Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence

Image of Spies, Lies, and Algorithms: The History and Future of American Intelligence
Release Date: 
February 7, 2023
Princeton University Press
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No bureaucracy has been more affected by the rapid changes wrought by the rise and proliferation of the internet, social media, crowd sourcing, and information sharing than the intelligence community. The monopoly that intelligence agencies worldwide formerly held on global information is now gone and the collection, analysis, and dissemination of information is no longer the province of government but is practiced by many organizations globally.

That makes Spies, Lies, and Algorithms a very timely and informative book as Amy Zegart provides a comprehensive look at the business and tradecraft of espionage in the 21st century. Using a large variety of detailed sources, the author covers a wide range of issues and provides the historical background for many of the current challenges facing the United States as it seeks to uncover the secrets of not only traditional adversaries like China and Russia, but compete against terrorist organizations and other non-state actors that increasingly have access to sophisticated tools and information previously reserved for only a few countries.

The full range of intelligence topics is covered with a great deal of detail without too much jargon, making this an excellent primer for the political science, history, or government student seeking a primer on the often misunderstood world of espionage and intelligence activities conducted by the government.

The author begins with a fascinating chapter on how popular culture and spy movies have given a distorted view of what organizations like the National Security Agency (NSA) actually do and the vastly different roles of the numerous organizations that make up the multi-billion-dollar Intelligence Community (IC). The history of the often conflicted relationships between spies, soldiers, and politicians from America’s founding to the present is also provided, including the probably unknown fact the George Washington once had a “black budget” that was equivalent to about 12% of the government’s budget during his time as president.

The author then covers the very underappreciated and misunderstood challenges of actually sorting through the mountains of data collected every day by the IC to produced useful analysis that can be presented in a coherent way to policy makers. As the author notes, the art and science of performing analysis is always uncertain and fraught with biases that can skew or even create false conclusions that lead to deadly consequences as her historical examples of the Chinese intervention in the Korean War or the failure to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in 2003 show. New methodologies for more rigorously structured and rigorous analysis have been created in recent years to help analysts sort through the often incomplete and fragmentary data that provides the “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns” that intelligence tries to sort through.

The counter-espionage chapter covers many of the most famous traitors and spies in recent history such and Aldrich Ames, Robert Hansen, and others that highlight the challenges of watching the spies, as it were, in a world that is built on secrecy and trust—two conflicting ideas that always create tension within the intelligence community.

The chapter on covert action does an excellent job of cataloging the different varieties of covert action, going beyond the more recent trends toward paramilitary operations conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan and the use of drones to conduct terrorist strikes to cover the more subtle means of political and economic action to influence other countries and organizations.

One aspect of the IC that has received little coverage is the role of Congressional oversight and the constant tension between intelligence officials and Congressional staffers on receiving enough information on operations and activities. As the author notes, the relationship between Congressional staffers, their respective Representatives and Senators and senior intelligence officials has undergone numerous cycles since the country’s founding, particularly during the Cold War when both the FBI and CIA created numerous problematic and even illegal programs surveilling American citizens during the 1960s and 1970s. This tension between secrecy and oversight continues today, typified during the contentious situation with torture and rendition during the height of Global War on Terror.

The author finishes with two chapters on the ongoing nuclear and increasingly dangerous cyber threats. The author notes a particular rise in the use of internet disinformation, especially on social media platforms and highlights the increasing capability for almost anyone with a modest technical capability to produce so-called “deep fakes” or other disinformation that can drive public opinion and create political instability.

This is an excellent introduction to this very complicated topic, providing informative endnotes and a comprehensive bibliography for the reader who wants to dive into the many aspects of this shadowy and increasingly diverse realm.