreement over what a picture shows, for example, but what it means is often the subject of intense debate.

    --William E. Burrows, Deep Black

    No combat commander has ever had as full and complete a view of his adversary as did our field commander. Intelligence support to Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm was a success story.

    --General Colin Powell, former Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

    The reason the enlightened prince and the wise general conquer the enemy whenever they move and their achievements surpass those of ordinary men is foreknowledge.

    --Sun Tzu, The Art of War

    It is not easy to define counterintelligence. Practitioners themselves disagree about the meaning of the concept. At a minimum, however, counterintelligence can be defined as the identification and neutralization of the threat posed by foreign intelligence services, and the manipulation of those services for the manipulator's benefit.

    --Roy Godson, Intelligence Requirements for the 1980s: Counterintelligence.

    In the past, however, some intelligence support to military commanders has been inconsistent in quality, presented in a form or at a time that made it difficult to use, pitched at so general a level that it frustrated commanders making concrete decisions, or provided from too many technical sources to offer a coherent picture. "Good intelligence," DCI John Deutch noted in an address to the 1995 graduating class at the National Defense University, is "particularly important at a time when we have a smaller military that is being asked to take on a wider number of different challenges in remote and unfamiliar areas of the world." But to make a difference, Deutch continued, the national agencies "must be clearly focused on the needs of the warfighter." Thus, intelligence collection and analysis organizations must continue to provide information for military commanders that is more timely, accurate, attuned to the specific needs of operational commanders, and presented in a form tailored to battlefield situations.

    According to the DCI, intelligence promotes battlefield awareness by providing "joint force commanders real-time, or near real-time, all-weather, comprehensive, continuous surveillance and information." A newly established Associate Director of Central Intelligence for Military Support is to ensure that, despite their multiple priorities and consumers, intelligence agencies continue to meet the special needs of the military and the circumstances of the battlefield. This requires closer attention to how the intelligence community disseminates its data during wartime conditions and how it receives feedback from its military customers.

    Press reports speculate about organizational changes to improve the coordination among analysts of satellite imagery, including use of the same data for intelligence analysis and map making. In 1995, eleven separate agencies did their own imagery analysis, according to press reports unconfirmed by official sources. In October 1995, a reorganization of the imagery activities into one consolidated agency was announced.

    Commanders, in turn, must strive to articulate better how national intelligence can serve their tactical needs. For instance, the traditional written intelligence report has been supplemented and complemented by a growing array of multimedia products that often help in the planning and execution of combat operations. Technologically, this intelligence can be transmitted simultaneously to the commander and the individual soldier in the field, which, from the commander's perspective, creates problems for maintaining command and control. That is a new dimension in information the services have yet to understand fully.

    As former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence Douglas MacEachin described in a 1994 working paper to the Washington-based Consortium for the Study of Intelligence, the community must ensure that the needs of the customer are the driving factors in the production of intelligence and that analytic tradecraft emphasizes both the facts and the findings derived from them. Opinions must be linked to "what is known, how it is known, and with what level of reliability"--in short, the rigorous application of principles of analytic tradecraft.

    Overseas collections site with covered antennae


    Counterintelligence aids national security by protecting U.S. forces and government agencies and their personnel against espionage, sabotage, assassinations, and terrorism conducted on behalf of foreign powers and organizations.

    In 1995, despite the end of the Cold War, the United States remains the primary intelligence target for many countries, including some traditional allies who have increased their attempts to acquire economic and corporate secrets. What has changed in the post-Cold War world is the ease with which foreign intelligence services can operate in the United States. The relaxation of security concerns, plus advances in penetration techniques, has made it increasingly difficult for the United States to implement successful counterintelligence measures.

    Porous international borders and market-driven decisions create pressure for the national security community to relax limitations on the export of hitherto restricted technologies. A growing number of countries thus have access to advanced technology that previously was difficult to acquire outside of the United States and its allies. As a result, U.S. systems that protect sensitive information are increasingly vulnerable to exploitation. The steady expansion of computer networks, the growth in corporate and political intelligence stored in networked computers, and the continuing internationalization of the public phone system, private communications networks, and the Internet have created new challenges in protecting information. Software tools to break into and read sensitive information are freely available all over the world. In addition, the challenge of protecting sources and methods, the pressure to downgrade and declassify information, declining security standards, and leaks and espionage have produced vulnerabilities that are increasingly difficult to counteract.

    On the other hand, though Aldrich Ames was a Cold War spy, his arrest in 1994 did dramatize for the country the serious problems that can result from lax security and ineffective counterintelligence. This scandal prompted the Clinton administration, at the insistence of Congress, to alter counterintelligence structures and to require the FBI and CIA, with assistance from other intelligence agencies, to work together more closely to define current and future threats and implement countermeasures. As part of this renewed emphasis on counterintelligence, the National Counterintelligence Center, created in 1993 by Presidential Decision Directive 24, maintains an extensive data base on foreign intelligence activity and provides intelligence support to the counterintelligence operations of the FBI and CIA.

    Covert Action

    Covert action uses intelligence assets and capabilities to influence foreign governments, events, organizations, or persons in support of foreign policy objectives while concealing the actions' sponsor, or at least allowing plausible deniability. Covert actions are the responsibility of the intelligence community, which may draw for support on other government agencies, such as the military's special operations forces.

    Covert action became a staple of the four-decade struggle between the communist East and the democratic West. The KGB's covert action typically tried to subvert noncommunist governments and political movements--in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia, as well as the United States. A CIA covert-action capability developed primarily to counter these initiatives, giving U.S. policymakers an effective option in situations where diplomacy or foreign aid were insufficient, but the use of military force or overt political or economic intervention was inappropriate. Such action was a key element in the immediate postwar struggle for political power in southern and western Europe. Over subsequent years, CIA covert operations ranged from small, discrete efforts, such as sneaking banned publications into communist states and bankrolling selected noncommunist politicians, to supporting large-scale conflicts in such theaters as Afghanistan and Angola. In rare instances, most notably in the Iran-Contra affair, the White House assumed control of covert action, effectively taking it out of the hands of the CIA.

    As an instrument of policy, covert action has always generated controversy. Its supporters stress the importance of expanding the range of instruments available to policymakers and the utility of an option that does not bear the fingerprints of the U.S. government. Detractors focus on the difficulty--which approaches impossibility as operations grow large--of keeping covert action secret, and the damage to U.S. credibility and interests that can accompany the exposure of these actions. Critics also point out the inherent tension between the world of covert action and the world of democratic government. Secret operations are susceptible to abuse unless carefully overseen. This danger has been highlighted recently by public allegations concerning a CIA connection with a Guatemalan intelligence officer involved in serious human-rights abuses.

    President Clinton on the Future of Intelligence, July 14, 1995

    Today, because the Cold War is over, some say that we should and can step back from the world and that we don't need intelligence as much as we used to; that we ought to severely cut the intelligence budget. A few have even urged us to scrap the Central Intelligence service. I think these views are profoundly wrong. I believe making deep cuts in intelligence during peacetime is comparable to cancelling your health insurance when you're feeling fine.

    Following the Cold War, instead of a single enemy, we face a host of scattered and dangerous challenges...There are ethnic and regional tensions that threaten to flare into full-scale war in more than thirty nations. Two dozen countries are trying to get their hands on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. As these terrible tools of destruction spread, so too spreads the potential for terrorism and for criminals to acquire them. And drug trafficking, organized crime, and environmental decay threaten the stability of new and emerging democracies, and threaten our well-being here at home.

    Earlier this year, I set out in a presidential decision directive what we most want [the intelligence community] to focus on....First, the intelligence needs of our military during an operation. If we have to stand down Iraqi aggression in the Gulf or stand for democracy in Haiti, our military commanders must have prompt, thorough intelligence to fully inform their decisions and maximize the security of our troops.

    Second, political, economic, and military intelligence about countries hostile to the United States. We must also compile all source information on major political and economic powers with weapons of mass destruction who are potentially hostile to us.

    Third, intelligence about specific transnational threats to our security, such as weapons proliferation, terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime, illicit trade practices, and environmental issues of great gravity.

    Let me say that I know the Ames scandal has colored a lot of the current debate over the future of the CIA....It's important that we don't minimize the damage that Ames did or the changes that need to be made to prevent future scandals. But Aldrich Ames was a terrible exception to a proud tradition of service--a tradition that is reflected in the fifty-nine stars that shine on the CIA's memorial wall in honor of those who gave their lives to serve our country.

    The end of the Cold War renewed the debate over whether a significant need for such a capability remains. But the emerging missions for the intelligence community--particularly the interconnected threats of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international terrorism, and international organized crime--suggest strongly that the need for covert action persists. The next critical challenge will be to develop a covert capability whose operations can be monitored by overseers in the executive and legislative branches, while still proving effective against the sophisticated networks run by international criminal syndicates, illicit arms merchants, and rogue governments.


    An intelligence community is always suspect in an open society, but during the Cold War the U.S. intelligence community established itself as a major element of national security. With the end of the Cold War, that positive perception has begun to fade, and not only because of a traditional aversion to secrecy. There have also been the Ames scandal; questions about the quality, accuracy, timeliness, and relevance of intelligence; concerns over the control of covert activities; a belief that the intelligence community needs to be restrained and streamlined; and a conviction that tax dollars should go to undertakings that more directly serve the U.S. public.

    The numerous proposals that have been made to re-examine the structure and functions of the intelligence community in light of the dissolution of the Soviet threat have ranged far and wide, but a common theme is that the community needs to be streamlined, downsized, refocused on new targets, and generally made more efficient. Some argue that the expensive systems required to support intelligence, to say nothing of the organizations that produce it, are costly excesses in the post-Cold War world and that public funds should not be spent to acquire information available in the public domain. The current reviews in the executive and legislative branches as well as the private sector may well reach the same conclusion, although it is not clear the various recommendations coming out of these studies will be acted on in an election year.

    If recent crises are predictive of the future, a substantial increase in HUMINT collection will be needed to answer the intelligence questions posed by the crises of today and the future. Among the most important intelligence needs in Bosnia-like conflicts are insights into the intentions of the leaders and their warring factions, for which the human collector is critical. Emplacement of sources and their cultivation take many months if not years, and the U.S. intelligence resources may not be sufficient to meet the demand.

    Technology and automation can offset some of the loss of personnel, but trained, analytical expertise remains beyond the capacity of the computer. Community analysts have learned over many years not to be bound by rigid intelligence requirements but to anticipate where resources must be reapplied to meet emerging intelligence needs. Even before the end of the planned downsizing, it is clear that more selectivity will be required, despite the risk that priority will be given to the wrong targets and techniques.

    The next decade will be an unsettling time. The U.S. intelligence community will not receive funding sufficient to achieve the levels of expertise it enjoyed during the Cold War, and the principal challenge will thus be to identify the level of effort that will produce the most useful intelligence at the lowest cost. As its funding shrinks, the size of the community will also shrink, and the community will likely be reorganized, resulting in some amalgamation of functions at the national level and perhaps the elimination of others. The argument that today's threats require more, not less, intelligence has not been persuasive thus far.

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