Zegart, Amy. B. 2022. Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence. Princeton University Press. pp. 424.

Amy Zegart, in this study, proposes reshaping American intelligence institutions to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. America boasts of exactly eighteen agencies, but instead of aspiring awe or efficacy, the number should underline the limitations of the current structuring of intelligence bodies. Since each apparatus was added after a major failure, the lingering challenges remain unsurmountable, and the strategic advantage over adversaries is unmet. The challenge facing the intelligence community and America now lies less in half-hearted coordination work between diverse and specialised agencies and more in the fundamental contradiction between business and national interests. The two claims are mutually exclusive and cannot be reconciled. Unless some formula is found to harness business for the nation’s benefit, the intelligence agencies’ operations will stay largely dysfunctional and bypassed by tenacious adversaries.  

With eighteen intelligence agencies and the result is America is underperforming. Zegart thinks this is a lingering and counterproductive Cold War mindset. In the age of open-source information, with the internet doubling its volume of knowledge every two years, secrecy, the cornerstone of all eighteen bodies, emerges as a certain way towards disaster. Teenagers using Google Earth and other freely available and inexpensive applications can now perform feats that used to consume considerable time and Personale. In this environment where anyone can spy, and everyone with a reasonable set of skills can access sensitive data, secrecy is a liability. And as such, the intelligence community needs to harness the courage to rethink its work. 

To mount her revamp proposal, Zegart deploys ten chapters, introduction and conclusion included. She lays out the problem of her argument slowly in “Intelligence Challenges in the Digital Age: Cloaks, Daggers, and Tweets.” The first of these challenges is power. Being powerful translates not only invincibility but also vulnerability. The second is democratised data which the internet revolution has introduced. Satellite images from Google Earth are perfect. Anyone with a computer and connection can monitor what Iran, North Korea, or any other government does not share. No state monopoly over access to sensitive information is possible. This leads us to the third challenge, which is secrecy. In the past, maintaining secrecy gave an advantage in intelligence collection tasks. Now, secrecy is almost detrimental because no government can entirely protect its power grids, financial records, or start-up inventions—all of which can be accessed online—by disengaging or “standing apart from” (p. 8) the world. Hence, why private actors such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google, among others, should be involved in securing America as most cutting-edge technologies can be used and often are used as weapons against American interests. Similarly, this is why secrecy in the old sense translates to disadvantages that severely hurt U.S. interests. A lot of catching up is facing the U.S. intelligence community concerning secrecy. 

Chapter two: “The Education Crisis: How Fictional Spies are Shaping Public Opinion and Intelligence Policy.” Here, Zegart addresses the inhibitive impact of Hollywood in the sense that spy entertainment (she calls it: ‘spytainment’) provides a completely distorted image of intelligence work. Equally damaging, spytainment clouds public perceptions of the real challenges facing America. Fiction maintains the myth that America is invulnerable le whereas, in reality, America is vulnerable. Besides, Hollywood fuels conspiracy theories such as President Trump’s conviction of Deep State rhetoric and plotting against his policies. With conspiracy roaming wide, congressmen and judges tend to believe spytainment flat plotlines, featuring “heroes, escapism and the triumph of good over evil” (p. 26) more than intelligence reports they have access to. Clouded in secrecy, the culture of the supremacy of the intelligence agencies set in motion through fantasised decades of intelligence success during the Cold War does not help break the ingrained myths. 

To get a consistent picture of U.S. intelligence, Chapter three, “American Intelligence History at a Glance: From Fake Batteries to Armed Drones.” In providing a snapshot of the development of intelligence institutions since Geroge Washington, Zegart aims to remind policymakers and the general public alike that America is vulnerable. In its brief intelligence history, America could not bridge over halted development, organisational fragmentation, and democratic tension. During peace times, before World War II, America had the habit of dismantling its spy bodies. Whatever experience gets accumulated, it is soon lost to the wind. Besides and a latecomer in the spy industry, America should not be engrossed with its Cold War success, particularly when compared with countries such as China, a millennial history of warfare and intelligence. The rules of the games are quickly changing, and America—Zegart never tires of reminding—should not sleep on past feats. Again, Zegart hammers how technological advances are more disorienting than conducive to any strategic advantage. In her opinion, intelligence agencies should resist the temptation to violate their mission as information-gathering bodies, giving decision-makers an informational gift. 

Chapter four: “Intelligence Basics: Knowns and Unknowns” Here, Zegart dispels myths from reality and underlines how intelligence operates in practice. The three core missions: the analytic, the human, and the operational, interact to make any intelligence agency what it is now. The analysis is geared toward giving policymakers an “advantage over adversaries.” (p. 79) For successful executions of analytic missions, one has to be aware of the fine distinction between knowns and unknowns. Intelligence now, we find, is not necessarily the amassing of secrets, and as such, it cannot be confused with policymaking. The mission’s human side sheds light on various motivations and traits, animating the analyst, the officer, and the informant. We read too about how intelligence officers balance their jobs with their private lives. There is a section on how officers grapple with moral dilemmas. In carrying out their mission, intelligence agencies handle interrogations of detainees. Still, evidence often amounts to no more than a good bet since cases where conclusive evidence can be reached is rare. Zegart finds that the golden rule with intelligence professionals is ways of “…challenging their prevailing hypotheses.” (p. 103) 

Chapter five: “Why Analysis is so Hard: The Seven Deadly Biases”, is key to the book’s overall thesis. Given the abundance of open-source data, the chapter seeks to answer why analysis has become excessively hard. Other than outside compromises, Zegart outlines the sinister role of seven deadly biases. Even when an institution is sure it has neutralised internal endemics such as “bureaucratic turf protection, agency cultures, career incentives, ingrained habits, and a desire for autonomy” (p. 114), not a simple task. However, it can move on to work on the seven biases. These last range from confirmation bias, optimism bias, availability bias, fundamental attribution error, mirror imaging, framing biases, and groupthink, to the secret for super forecasting (p. 136). The key strategy to outsmart these biases lies in encouraging dissent, finding a team of experts that reviews an intelligence case and makes the opposite argument on the devil’s behalf. She similarly notes that advances in artificial intelligence can help overcome human limitations. 

Chapter six: “Counter-intelligence: To Catch a Spy”, grapples with traitors’ motivations and how intelligence officers recruit informants in the digital age. We read that “China, Russia, Cuba, and Iran are among the most aggressive foreign intelligence services seeking to steal American secrets. Of them, China stands apart as the most serious counter-intelligence threat. American military experts have said that there isn’t a single major Chinese weapons system that isn’t based on stolen U.S. technology.” (pp.146-7) The chapter elaborates on early tell-tale signs for suspecting, investigating, and uncovering sell-outs (or molls in intelligence jargon) without compromising trust among intelligence community members. Three counter-intelligence challenges are: trusting too much, paranoia: or trusting too little, and technology that made it possible to recruit assets from afar. Technology makes it equally likely to incur considerable damage if a trusted insider breaches their trust oath. For example, we read how the damage done by turncoats such as Snowden has been irreparable. 

Chapter seven: “Covert Action: A Hard Business of Agonising Choices”, studies those undercover operations that aim to serve a certain line of policy but which can either be claimed or officially disowned depending on interest, not on success or failure. The operation that killed Bin Laden counts as one, but so is the CIA’s funnelling of money to help Italy’s Christian Democratic Party to win parliamentary elections back in 1947. (p. 174) Since only the president can authorise covert actions, the chapter weighs those uneasy choices presidents take or circumvent to serve a policy. When all policy lines have been tried and extinguished, covert actions serve as the last resort. How drone technology and the war on terror have been operating forces policymakers to face how the blurring of intelligence and military mandates is counterproductive. 

Chapter eight: “Congressional Oversight: Eyes on Spies”, recounts that as lawmakers, congressmen are not trained or sufficiently motivated to do the oversight work stipulated by the constitution. Zegart summarises three challenges facing congressional intelligence committees in three words: informationincentives, and institutions (p. 198). Given the inhibitive influence of spytainment and the poor payoff from carrying out proper oversight on intelligence agencies, Zegart observes an information and motivational lag beneath successive congressional committees charged with cross-checking intelligence agencies. Besides, she highlights a structural and deeper problem of these committees’ culture that does not encourage rigorous second opinions about the work of intelligence agencies. The compounding effect from the three challenges explains the scandals, such as the presumed weapons of mass destruction owned by Iraq. In short, one comes face to face with how policy becomes outpaced by technology. 

Chapter nine: “Intelligence Isn’t Just for Governments Anymore: Nuclear Sleuthing in a Google Earth World”, further advances the cause of renovating U.S. intelligence. Underneath the chapter lies, a call for humility as “estimating nuclear threats is hard. Assessing the intelligence track record is, too.” (p. 230) A new phenomenon, democratising intelligence, breaches governments’ monopoly over sensitive information. Low-cost satellites with competitive image capacity than military satellites are routinely put in orbit. Machine learning and computer modelling enhance surface-to-air missile launching site identification for anyone with an internet connection and the patience for tracking terrestrial alterations. Hobbyists using only Google Earth images can chase Iran or North Korea’s uranium-enrichment facilities and the activities taking place therein. Once the intelligence ecosystem is widely open to non-governmental actors, intelligence policy has to accommodate the informal branch lest the latter adds salt to injury by encroaching unforeseen and further damage beyond malign actors in the pay of foreign intelligence agencies. 

Chapter ten: “Decoding Cyber Threats” here, the argument runs that cyber-threats have opened the door for a new generation of warfare rooted in deception, sabotage, and misinformation. Hacking and deepfake can sow the seeds of social discord and upheaval. The examples with which Zegart illustrates her point are telling. Shadowy Kremlin-backed organisations armed with automated Facebook accounts or bots sow discord in American cities. The intelligence community registers the 2016 presidential elections as a cyber Pearl Harbor. We read too that “China is believed to have stolen trillions of dollars of intellectual property, including terabytes of data and schematics for the F-35 and F-22 stealth fighter jet programs.” (pp. 261-2) Without the cooperation of the private sector with state agencies, such complex intelligence challenges triggered by the digital age cannot be met, and the cost will be American democracy and liberalism. This explains Zegart’s initial call to rethink the structuring of intelligence agencies along lines that do not abandon Cold War methods but without overlooking the need to engage with open-source data and other unorthodox initiatives.  

The book draws on thirty years of research experience, advising the U.S. government, and hundreds of interviews with current and former intelligence people. As a career academic, Zegart comes as an outsider, but that counts to her advantage since probably only an outsider can reflect on that, which makes the institution’s chances of facing the new threats pretty grim. 

Contrary to Hollywood’s overblown portrayals of American invincibility, the records of American intelligence agencies, though professional and functional, are far from adequate to meet cyber threats and other challenges put by the digital age. What Zegart has in mind is the recent failure as America’s spy network has been blown, hence, how the call for renovation and accommodation to the new-brave world reality is nothing short of a call for revolution. In outlining, “Today’s technological demands, though, are even greater because there are more breakthrough technologies. They’re spreading faster and further. They’re inherently hard to understand. They’re driven by commercial companies seeking global markets, not governments seeking national security.” (p. 222), we realise that Zegart has touched on the core of the problem. America is experiencing a self-contradiction in movement: the forces of nationalism against globalism. The American establishment can no longer postpone the question: are they for American capitalism or capitalism without qualifiers? 

All else, such as debates over the competency of congressional oversight, cyber threats, and breaches of secrecy, are secondary and disappear once the earlier question is resolved. Addressing the efficiency of democratic measures in the form of congressional oversight to prevent personal or institutional abuses become a liability, a crippling structure. Because authoritarian regimes are free from similar democratic stipulations in their accountability system, they have an advantage over America. 

Indeed, it is not the lack of patriotism and sense of national service among those heading tech companies (p. 276) that drives the present fixation on U.S. intelligence. Predisposed to markets, tech companies’ allegiance resonates with clients, not citizens. To account for this contradiction, Zegart improvises an implicit willingness to sacrifice democracy that “[o]versight has rarely worked well because the sources of dysfunction run deep—in information, incentive, and institution.” (p. 224) Other than being a discreet call for jingoism, the problem with the book is that it sees intelligence agencies and the state that these agencies presumably protect as independent totalities. The successes of World War II and the Cold War were dictated by economic miracles as U.S. companies, not the U.S. government, beat up all competitors (foes and allies alike) combined. These companies’ hunt for profit now presupposes any allegiance to the state as a mechanism that leads to asphyxiation. Between asphyxiation and global growth, tech companies have chosen the latter. Given this context, the state with its eighteen intelligence bodies can do very little except postpone, not reverse, the collapse of the Westphalian state order. Instead of addressing the major transformation ahead, Zegart contemplates how companies should be loyal. 

Fouad Mami

Université d’Adrar (Algeria)

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