Monday, August 27, 2012

"The King ... should divide the day as well as the night into eight parts . . . During the fifth, he should … keep himself informed of the secret reports brought by spies.... During the first one-eighth part of the night, he should meet the officers of the secret service.... During the seventh, he should hold consultations and send out the officers of the secret service for their operations."

The Duties of a King – The Arthasastra
Kautilya, Prime Minister to Emperor Chandragupta Maurya  (4th Century BCE)

I went to a movie this last week, Hope Springs, with Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep. Wonderful. I highly recommend it. Both are great actors and worth the price of admission.
While there I saw the previews for Skyfall, the next James Bond movie, due out next fall. Since I am a fan of the James Bond films I plan to see it.

Talking to some people afterwards I realized that for most people the Bond movies are all that they know of Intelligence work. Sometimes their perceptions will be influenced by depictions of ninjas in various Japanese movies. While both are entertaining, they are misleading and can have serious consequences, particularly in political matters, when people's opinions of events are heavily influenced by popularly held views of Intelligence, views formed by depictions in novels, movies, and .television. All the more so when those people are elected representatives, tasked with making decisions regarding National Security. I would hope they are briefed on what real Intelligence work is like, but apparently many are not, judging by public utterances that occasionally surface.
As the heading indicates, spying is nothing new. The earliest records known that detail the use of secret agents is in the Art of War by Sun Tzu, believed to have been written at about the same time as the Arthasastra. In the the thirteenth, or final, chapter, Sun Tzu details the five types of secret agents and how they are used:
  • Native agents are people of an enemy country that are employed for a variety of purposes.
  • Inside agents are officials in the enemy government.
  • Double agents are enemy spies that have been turned.
  • Expendable, or dead, agents are sent on missions with fabricated information. Upon capture and interrogation they divulge that information and so help to deceive the enemy.
  • Living agents are those who are sent on missions and return with information. These are closest to what are popularly regarded as secret agents. Lin Mei and Biao Mei are this sort of agent.
In modern espionage we have added the handler, a sort of manager who runs an agent, as well a a few others such as false defectors whose mission is to spread disinformation.

For convenience I will use Sun Tzu's terms.

Native agents can be anything, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, housewives, or janitors and maintenance workers, anyone with either situational or operational cover. Situational cover is a cover appropriate to the situation. A man running a coffee stand across the street from a government building has situational cover. Operational cover is cover that allows operations. A cabbie, who can go anywhere in a city without attracting too much attention has operational cover. In many cases they may not know who they are working for, and may not even know they are working as spies. Their handler may be the friend they share drinks and shoptalk and/or gossip with after work.

Inside agents are particularly valuable. Many civil servants are poorly paid and badly treated, and have access to valuable data. Even the most innocuous-seeming information can yield valuable intelligence to skilled analysts and technicians.

Double agents can be especially valuable. First they can be used to feed false information to the enemy. Also, the instructions given to them can reveal what the enemy is interested in, which is valuable in itself. Then, learning their methods, training procedures, and protocols can help uncover other agents. Really good ones may be sent back to their home country as spies.

Expendable agents are not used so much these days, but do try to stay on good terms with your superiors.

Living agents are what most people think of when they think of secret agents. In modern parlance they are sometimes referred to as combatants. These types of agents may have either situational or operational cover, or both. Lin Mei and Biao Mei are caravan guards, and so have reason to travel about and meet all sorts of people. But because it was such a good cover, caravaneers were often suspected of being spies, and so were often at risk. The second wave of Mongol conquests began when the Shah of Kwarizm, Alladin Muhammed, ordered the killing of an entire caravan on suspicion of being spies. Genghis Khan sent an ambassador and envoys to protest.  Alladin Muhammed had them killed too, except for a few envoys who were sent back with word of the deed. Genghis Khan was annoyed, to put it mildly. Two years later Kwarizm no longer existed.

Combatant is sometimes used to describe agents who are trained for the rough stuff. In the Soviet era KGB they were sometimes referred to as Para-militaries. Sometimes, and out of earshot, they were called baboons.

A danger with being a living agent is that you may spend so much time in-country that you may come to identify and sympathize with the people around you. For a really good novel about being a living agent try The Romulan Way by Diane Duane and Peter Morwood.

An agent is anyone who has access to the target. The target is a physical object: a document, a photograph, a recording, a location, or an actual physical object. The agent may take a document, copy it, or photograph it. Conversations  or speeches may be recorded.  A location may be photographed. Air and soil samples taken downwind of an industrial site or a government research installation can be useful.

Secrets are remarkably easy to steal. Getting them out is the problem. First the agent must get them out of the site, be it a government installation, a military base, or office building. Then the secrets must be passed to the handler. Since most secrets are found in world capitols, this is a problem. These cities are so penetrated by intelligence agencies that finding a dead-letter drop, a place where messages or objects can be safely left for pickup, that is not already being used by another agency, can be difficult. In theory a Counter-Espionage unit could simply stake out the best drop sites and eventually catch some spies in the act. This is why native agents are so useful. A shopkeeper has people coming in all the time. A taxi driver can pick people up anywhere in town and take them anywhere. They leave behind fares, tips, and bundles or envelopes under the seat. These are also covers that a living agent can easily assume without much in the way of a background check. The next step, a meeting with an agent who can take them out of the country, is also difficult. The main concern of an agent sent to meet with another agent is appearing to be out of place. Places like the theater district of a major city are favored, since it can be difficult to appear out of place there, given the bohemian nature of the theater world. A city like San Francisco, with a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and counter-cultural population is ideal for meetings. In San Francisco you can show up for a meeting in tutu, high heels, and bikini top and not raise an eyebrow. Bonus points if you're a guy.

Recruiting agents is a very delicate task. The acronym used is MICE. Money, Ideology, Compromise, and Ego.

Money is almost always involved, in some way or other, for expenses if nothing else. Also, an agent may want getting-away money in the event he is found out and manages to escape. But most often it simple greed or need. As as I said above, most civil servants are poorly paid and badly treated. The amount can vary and is not determined by the value of the information acquired. As a rule of thumb, an agent is paid enough to make an appreciable improvement in his life, but not so much it may make him dependent on it. Other arrangements may be made for particularly valuable agents who may someday have to defect.

The best agents are motivated by ideology. They are in sympathy with, or believe in a cause. Agents are told whatever will help to recruit them. A Francophile will be told his orders come from the DGSE, an Anglophile is told he is working for MI6, a Israeli sympathizer will be told he is working for the Mossad, a Palestinian sympathizer will be told he is working for the Palestinian Authority Intelligence Service (believed on good evidence to be an arm of the Mossad), and so on. The professionals are in it for the money.

Compromise can be of any type. Sex is not so much used anymore. In today's permissive era it doesn't work so well. The same applies to gambling debts. The most common way to subvert an inside agent is through gifts. They start out small at first, lunch, a drink after work, or tickets to a game or show. A consistent pattern is more important than the amount. But if you have a government job and it comes out that you have received gifts, no matter how small, from a foreign agent, your job is over. No overt threats need be made. You know what can happen.

The quid pro quo may be minor at first. You may be told that your "friend" is an insurance agent, or a business man planning a direct mail ad campaign, and you may be asked to provide some names for the mailing list. That sets the hook. At some point soon after, someone will contact you for "The Talk" You are now a secret agent. Not so much fun is it?

If you have any secrets that might cause you to lose your job, beware. Drug use, an extra-marital affair, or a deep, dark, secret from your past, all can be used against you. This is known as the "hard shoulder." The Israelis are known for this, and if one of their agents should stumble across something that can be used, you will be working for the Mossad.

Ego is a major motivation. Resentment and revenge are key factors in betrayal. Personnel lists and work records are key targets for intelligence. People who have been passed over for promotion, have been disciplined for rule infractions, or work for indifferent or abusive bosses are all ripe for recruitment.

In general, if three people have access to a target, a handler may safely count on recruiting at least one of them.

In fiction a living agent is given a cover identity and undertakes a mission. "Here are your papers, Mr. Bond. You will pose an an executive for Global Export and Import." Not  so fast. Cover identities take years to develop  and are never going to stand up to close scrutiny. There are background checks.  Trust me, they are thorough. Living agents will try to cultivate a native or inside agent, some one who has already been vetted. I suspect that was what Anna Chapman and her fellow Russian spies were trying to accomplish before being caught in 2010. They came dangerously close to succeeding.

An additional complication in today's world is that so many government functions have been privatized. Everyone has heard of the Private Military Contractors, formerly called mercenaries. Not so well known is the concurrent rise of private intelligence agencies. A lot of work that used to be done in-house is now contracted out, from routine bookkeeping and records management to full-scale field operations. These add a new layer of complexity to the business. They are often staffed by former Intelligence professionals, and once they grow past a certain size, become global in scope with an International staff. Also, because they are motivated by profit rather than ideology, their loyalties may be nominal. In addition the profit motive can result in cost-cutting shortcuts, which can result in security breaches. Some of them have been serious.

In addition this has blurred the line between National and corporate espionage. Those outfits work for anyone who will pay, and once information gets into their hands, it can be sold multiple times to several buyers. A security system is only as good as the people running it, and those outfits have clients with deep pockets. Next time you're in the DMV, or your bank, or any place where sensitive data is stored,, take a look at the people working there. Most could use some extra cash.

Another complication is that many modern criminal syndicates and terrorist groups have their own intelligence services. Some of them are run by professionals formerly of National Intelligence Services who are now for hire. The former Soviet Union produced many out of work spies who found they had a marketable skill set. But many Western operatives have also gone rogue. In the wake of 9-11 many investigators were shocked to find that Al-Queda had been running a very effective intelligence service, and they themselves had been under surveillance. Their identities, addresses, base sites, operations and procedures, and working IDs were all known. Needless to say, there have been some changes made.

This is just a quick view of real intelligence work. If you are planning a spy novel of your own, have fun.

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