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The Rise of the Spy-Next-Door

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Improved technology is changing the spy game, merging once-disparate roles in the intelligence field and favoring an increased download of traditional spy roles to the private sector.

This week, Canada's Postmedia News cited a speech by Richard Fadden, the head of Canada's spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, in which he acknowledged this new reality.

"In today's information universe of WikiLeaks, the Internet and social media, there are fewer and fewer meaningful secrets for the James Bonds of the world to steal," Fadden said. "Suddenly the ability to make sense of information is as valued a skill as collecting it."

Fadden added that analysts must be well-read across various subject matters, and be creative enough to imagine threats that have yet to even be identified.

Most people think that a spy is like James Bond, Jason Bourne or Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt character from the "Mission Impossible" movies. If spy films more closely matched the average intelligence officer's reality, the most action audiences would see would be our hero dumping a venti mocha on himself while making a coffee run for his embassy colleagues.

The spies we see in movies are atypical and are more characteristic of non-official cover operatives, or NOCs, who are out there on their own without any diplomatic cover, immunity or protection, and represent a very small number of government intelligence operatives. But nothing is exploding around them, either; that's the job of the Special Forces.

As a result of Hollywood glamorization, the term "spy" has become a catch-all covering both "officers" and "agents." Here's the difference: Intelligence officers spend most of their time sitting behind a desk, often at an embassy with the benefit of diplomatic cover. The poor freelance "agent" they've managed to recruit into doing the real work, usually by manipulating that person's weaknesses -- whether it's a need for cash, ego stroke or patriotic pang -- provides the desk jockey with useful information, sometimes at great risk to himself. The agent fits the James Bond image more closely than the agency civil servant does, yet agents aren't actually employed by the spy agency. They're stringers.

Traditionally, compartmentalization has been a key element of the spy game. The roles of officers (information management) and recruited agents (information collection) are kept separate, so if an agent screws up, the officer and agency can cut the freelancer loose with plausible deniability. With the exception of those at the very top of the agency food chain, officers have traditionally been compartmentalized such that they don't understand the full scope of their activities and missions or how they might fit into the much larger picture. They're given a small piece of the puzzle, for which they gather information through their recruited agents. That info is then sent up the chain, where it ends up on an analyst's desk.

But these dynamics are changing. Never before has the average person had such widespread access to intelligence and information sources through their computers -- from free or subscription-based databases to human sources worldwide via social media. This access permits intelligence officers to better understand their role in the larger context of any given operation, even when superiors withhold information from them. Technology changes the nature of the game, removes compartmentalization, and merges the roles of agent, case officer and analyst for those capable of executing all three competently.

Where the outsourcing of intelligence work is already prevalent, like the United States, we can expect the trend to continue moving towards employing what might be characterized as entire hives of NOCs, or just independent, multitalented spies-next-door: individuals whose competence will be judged on performance in a competitive labor market rather than on government seniority. They will be tasked with collecting, managing and analyzing the information themselves and delivering actionable, creative analysis to the spy agencies.

Both the plausible deniability and inherent risk of spying-for-profit that was traditionally found in the link between government case officer and freelance spy agent, now increasingly obsolete with both roles often filled by the same person, have been shifted to the link between the private contractor and the government. Instead of having a single stringer working on behalf of a case officer, now we see private contracting companies or think tanks operating on behalf of the government, often with a single individual fulfilling the multiple roles of researcher, information manager, analyst and forecaster. And while the outsourced private intelligence contractor may cost more up front, payment of benefits is eliminated from the government books.

The downside? What appears to be competitive in the free market isn't always so. With former ambassadors and cronies loading up the boards of directors of some of these private firms, it's hard not to question whether business is awarded based on merit or based on old-boy connections. It will also be increasingly difficult for anyone to determine who's working for one or perhaps even more government intelligence agencies.

As for the idea that too many people might have access to sensitive information, one might argue that most of us already do, right at our fingertips, if we're adept enough to know where to look.

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