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Secret Agencies: U. S. Intelligence in a Hostile World

Secret Agencies: U. S. Intelligence in a Hostile World

by Loch K. Johnson
In this revealing assessment of America's strategic intelligence agencies since World War II, Loch K. Johnson considers how, and how well, intelligence efforts have guarded and advanced the interests of the United States. Johnson looks at economic espionage, covert action, congressional monitoring, and America's approach to intelligence compared with that of


In this revealing assessment of America's strategic intelligence agencies since World War II, Loch K. Johnson considers how, and how well, intelligence efforts have guarded and advanced the interests of the United States. Johnson looks at economic espionage, covert action, congressional monitoring, and America's approach to intelligence compared with that of other nations. He concludes that intelligence agencies deserve our support, but also our scrutiny, and he offers ethical guidelines for intelligence gathering.

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Yale University Press
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6.44(w) x 9.54(h) x 0.95(d)

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Secret Agencies

U.S. Intelligence in a Hostile World
By Loch K. Johnson

Yale University Press

Copyright © 1998 Loch K. Johnson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0300076541

Chapter One


In a full-page magazine advertisement that offered financial counseling for the perplexed consumer, a New York bank presented readers with a drawing of a man in a rowboat. Blithely oaring his way along a sparkling river, he seemed completely unaware of the gathering currents about to sweep him over a waterfall. The copy advised, "Moving ahead without looking ahead could prove to be the greatest risk of all."

As with boating in unfamiliar waters, steering a nation through the treacherous tides of history can also be a perilous enterprise. Responsible leaders in every nation seek knowledge-and, ideally, foreknowledge-of the world around them. For with a better understanding of global affairs, they are apt to protect and advance more effectively the vital interests of their citizens.


A prudent awareness of the dangers and opportunities that confront a nation can be achieved only through painstaking collection of information about key events, circumstances, and personalities worldwide. This gathering of information, followed by its careful sifting, lies at the heart of "intelligence" as that term is applied to affairs of state.

More formally, professional intelligence officers define strategic intelligence as the "knowledge and foreknowledge of the world around us-the prelude to Presidential decision and action." At this global level the objective is to acquire an understanding of the potential risks and gains confronting the nation from all compass points. At the more restricted level of tactical intelligence the focus turns to an assessment of likely outcomes in specific battlefields or theaters of war-what military commanders refer to as "situation awareness."

From this point of view (and it is by far the most common usage) intelligence is information, a tangible product collected and interpreted in order to achieve a sharper image of political and military conditions worldwide. A typical intelligence question at the strategic level would be, "If a coup toppled the Russian president, who would be among the field of leading contenders to replace him, and what political and military views do they have?" Or at the tactical level, one can imagine General H. Norman Schwarzkopf demanding during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, "I want the precise location of Iraq's Republican Guard-and I want it now!" To prevail in battle, a nation must have data on the enemy's terrain, roads, airfields, ports, waterways, and bridges. "Can that bridge support a tank?" "Is the runway long enough for a C-47?" "Is the beach firm enough to support an amphibious landing?" "Is aviation fuel available on the island?" Even the types of local parasites cannot be overlooked if troops are to be properly inoculated against infectious diseases.

What makes intelligence different from other forms of information are the strands of secret material woven into it. As Abram N. Shulsky emphasizes, intelligence often entails "information some other party is trying to deny": agent dossiers locked in Kremlin safes; telephone conversations between Beijing commanders and artillery units of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) on maneuvers near Changchun; the flight plans of cocaine-filled Caravelle jets from Colombia headed for landing strips in Mexico along the Texas border.

Still, much of the information gathered and analyzed by American intelligence agencies is drawn from open sources in the public domain, such as Iranian television broadcasts, Japanese economic reports, or editorials in Rossiiskaya Gazeta and the hundreds of other new Russian newspapers. Allen Dulles, the chief of intelligence from 1953 to 1961, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 25, 1947, that about 80 percent of intelligence analysis is based on the public record-although CIA old-timers hasten to add that he was including in this figure information gathered by diplomats and military attaches.

Whatever the precise mix of covert and overt information in intelligence reporting during the Cold War, both are necessary ingredients for good analysis. The overt information provides a context for the covert-a way of putting the clandestine "nuggets" into perspective. Yet classified studies (some by reputable outside scholars on contract) that have looked at the "added value" of clandestine reporting conclude that policymakers really do gain information from the secret agencies beyond what can be found in the New York Times, the Economist, or Foreign Policy.

Nonetheless, many policymakers prefer the public literature, because it is written in a felicitous style and, since it is unclassified, can be talked about openly. Few, though, are prepared to relinquish their access to the President's Daily Brief or PDB (if they are lucky enough to be one of the thirteen policy elites to receive it), the National Intelligence Daily (NID), the Defense Intelligence Digest (DID), or the many other publications prepared by the intelligence agencies.

Policymakers understand that intelligence sources offer unique access to data on terrorist activities or enemy weapons systems, for instance, via worldwide coverage by agents in almost every capital and via surveillance satellites. Most important, decisionmakers know they can talk back to these "newspapers," asking intelligence officers to follow up with tailored oral briefings or written reports. In a word, intelligence is responsive to their needs.

During the Cold War much of the information sought by policymakers was secret ("denied") and had to be acquired through clandestine means. Espionage thus became a defining feature of intelligence-as-information. Even if the bulk of what was reported by intelligence officers came from open sources, it reached far beyond the policymaker's usual brief sampling of the daily Washington newspapers and the New York Times.

Since the end of the Cold War the intelligence agencies have tended to concentrate on the secret pieces of the global puzzle. Sensitive to the charge (however wrong) that it adds little to what the newspapers report, the intelligence community has made a concerted effort to demonstrate the value added from its clandestine tradecraft. The overt/covert mix also depends on the subject. With respect to terrorism, counternarcotics, and proliferation-or "hard targets" like North Korea or Iran-the overwhelming percentage (75 to 90) of all the material in intelligence reports is likely to come from clandestine sources. In contrast, political and economic subjects are often well reported in the public media, and the secret agencies turn to these sources too for a reliable context in which to place their covert findings (anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of the total).

One intelligence analyst has observed that roughly 60 percent of the sources used by his technical branch of the CIA are open, including scientific journals, computer databases, newspaper articles, and reports from the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), which translates thousands of foreign periodicals and newspapers into English. Another 25 percent is based on insider information, that is, hard-to-find "gray literature" (such as technical-conference proceedings), diplomatic reporting, contract studies, and surveys financed by the intelligence agencies. Only 15 percent of its information comes from mechanical and human espionage-though, it should be kept in mind, this information often proves the most valuable.

From another vantage point intelligence may be considered a process: a series of interactive steps formally referred to as the "intelligence cycle." At the beginning of the cycle officials plan what information to target around the world; then they order the information to be collected and organized-or "processed" in the narrower sense of that word-for close study (analysis) by experts.

Once the expert analysts have assessed the information, it is disseminated in the last step of the cycle to top policy officers in the executive branch and selected members of Congress with foreign policy responsibilities. An illustration of this usage of the word intelligence might be, "Analysts in the Directorate of Intelligence (DI), the CIA's analytic shop, play a vital intelligence role as they attempt to interpret the goals and modus operandi of Islamic radicals."

From a third perspective intelligence may be thought of as a set of missions carried out by the secret agencies. The first is collection and analysis, a shorthand phrase for the full intelligence cycle; second, counterintelligence, the thwarting of secret activities directed against the United States by foreign entities (usually hostile intelligence services); and third, covert action, the secret intervention into the affairs of other states-sometimes called "special activities" or, for the benefit of the occasional Latin scholar who might come across the Special Activities Division (SA) crest at CIA Headquarters, "Actiones Praecipuae." An example of this usage might be, "What mix of secret intelligence operations-collection-and-analysis, counterintelligence, and covert action-might be most effective to prevent North Korea from developing an arsenal of nuclear weapons?"

Finally, the term intelligence is used from time to time to denote the structures or organizations that carry out these core missions. Intelligence in this instance, refers to the actual network of officials and agencies involved in the gathering, processing, interpreting, and disseminating of information, as well as those who plan and implement counterintelligence (CI) and covert action (CA). Using this sense of the word the president might remark, "Make sure intelligence is present at the Tuesday meeting of the National Security Council." Or a battalion commander might say, "Get intelligence on the line; I need the exact coordinates of Serbian artillery near Bihac."

The establishment of intelligence as an organization in the United States has a long history, beginning with George Washington-one of the few presidents with a deep and abiding interest in the subject. As general during the Revolutionary War he had his own secret code number ("711") and made use of an effective network of spies led by Paul Revere and including Nathan Hale.

Intelligence organizations have played a role in each of America's military conflicts since the Revolutionary War. General Ethan Allen Hitchcock formed a highly successful spy ring in the U.S. Army during the 1840s that helped lead to victory in the war with Mexico. Allan Pinkerton assembled a talented team of spies for the Union Army during the Civil War, and Rose O'Neil Greenhow ("Rebel Rose"), a resourceful agent for the South, contributed to the Confederate success at the first Battle of Bull Run. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 stirred some modest efforts in Washington to create a more sophisticated secret service for the nation, but only with the onset of World War Two did this objective receive the full attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In June 1942 he ordered the formation of a new intelligence agency, called the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which vigorously pursued each of the intelligence missions against the Axis powers.

Still, as the former secretary of state Dean Rusk remembers, the U.S. intelligence services during World War Two remained bare-boned. "When I was assigned to G-2 [Army Intelligence] in 1941, well over a year after the war had started in Europe," he once told a Senate subcommittee, "I was asked to take charge of a new section that had been organized to cover everything from Afghanistan right through southern Asia, southeast Asia, Australia, and the Pacific.... Because we had no intelligence organization that had been giving attention to that area up to that time, the materials available to me when I reported for duty consisted of a tourist handbook on India and Ceylon, a 1924 military attache's report from London on the Indian Army, and a drawer full of clippings from the New York Times that had been gathered since World War One. That was literally the resources of G-2 on that vast part of the world a year after the war in Europe had started."

At the end of the war President Harry S Truman turned toward the task of modernizing the government's intelligence organization. The attack by the Japanese air force at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, had caught the U.S. Navy by surprise and caused extensive destruction to the Pacific fleet. This "day of infamy," in President Roosevelt's phrase, is still considered the most disastrous intelligence failure in American history.

Until the attack the U.S. military was unaware that the Japanese possessed a new type of aerial torpedo that could navigate the relatively shallow waters of Pearl Harbor. Nor did government officials have reliable information about the likely targets of a Japanese air attack; conventional wisdom at the time pointed to the Philippines as the probable site. Moreover, the fragments of information obtained by U.S. military intelligence that did point to Hawaii were never adequately analyzed and coordinated within the government; the president and other high officials were never given access, for example, to decoded intercepts of Japanese military communications that indicated that Pearl Harbor could be in jeopardy.

With the establishment of the CIA by way of the National Security Act of 1947, President Truman hoped to improve the capabilities of the United States to anticipate security dangers. His objective was to upgrade the collection, analysis, and-especially-the interagency coordination and dissemination of information useful to policymakers as they dealt with world affairs. Above all, the goal was to have no more Pearl Harbors. At the time Truman gave little thought to counterintelligence or covert action; indeed, mention of these missions was omitted altogether from the National Security Act, although they would soon take on a life of their own as U.S.-Soviet hostilities deepened.

The Cold War sired and nourished strapping espionage bureaucracies in both the United States and the Soviet Union. Today, America's spy empire-the intelligence community-consists of thirteen major and several minor secret agencies. According to various newspaper accounts, the IC employs over 150,000 people and, in recent times, has spent some $28-30 billion a year.

Beneath the president and the National Security Council (NSC) in the intelligence chain-of-command stands the director of Central Intelligence or DCI. This chief intelligence officer is in charge-titularly at least-of the entire secret government. (Appendix Aprovides a list of the seventeen men who have served in this position since 1947.)



Excerpted from Secret Agencies by Loch K. Johnson Copyright © 1998 by Loch K. Johnson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Loch K. Johnson is Regents Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia. The author of two other books on intelligence, he has been special assistant to the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, staff director of the Subcommittee on Oversight on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and special assistant to Les Aspin and professional staff member on the Aspin-Brown Commission on Intelligence.

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