Why the spooks keep getting it wrong

Is an over-reliance on electronic surveillance why intelligence-gathering is failing both the West a

The ISIL crisis and the civil war in Ukraine top the list of intelligence blunders, writes Nekrassov [Reuters]

In an interview with CBS on September 28, US President Barack Obama admitted that US intelligence agencies had “underestimated” the activity of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

So suddenly, as if out of nowhere, civil war-torn Syria became “ground zero for jihadists around the world”, he said.

Indeed, as ISIL fighters occupied a third of Iraq under the very noses of western intelligence services that were supposedly monitoring the situation on the ground in the Middle East, the question everyone ought to be asking is: How come spooks get it wrong so often?

Obama’s statement was reminiscent of the one he made back in 2010, when he told US security chiefs that an attempted airliner bomb attack was the result of a “screw up” by intelligence agencies.

In the past decade, intelligence agences worldwide have failed spectacularly, having missed the devastating financial crash and failing to foresee the consequences of the invasion of Iraq – not to mention those elusive WMDs. They also appeared to have missed the Arab Spring by about a thousand miles and could not predict what would happen in Egypt and Libya once their strong leaders were removed.

Outstanding failure

We have also witnessed spooks’ outstanding failure in recognising the threat of religious radicalisation across Western Europe and the US, with “home-grown” jihadists fighting all across the Middle East now – and some coming back. Then there was the inability to foresee Ukraine slipping into a civil war and parts of it breaking away, both by western and Russian intelligence services alike. If I were still advising the Kremlin these days, I would tell Russian President Vladimir Putin to sack the people in the Foreign Intelligence Service.

The whole point of the intelligence services is to provide governments not only with recommendations on how to respond to a crisis, which they do a lot these days, but to actually warn politicians what might happen and start ringing alarm bells once the crisis gets too close for comfort. There’s no point, for example, to have detailed intelligence reports about why the Arab Spring happened, when it has already happened. The spooks should have been warning their bosses about it at least a couple of years before it happened. Just like they should have seen ISIL coming, because events on the ground in Syria were replete with examples of sadistic savagery committed by the so-called “moderate opposition”.    

Once human intelligence goes, lots of important developments simply go off the radar.

In all honesty, the ISIL crisis and the civil war in Ukraine must be at the top of the list of intelligence services blunders, especially considering the resources spent on them these days. Did anyone in the CIA really believe that the so-called “moderate opposition” in Syria to President Bashar al-Assad would not spawn an extremist group, or even groups, within itself, with all that money and arms it received from external benefactors?

I am sorry, but western governments were asking for trouble and they got, with their spooks sleeping through the whole thing. And it’s a bit rich for the CIA now leaking all sorts of reports that they knew what they were doing and foresaw all the possible scenarios. They didn’t and the hysterical response in Washington to the occupation of Iraq by ISIL proves that.

With Ukraine it is no less embarrassing really, because the crisis was building up for at least three years and Russian intelligence should have picked up the warning signs. But not only did it miss the climax in February this year – even the opposition at the time was taken by surprise at the ease with which they ousted President Viktor Yanukovich – but they stayed in denial even when a new regime sprang up in Kiev.

Ukraine blunder

The Yanks, though, got it wrong with Ukraine as well, when Crimea broke away and became part of Russia. US spooks didn’t anticipate such a turn of events. And the point about it is that the Russian naval base in Sevastopol is not your ordinary base. It’s a national pride of Russia, manned by people who were ready to defend the peninsula from the crazed neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists, who were promising to come to Crimea and kick the Russians out. Even if Putin had not wanted Crimea to join Russia, he wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it. The Crimeans had made up their minds and had the necessary military muscle to defend themselves.

According to Russian intelligence expert Colonel Aleksandr Bondarenko, US intelligence services relied too heavily on drones and satellites when monitoring the developing situation in Crimea and were therefore unable to reach the right conclusion.

“They blew it,” he said.  

So here’s why these intelligence gathering failures are happening and will probably continue to happen. As the legendary late KGB general, Dmitry Yakushkin, once told me, the problem with intelligence gathering is that it moved too quickly with the times, becoming too dependent on electronic surveillance instead of agents on the ground.

“Once human intelligence goes,” he said, “lots of important developments simply go off the radar.”

And he was right. In our age of electronic surveillance, lots of signs that could be picked up by agents infiltrating hostile governments, institutions, criminal and terrorist networks are missing. In this touchy-feely world of ours, the emphasis is given to satellites and eavesdropping equipment that so often don’t allow us to get the full picture. And on this basis we can expect more turmoil to hit the world out of the blue, because spooks will simply miss it.

Alexander Nekrassov is a former Kremlin and government adviser.