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Intelligence Collection


Countries have intelligence agencies to ensure national security is protected, to discover emerging threats, and to maintain some kind of status quo in the complex world we live in today. At least knowing what your neighbour is up to, especially one who is aggressive, gives governments an edge - time to prepare and formulate plans. Agencies can be engaged in intelligence collection, covert operations (offensive), or counterintelligence (defensive) - often monitoring the spies and political pawns of foreign nations operating on home soil. The game of intelligence can be likened to chess - but obviously some ‘players’ are more ‘creative’ ‘daring’ and likely to succeed. Without intelligence a country is vulnerable.

Intelligence agencies have threads to other security organisations, such as the police or customs. Many (in the West at least) are often governed, monitored and challenged by politicians and civilian intelligence oversight committees - unless of course they are the ‘play thing’ of dictators and regimes. Yet despite this, they all have one thing in common - they operate in secrecy - regardless of what the “about us” section says on an intelligence web site.

Intelligence agencies such as MI6 and the CIA do not like political interference. There are layers of legislation that surround and protect a service: outwardly suggesting they can perform without too much hindrance. It’s an illusion... all governments interfere and problems do occasionally arise. Here’s an example. Many conflicts and differences of opinion were apparent when the US and UK challenged Saddam Hussein on his WMD (weapons of mass destruction). Observers believe civil servants and political cronies manipulated the intelligence assessments provided by these organisations to gain support for attacking Iraq. In the end - no WMD was found - and the blame was put firmly on the shoulders of both these agencies - “bad intelligence call” was a phrase used by unidentified civil servants intent on “spinning” their way out of trouble. Senior intelligence officials on both sides of the Atlantic were privately fuming. The truth is, both services were treated dreadfully by political figures intent on manipulating intelligence and meddling in affairs that few, if any of them really understood. Since then, MI6 and CIA have had assurances that “never again” will faceless civil servants use such powerful agencies to “create situations”. We will never gain full access to what was said behind closed doors on Iraq’s WMD or his weapons that can be “readied and fired in 45 minutes”, nor will unedited transcripts of the intelligence assessments ever be released.

The Internet and Open Source

In the game of intelligence, observers like to use the phrase “never say never” - so don’t be too surprised if another scenario like Iraq crops up in future days. After all, intelligence in all its forms can be a “dirty business”.

And speaking of business - intelligence agencies like to know everyone’s... but are keen to protect their own. Though the listings do not reveal the mechanics and secrets of how agencies function (you can grasp that via the pages of Eye Spy), there are a few links to annual budget reports and how much it costs the taxpayer for our spooks to collect intelligence. But there is one ready made channel that provides access to billions of bits of information - about everything (including you and me) - and it’s free - even to the intelligence world... it’s called the Internet.

The Internet is a two-way looking glass - a popular information system that no agency can control - not even the ‘guardians of communism’ in China. With so much information flowing from every country in the world, and lots about the intelligence industry, some agencies have decided it’s time to modernise and be a little more open - including MI6. With a smart web site and a job section, few people realise that just a few years ago the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service - to give it its proper title), did not officially exist. Even the very mention of its name over a pint on Friday lunchtime was sufficient to earn Whitehall staffers a warning. If you discussed an MI6 situation in public - the phrase “whatjamacallit” was the preferred choice of words. A job interview was sanctioned with a “tap on the shoulder” usually via the “old boys network” and a trip to Oxbridge. MI6 has evolved.

With all this information at their fingertips the intelligence world has a new and powerful friend that augments its ‘open source’ intelligence collection. The CIA has a chunky almost industrial phrase for such research - “data mining”. Take away the rubbish, it’s surprising just how much good information can be found on the Internet.

The Internet has brought about more transparency in the intelligence world, but it has also created a world of disinformation. The old guard argue that divulging information so publicly is not a good thing - and perhaps they are correct. After all, you wouldn’t be digesting the contents of this briefing! But the Internet has also opened up a whole new world of electronic spying - imagine what secrets lie stashed inside the computer banks of the NSA?

Some agencies are more prolific in data mining than others. To give a scale to the task at hand, you must remember that an astonishing two million new pages of text are uploaded on to the Internet every sixteen hours.... and in so many languages. A great deal of this is from governments, analysts, researchers, and even the intelligence services themselves. This needs to be ‘sifted’ ‘sorted’ and ‘stacked’ for action or future reference. Time for an aspirin. And this brings us full circle back to how these great intelligence agencies operate and just what it is that makes the intelligence world such a fascinating place to research and visit... even on the Internet.

Accountability, Reporting and Delivering Intelligence

Most major intelligence agencies that operate in a democracy are accountable to government via a parliamentary committee, senior ministers or some other tier (often several) of officialdom. We have included many useful links on the listings to show how this works. Intelligence services also have permanent channels to deliver information, take instructions or requests, and advise. These are guarded secrets. In turn, the intelligence ‘product’, as it is known, can be used by a variety of organisations, sister services (home and overseas), political analysts, defence establishments, research and technology facilities etc. Intelligence collection is a coordinated effort that often involves various agencies - each allotted a particular task, though frequently liaising and combining their efforts. These are all, in essence, intelligence gatherers.

In the past, some agencies have bizarrely “guarded” their intelligence and have been reluctant to cooperate with their colleagues... even if they are housed just across the corridor. The past antagonisms and rivalry between the CIA and FBI is legendary - though this has undoubtedly changed since 9/11 - after both agencies were criticised for their lack of cooperation. Critics say this allowed the terrorists to sneak into the USA, train to fly aeroplanes and formulate plans. It’s true, pieces of the jigsaw could have revealed more of the “bigger picture”, but just how much more is impossible to determine. It’s like travelling on an aeroplane over the countryside. You can see each and every walled or tree-circled field, but you just haven’t got a clue where you are. However, in time, and with a little more research, you just might have enough information to hazard a guess. No service has a crystal ball.

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