U.S. Dependency on Foreign Intelligence: The Good and the Bad


Like many of you (hopefully), I grew up watching James Bond movies. Bond often worked with Felix Leiter, an American counterpart in order to defeat numerous evildoers. The idea of sharing information seemed so simple: One person tells the other what he needs to know in order to get the job done. Just like the Bond movies, cooperation in the realm of intelligence is necessary in order to maintain a global intelligence network. At the same time, however, trusting the intelligence provided by a foreign intelligence agency can be a very risky proposition. This is especially true in the realm of human intelligence (HUMINT).

The U.S. is a world leader when it comes to many other forms of intelligence. Signals intelligence (SIGINT), imagery intelligence (IMINT), and measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) are all strengths within the U.S. intelligence community. One of the primary reasons for this is funding. Each of these requires very high-tech equipment, and lots of it. Because of the size of the U.S. intelligence budget, these different groups are very well-equipped. As an example, the NSA’s budget is officially classified, but with around 30,000 employees (dwarfing every other intelligence agency) and a mandate for high-tech information gathering and analysis, the budget is easily in the billions.

The cheapest form of intelligence gathering by far is HUMINT. Any nation with an intelligence capability gathers information this way, including countries as big as China and as small as Cuba. This is a primary intelligence gathering function of the CIA overseas, yet the difficulties of cultivating these relationships cannot be overlooked. One must first find someone who may be willing to commit espionage, and then convince him or her to do it, either through encouragement or coercion.

It also does not help U.S. HUMINT efforts that many of the nations where HUMINT could be most useful have powerful intelligence organizations of their own, and that many of these nations speak languages that are very rare for Americans to be fluent in (Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Korean, etc.).  Others may come forward to offer information, but their information may be false.  As an example, one Iraqi informant code-named “Curveball” made up information about an Iraqi nuclear and chemical weapon program that, despite internal criticism of his claims, made it all the way to the White House and had a significant impact on the U.S. decision to go to war.

What should become clear is that the U.S. often needs the help of foreign intelligence agencies in establishing reliable HUMINT assets that can forward critical information. These foreign agencies will have greater levels of infiltration due to (among other reasons) lower feelings of hostility towards their country, a more effective program at recruiting assets, or because they are working within their own country, which yields obvious advantages. U.S. intelligence agencies recognize the benefits of this cooperation, working with agencies all over the world, including Britain’s intelligence agencies, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Pakistan, and the General Intelligence Presidency (GIP) in Saudi Arabia, among many others.

On the other hand, U.S. intelligence agencies must also be wary of relying too much on foreign intelligence. This is generally not as large an issue with close allies such as European, Canadian, and Australian intelligence agencies, since the general goals of these agencies is very similar and a level of trust has been built over many decades. With the agencies of other countries, however, there is still an underlying level of mistrust. These agencies may feed false information in order to mislead the U.S., or they may not share information out of national interest. An agency may also not have the ability to identify between good and bad information, and in intelligence, incompetence can be as bad as hindrance.

Additionally, the U.S. may feel limited in its cooperation because of worries about the integrity of the agency involved. It is for these problems that those other sources of intelligence mentioned before become critical in the HUMINT process. Each source of intelligence, whether it is HUMINT or SIGINT or IMINT, can be used to complement each other and verify intelligence gathered from other means.

The U.S. will for the foreseeable future depend on the cooperation of foreign intelligence agencies in order to obtain a truly global view of events worldwide, especially within the realm of HUMINT. 

The U.S. intelligence community must also continue to consider the intentions and capabilities of their sources of information and whether or not this intelligence is credible. While there is no perfect balance, the U.S. must find some sort of middle ground where trust and suspicion can both be appropriately harnessed to garner the greatest amount of intelligence possible.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons