WASHINGTON – The CIA’s decade-old spy model has been overtaken by technology, according to a former CIA officer who investigated the matter for the agency.
“The very idea of a globally dispersed cadre of undercover officers operating in the shadows, away from prying eyes, is obsolete,” said Duyane Norman, who retired in 2019 after a 27-year career with the CIA that was a special one Project included the future of espionage.
This week a telegram was sent to the CIA staff, first reported by the New York Times, expressed concerns about whether the CIA had done enough to protect the informants it recruits overseas.
The agency’s counterintelligence chief’s telegram investigated dozen of cases where CIA sources were arrested or executed, the Times reported, urging officials to focus more on the safety of those they convince to spy on. The CIA declined to comment on the cable that NBC News did not see.
For Norman, the devastating breakthroughs made by CIA spy networks in recent years have not primarily been about incompetence or inattentiveness. Instead, he believes they were the logical result of a technological revolution that makes it nearly impossible to maintain false identities and disguise relationships.
Norman’s view that the CIA’s traditional model of human intelligence cannot survive the digital age is an outlier among his current and past colleagues, but almost everyone agrees that social media, cell phones, facial recognition technologies, and supercomputers process large amounts of data , have dramatically complicated the espionage business.
Some of the cases reportedly investigated on the cable have been made public. For example, NBC News reported in 2018 that up to 20 CIA informants were executed after China compromised a secret communications system the CIA used to speak to sources with the help of a CIA renegade recruited to spy on China.
It’s not a new problem. The agency has lost many sources in Iran over the years, American officials said, and a number of CIA assets have been compromised Lebanon a decade ago thanks in part to cell phone geolocation analysis that allowed Hezbollah spy hunters to identify individuals who met with American agents. In Milan, an Italian prosecutor identified CIA officers who had kidnapped a clergyman by searching cell phone records.
The main culprit, says Norman, is technology. Everyone spits “digital dust” that reveals important facts about their movements, life patterns and associations. And the number of sensors that spit out data – phones and cars, thermostats and smartwatches – is growing every year.
The idea that CIA officers can continue to pose as diplomats during the day and go out at night to meet and recruit sources under false names – without these agents ultimately being exposed – is doubtful, Norman said.
One example is obvious: how can an American who grew up posting thousands of photos of herself on social media operate under a pseudonym in China when the Chinese government has a network of surveillance cameras that scan with face recognition?
But it goes beyond using false names. Posting a CIA official overseas pretending to be a businessman or a diplomat used to require some detailed backstops, including fake papers and people answering a phone and confirming the camouflage. Much more is needed now. An opposing secret service is able to get an idea of the movements and associations of this person and to recognize any deviations. Leaving his cell phone at home can be enlightening too.
“You have to fundamentally reinvent the business,” said Norman. “If you are in the auto industry and you are building your future on a better fossil fuel engine, then you have missed the auto industry path fundamentally.”
Many current and former intelligence officials disagree that digital dust can be counterfeited and that no one is better than American services at using cyber tools to advance human espionage.
A senior intelligence officer pushed back the doom scenario.
“The landscape has challenges, of course, but with those challenges there are opportunities,” the official told NBC News. “Human intelligence is very much alive.”
Norman does not deny the capabilities of the US intelligence services. However, he doesn’t think American hackers will be able to keep up with the explosion in sensors and surveillance, particularly with the advent of 5G networks and the so-called Internet of Things, which will introduce a staggering number of new Internet-connected devices.
“The number of digital data points in your activities is growing exponentially each year,” said Norman. “You can’t stay in front of that.”
The House and Senate Intelligence Oversight Committees have been grappling with these issues for years, congressional officials told NBC News. And while few go as far as Norman to say that human information gathering like the CIA is complete, many people believe that this needs to be fundamentally reconsidered.
“Humint is not dead, but you have to be much more careful,” said former CIA director John Brennan.
But careful operations have also been exposed by the technology.
In 2010, a senior Hamas member named Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was found dead in his room in a hotel in Dubai.
It took less than a month for Dubai police to uncover a plan by Israeli intelligence services to assassinate him and to compile videos of the suspected Mossad officials entering the hotel. Surveillance camera footage helped police set a precise schedule and release photos of dozens of suspected Israeli activists.
“The entire Israeli team has used what we would have considered solid craft,” said Norman. So, he said, the Russian team tried to poison a former Russian intelligence officer in the UK in 2018.
But that operation wasn’t exposed by a foreign intelligence operation, but by Bellingcat, a private group focused on open source intelligence.
What should replace the old model? Norman says he doesn’t have perfect answers, but he believes there must be some level of intelligence from American companies operating overseas. It has been since the CIA has existed, but making it a core part of human intelligence would be deeply controversial.
However, Norman isn’t the only one who believes there has to be fundamental change.
“US intelligence needs a radical reorganization to be successful in this new era,” wrote Amy Ziegart, recently a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. “In the past, the benefit came from stealing secrets. Secrets are still important, but the benefit comes more and more from leveraging open information available to everyone and human thinking complemented by machines that can search through vast amounts of data to find hidden patterns. “