Signals Intelligence and American Culture
30 March 2009
Recently I started to listen to an audio book about intelligence gathering technology, Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs from Communism to Al-Qaeda, by Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton. In The Dialectic of Stalemate I previously expressed my admiration for several espionage and intelligence technology books such as Skunk Works, Blind Man’s Bluff, and Operatives, Spies, and Saboteurs, so I am looking forward to this book.
Why does the US have the sophisticated signals intelligence program, and the technological wherewithal to carry it out, that it does? The short answer is this: because we can.
As we all know, beyond the short answer (with all its dissatisfying oversimplifications) is a long answer. A sketch of the long answer follows.
When the US began its career as an independent nation-state following upon its successful revolution, It did not have the power to play at great power politics. The new country, with its Articles of Confederation and its Continental Congress, was inexperienced, small, relatively poor, quite weak, and very distant from the center of things, as the center was then understood. Robert Kagan, in his excellent (and admirably short) book Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (p. 7), emphasizes that the founders were aware of their lack of resources and would have been entirely willing to play at power politics had they the ability to do so.
An indirect result of the relative impotence of the young US was the Monroe Doctrine. We will not explore this at present, as it is a large topic, but it should be mentioned that US power focused on keeping European interference out of the Western hemisphere at a time when it had itself not the resources to project power in the Old World. The Old World, by contrast, did possess the ability to project power in the New World, which is why the American Revolution was a close run thing, and the US was surrounded in its hemisphere by colonies of Europe. Spain was a declining superpower, but it still controlled all of Latin America to the south; the English still controlled Canada to the north.
Generally speaking, people do what they can with what they have. I can recall reading about archaeologists expressing their admiration for the quality demonstrated by early spear points (especially Clovis points) and by the stitching on Ötzi the iceman’s intact clothing. When one pauses to think about it, it is not surprising. This is the only technology early peoples possessed; they would have had lots of time to spend on it, and lots of time and opportunity to get it right.
Even the poorest countries can get involved in human espionage. Pakistan’s ISI, for example, has a legendary reputation in the field. Basic tradecraft for human intelligence is relatively inexpensive, and bribes probably play little role in most intelligence operations. (One would suppose that sexual favors are among the most effective bribes, when properly used, and these can be inexpensive to provide. Not everyone spends as much as Eliot Spitzer for a liaison.)
Since the poorest nation-states would be mostly limited to human espionage, one can expect that their poverty, as well as the relentless competition, would force them to be creative. As we noted above, people do what they can with what they have (call it a principle if you will). All countries have a few clever people, and we can expect that they would use these resources to their best advantage in gathering and analyzing human intelligence. Here’s another principle, while we’re doing principles: limitation is the mother of invention. It is not only necessity that drives innovation. Being forced to work within certain bounds frequently forces people to use their utmost creativity to derive innovative solutions. (An example of this was the creativity of Hollywood when operating under the restrictions of the Hays Code.) And because these solutions are innovative, they are also difficult to predict and carry with them the element of surprise.
Because of its economic and technological resources, the US is not limited to human intelligence. US signals intelligence is almost without question the best in the world. All the creativity and innovation that other nation-states bring to human intelligence, all the same enthusiasm and ambition and pride in accomplishment, are expressed in the US through its technological triumphs.
The US has a technology- and innovation-friendly culture. I previously noted in Social Consensus in Industrialized Society that the US is the society that has been most shaped by the Industrial Revolution. As a young society when the Industrial Revolution began its transformation of the Western world, the US had the fewest historical traditions, and the strongest historical tradition present throughout our institutions was that of the Enlightenment, which was, among the stages of Western history, that most favorable to the exercise of reason.
US cultural institutions embodying the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment not only tolerated innovation in science and technology, these were positively encouraged and took on a life of their own as a result. And when it comes to warfighting and espionage, the US has pressed its competitive technological advantage to the utmost, and continues to do so. The US can do signals intelligence better than almost anyone else, so that’s what it does. But there is more.
The broadly democratic values of the US also contribute to the cultivation of signals intelligence. Life in the US is not cheap, as it is in many places in the world. Every soldier (including the non-uniformed soldier in espionage) values his own life as highly as anyone else, and the widespread belief in self-worth has forced US military institutions to adopt policies that reflect the value of the individual life. It is inconceivable today that the US would fight battles like Verdun and the Somme, and even during the First World War Pershing could see that he did not want his troops to operate under the European commands that brought about these disasters. When the American Expeditionary Force arrived in Europe, France and England wanted US forces to be gradually added to their exhausted forces in the trenches, but Pershing insisted on all-US units fighting under the US flag and under US command.
The professionalization of the US military following the end of the draft was another development that emphasized the value of the life of the individual soldier. This same trend valuing the life of the individual soldier as a trained professional with valuable experience, not as a sacrifice to be slain for the good of the nation, is now almost being expressed in another high technology initiative: unmanned aerial assets. There is talk in the defense community that the current generation of fighter jets may be the last generation of manned fighters.
Intelligence operations can be as dangerous to human intelligence operatives as the battlefield environment is to the soldier. If technological innovations can spare the life of a human agent, then the US can be expected to push this alternative to the limits of its possibility. Thus the rationalism of the Enlightenment and its emphasis upon science, the competitive advantage afforded by advanced US technology, the democratic emphasis upon the equal value of all human life, and the professionalization of the military have all come together to create a US intelligence culture focused on signals intelligence.
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