Why spies never discover anything useful

I’ve long maintained the view that spies never discover anything useful about a country’s foreign enemies, though they are very useful in suppressing domestic opponents. This is a straightforward implication of game theory, but my attempts to explain it haven’t worked in the past, and I don’t know how to do much better. So, I’m going to restate my arguments from 10 years ago, against the massive expansion of spying that was already under way, and make the observation that the evidence since then strongly supports my case.

Despite an espionage and surveillance effort unparalleled in history, the US NSA has been unable to produce any convincing evidence of stopping even one domestic terror plot. Its best case was someone alleged to have sent a few thousand dollars to Al Shabab in Somalia. The NSA not only missed actual terror plotters like those in Boston, but also performed poorly relative to ordinary police methods which have produced numerous convictions (many of them admittedly, by methods that verge on entrapment).

But if anti-terrorist espionage has proved ineffectual, spying on friendly governments is just plain stupid. This isn’t a zero-sum game, like espionage in warfare, it’s a negative sum game. Australia is now finding this out, but the reflex reactions of “everyone does it”, “we don’t comment on intelligence matters” and so on, remain as firmly embedded as ever.

Of course, while this is stupidity as regards the public interest, or even that of Australian political and business elites as a whole, it is massively beneficial to the security apparatus, and the complex of interests it supports. It’s striking that the only Indonesians who’ve given Abbott any support have been their own spies and secret police, who can expect more funding and greater powers. Doubtless our own spooks will return the favor in due course, if their Indonesian counterparts are caught doing something we don’t like.

The spy myth (2003)

If there is an emblematic figure for the 20th century, it is surely the spy. The first decades of that haunted century saw the rise to prominence of the spy novel, with such exemplars as John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands. The final decade saw retired spymasters reach the pinnacle of power in the United States (George Bush Sr.) and Russia (Vladimir Putin).

In espionage, as in so many other cases, life imitated art. The crucial motifs that made up the 20th-century concept of espionage, including the secret plan, the conspiracy and the femme fatale, were all present by the late 19th Century, in Sherlock Holmes stories like The Bruce-Partington plans and A Scandal in Bohemia. Yet actual espionage played an insignificant role in the real international relations of the day.

As late as 1930, Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State, Henry Stimson repudiated the whole dirty business with the observation that ‘gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail’. This statement would, by then, have been regarded as hopelessly naive in most of the European capitals, where gentlemen had cease to play any role in international politics. As we shall see, however, it reflects a more sophisticated view of the world than one based on the idea that the employer of spies can gain access to the secrets of his or enemies and therefore defeat them.

The first test of the literary concept of the spy came with the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. Popular hysteria about secret weapons bore little relation to the grinding attrition of the Western Front. Although the Germans and Allies achieved surprises with chlorine gas and the tank respectively, the resulting gain of a few miles of mud did nothing to shift the balance of the war.

The dominance of literary concepts over reality was even more evident in the trial and execution of alleged female spies. The Allies tried and shot the notorious exotic dancer Mata Hari. In retrospect, she appears to have been guilty of little more than a taste for self-dramatisation and indiscreet gossip, but the persona she constructed for herself fit perfectly the stereotype of the femme fatale spy. The Germans, with the disastrous sense of PR they displayed throughout the Great War, chose to shoot a British nurse, Edith Cavell, easily represented as a Madonna figure to contrast with the symbolic Whore, Mata Hari.

The gap between myth and reality was similarly great in other theatres. The Russian activities of Sidney Reilly, the famous ‘Ace of Spies’ have formed the basis of a string of books and a TV series starring Sam Neill. A recent study in Intelligence and National Security gave the following more prosaic judgement.

Thus, with the evidence now at hand, the famous ‘Lockhart Plot’ can at last be seen for what it was: on the one hand, a real, if pitiful, anti-Soviet conspiracy concocted (or perhaps deliberately provoked) by the megalomaniacal Sidney Reilly in likely collusion with the eager but inexperienced Bruce Lockhart, and, on the other, a superb example of police provocation brilliantly conceived and expertly executed by the crafty agents of the Cheka.”

Spy hysteria continued to mount after the end of active hostilities in 1918. The totalitarian regimes that rose to power in the aftermath of the Great War made liberal use of spies, and gave rise to the first organized espionage machines, the Gestapo and the various incarnations of the Russian Cheka. These organisations proved ruthlessly effective in suppressing internal opposition, and use both financial and ideological appeals to recruit foreign agents in large numbers. The spy myth, it seemed, had become a reality.

Yet the actual achievements of these shadowy regiments were unimpressive. In most cases, espionage agencies can cloak their failures in secrecy, but the defeat of the Nazis paved the way for a look at the record of one of the most-feared espionage networks in history. The Hitler regime made numerous attempts to infiltrate spies into Britain and to recruit British agents. As far as can be determined from the German records, all were captured and many were ‘turned’, being induced or forced to transmit disinformation to Berlin.

As usual, art makes the spy look better. In the thriller, The Eye of the Needle, the German agent, played by Donald Sutherland, gets within seconds of exposing the subterfuges by which the British simulated preparations for an invasion in the Pas de Calais, thereby diverting German defences from Normandy. In reality, none of Hitler’s spies got anywhere near this.

An even more telling example is that of Pearl Harbour. A variety of intelligence sources gave the US government warnings of an impending attack. These warnings have formed the basis of subsequent conspiracy theories in which Roosevelt deliberately allowed the Japanese to succeed in order to force a reluctant US population into the war. The reality is more prosaic. Most of the warnings were vague inferences from intercepted communications, indicating that the Japanese were up to something, but not when and where. Reports from agents claiming to have inside information on Japanese plans were discounted, on the sensible basis that such claims usually turned out to be either attempts to extract financial rewards, or Japanese misinformation. In the latter case, preparations against a supposed attack would serve to expose security flaws in the Japanese military and perhaps also serve as a casus belli.

Similarly, despite ample warning, Stalin failed to prepare against Hitler’s invasion of Russia. As with Roosevelt he faced the problem that preparation on a serious scale would amount to an overt declaration of hostility against a supposedly friendly power.

It was only in 1944 that the basis was laid for a theoretical understanding of the game of spy and counterspy. In that year, John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern published The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, in which they showed how a wide range of phenomena, from wars to markets, could be analysed in terms of games between players with conflicting interests.

The basic lesson of game theory for a game of bluff like that of espionage is that, as long as it is possible for counterspies to generate misleading information most of the time, spies are useless even when their information happens to be correct. If the defence plays optimally, the spymaster can never have any reason to believe one piece of information produced by spies and disbelieve another.

Spying may be worthwhile in cases where it is very hard or very costly to produce misleading information. Two potential cases are those of code-breaking in wartime, where the number of messages an enemy needs to send is so large that their validity can be checked fairly easily, and that of a secret weapon, where the information produced by spies can be checked by actually making the weapon.

In general, code-breaking relies only marginally on traditional spying methods. The most famous success, the British cracking of the German ‘Enigma’ code in World War II, was helped by the Poles who had stolen a machine before the outbreak of war, then smuggled it to England. However, the effort primarily relied on the mathematical analysis of German messages, which was undertaken by a team led by the enigmatic, and ultimately tragic, genius Alan Turing. (He committed suicide after the war, following persecution by the security forces on the basis of his homosexuality).

The secret weapon of all time was, of course, the atomic bomb, and the period after it was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented the high point of the spy panic, particularly in the English-speaking world. When the Russians exploded their own bomb, it seemed quite likely that the end of world was approaching. The discovery that British scientists such as Fuchs and Nunn, and American Communists like the Rosenbergs, had passed atomic secrets to the Russians, created a panic.

On the face of it, the reaction to the atom spies seemed justified. The atom bomb was a weapon that could destroy the world (and perhaps still will) and the science on which it was based was popularly associated with the genius of Albert Einstein. Surely, the only way the Russians could create such a weapon was to steal the secrets of the West.

It is now clear, however, that the only real secret regarding the atomic bomb was that it could be made to work. This secret was successfully concealed from the Nazis, who focused instead on the other great secret weapon of the century, the guided missile represented by the V2 rocket. But once the existence of the bomb was known, any competent team of physicists, with access to the right resources, could duplicate it. The Russians had competent physicists of their own, and captured some of leading German researchers. The secrets passed by Western spies probably saved them a year or so in their research program but did not fundamentally change anything. The Chinese, French, Israelis and others made their bombs without significant assistance from spies.

But this is the wisdom of hindsight. The exposure of the atom spies set the scene for the 20th-century apogee of spy hysteria, including such sensational episodes as the defection of Burgess and McLean, the exposure and flight of the ‘third man’, Kim Philby, the McCarthy hearings in the United States, and even our own Petrov crisis. Suddenly, it seemed, spies were everywhere, and an all-out response seemed called for.

In literature, the response was represented by the glamorous professional, James Bond, who transformed the spy novel from an ambiguous cross between detective story and thriller into a fully fledged sub-literary genre. Bond himself was a transitional figure between the gentlemanly amateurism of earlier heroes like Buchan’s Richard Hannay and the grubby professionalism celebrated by, for example, Len Deighton.

Belief in spies declined after 1960. The pivotal moment was probably the first significant step towards detente, the ban on atmospheric nuclear testing agreed between Britain, the US and the USSR in 1963. From this point onwards, it became steadily more evident that keeping nuclear secrets was a bad idea and that trying to steal secrets only encouraged those who wanted to keep them.

The exposure of a wide range of misconduct by the CIA and other agencies produced widespread hostility towards, and even more widespread cynicism about, the whole enterprise of espionage and counterespionage. The decline was charted by the novels of John Le Carre. The title and theme of The Looking Glass War, in which bureaucratic infighting in London results in a doomed attempt at infiltrating East Germany, captured, even more than his more famous works, the pointlessness of the entire enterprise.

The spy myth clearly served the interests of intelligence agencies, which prospered during the 20th century more than any set of spies before them. The real beneficiaries, however, were the counterintelligence agencies or, to dispense with euphemisms, the secret police, of both Western and Communist countries. The powers granted to them for their struggle against armies of spies were used primarily against domestic dissidents. Terms such as ‘agent of influence’ were used to stigmatise anyone whose activities, however open and above-board, could be represented as helpful to the other side.

The supposed role of the secret police, to keep secrets from opposing governments, was, as we have seen, futile. Secret police, and the associated panoply of security laws, Official Secrets Acts and so forth, were much more successful in protecting their governments’ secrets from potentially embarrassing public scrutiny in their own countries.

As spies and the associated fears have faded in their public mind, their place has been taken by terrorists. In many ways, this is a reversion to the 19th century, when the bomb-throwing anarchist was a focus of popular fears and the subject of novels by such writers as Chesterton and Conrad.

As the attacks of September 11 showed us, the threat posed by terrorists is real. Nevertheless, even if terrorists were to mount attacks ten times as deadly in the future, they would still present the citizens of the Western World with less danger than we accept from our fellow-citizens every time we step into our cars.

If the century of the spy has taught us anything, it is that we need to assess the dangers posed by terrorists coolly and calmly rather than giving way to panic.

61 thoughts on “Why spies never discover anything useful

  1. There is no evidence or reason to believe that dsd/asd did this on orders from the Australian government and not fulfilling a request fromtge bsa

  2. I am convinced from studies I have read that torture does not elicit any reliable information. I am not convinced by the assertion “spies NEVER discover anything useful.” (Emphasis added.) The statement is absolute and therefore it is improbable that it is correct. One instance of a spy discovering something useful is enough to refute it. JQ’s own examples refute it.

    A good spy is probably like an airbag in a car (tortured analogy) rarely if ever useful but might just save you from something really nasty in a rare case.

    Of course US spying is excessive and counter-productive and no doubt so is our own. That does not lead me to conclude we should apologise to war criminals if we attempt to spy on them.

  3. PS. People can’t have it both ways, saying George Bush is a war criminal and Yudhoyono isn’t. If Iraq 2 was a war crime (and it probably was and is) then West Papua is a war crime too.

  4. @Evan

    If you look at some of the comments to that article, and the accompanying video, the RCMP/CSIS claims are obvious nonsense.

    People inspired by al-Qa’ida are not generally unkempt, hard-drinking devil-worshippers. The length of the Canadian operation, over a year to apprehend 2 very public never-do-wells, suggests a sting along the lines of several well-documented incidents in the US.

  5. Good article. Not surprising that a whole slab of government employees should defend their own importance and their preferred methods. It’s common enough.

  6. The stuff we actually know about the Indonesians, Papua, East Timor etc. should be enough but we do nothing. What are we going to do with SBY’s phone conversations or those of his wife? Nothing? Not only a waste of time but a pretty expensive waste of time.

  7. Our spying may have yielded information useful to Aust business .If interested in spying, SBY s wife would be a good person to tap as I believe the 2 of them talk a bit. The anti-terror spying types often think the chance of preventing the big one alone should justify their hobby is quarantined away from the law or much oversight at all.

    A choice between the US and Indo as a long term ally would be a choice between 2 imperfect candidates ,one of which is on our doorstep. Allies should be able to speak the truth about their respective histories ,as they see them ,to each other . I like the sound of beefing up our connections with PNG too. As far as defence $ go I would want us to do it the cheapest and most minimal way possible .

  8. One I’ve always pondered; weren’t all spies during the Cold War, whether friend or foe, actually the heroes of the ‘balance of terror’?

    Under the strict, absurdist logic later codified as MAD, ‘traitors’ such as Burgess, Philby and Maclean were serving a vital function, making sure the Soviets were properly apprised of the geopolitical realities, thereby ensuring they didn’t either overplay their hand, or do something stupid out of a panic induced by a lack of sound information, no? (Or imagined lack, if you will, for those who believe the information they gained was of largely imaginary benefit. In these circumstances, people who imagine they know something are probably less dangerous than those who fear they don’t!)

    Ditto for the ‘heroes’ ‘we’ had over there?

    And if nuclear secrets ever really changed hands, well that’s great, isn’t it? Because it was vital that no side ever pull so far ahead that it could imagine itself capable of launching a first strike. Keep friends close, and enemies closer?

    So, if we take the pro-espionage arguments at face value, assume the ‘success’ narrative of spying is true, and leave aside the question of whether they really found anything that was worth knowing that wasn’t known already, ‘their’ spies should always be lauded as highly as ‘ours’, should they not?

  9. The negative sum involved in spying on the President and his wife is a violation of their fundamental human rights. This is something Indonesians will remember for future reference in relation to West Papuans, or anybody else.

  10. @John Quiggin

    I suppose it depends on what one means by “spies”. There’s nothing wrong with paying attention to what is publicly available. Criminal methods of obtaining information ought not to be used, save in the most compelling of circumstances.

  11. More broadly, PrQ, while I agree with the thrust of your claim about the utility of espionage, I’d observe that the “Red Orchestra” in Nazi-occupied Europe did offer actionable intelligence to the USSR about Nazi intent, but Stalin at the time was deterrmined not to hear it on political grounds, which affirms your point above.

    After the war, people like Trepper shared imprisonment with Nazis who were released before them, principally so that Stalin could perpetuate the mythology of his heroic role in the “Great Patriotic War” by obscuring his reckless dealing.

  12. An country could relatively easy develop a “secret weapon” project designed as a) a honey pot for enemy agents and, more importantly, b) to distract their enemy into divert resources trying to reproduce the fake secret weapon. And fake signals intelligence is plentiful – see Operation Fortitude, for example!

    So, at a reasonable level, I don’t think you really need those two counterexamples.

  13. Surely the Manning/Snowden material demonstrates conclusively that intelligence can be valuable, even if in their case the intelligence was disclosed by whistleblowers and not partisan intelligence agents? The proposition that we can’t rely on any of this material because the NSA was aware that it might be the victim of spying, and therefore included so much misinformation that we can’t know what is reliable and what is not, simply beggars belief.

    There’s a difference between Rosenbergs/James Bond-style spying and normal intelligence gathering. The former usually refers to well-defined items of information such as secret treaties or plans for new weapons. I don’t imagine anyone believed we were going to uncover an Indonesian blueprint for a new doomsday device, but it is clearly in Australian interests to understand the probable future direction of Indonesian public attitudes and government policies. That’s the function of intelligence, and most sources are freely available. The trick lies in the analysis.

    However some sources of information are secret and it would be helpful to have access, just as it would be useful for the Microsoft board to listen in to management meetings at Apple. I’ve never bought John’s thesis that you can’t trust what you hear because they think you might be listening and therefore they will engage in misinformation. That might be true if they KNOW you’re listening but not if they believe their communications are secure. Just think about it – do we really believe Australian prime ministers tell a lot of lies when they telephone other heads of state, just to confuse anyone who might be eavesdropping? How then do they conduct their REAL discussions? Moreover most intelligence comes from people much lower in the hierarchy than ministers. To believe the state can create a network of misinformation that makes all intelligence unreliable is to credit bureaucracies with capabilities they could ever achieve in practice.

    So ‘intelligence gathering is a waste of time’ is a blind alley IMHO and a distraction from the proper topic, which is the type of intelligence gathering that Australia should engage in. Our relationship with Indonesia is so important to our national interest that we should only engage in espionage – meaning intelligence-gathering that is against Indonesian law – when there is a compelling advantage to Australia in doing so that would over-ride the damage caused by it becoming public knowledge. Nobody has suggested there was any such advantage in this latest disclosure, and consequently the spying seems to have been a gross error of judgement. Abbott should apologise to protect Australia’s future interests. That’s his job.

  14. @Ken_L

    Most of the time, it’s a matter of speaking in code rather than active disinformation. And of course, most of the time, the politicians are lying (or at least not being fully transparent) with each other. But I’d be surprised if they didn’t take account of possible eavesdroppers as well. This kind of thing becomes second nature in a surveillance society: you have one language you use when you know you are in public, another for interactions that are ostensibly private that might be leaked, and another for close friends under (what you assume to be) secure conditions. And, of course, yet another for occasions when you are actively trying to deceive.

    All of this creates immense costs, but eavesdroppers can only benefit if they know that others don’t they are listening in, and this knowledge is essentially unobtainable

  15. If JQ reads the transcripts of pretty much any serious criminal trial, he will discover that much of the evidence has been obtained by “spying’ – informants or electronic surveillance under warrant. I would be interested to know how JQ’s theory can show that political or military spies can never be useful, but law enforcement ones can.

  16. John we both know the perils of arguing by example (and I bet the Russians didn’t think getting the bomb a year early was unimportant. It certainly had a huge impact on the way the US responded to the Korean conflict). Anyway I won’t extend the argument, but intelligence gathering is qualitative research. Like most qualitative research, the reliability and validity of the data have to be constantly evaluated. Triangulation x10 and then some more is the golden rule. And whether or not to do it at all should be the subject of normal cost/benefit considerations. But that doesn’t mean that all qualitative research is rubbish, although I know some hard-liners on the quantitative side would disagree.

    To take an extreme example: if numerous pieces of intelligence were to suggest that Indonesia intended to re-occupy East Timor, and there was no intelligence to the contrary, it is hard to imagine circumstances in which that could be the result of misinformation. I’m not necessarily talking about intercepted communications between politicians; intelligence is more likely to come from indiscreet talk by army officers at social gatherings, information from disaffected junior public servants; and yes, espionage in the shape of electronic surveillance or information bought for money.

    It’s much more common of course for the information to be inconclusive and capable of numerous interpretations, but that’s what analysts are for. I’m not so cynical that I discount the potential capacity of analysts to find the truth in a mass of data – whether they are capable in practice in Australia is an open question.

    Anyway I’ll leave it there, no point going on about it.

  17. @Peter T Evidence by informants is often questionable and as a rule hearsay is thrown out. The role of DNA and superior technical analysis has found many criminal trials and their verdicts to be in error.

    In civil and commercial law the role of discovery is critical, it is at this point where supposition is confirmed or denied by evidence.

  18. It was during his stint with RAND that Ellsberg found that the US Govt had been lying to the public over the Vietnam War. After making these secrets known the govt tried various routes to silence Ellsberg eventually resorting to the petty criminal activity known as Watergate. Denying the evidence brought down a President and brought shame to a nation.

  19. In support of your position is a paper on the role of economists in World War 2 intelligence. Can’t find the reference on Google but I will post it later:
    • Economists used German railroad price tables published in Swiss newspapers and applied price theory to locate a synthetic oil plant.

    • used applied price theory for target selection: bomb monopolies such as those supplying V1 parts. Waste of time bombing the 50 different and interchangable suppliers of V2 parts.

    • Labour and agricultural economics suggested that German would run out of food and men of military age quickly.

    Watched too many World War 2 code breaking documentaries since I was a boy to accept that “the view that spies never discover anything useful about a country’s foreign enemies.”

    Did traitors acting as spies leak the secrets of the atomic bomb to Russia? More than a few other Russian technologies are the progeny of espionage. Western Germany was riddled with East German spies.

    Richard Posner argued that cold war spying was to everyone’s advantage it reduced ignorance and misunderstandings about other’s intentions and capacity to fight.

    Aumann’s theory of repeated games is about repeated interaction in long time frames. Many conflicts originate in a lack of information coming from infrequent contact between the parties and the pressures and freedoms of short-term interactions.

  20. This makes sense. Part of the problem is that the documents that spies obtain don’t usually come with a label saying, “This is the Official US policy/plan on XYZ, and we will definitely, 100% follow this to the letter”. You rarely know whether you got an actual plan, a white paper’s note, or someone else’s ramblings. I remember there was some Soviet complaint about the fact that US generals and politicians never seemed to actually follow their own policies as laid out on paper.

  21. The Indonesian “outcry” has NOTHING to do with SPYING – particulary done years ago under the previous Labour-Green government. It is ALL about PEOPLE SMUGGLING!!!!!!!!
    In less than 6 years (2114 days), 50,000 ‘refugees’ transited Indonesia (The JAVANESE COLONIAL EMPIRE) on there way to Australia. The ave cost of this trip lies between 10and 20,000 dollars.- but to be conservative let’s use 12,000 – spent in Indonesia. 50,000 x $12,000 = $600,000,000 ($600 MILLION) over 6 years = OVER $100 million per year!!!!!
    There is NO cost to Indonesia – these people arrive with CASH!!! at least 25% ends up in the pockets of agents, officials and Polies – ALL the way to Djakarta!!! People smuggling thru Indonesia is an INDUSTRY – a very PROFITABLE INDUSTRY. At say 6% profit on exports – Indonesia would have to export $1.6 BILLION per years to reap the same economic advantage. Do you really think they will do that? – short of WAR. And that is in fact what the JAVANESE have done – declare WAR.
    John Howard had stopped the boats – then along came Kevo07 – Juia- and Christine and they declared to the people smugglers and their Javanese masters, that Australia was once again OPEN FOR BUSINESS!!!!! And a $1.6 BILLION per year Industry was born.

    50,000 / 2114 days (Labour-Green gov’t) = 23.65/day – 165.5/week – 717.3/month “customers to be dumped on Australia. Do you really believe they do not know who these people are – to a person. – or the people smugglers themselves ??? Honestly – are you that stupid !!!!. Just how many people come down from Afghanistan-Pakistan- Syria-Iran-Sri Lanka to Indonesia on one way plane tickets with $100notes in their passports – just to take in the culture and ‘catch a few rays’. If you are actually blind to this, then save your money – go on eBay and bid on a few IQ points – don’t get just one – the poor thing will die of loneliness !!!!

    The Indonesians are NOT Australia’s friend, They HATE Aussies. They will do anything to get even for the humiliation of E Timor. They (the JAVANESE – the brutal rulers of the archipelago) are Muslim – and believe in the “world wide caliphate). They think NOW that N Australai belongs to THEM. And given the chance – they would practice the same genocide they practiced in every jurisdiction outside Java (Aceh, Kalimantan. Suluwase, West Irian, etc).

    SPYING – NOT a chance!

  22. Just as an addition: The currency of these countries of origin of these “refuges” is not convertible to international currency. The ave income in these countries is about $100/week – $5000 MAX/yr. – 10% of Austraiain .At BLACK market rates of 2 or 3 to 1, per person cost of trip would be Australian equivalent of 20 times ave income – $500,000 !!!!! Who in these countries either have this much money – or even access to this money – frug runners, dope dealers, black marketeers, and terrorists. For a family of 4 – could you put your hands on $2 million – just to get there !!!!!!!!!

    And the polies, and the papers, and the bloggers are all ratling on about SPYING. The JAVANESE are laughing themselves to death. Lee Kuan Yew was right – Australians ARE the poor White, DUMB trash of Asia !!!!

  23. Correction – math. $12,000 = 2.5 years income x 2 (min) black market rates = 5 years of income per person (+ others costs – the cost of getting TO Indonesia) – at Australian equivalent is still $250,000 per – $1 Million + for family of 4.

  24. @Al Newman

    It’s an impressive calculation that fails at the first hurdle, google says there are 2,191.45 days in 6 years.

    Pedantic? maybe but facts have first preference.

  25. Woops
    @Al Newman

    It’s an impressive calculation that fails at the first hurdle, google says there are 2,191.45 days in 6 years.

    Pedantic? maybe but facts have first preference.

  26. I always wondered, given that none of Manning’s revelations seemed particularly damaging to the US, whether it was all a ruse for leaking information about other governments.

    Leaking the Nene engine to the Russians was damaging, but that was done by traitors rather than spies 🙂

  27. It would pain me to have to mentally classify JQ with Levitt, Becker and that ilk – people who claim to have the universal key to all knowledge but whose main feat is to show how a surface of superficial knowledge can cover an ocean of ignorance. Quite simply, the claim that spies (or intelligence) never discover anything useful (and that game theory shows why) does not stand up.

    Rather than hash over sensational spy stories, take the ordinary processes of policing. A typical case might go something like this: a policeman hears from an informant (a spy, if you like) some item of information. This triggers some searching in the databases, some collection of further information on the street and this, together with some analysis, leads to a decision to seek the phone records of some people of interest (electronic spying). Analysis of the phone records throws up further people of interest, and related searches turn up some hitherto unknown addresses. All this is fed to a couple of analysts who suggest a couple of possible scenarios, and who put together all the information into a form that convinces first their superiors and then a magistrate that a phone tap is warranted. The phone tap confirms one of the scenarios. A raid turns up the meth lab/guns/body/re-birthed cars – all of which is carefully documented and produced in evidence.

    Quite often some of those involved are not at the actual scene, but can be charged with conspiracy – on the basis of the phone taps, communications records, association through payments made and so on (all of which, again, are produced in evidence).

    Intelligence (aka spies, surveillance) is useful all the way along – in triggering action, directing investigation, eliminating some leads and suggesting others, and some portion of it will be produced in evidence. All of this happens daily around the world, and has for some time. Why is it a mystery? What other practical methods could there be?

    None of this, BTW, defends the practices of the NSA or the Australian agencies. It’s just to make what should be an obvious point: intelligence is not magic, it does not tell you everything, it is not always well used, not always listened to, makes mistakes, can be over or under resourced and so on. But it is not useless.

  28. @Peter T

    But it is not useless.

    The most recent major stuff up by intelligence was 9/11. The Senate Report on pre-war Intelligence on Iraq found that intelligence “failures led to the creation of inaccurate materials that misled both government policy makers and the American public.”

    Given the history of the practice it would appear that intel will never be able to react properly and/or appropriately to an ever changing external environment.

  29. An earlier post made the point there is a difference between general intelligence (information, data) and espionage. Espionage breaks laws and rules to get the data. General intelligence gathering works by gathering data which it is not illegal to gather.

    I doubt that anyone would say intelligence gathering doesn’t work. After all, when you drive a car your eyes and ears gather intelligence to enable you to guide the car safely. You can use the car radio to get more data (from radio station’s “eye in the sky” etc.). Then you can spy on the police, if want to break the law, by using police radio and radar scanners. But a word of warning, the police use counter-measures.

    This spying on police can be useful to people (avoiding speeding tickets, tow trucks finding out where accidents are etc.) So it is not possible to say spying never works. However, it is possible to say that spying can often be counter-productive and land you in more trouble than the acquired data was worth. That is where individuals and nations need to be careful. Spying options need to be well vetted before being cleared. The possible worth of any data acquired needs to be balanced against the possible dangers and damage. So it’s a risk analysis issue on a case by case basis not a matter of making a blanket judgement using strong “priors”.

    Spying is an aggressive action. Counter-measures and escalation of conflicts are always possible from any aggressive action. But then a posture of advertant or indavertant ignorance can be very dangerous too. Think Pearl Harbour.

  30. If international espionage really is a useful activity, then it should be straightforward enough to produce a few historical examples of the successes of international espionage, not just arguments by unspecified analogy that sometimes the police get results of some kind by doing something vaguely similar.

  31. Well, it would have been a lot harder to get to the recent deal with Iran if the spies had not advised that they think Iran is not seeking a nuclear capability. And the lack of support from intelligence agencies except under evident pressure was a factor in the public doubts about the Iraq War. And, IIRC, the CIA area specialists advised strongly against involvement in Vietnam (for which they were purged). But my point was that JQ’s assertion about the implications in this area of game theory was simplistic.

  32. Ex US sec of defence Robert McNamara confirmed how wrong US intelligence was about the Cuban missile crisis before he died .The missiles were in place and Cuba had a plan (cleared by Russia I think) to fire them in the event of an invasion. Castro confirmed this to McNamara years later.

    Melbournes main (almost only) terror conviction and jailing came after an obvious entrapment of some naive small fish .In preparation for the Commonwealth Games here a few years ago the powers that be had a big training exercise to react to terrorists coming up the Yarra river from the bay and firing rockets at the MCG from their boat .

    After 9/11 1000’s of laws were enacted the world over -(almost) nobody objected .Now as the extent of the surveillance becomes apparent there is some push back.

  33. If spying / espionage is worth while and operating “according to plan”, I doubt anyone here would even know of the benefits. It is pretty easy to see the costs right now, however how anyone here can take a guess at the benefits is beyond me.

  34. @David

    Read the post, for heaven’s sake. NSA has had every possible incentive to reveal successes, and has claimed dozens (54, I believe) only to have them fall apart under scrutiny. And, in the original article, look at the case of Nazi spies, where it was possible to a complete evaluation after the records were captured. Answer – every spy they sent into Britain was captured or surrendered, and many were turned against them.

  35. @John Quiggin
    My point was that even with the examples in the post (a small sample in the history of espionage) I am sure that are examples where pieces of information gleamed from intelligence have resulted in a “gain” or positive outcome. The Nazi argument does not even address if the Nazi war effort benefited from the espionage along the way? Would Nazi Germany have lost the war earlier without it? (Perhaps another example of where it was a net negative impact!) Have I seen too many spy movies, or would a successful espionage operation remain unknown? That said, I agree that the net impact should be evaluated, however I think it is difficult at best to assess from the outside.

  36. I am not convinced by the assertion “spies NEVER discover anything useful.”

    – Ikonoklast

    Kinda misses John’s point. Of course spies often discover something useful – it’s just that you can rarely tell whether it is useful or not because of all the very unuseful stuff they also discover. They have incentives to “discover” what LOOKS useful (think Iraq and the WMD) while the other lot’s spies have incentives to make sure they discover lots of extremely unuseful stuff disguised to look useful. The signal to noise ratio is always low because, in the nature of the game, everyone wants to pass noise off as signal.

    On the case at hand, what overwhelming national benefit did these turkeys expect from listening to SBY’s wife’s social gossip that could justify the risk – nay, likelihood – of eventual discovery and the resulting fallout? This was a truly boneheaded piece of stupidity and if Ministers authorised it then it just shows what fools they were.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s